Our first visit to Bangkok was very short, therefore we decided to stay at the capital for a good couple of days to explore it more thoroughly.
NIGHT AT THE AIRPORT
We arrived at Don Mueang Airport around 11 pm which meant the only way to get to the Khao San Rd area would be taking a limo bus for 150 baht. We decided against it and found ourselves a comfy spot to sleep at the airport, saving us the cost of one night accommodation.
Next morning, I discovered a cheap canteen inside Don Muang airport (It was well hidden so you might need to ask around to find it). That canteen, like many others we saw in Thailand, had a coupon system. You could buy a coupon of whatever value you wished and then redeem it at one of many stalls. We then jumped onto an AC bus which took a while before it dropped us in the heart of Banglampoo, the backpackers district close to Ratanakosin island.
STAYING AT THE HEART OF TOURIST DISTRICT
It was early morning so we got off in the middle of a small but busy street market. The area had cheap eateries catering to vegetarians, street food and water machines. In a word, we were sorted.
As usual, we had good luck with the accommodation. Although budget accommodation is widely available, most of the reviews of the hostels in the area are horrific. We found a 43% discount deal on Agoda and chose a large AC room with a shared bathroom. Taking aside the bathroom which was basically a toilet with a shower, neither particularly new or clean, it was a very good deal.
The roof terrace was a great area to chill out in the morning and in the evening. Our street despite being located just 10 min away from the crazily busy Khao San rd, was somehow very peaceful and quiet. Most of all, the boy working at the reception was incredibly polite and very, very nice.
We actually stayed at that guesthouse just for one night to start with as I finally managed to find a Couch Surfing host- something I wanted to do for a long time. Next morning we left most of our luggage at the guesthouse, promising to be back soon for a couple of nights more.
THE (REALLY) GRAND PALACE
We devoted an entire day to explore the Grand Palace. This impressive edifice was the only one among mega-famous Thailand attractions which I thoroughly enjoyed despite immense crowds and absolutely outrageous entrance fee (500 Baht).
We made a mistake of arriving at the palace quite late. Most probably early morning would be much better time to start sightseeing, both because of the crowds and the weather. Luckily, there was a free water dispenser at the complex which was very useful as the place could get extremely hot in the full sun and there weren’t many places to find shade.
Despite the crowd, the palace complex was spacious enough to accommodate the people without the necessity to graze each others shoulders. Thankfully, organized tours all headed just for the temple of the Emerald Buddha and a few most important buildings, letting us to enjoy never-ending murals depicting Thai version of Ramayana (The ancient Indian epic) all on your own.
Just like Wat Pho, the Grand Palace was very colourful and very, very glittery. I absolutely loved every bit of it and didn’t even mind that the tourists weren’t allowed inside any other building apart from the Emerald Buddha temple. It took us around 4 hours to see everything without hurry, including rather underwhelming museum.
MUSEUM OF SIAM FOR FREE
As we still had some time, we decided to see the Museum of Siam located just next to Wat Pho. It was free to visit after 4 pm. Going there was the best choice ever as the museum was very interesting and highly unusual.
If I were to describe it in one word, I’d say it was anthropological, though conceptual would be equally appropriate term. It was all about the question of identity (what does it mean to be Thai?) and the interplay between Thai and Western culture (the impact of tourism in particular). There weren’t many exhibits as such and the museum not as much educated you as stimulated you to explore and interpret Thai culture and their national spirit on your own.
During the two hours spent in the museum (at least one hour too short) we learned more about Thailand than during one month of travelling. Many mysteries (such as why there were Ganesha statues in Buddhist temples) got solved and we had lots of fun at the interactive sections.
OUR FIRST COUCHSURFING EXPERIENCE
Our first Couchsurfing host, Wish, lived really far away from the city centre so it took us two long hours to reach there through the traffic. We couldn’t complain, though as we had our own room with AC and a bathroom. Not bad for a free accommodation! Wish was a young upper/ upper-middle class Thai of Chinese descent. He told us he decided to become a CS host to practice English before going to study in the US. He worked from home so we had plenty of time to hang around together. Wish was my source of information for countless questions I had about Thailand, its people and customs.
It would have been a great experience but for one thing. My experience of being taken out by Wish made me realise that the concept of vegetarianism is quite alien to Thais. Wish took us to his favourite restaurant which thankfully wasn’t posh at all. To my surprise, he ordered food for us without asking us what we’d like. Sayak got some pretty amazing scrambled egg with seafood while I got… a pile of rice with soy sauce. After confirming that nothing else was coming, as calmly and politely as I could, I stated, I couldn’t possibly have just rice as a meal. I explained, I’d need some veggies to go with it. And so, after a short chat with a waiter (again without consulting anything with me), a plate with three spring onions and a couple of cucumber slices arrived. I invited Wish and Sayak to share the rice among them and hoped I would eventually eat something, somewhere. After a short walk along the street, Wish ordered a veg fried rice for me- a perfectly edible option.
Our host took us later to a local market. It was great to have Wish around to ask the sellers whether the sweets contained egg (none of them did) or the snacks contained fish sauce. We emerged from the market with lots of exciting things to try. We ate most of the sweets as breakfast the following day. My favourite dish was sticky rice and taro or banana wrapped in banana leaf, though coconut egg-free custards sold in porcelain cups were very nice, too.
Shortly after breakfast (and waiting until the end of a downpour), we took a bus to the famous Chatuchak market– the largest market in Thailand where, as the guides promise, you can buy anything you can think of.
We did enjoy the market but imagined it to be more of a local affair while in fact some 70% of the merchandise was geared towards tourists. There were lots of clothes, souvenirs and more artsy crafts but also more surprising items of interest only to the locals such as rows and rows of artificial flowers. Like anywhere in Thailand, there was obviously lots of street food as well.
The pet section of the market (just outside the grounds) was very disturbing, featuring living baby turtles and fish sold in plastic bags. To counterbalance this cruelty, a group of Thai people rallied through the market with a huge banner saying: ‘Taking any ivory products in or out of Thailand is illegal’.
I was planning shopping there for quite a few weeks so I was glad to find all the items on my shopping list: an affordable and good quality knife (useful for self-prepared breakfasts and fruit), a waterproof passport holder, Thai fisherman pants (the very best buy during entire trip in South East Asia), a cheap but durable summer dress and an affordable bikini (as the old one simply fell apart).
The food (as for a market) wasn’t the cheapest and there wasn’t that much choice either though if you looked really hard, you could still find a shake for 20 baht or delicious coconut ice-cream (vegan!) for 30 baht.