I’ve had two absolutely unbelievable experiences in Bangkok; a city that tends to bring people back on a regular basis, or sends them running for the hills. As such, I feel like I’ve got something to say on the subject. If you’re looking for stuff to do, and things to see, here’s my advice:
1.) Make a friend:
I’ve heard stories of people going to Bangkok, finding it a little inaccessible in the daytime, and a little overwhelming at night. My advice: making a local friend goes a lot farther than any guide book or blog will ever take you.
How to do this?
You can start by capitalizing on the “six degrees of separation” rule. Odds are, you know someone in Bangkok through a friend, or a friend of a friend. Reach out, get in touch, make a plan. It’s worth it.
There are sites like meetup.com, which I have only tried in L.A., but has never failed to put me in touch with good people.
Otherwise, for the more adventurous, I’d recommend Tinder. Oddly enough, Tinder seems to operate as more than just a hookup app out here, but doubles as a way for Thai people to make foreign friends—learn some English, teach some Thai, so on and so forth.
In my case, I was lucky enough to know Paew (pronounced “Ba-ow).
Paew is the petite, spunky, inescapably cute, southern girl who led me through Bangkok, yanking me by the wrist and shoving me through small gaps in the crowd. Her and I were introduced through a mutual friend back in the states, and she generously took it upon herself to show me around, and even put me up in her apartment. I was completely taken aback by how committed Paew was to showing me a good time. She made sure we crossed some major tourist spots off the list, ate delicious food, and got drinks at some of the local haunts.
She even made karaoke happen! I cannot overstate my love for karaoke. For this, Paew, you have my eternal gratitude. I’ll never forget stumbling through Thai lyrics with you, and getting the tune right sixty percent of the time, every time.
Friendships like these alone, are worth travelling for.
2.) Ride in a ruda:
When in Bangkok, do not forgo a ride in a ruda. These long prow river faring vessels are an experience all of their own. Nothing beats tearing through narrow river channels at breakneck speed, kicking up massive rolling waves, skipping over choppy water, all while fumbling for money to pay the toll man, who is leaning down with an outstretched palm, and balancing precariously on the narrow ledge of your speeding vessel.
You haven’t lived until your first near-collision.
3.) Visit these markets:
JJ Green Market: Here you’ll find stalls on stalls on stalls, and amid the chaos, a vibrant live music scene. This is a great place to get a drink and hang out with friends. I highly recommend the seafood here. Get ready to eat with your hands, and if it’s rainy season (July to October), do bring an umbrella. You will not regret it.
Rule of thumb: when bargaining, start at half the asking prices and work your way slowly up.
Talad Rot Fai Market: Talad Rot Fai translates to “train market.” This seemed like a local haunt. We had some great deals on Chang at some of the local bars, and got to watch some really entertaining bands. If you know some Thai songs, you can request them at some places, but if you’re out of touch with the Thai music scene, like me, you might just enjoy whatever’s on.
Rule of thumb: When you’re checking out street food make sure you’re not being served anything that’s been lying out, that the utensils aren’t sitting in a dirty pot, and that the cooking ware is in decent condition. I’ve had friends who fell ill for days from food poisoning.
Chatuchak Market: This weekend market is by far the largest I visited. It’s massive. It spans 35 acres, and around 8000 stalls. This place is filled to the bursting point with cool trinkets, clever t-shirts, and all sorts of other buy-ables. Definitely plan to spend a whole afternoon wandering around here, especially if you’re only going to visit it once. If you’re in a group, you can navigate by the numbers on each major gate. Without a rendezvous point, you’re likely to get separated beyond all hope.
4.) See the Grand Palace (Or at least try…):
We circled the massive walls of the grand palace. A static voice radiated from speakers placed at regular intervals along the walls. The flat, emotionless voice droned on about proper dress codes in the palace and some other, quite forgettable stuff. After lines and crowds, and being asked to wear some trousers over my shorts, Paew and I decided that maybe a nice sit in the palace plaza would suffice—snapped some pictures and moved on. I’m impressed by monuments and larger than life architecture, but the effect only lasts for so long before I need something more engaging—something eye-level.
5.) Check out these temples:
Wat Saket (Golden Mountain): Wat Saket is a beautiful temple with a view. The name translates to golden mountain, and you can see why once you get to the top: a massive golden dome rests at the apex of this temple. Winding the marble stairs all the way up, one encounters the golden peak, swathed in a banner promoting a soccer team. You might scratch your head for a second, but you probably won’t think about it for long, the view of Bangkok is captivating, and ringing the prayer bells can be an endlessly fun diversion.
Bangkok City Pillar Shrine: It was here that I knelt before the alter, praying to Buddha, offering the incense, the candle, and the flower. It’s bad luck to tell people what you prayed for, so I’ll just give you a hint: what I prayed for rhymes with honey. This temple is right next to the Grand Palace, so if you’re looking for something a little more relaxing and spiritually uplifting than wandering the tourist choked halls of the palace, this temple is a great escape.
6.) Best Pad Thai in Bangkok:
Thip Samai: If you’re looking for Pad Thai, this is the place to get it. We stood in quite the line, but I’d say it was worth it. The people were also quite nice. When it started to rain they brought out umbrellas for all their customers. A-plus for effort guys! And what a bad-ass plate of Pad Thai.
7.) See the bars
I’m not much for clubbing, so I won’t weigh in on that. My idea of a good time is sitting around a table with some drinks, good people, and maybe some live music (So this is what getting old feels like?). If you’re like me, I’d say go to The JJ Green Market, and the Talad Rot Fai Market. The bars around there awesome. Otherwise, I heard the famous backpacker street Khao San road is a good time. But that is hearsay, I haven’t been there myself. I’ll let you know what I find after Bangkok round 3.
If you’re feeling wealthier, you might try places like the Octagon Sky Bar. That’s the only bar of this type that I visited, but I think I got the idea: sky high view, with prices to match. The ambiance is beautiful, but you’re paying for it. Additionally, the live music was awful. But I’m sure that varies from bar to bar, act to act, so I won’t fault sky bars in general. I will say this: the city of Bangkok looks good from above.
Rule of thumb: Chang and Singha will be our go-to beers if you’re drinking on the cheap.
Ask yourself, which of the two wolves inside you are you looking to feed? Bangkok has it all: miles of unbroken market, opulent malls, comfortable cafes, every kind of massage known to man, tranquil temples filled with Buddhist prayer, pleasure palaces, rooftop bars from which to lord over the little people, hole in the wall bars in which to drink with the little people, tuk tuk’s, taxi’s, stray cats, stray dogs, mansions, hovels, heroes, villains.