I didn’t expect to like Bangkok. It was the cheapest destination for my flight to Thailand, where my plan was to settle down in the city of Chiang Mai for a while. Another travel surprise…I stayed four days and loved it!
If you’ve never been to Asia before (and I hadn’t), Bangkok can incite serious culture shock. The city is crowded, loud, dirty and seriously humid. The streets are packed with motorbikes, busses, tuk-tuks and cars as well as people darting through the traffic to the beat of horns, shouts and barking stray dogs. Alleyways are regular thoroughfares, and main streets and the alleys alike are lined with vendors selling food cooked where their carts are parked, and other vendors offering sunglasses, notebooks, baby clothes…you name it.
However, there is both excitement and beauty in the madness. I stayed at a little hostel called Siam Journey Guesthouse, located a few alleyways from a major road and situated between a the home of a little lady with a laundry business and a family appearing to operate a convenience store out of their living room. The hostel is small and basic, but the people are friendly and the vibe is easygoing.
Part of what makes travel so wonderful is the people you meet along the way, and I met a fun group at the hostel almost immediately upon arrival. Max, Qiana and Lisa became my companions during several adventures in Bangkok.
Here are the highlights from my visit to this wild and crazy city.
A couple of workers at the hostel told me about the public transport boat that runs on the river and stops at a couple of the key attractions in Bangkok, What Pho Temple and the Grand Palace. I took the BTS train, which runs on a track above the city, to the Sathorn Central Pier (located below the Saphan Taxin BTS station). A “tourist boat” operates from the pier. I walked right past that ticket office, as instructed, and got in the line for orange express boat. The express boat, which locals use for transportation along the river, cost 13 baht (about 30 cents), and was definitely a more authentic experience.
I followed the crowd of locals and grabbed a seat on one side of the boat with a good view of the shoreline. The seats filled up fast, and plenty of passengers had to stand in the center aisle holding onto hand grips from the ceiling. I enjoyed the ride, which lasted 20 minutes or so, and got off at Ta Chang Pier along with most of the other passengers.
Wat Pho Temple
After a few minutes of walking through a maze of vendors at the pier and then following the signs for Wat Pho, I arrived at the temple. This place is not just a single building but a complex that includes several small temples, landscaped gardens and sculptures. The temple charges an entry fee of 100 baht (about $2.75) and provides a small free bottle of water along with your ticket.
Slip-on shoes may be a good idea for temple visits, as you’ll be required to remove your shoes every time you enter one of the temples. Additionally, legs and shoulders must be covered. I wore short yoga pants and brought a cardigan along, but most temples have a place to borrow, buy or rent long scarves for coverings.
Wat Pho is best known for its massive “reclining buddha” statue, which is really worth seeing. It’s huge!
The Grand Palace
From Wat Pho, I walked a few blocks to the Grand Palace. When I arrived, the line to enter was just a big, sweaty cluster of people. For that reason, and because the entry fee is 500 baht, which seemed pricey, I decided to forego the Grand Palace tour. Instead, I walked around the inner courtyard for a few minutes and took a few photos before heading out.
Jim Thompson House
After taking a look at my paper map (hey, who needs Google?!), I decided to take the (mostly) land route back to my hostel and visit the Jim Thompson House on the way. Jim Thompson was an American expat living in Bangkok who started the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company and assembled an impressive home by combining six traditional Thai teak houses. He also collected ancient Thai art.
Thompson mysteriously disappeared while trekking in Malaysia in the 1960s. His home is now a nice museum with guided tours at 150 baht (about $4) for adults. An upscale restaurant is also located on the museum grounds. I really enjoyed the guided tour.
The variety of shopping options in Bangkok is truly impressive. From the aforementioned street vendors to high-end malls filled with designer stores like Prada and Hermes, you can find it all within just a few blocks. I needed a new pair of flip-flops, so I headed to MBK, a big mall of locally-operated shops and lower-priced vendors. The complex also hosts Muay Thai fights regularly. I was hoping to find some flip-flops for $2-3, but the best price I could get after haggling was the equivalent of $5 for some havianah knock-offs. Still, I can’t complain!
Amphawa Floating Market
Both Max and I had heard about the Amhpawa Floating Market, located about 90 minutes outside of Bangkok, and wanted to visit. Max researched how to get there and Qiana and Lisa decided to join us. We took the BTS to the Victory Monument Stop, squeezed into a packed van for the 90 minute ride to Mae Klong Market. From there, we hitched a ride on a songthaew (a red truck with an open back and bench seats) to our destination.
There are other floating markets around Bangkok, but Amhpawa is mostly frequented by Thais, and we wanted to get the authentic experience.
The market goes on and on…with shops along the banks of the river, vendors cooking in boats on the river, and more vendors lining up on the streets around the town. We arrived around noon and stayed until dark, tasting numerous dishes and enjoyed the vast variety of sights, colors and scents throughout the market.
In the afternoon, we found a large sit-down restaurant at the far end of the market where we shared a few large Chang beers…apparently the beer of Thailand. I’m not usually a beer girl, but Chang is very refreshing!
The Amphawa Floating Market is open from 12 p.m. until late evening on Fridays-Sundays.
Temple Boat Tour
Throughout the market, many long-tail boats await passengers for tours to a series of temples located along the surrounding waterways. The tours cost about 50 baht, last about 90 minutes, and make stops at five temples of varying sizes. We were up for that, so we jumped on a nearly-full boat just before it departed.
At each stop, our smiling boat driver shouted, “Helloooo! Helloooo! Fifteen minutes, come back! Okay?” We all smiled back and yelled “Okay!” in response.
These temples were much smaller than the huge Wat Pho in Bangkok, but each had an interesting uniqueness and charm. After we entered the first temple and sat down, an elderly, laughing monk with most of his teeth missing “blessed” us by dipping a bunch of reeds into a bucket of water and then flinging the wet reeds in the direction of our heads. “Happy Newwww Year!” he shouted gleefully. Lisa looked up, smiling, and got a face full of water. I wish I had caught her shocked expression on film.
At each stop, we had time to take off our shoes, wander into the temple and around the grounds and then wander back to the pier. The majority of the tourists on our boat were Thai, and many of them purchased incense and flowers as offerings at each temple.
The final stop was at Wat Bang Koong, where our driver generously gave us 20 minutes to explore. Near the pier is a surprising petting zoo, with live camels, sheep, deer, peacocks and other animals as well as a display of old fighter planes. After visiting the animals, we continued down a pathway to the small temple, which, apart from its door and windows, is entirely enveloped in the roots of a tree. It’s definitely a unique and beautiful spot.
After a full day at Amphawa, we were decided to look for a van back to Bangkok. We hadn’t checked the final departure times, so we were grateful when we realized that we had arrived just in time for the final van at 8:30 p.m.!
When we asked the price, the man at the station told us that the ride would be 80 baht per person. Max tried to negotiate.”Seventy baht?” he asked.
“NO! Eighty. Baht!” the guy replied forcefully, throwing a balled up piece of paper at Max. I guess he’d had a rough day…and our resulting laughter probably didn’t help.
Muay Thai Fight
I like boxing. I can’t help it! At the top of my list of things to do in Bangkok was to see a Muay Thai fight. I learned through my hostel that the most authentic local fights take place on Sundays around 1 p.m. at the Channel 7 stadium north of the city, where the fights are filmed and televised live. A bonus? I definitely would have paid for this, but these fights are completely free, as long as you don’t want to sit in the special reserved seating area (we didn’t!).
Max, Qiana and I hopped on the BTS to the Morchit station. The Channel 7 stadium is downstairs and around the corner from the station. We followed the big crowd of mostly Thai men and a sign that said “Free Muay Thai.” The nondescript entrance is in the back of the studio building through a single door. When we arrived at about 12:30, the stands were already packed. We squeezed into a few of the last remaining seats in the “foreign visitors” bleachers at the back of the stadium and excitedly took in the scene….
Old men passing around cash, bookies taking bets, and stands packed with Thais. It was awesome.
We watched six exciting fights, and most of the competitors appeared to be boys. The third set of fighters were men, and their rough battle was a highlight, though all the matches were fun to watch. When the fights were over, the stadium cleared fast and the three of us were all smiles. Such a cool experience…I definitely recommend it if you’re in Bangkok on a Sunday!
The Channel 7 stadium is just a few blocks from the enormous Bangkok Weekend Market, so we walked there and wandered among the vendors for a while before sitting down for some tasty and cheap chicken fried rice and pork noodle soup
While walking around the perimeter of the market, we came upon a vendor with fried insects piled high on the front of his cart. Naturally, we’d have to try the grasshoppers. Qiana asked the price.
“Twenty baht,” the man responded. We nodded our heads, and he began to grab handfuls of the fried insects and drop them in a plastic bag. “Woahhhh!” we said. “that’s enough!” He grinned, squirted some liquid into the bag from a bottle on his cart, added some seasoning from a metal shaker, shook the bag a few times, and handed it to Qiana. We looked at each other and took a deep breath.
“Ok guys,” Qiana said, “let’s do this.”
Max filmed as Qiana and I took the first bite. Crunch, crunch, crunch…
Qiana and Max weren’t so keen on the grasshoppers. Is it weird that I thought they were actually pretty tasty?
Cloud 47 Rooftop Bar
I spent most of my last day in Bangkok arranging my train ticket to Chiang Mai and doing other travel planning. When I returned to the hostel, Lisa was on the front step. “Max is organizing a rooftop bar outing at 4:30 and we want you to go,” she said.
A few hours later, we arrived at Cloud 47, where we had incredible views of Bangkok nearly all to ourselves. We ordered a Chang fountain…and then another as the sun went down.
There were conversations about where each of us had been and where we were going next, lots of photos and lots of laughter. These are the moments that make travel truly great.
Cheers to Bangkok!