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Bangkok – an alternative look

I am probably the last person in the world to go to Bangkok. I had always skirted around going there as I had an image of it being a seedy place where desperate white men go to buy unequal relationships (or just sex).

Talad Rot Fai / Train Market in Bangkok

However, I finally listened to all the people who told me the food was a revelation and I had to go regardless. And they were right, very right. But that is not what this post is about. This is about the non-food, the gaps in between it, the culture and other things that give the food time to digest and break up the meals. And in Thailand it is also about the people – one of the few countries where the advertising slogan is reality – “land of smiles“.

Talad Rot Fai/ Train Market in Bangkok
"land of smiles" demonstrated by a kid

So here is just a short recap of what I thought was remarkable about Bangkok (and we’ll get to the food with the next few posts):

  • Talad Rot Fai or the Old Train Market
  • Muay Thai
  • Jim Thompson’s house
  • Thonglor
  • Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre
  • the khlongs or canals

Talad Rot Fai or the Old Train Market

Talad Rot Fai/ Train Market in Bangkok

This is probably one of the best things I have done in Asia and it is barely known and not featured in any guidebooks.*

Talad Rot Fai/ Train Market in Bangkok

Everyone goes to Chatujak weekend market when they visit Bangkok to experience a guidebooked and mapped market experience. This is like that, but good, and in the evening in an disused railway station, with music and joyous street food, and independence and imagination and hipster antiques. And alcohol. So when you crawl back home at 2am you smile and collapse.

Talad Rot Fai/ Train Market in Bangkok

  • Price – whatever you drink and eat
  • Exit 3 at Kampaeng Phet MRT Station and west on Kampaeng Phet Road, Bangkok

Muay Thai

Lumphini Muay Thai stadium in Bangkok

I was fairly sure before going to Lumphini stadium to watch Muay Thai that it would be a disaster. Due to leaving it a bit late to organise I bought the ringside (read tourist) seats. Lonely Planet’s guide had some holier than thou rant about how one should sit in the cheap seats blah blah blah as the tourist ones have no atmosphere so I got a bit nervous this would be an expensive waste of time.

Lumphini Muay Thai stadium in Bangkok

Well Lonely Planet were wrong. Being a tourist rocks. You go in, and your tourist tickets plop you next to the ring. You are screaming distance from the entire family or village each fighter brings with them to stand in their courer and watch, gesticulate and gamble. You can then walk right into the changing rooms and see the fighters before and after each bout. The “tourist” ringside seats may cost 2,000 baht (500 more than the 2nd tier which is behind mesh wire) but they are worth every penny.

Even if you aren’t into men hitting each other you should go. It is a remarkable spectacle.

  • Price – 2,000 baht
  • Lumphini Stadium, Rama IV Road, Bangkok (on Tuesdays and Fridays from 6:30pm onwards)

Jim Thompson’s house

It is a tourist trap. It is in every guidebook’s 10 things to do in Bangkok but somehow it keeps alive a memory of tradiational Thai architecture with refinement. And much of this is down to fabulous friendly and evangelical Thai guides proud of what it stands for.

Jim Thompson's house in Bangkok

It is, yet again, another demonstration of an immigrant (an American ex architect) getting obsessed about a new culture (Thailand’s) and doing it to the nth degree. Well worth going.

  • Price – 100 baht
  • Jim Thompson House, 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road, Bangkok

The area of Thonglor or Thong Lo

Before going to Bangkok I kind of imagined it to be the Buenos Aires of Asia. I was super proud of having come up with this tagline and thought it would be a perfect description for the bustling and creative city I had read about in all of the guidebooks.

Soul Food Mahanakorn, Bangkok
Soul Food Mahanakorn, Bangkok

However, once I arrived it was plain isn’t the “Buenos Aires of Asia”. It’s trying; there is an arts and independent cultural scene but it is small. However, if you go to Thonglor you can catch glimpses of this and what Bangkok might be and develop into which would leave more financially focused cities (Singapore/ Hong Kong) etc staid in their cultural deserts.

Bonchon Chicken in Bangkok
BonChon Chicken, Bangkok

Highly recommended are BonChon Chicken (fried chicken done to perfection by a Korean mini chain), Soul Food Mahanakorn (an American ex journalist bringing drinks and street food together) and Shades of Retro (hipster antique furniture and good cocktails).

Shades of Retro, Bangkok
Shades of Retro, Bangkok
  • Price – a hipster premium on Bangkok’s usual food and drink prices
  • Thonglor is a bit of a maze but this map is useful in orientating oneself

Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre

Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre

Bangkok is renouned to have an art scene. Don’t believe everything you read. Long journeys to the Arden Gallery, Bangkok University Gallery and other reckoned destinations left me reminiscing of Brooklyn and East London’s substantive art scenes. However, BACC is actually pretty damn good. And they have a nice ice cream shop in it (Icedea) where you can get ice cream tonkotsu (pic on Flickr here). Mmm.

  • Price – free
  • 939 Thanon Rama I, Bangkok (opposite MBK shopping mall)

Bangkok’s khlongs or canals

Bangkok river

Bangkok’s rivers may be filthy and largely victims of an expanding concrete city but where they remain there is something strangely wonderful about them.

There is a nonchalant practical beauty about them. Hire a longtail boat and get it to throw you through the plastic bags and other crap at high speed and see the remains of what once used to be the “Venice of the East”.

Floating market outside Bangkok
Bangkok's klorns or canals

PS a massive thanks to two quasi locals (based on their knowledge of the city) @e_ting and @dimsumdiva for their tips which made the week’s holiday.

PPS for the other posts on Bangkok click here.

* a notable exception is @CNNgo’s guide to the Talad Rot Fai which led me there.

15 Comments

  1. wl

    ah great tips for my next visit to bangkok in the future, thanks ! thought I was one of the last persons to visit bangkok (first visit: two weeks back) but looks like I’ve got company here, lol.

    which floating market did you visit ? I made my way to one, only to realize after traveling 80km out of bangkok that it was a riverside market instead. nevertheless, food was good there and the trip worthwhile.

    • I went to the mega touristy one – Damnoen Saduak – I think the same as you.

      I did it at high speed and thought it was just about worth it for hte same reasons as you. Still, never again…

  2. I love Bangkok, some than anything else, it is full of life in a way that other cities aren’t. More than Hanoi, Dehli, Hong Kong or pretty much any other Asian city I have been to, there is a real buzz to BK (I do realise this is entirely subjective and based on staying there for about three weeks a decade ago). It’s about the only place outside Japan in Asia. that I’d really want to live in.

    I didn’t know about the Talad Rot Fai, but it sounds wonderful. And I totally agree with you about the canals and the smiles. Thailand remains one of the most pleasant and easy countries to travel in, East or West.

    • I think the Old Train Market is pretty new. The guy who started had an antique’s shop and just expanded!

      I need to see a bit more of Thailand now. Would be cool to do a hiking tour or something and visit some more regional parts (if anywhere there is still “untouched”)

  3. I wish I’d known about that Old Train Market – Chatuchak was good but on the rotten hangover I was sporting, I quickly tired of it.

    We also saw some awesome Muay Thai boxing – on Sundays the Muay Thai boxing is televised and if you can find Channel 6 Stadium (it took us a while…), you can go and watch it there for free. It’s nothing fancy, all standing but the atmosphere is amazing and all the Thais were kind enough to hustle me up to the front to get a good view.

    • Yeah – chatujak is a bit too forced. The reason I like this one is that was basically Brick Lane but a whole load better and authentic.

      Muay Thai is pretty ridiculous. I think if I loved in BK I would go a lot. It makes the horse racing here in HK look a bit tame!

  4. The Old Train Market looks the business!

    And you’re so right about guidebooks. Lonely Planet is ‘holier than though’, as are some others that I could mention! All that happens when they peddle their righteous guff is the creation of another kind of orthodoxy whereby sheep follow an alternative Lonely Planet/Rough Guide tourist trail.

    Rant over, looking forward to the food posts!

    • It is – you gotta go next time you swing through. Such good street food and such a lot of beer :)

      LP really really annoys me. But the problem is you still need something to help orientate you. I used the Luxe guide for restaurant recs and that was much better. But no map which you still need.

  5. Tess

    Wow- I want to go. I’m especially obsessed with that ice cream- especially the one that looks like sod. Can you tell us more about it? Amazing!

  6. Yeah the Khlongs are for me the best part of Bangkok even with all the crap in the river…. Love those water taxi’s …..

  7. Graham

    Just want to thank you for this blog post that I came across via NOTCOT. Usually I can’t wait to get out of Bangkok, but after this trip I can’t wait to go back! I had a great time at the train station night market, as well as enjoying some great spots in and around Thonglor. So thank you for helping to make my trip so great!

    • Tom

      Graham – thanks for your comment. Always nice when new readers come along and can get something out of the blog. I have to admit I wasn’t that impressed by BK initially but then a few friends gave me tips (who knew the city really well) and I then had a great time. The above is just an attempt to share their local knowledge!

  8. Just want to thank you for this blog post that I came across via NOTCOT. Usually I can’t wait to get out of Bangkok, but after this trip I can’t wait to go back! I had a great time at the train station

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