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).
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“.
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
- Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre
- the khlongs or canals
Talad Rot Fai or the Old Train Market
This is probably one of the best things I have done in Asia and it is barely known and not featured in any guidebooks.*
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.
- Price – whatever you drink and eat
- Exit 3 at Kampaeng Phet MRT Station and west on Kampaeng Phet Road, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
- 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 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’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”.
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.