In our introduction to this blog we prefaced that we will put particular emphasis on three things, or passions of ours: Food, interesting people and great diving. And Thailand offers an abundance of all three of them and I could go on and on about describing the many delicious meals we’ve had and will have in Thailand, the many interesting, funny, gentle or bizarre people we’ve met or the beautiful dive spots Thailand has to offer. But it would probably bore you to death and you have to experience it yourself since words can hardly describe these unique, sometimes very subtle and sometimes ‘in your face’ experiences you can only have in Thailand. But I thought that the following words from Anthony Bourdain very eloquently describe the essence of Thailand – if you are open to it:
===There is no place like Thailand. It is one of the greatest of foodie destinations and in marked contrast to the violence of their national sport–and the occasional outbreak of political strife, one of the least dangerous, most gentle and tolerant places I’ve ever been. Thailand, in my experience, is a country where a visitor can pretty much wander at will without anything resembling a plan, eating everything in sight, relying completely on the kindness of strangers–and only good things will happen.===
(From Athony Bourdain’s Blog, August 16th, 2009)
A day early, due to a slight change in our flights and skipping our planned two-day stint to Singapore, we flew into Bangkok on a direct flight from Brisbane with Thai Air, which is always a pleasant experience. Again, as usual and due to all the friendly words, smiles and chit chat at the check in counter, we secured the last two seats in an exit row.
Our first stop and home base on this trip was Bangkok and we felt immediately at “home” when we arrived at the airport, picked up our luggage and exchanged money right at the luggage belt. We also bought a prepaid SIM card, which is very cheap and convenient in Thailand. I wish all countries, especially European countries, the US or Australia would make it that easy for travellers to get connected via phone, internet, transportation etc. So if you ever plan on visiting Thailand, pick up a SIM card right at the airport with any of the providers, e.g., Dtac and it only takes about 5 minutes. You also can buy top up vouchers at pretty much any 7-Eleven or Family Mart store, which you can find at almost every corner of the country.
Our taxi ride into the city, which is comparatively cheap even compared to the BTS (the modern Skytrain in Bangkok built by Siemens), was already one of these weird and unique, but also typical experiences that you can only have in Bangkok - but it took us a while to fully realize how bizarre the situation was. The taxi driver that was assigned to us at the counter for public taxis looked a bit “strange” when he helped us put our luggage into the car but we only connected the dots once we were sitting in the taxi and had some time to take it all in. One of the things that we noticed after a while was this Elvis puppet hanging from the windshield, one of those cheap plastic figurines that shake with every twist and turn of the car. And boy, did he put the pedal to the metal – he raced with 140 kilometers towards downtown Bangkok, so the figurine got a good work out. But then we realized that our taxi driver had the same hair style and glasses like the little Elvis in the windshield. So we looked at the Elvis puppet in the windshield, looked at the taxi driver, looked back at the puppet again and suddenly realized…they are both Elvis, looking pretty much alike sans the clothes (the taxi driver that is). So we figured that he probably goes off after work as a taxi driver and hires as an Elvis imitator at a cheap watering hole or cruise boat. There are not too many places in the world where this is perfectly normal and nobody gives it a second thought but we had to chuckle when we took in the absurdity of the situation – and we loved it.
But since this blog should also be somewhat educational for other travellers here’s a few tips for transportation in Thailand and especially Bangkok. First of all, taxis are very cheap and often the most convenient, fast and cost effective option. A taxi ride from Shuvarnabhumi airport to anywhere in the city sets you back between 250 and 400 baht (8-13 US$), including highway toll. You can take the Bts (Skytrain) into the city but if you are more than 3-4 travellers, taxi is almost as cheap as Bts. When you are travelling within the city, assuming you are staying somewhere central, you can either take the Bts, MRT or taxi. When you take a taxi, ask them to put the Meter on – often they don’t want to and call a price that’s sometimes double or triple the realistic amount. Secondly, don’t take a Tuk Tuk if you don’t have to. Typically, it’s a big scam and they want to take you to a night or gem market. Unless you know the “local” rate for a Tuk Tuk and you can negotiate something close to it, stay away from them. Other than that, transportation is easy, quick (unless during rush hour and in the suburbs) and convenient.
Now, if you ever want to go to Bangkok, we would be the first to recommend it. But you got to be prepared for a few things that make Bangkok unique.
"Bangkok is a city of extremes and superlatives, a city you do not react to indifferently," says Thailand at a Glance. "Recently declared the world's hottest city by the World Meteorological Organization, it also boasts the world's longest name: Krung-thep-maha-nakorn-boworn-ratana-kosin-mahintar-ayudhya-amaha-dilok-pop-nopa-ratana-rajthani-burirom-udom-rajniwes-mahasat-arn-amorn-pimarn-avatar-satit-sakattiya-visanukam.
Not surprisingly, only a handful of Thais can remember such a mouthful, although the abbreviated translation of the whole is a relatively brief Jewelled City of the God Indra. However, most Thais simply refer to it as Krung Thep, “City of Angels."
Over the next ten days or so we did exactly what Tony Bourdain prescribes: ”…pretty much wander at will without anything resembling a plan, eating everything in sight, relying completely on the kindness of strangers–and only good things will happen”. We hardly had a plan whenever we started a day and just explored the different neighbourhoods (called districts) of Bangkok, wandered along street food stalls, night markets, shopping centers and massage places.
(Thai noodle soup with fish balls from a street food stall)
(Teddybear rice - gotta try it!)
The things that were on our agenda though included getting visas for India since we didn’t get them back in the US – as many things, Thailand and especially Bangkok has the amazing quality of making otherwise long and tedious processes relatively simple and efficient. Getting a visa for India in the US would take at least 5-10 working days and you can only apply if you are a US citizen with residence in the US. You also have to drive to to one of the major Indian embassies to apply in person or otherwise the process takes even longer. For non-residents it’s a much more complicated and long process and it could take weeks. Not so in Bangkok – we prepared our applications and went to VFS on Sukhumvit road, which is the India visa applications center and which has been outsourced by the Indian embassy. We spent the better part of an afternoon there but walked away with our visa application submitted. And low and behold, after about 7 business days we found out through our weblink that was provided to us that our visas were ready for pick up…simple as that.
We also had the pleasure to meet with our good friend Suchada and went out to lunch with her a couple of times to have an extended lunch. It was lovely to see her and spend some time with her and we had some great food as well – one lunch was at a place called Greyhound Café on soi Thong Lor off Sukhumvit road. They serve Thai fusion fare and it was surprisingly good. We shared the other meal at the mall close to the DDI office (Central Chitlom), which provided the opportunity for us to quickly pop in to the office and say hi to the very lovely Thai DDI team. Anna had never been in the Thai office and I was very happy to see some of the office staff which I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for.
(Having lunch with Suchada at Greyhound Cafe)
Another activity that we regularly enjoyed was taking the public taxi boat from Sathon Pier at the end of the Bts line (Saphan Taksin) down the Chao Phraya river. It’s very cheap, sets you back between 10 and 20 Bht (30-60 cents) per person for an hour-long ride or however long you’d like to stay on the boat, going up and down the river. It’s a great way to catch a fresh breeze during the hottest hours of the day, rub shoulders with the locals and see the gleaming high rises and ancient temples pass by.
(Getting cozy with the locals on the Chao Phraya taxi boat)
(Rama VIII bridge at night from the taxi boat)
(A dinner cruise boat on the Chao Phraya at night)
(Wat Arun at night from the taxi boat)
We had seen many of the temples that we saw from the boat or the Grand Palace before, so we didn’t engage in much temple sight seeing this time. As said before, we were more guided by just taking in different neighbourhoods, people, and day-to-day life. However, we found a great list of things that someone pulled together and which is a pretty nifty guide for people who’d like to explore Bangkok beyond the usual travel guides.
101 Things to do in Bangkok
(A typical street food stall 'chef')
(Elmar eating fish ball soup)
Try it out next time when you’re in Bangkok. Before finishing this post I feel the urge to point out a couple of additional things and give some advice. Firstly, Thailand and even the major metropolis of Bangkok is cheap! Compared to Europe, the US, Australia or even many Asian countries these days you can live on a tight budget and don't miss anything. We stayed at hotels for 30US$/night and did not see a difference to solid three to four star hotels in Europe or the US in terms of service and accommodation. The great thing about Thailand is that even for a fraction of the money you'd pay in other places you can get great quality and service. If you are o.k. with street food, you can eat as much as you can for a few dollars. A Thai noodle soup with fish, pork or beef balls and all the good greens for example will only cost you 1.50US$ or less...and that's a full and healthy meal. On the other hand, you can also stay at the Mandarin Oriental and pay 500-800 US$ for a 'no frills' double room - no frills at Mandarin Oriental standard of course. Similarly, you can spend hundreds of dollars on a lavish meal in one of the high-class Thai restaurants or some of the restaurants serving foreign food like Indian, Italian or even German. You definitely have the choice in Thailand.
One final piece of advice that I'd like to share is to not let a day pass without getting a massage. It is wonderfully relaxing after a long walk or a good dinner. Just stay away from a Thai massage after a large meal since the often tiny massage therapists work you over good. In this case opt for a foot massage, which is very relaxing, you can listen to music or watch one of the Thai soap operas running on one of the wall-mounted TVs at many cheap massage places. But don't be surprised if, without warning, the person massaging you screams out loud if a particularly dramatic scene is showing - of course followed by excited chatter of the whole gang of massage therapists in the room. Thais love drama!
(Getting our daily massage for 6US$/hour)
Instead of boring you with more stories and experiences from Bangkok I’ve just included a few pictures that provide a little bit of an array of impressions of everyday life and scenarios – of course they can only provide a small slice of what Bangkok is. But pictures sometimes speak louder than words. Enjoy and see you in Krung Thep!
(Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall close to the Thai Parliament)
(Gangnam hype everywhere)
(A fruit vendor at Chatuchak market)
(A street vendor with his mobile kitchen at Cahtuchak market)
(A pork meat vendor at Chatuchak market)
(A food stall in Bangkok's Chinatown)
(A typical street in Bangkok's Chinatown)
(Dinner at 'Coco Walk' night market at Ratchatewi Bts station)
(Sticky rice with mango...yummy)
(A Thai beauty selling coconut ice-cream at Chatuchak market)
(Don't Eat Here!)