My expectations of Bangkok were based on Alex Garland’s book The Beach and The Hangover 2. So pretty much just booze, drugs, ping pong shows and Khao San road. Our first impression of the city involved none of these things, infact we were left wanting for a bit of action after checking into our sleepy apartment complex – The Grand Mansion (a slight overstatement). Here is the view from our room – don’t you love the Western looking residential houses with a temple springing up in the middle almost as if to remind us where we were? Fantastic.
We chose the place based on our good friend Ian’s recommendation as he stayed there for a few months and now lives down the road. When we arrived Ian was holidaying in Hong Kong so we had to fare for ourselves for the first night. Tom was ill so I ventured out alone and tried to find food. This proved a little difficult as the area we were in was very local meaning there was no English aside from in the (many) seven elevens. So it was only after some nodding and pointing that I was able to sit down to a beautiful bowl of Som Tam – green papaya salad with peanuts and a whoooole lotta chilli. I think this experience in a side-of-the-road, dark and dingy restaurant in Bangkok started my love affair with the dish and was a great entree to the city.
The next day we were able to meet up with Ian for breakfast. There’s something really special about catching up with friends when you’re in a foreign country and it’s even better when one of you lives there – we had the best personal tour guide you could ask for in my opinion.
First up Ian took us down the road to his regular fruit man – seriously the best fresh tropical fruit I’ve ever had.
Then we stopped off at the cafe next to Ian’s apartment block for coffee. This place made awesome iced espresso in cups so large that you can happily sit there yarning for an hour or so without running dry. This became our morning routine and it’s one of my favourite memories from our time there.
Fortunately we didn’t have a list of things to see and do in Bangkok (I can’t stand list ticker travel!) so we were able to cruise around with Ian at the typical Thai pace – slow. The public transport system in Bangkok is surprisingly good. There’s the MRT and skytrain ofcourse but we ended up using the local buses quite a bit which are dirt cheap and take you most places. Sometimes you get on and they randomly don’t charge you too! If you need to catch a cab then the pink ones are the best – just make sure you ask for the meter to run. One of my pet peeves from Thailand was the taxi drivers asking me how much I’d pay for a ride – put on the bloody meter and I’ll pay you what it’s worth!
We spent our first full day in Bangkok hanging around Ian’s hood. It’s such a cute little community there full of colourful characters like Ray the English teacher, a Thai dude who speaks with an American twang and has amazing hair. Ian is totally part of the landscape there and was greeted by most people we saw hanging out. While we were wandering Ian pointed out a stray dog on his street and told us how it used to have a really infected eye. All the locals on the street felt so sorry for it that they pooled their money and paid for it to go to the vet. I think that story sums up the vibe of the place. I love how little communities like this can make a gigantic city feel cosy.
Still, we couldn’t visit Bangkok without visiting what it’s known for…no we didn’t make it to a ping pong show but we did spend a night on the infamous Khao San road. Somehow we stayed there past 3am without realising where the night had gone. It’s a vortex that place. We spent pretty much the whole time drinking beer while listening to a Thai musician who did a pretty decent Black Keys cover at one point.
People watching was the main attraction there. I’m still expecting some karmic reward after we spotted a highly intoxicated young guy drop a 1,000 baht note on the ground as he stumbled away to find his so called mates who’d abandoned him. Tom ended up stopping him to give him back the note which I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have lasted till morning…we later saw him sitting in the gutter while his friends tried to drag him into another bar. Living the dream.
The next morning we were feeling a lot fresher than expected so did some more exploring. If you’re in Bangkok during the weekend then Chatuchak market is a must.
Of all things, we ended up having paella for lunch but it was quite the experience. The chef was a real performer, throwing ingredients high into the air and doing random tricks with a water jug. The food was tastier than the show…potentially due to the large amount of salt (or MSG?) poured on it.
We also discovered coconut ice cream served in a coconut shell. They scoop out the flesh so that once you get to the bottom you find a tasty surprise. There’s also loads of crazy looking toppings – the pickled (I think) bananas were the best – unfortunately this photo doesn’t do it justice and the bananas look a little like dog turd.
After the market we spent the rest of the day in airconditioned bliss…malls. The first we went to was a wholesale clothing mall called Platinum. It’s huge and great for cheap threads. We also went to a tech mall which blew my mind. I’ve never seen an electronics store bigger than a Harvey Norman so this place was entirely overwhelming. So many knock offs but the sales people are surprisingly open about it. We questioned a $150 iPhone but were told blatantly that it was a ‘copy’. Finding an original is a bit of a needle in a haystack situation.
The great thing about a city as large as Bangkok is that there is always something happening. After hitting the malls we grabbed some street food for dinner and while looking for a place to sit down we stumbled across a pop up beer festival. It was amazing – multiple stages set up with bands, hundreds of tables, beer girls and many many beer towers. It would have been rude not to get amongst. The screen you can see was showing hilariously inappropriate Chang ads on repeat…not so subliminal marketing. My favourite was one where a guy with a Chang casually boob grazes a girl on a dance floor and she decides he’s the man of her dreams. Classic.
On our final day we figured that another tourist attraction would be the goer and so we climbed the Golden mount (aka Wat Saket). Ian was amazed at how commercialised this had become in just a year or so. When he first visited it was free but now you have to pay for a ticket and they’ve plonked a cafe on site. Still, it had pretty amazing views and the climb up is peppered with beautiful sculptures and water features.
The view from the top is a great way to see the city.
Later that day we rode the buses to the river where we found a delicious little restaurant amidst stall after stall of bright orange flowers.
We ended the day and our time in the city with a bumpy river boat ride where we were packed in like sardines before traipsing back to the Mansion to say our goodbyes.
Looking back, I think the coolest thing about our time in Bangkok was experiencing an authentic slice of life through Ian. It was awesome to see how he lives and to feel the sense of community that exists even in a big crazy city that to many Western tourists is (sadly) just a place to get messed up.
Thank you Ian for showing us a side of Bangkok that shines for all the right reasons x