Arriving in Bangkok from the Balinese jungle was like being airdropped into a sweaty, congested maze of concrete and motor exhaust. It would truly be an understatement to say we were in any way prepared for the gridlock traffic, sleaziness of the night markets, and sharing the sidewalk with rats.
At this point in our travels, we thought we should finally try traveling like real backpackers so we booked a room in a hostel. We stayed at the Lub D Hostel in Silom for two nights in an attempt to meet other long-term travelers, and have a slightly more adventurous experience. The hostel life was much better than we expected, but unfortunately the neighborhood was a bit too dirty and touristy for our taste. We also discovered just how few people stay in hostels during low season, so we unfortunately did not meet any new backpacker friends. Then, after experiencing the ping-pong show salesmen and blatant street prostitution of the infamous Patpong Night Market, I was ready to call it quits on Bangkok altogether. But we decided to give the city one more shot, and spent a few more days exploring a different part of this metropolis.
After a bit more extensive online research, we relocated to a much nicer Airbnb in Thonglor, a trendy expat “hipster” neighborhood. Going from Silom to Thonglor was like a night and day shift. Out with the sleazy massage parlors, street rats and night markets, and in with amazing shopping, rooftop bars, and delicious Japanese food. Yes you read that right: Thonglor has the largest concentration of Japanese expats in Asia, and we stayed smack dab in the middle of the Nihonmura (“Japantown”).
One of my favorite parts of Thonglor was the neighborhood vibe: a lot of greenery, many tiny side streets, and plenty of cute boutiques and cafes. Thonglor doesn’t really cater to tourists (there is a noticeable lack of “attractions”) but that made it all the more comfortable to settle in for a few days. I even attempted to cook one night and went to the local Japanese expat grocery store next door for basic essentials such as: wine ($25), tiny package of strawberries ($8), pistachio milk ($6) and cereal ($7). With its massive selection of fresh produce and imported goods, the store itself was impressive, but I definitely got sticker shock given that we were in Southeast Asia!
Since we weren’t living off of an expat salary (or any salary, for that matter) eating out proved to be the most cost-effective way to eat! And while our trendy location meant we were paying slightly higher prices compared to the rest of Thailand, it was still totally worth it because even the most simple Japanese restaurants had some of the best sashimi we’d ever tasted. When we wanted something other than sushi, the neighborhood had plenty of great restaurants as well an architecturally modern space called The Commons, which has live music and an awesome food court. Highly recommend!
Bangkok, while extremely modern, is also deeply historical. We spent the better part of one morning and afternoon exploring the famous Wat Pho temple complex, as well as the Royal Palace. After the beautiful Hindu temples in Bali, Wat Pho was our first introduction to Buddhist temples, and I was a bit snap happy with my new camera (hence the numerous photos). We loved all of the gorgeous colors, and the huge Reclining Buddha was truly a sight to behold.
When we arrived at the Royal Palace (right next door to Wat Pho) random people on the street kept trying to swindle us by telling us that the Royal Palace was closed that day, and that they could arrange a tour to several other points of interest instead. This was a scam that we didn’t fall for, but many other people did! Anyway, we walked around the complex, and low and behold: the grounds were open for tourists. We did find out that we arrived in Thailand right before the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej was to be cremated. Thousands of Thai people gathered at the Royal Palace in their black funeral garb for mourning ceremonies, so the grounds were more crowded than usual.
Anyone who’s ever seen The Hangover Part 2 knows that, more than anything, Bangkok is known for its hedonistic party culture. Most backpackers look no further than the famous Khao San Road, with its ping-pong bars and Ladyboy shows, as well as “intimate” massage parlors to all-night raves. This wasn’t really our speed, but we loved some of the more laid back venues, like the St. Regis Bar for their assortment of Bloody Mary options, as well as the Octave Rooftop at the Marriott. The best part: an amazing uninterrupted view of the city.
The Green Lung
After several days of hardcore city life, complete with nonstop honking and motorbike exhaust, we were in need of some green respite! After reading a few blogs, we decided to head to the Prapadaeng peninsula, an area in downtown Bangkok. With few roads, no buildings over 2-stories, and lush natural beauty, it is known as the “Green Lung” of Bangkok.
Prapadaeng is accessible by ferry across the (very brown) Chao Phraya River. This was an experience in and of itself since the ferry is so jam-packed with motorbikes, that it doesn’t seem fit for pedestrians. Regardless, we jumped on and made our way to the island. Once there, we rented some bikes of questionable quality (mine had barely functioning brakes), but given that both bikes cost us the equivalent of $2 for the day, we went with it. The peninsula is about a 20 km bike ride around the perimeter, with many walking trails, lakes, and houses on stilts built along the river’s edge.
Unfortunately, less than 90 minutes into our excursion, we got to experience just how insane monsoon season is in Southeast Asia. Seemingly out of nowhere, the sky split open and a mountain of water came crashing down on us. Far from shelter, we kept pedaling along the road, which quickly turned into a river due to the sub-par drainage infrastructure. After getting lost and riding through several fields and into someone’s backyard, we finally made it to a sanctuary: the Bangkok Treehouse Hotel. This place was awesome and built on stilts! Their organic cafe was exactly what we needed to dry off and get back to normal before starting on our journey back to Thonglor.
So that was our 5 days in Bangkok. Did we grow to like it? Yes. Were we excited to leave? Absolutely. Here are the highs and lows for us:
- Food: This is likely to be a recurring theme as we travel Asia, but the food in Bangkok was really amazing. In addition to the heaps of Thai food we tried, the excellent Japanese cuisine was second only to Japan.
- Shopping: I didn’t know this before I got there, but Bangkok is really a shopper’s paradise. The malls there are like nothing I have ever seen, loaded with everything from high-end designer boutiques at EmQuartier, to up and coming designers showcasing their latest designs at Siam Center. My suitcase was definitely heavier after our time here.
- Public transportation: I mentioned several times that the traffic in Bangkok was insane. The only saving grace was the BTS Skytrain, its above-ground transportation system. For a $4 day-pass, you can cover most of the city and take in the great view from a super clean train (with wi-fi!)
- Dirty: Bangkok is a massive city, and street food is everywhere! Obviously, this invites undesirable vermin like rats and cockroaches. Most people probably wouldn’t have a huge problem with this, but I am incredibly skittish and jumped about 3 feet in the air every time I saw a rat run across the sidewalk.
- Prostitution: In this case, sex workers aren’t necessarily the problem. Clearly Bangkok is a party town, and prostitution there is not illegal. However, what concerned me the most were the hoards of girls, who looked like they were barely 14, approaching men on the street. Something is clearly not right in a situation like that, and Bangkok is one of many large cities where sexual slavery is rampant.
- Traffic: Literally the worst. Combine SF, LA and Manhattan at 5PM, then multiply by 10. If you try to get an Uber during rush hour, most drivers will text you and tell you to cancel because even they don’t want to sit in that gridlock. What makes the traffic in Bangkok even worse of course, is the motorbikes that are anywhere and everywhere. I’ll consider moving here once they invent teleportation.
On that note, onward to Chiang Mai!