From time to time, Katie and I will indulge our inner travel bug and share past, present and upcoming adventures with you. Today is our first of the feature, pack your bags, you’re headed to Thailand!
If you have never ventured to Bangkok, you probably have a few ideas of what it is like from movies like The Hangover Part II, Dangerous Bangkok, and Into The Sun (plus a trillion other action movies); if you have been fortunate enough to miss those thrillers, picture bright lights, speedy taxis, street food and lots and lots of people. Bangkok is one of those cities that takes you in, spins you around and spits you out. Thankfully there are lovely Thai beaches just a bus ride away and after a week in BKK one needs a nap, a really long nap.
As a traveler, cities aren’t high on my list. I try to stick to small towns and natural attractions; I tend to search for those hidden gems and slices of everyday living, but because I spent the better part of a year in Thailand, I learned to love and embrace Bangkok, a city with more than 7 million inhabitants. I had the opportunity to explore Bangkok multiple times for various reasons like typical tourism, friend’s birthdays, English teaching orientation, family visits and weekend-long shopping sprees. Each time I ventured into the city, I felt more and more comfortable and willing to explore new places and enjoy old hangouts. Bangkok was no longer an enormous scary city (ok, it’s still pretty huge), but rather a transit hub and pit stop that I visited every month while living in Thailand. I began to recognize neighborhoods, streets, parks, particular statues, elevated walkways, and even specific vendors and food carts, it became a city of smaller neighborhoods and much more manageable to wrap my head around.
If you are planning a trip to Thailand and you want to experience the whirlwind that is Bangkok, I present you with the Bangkok City Guide! Do some research before you go (what/where do you want to experience, eat, and sleep?), but for the most part let the city guide you, you’ll probably get lost a couple times, but you’ll also find something mystical that no city guide or website could have warned you about.
- Tuk Tuk – My favorite type of transit for short trips. Tiny, a little bit scary and definitely not safe, tuk tuks are always an adventure. Tuk tuks will get you where you need to go quicker than a taxi, but don’t take them during rush hour. Sitting at exhaust level in standstill traffic will certainly take years off your life (I have no scientific evidence, only experience). Tuk tuk rides are cheap (usually $1-$3) and the fare should be negotiated before you agree to go anywhere. Haggle in increments of 5-10 baht and make sure you and the driver are happy with the agreed upon fare before take off.
- Taxi – I have mixed feelings about taxis in BKK. On one hand, you don’t have to negotiate a fare, on the other hand, half of the drivers have no idea where you’re trying to go. The fare is metered, so you are guaranteed a fair fare, har har. (If a driver doesn’t turn on his meter, ask him to do so, if he refuses, do not get into the cab.) Drivers in BKK don’t have to pass a qualification exam so many of them know some parts of the city, but not all and especially not specific stores, restaurants and hotels. I got into the habit of carrying a city map with me and always (ALWAYS!!) having a card in my wallet with the hotel name and address written in Thai. Half of the time I felt like my driver toured the entire city before taking me to my destination. They are either too shy, greedy or embarrassed to ask for directions or kick you out of the cab. I’ve found tuk tuk drivers simply shout out their questions and directional issues to other drivers en route and resolve any issues rather quickly.
- Bus – I rarely took the bus to get around BKK, but then again, I rarely take the bus in any city. I find buses to be slow, cumbersome and unpredictable. If I’m going to navigate traffic, I want something small like a tuk tuk or taxi and if I want to skip out on rush hour, I’ll squeeze into the skytrain. Bus travel is cheap, usually ranging from 50 cents to a dollar. There are also a number of buses that run 24/7. I shy away from buses because roads could be closed, buses could be out of service, etc. I think the possibility of getting completely lost and turned around and not having anyone to help me through the confusion scares me a little bit (flashback to getting lost in north Philadelphia as an 18-year-old…).
- BTS Skytrain – Is the cleanest, most reliable and also most expensive option. Personally, I loved the skytrain. If you like to eliminate risk in your life, this option is for you. Simply look at the transit map and signage (it’s all in English) and you’ll have no troubles. Just make sure you walk the right direction once you’re off the skytrain (says the gal who walked approximately 1.5 miles in the wrong direction…) A single ride costs anywhere from 50 cents to $1.50 and a day pass is $4. The skytrain is squeaky clean (polar opposite of subways) and air conditioned. During rush hour it is crazy crowded, but fortunately having body odor is considered offensive in Thai culture so getting a stinky pit in your face is far from average.
- MRT Subway – The MRT is similar to the skytrain, quick, clean and reliable. It is also similarly priced and can get really crowded during morning and evening rush hour. There was severe flooding in Thailand during 2011 and the MRT was under construction (because of flooding repairs and also because it is a relatively new transit system). I didn’t take the MRT a lot, but mostly because it was always an afterthought.
- Lub d Bangkok Silom – only the best hostel ever. Seriously. Lub d (meaning ‘sleep well’) is clean, safe and really cool. It’s only two blocks from the skytrain (Chong Nonsi station) and it’s located in Chinatown, which has a lot of great street food and markets and it’s close to the cooking class. Lub d has a variety of rooms so if you’re not comfortable sharing, it’s all good, they have you covered. If you are interested in a common room, each bed has it’s own locker so your stuff is super secure. I love Lub d because they have a 24 hr reception staff (super handy if you’re headed to the airport really early or if your taxi picks you up two hours late and you arrive in Bangkok at 1 a.m.), storage room for your luggage (in case you check out, but want to explore without toting everything around), free wifi and lots of common space (bar, cinema and stellar library). I cannot say enough great things about Lub d. Lub d is pricy as far as Thai hotels go (ranging from $15 for a dorm style room – $28 for a private double), but it is worth every penny.
- U-Baan Guesthouse – quaint and convenient. I liked U-Baan (meaning stay home) for it’s size and location. It’s located close to the skytrain (Wong Wain Yai station) yet it’s out of the hustle and bustle of BKK. There is street food nearby and tons of taxis waiting to take you out on the town. In extremely crowded areas finding a taxi at night can be tough. Prices ranged from $10-$15 per bed.
- Most hotels that I stayed at in Bangkok were great, the two above just stood out to me. Hotels in BKK will cost anywhere from $15-$$$.
There really is no way to go wrong in terms of chow in Thailand. Instead of telling you specific restaurants or carts, I’ll give you a rundown of my favorite dishes while I was abroad. Each of these dishes should cost about $1 on the street.
I was mainly a vegetarian in Thailand so a lot of these dishes are veggie heavy unless you specify. To alter the dish you add the adjective to the end of the name of the dish. To add chicken say ‘Guy’ for instance: ‘Pad Thai Guy,’ with pork say, ‘Moo,’ with only vegetables say, ‘Mang Sow E Rat’ and to make it vegan say, ‘Jeh’ I have spelled the names of each dish the way they’re pronounced, good luck ordering!
- Pad Thai – You’ve all had it (hopefully) it is much different and way better when it’s made on the street in BKK. Squeeze a lime over your dish and enjoy!
- Pad See Uw – Is basically veggie stir fry with a broad noodle tossed with garlic soy sauce. It is delicious and filling.
- Khoa Pad Pak – Is your basic stir fried white rice made with veggies and soy sauce. To add an egg (my favorite way to eat it) say, ‘Khoa Pad Pak Khi Dow.’
- Som Tum – Green papaya salad and a must eat! It’s a spicy salad made with crunchy papaya and peanuts with a sauce made of fish sauce (but it doesn’t taste fishy at all), sour lime, sugar and hot peppers. Say, ‘My Phet’ if you want it less spicy, which I highly recommend (don’t worry you’ll still be sweating).
- Khao Niaow Ma Muang – Mango sticky rice a.k.a the best dessert ever. This dessert is delicious heaven, but it is sweet and heavy so make sure you find someone to share it with.
A couple tips:
- Order your drinks without ice. The ice is often made with dirty water and/or is transported in unsanitary ways (read: block of ice carried on a shirtless man’s back) By ordering your drink without ice you have a better chance of staying healthy in Thailand.
- Visit places that you think you know, like 7/11. You’ll be surprised and delighted by all the differences.
- Try crazy looking fruits, I assure you that they are all delicious even if you have no idea what you just ate.
- Point, smile, laugh and pay. You may order your new favorite dish or you might accidentally get a sad looking omelet on top of white rice.
- Eat the bugs!! I did and I lived. You only live once and who knows, in ten years we might all be eating bugs.
- Silom Thai Cooking School – The experience I had at Silom is so near and dear to me. Katie (shout out to the other half of live seasoned!) came to visit me in Thailand and this was one of our favorite activities. Spending a few hours learning a new skill with her was a lot of fun and something I will never forget. That single experience has tempted me to take a cooking class whenever I travel, but I can never seem to find one so reasonably priced and educational. The class ($30 per person) included a market tour (of a nearby veggie market) and an explanation of essential to Thai cooking ingredients. After the market tour, you spend four hours creating six different Thai dishes and they send you home with a cookbook! Each student sits on the floor with their own cutting board and ingredient basket and prepares the meal while the chef explains the how and the what of it all. Then you take your ingredients to your individual wok and burner to prepare the dish! The class was run smoothly with lots of instruction, explanation and true to Thai culture lots of jokes and smiles. Culture and cuisine are my two favorite aspects of travel and this cooking class combines both. Double score!
- Pak Khlong Talat (flower market) – Take a quick trip here in the early morning. It’s more of a wholesaler experience so I didn’t buy anything, but the sheer number of flowers and vendors is truly amazing and beautiful. This market won’t take up a bunch of your time so it is definitely worth seeing. Don’t bother visiting after 10 a.m. though, it quiets down a lot and you won’t think it’s that impressive.
- Chatuchak (weekend market) – If you like shopping, even a little bit, you must take a trip to the weekend market. The market is 27 acres of stalls (over 15,000!) so you can really find a.n.y.t.h.i.n.g. Lots of folks are overwhelmed by the market because of the tight spaces, large crowds, and strange smells, but that was all part of the charm for me. My advice? Keep your wallet close, haggle a lot, and venture deep into the center of the market. You’ll find that there are lots of different sections in the market, anything from spice collections, home goods, handmade designer clothes, pets (cue strange smells), books and souvenirs. There is so much to take in (and buy!), which is why I went to the market five times while I lived in Thailand! I still regret not buying the big ziplock baggie of saffron for $5. I would mention stalls and food stands to check out, but really that is part of the adventure of it all and who knows, maybe you’ll find something even tastier than I did!
- Soi Cowboy – If you want to drink and dance, go to Soi Cowboy. It is definitely pricier than most clubs and bars in Bangkok, but it is also more upstanding. You probably won’t get hit on by prostitutes here (unfortunately that is the reality of many nightclubs in Bangkok) and you’ll go home with your wallet. That comes with a price though, these clubs charge entrance fees and they are packed to the gills. The music is usually electronic or a live DJ and you might find that you (and your American friends) are one of the few who are dancing! No lie, we had to
encouragebeg and plead with the club goers squeezed in beside us to dance so that we had room to move around!
- Grand Palace – If you’re the type to check out amazing architecture than head over to the Grand Palace! It was particularly hot and
veryVERY crowded when we went so I can’t say I had the best time. It’s worth visiting if you like that type of thing though!
- People watching – Everywhere and anywhere. The city is the best place to pick a seat and take it all in. I love people watching and BKK provides some interesting sights.
- Khaosan Road – You’ll probably hear about Khaosan. My advice is to stay far away. In my opinion, it’s a pretty trashy touristy street, not much culture or authenticity to be found. That being said, since lots of tourists frequent Khaosan there are a plethora of delicious restaurants in the area, especially Ethos Vegetarian Restaurant. Ethos has a variety of healthy vegetarian options, which can sometimes be hard to find on street carts.
Man this post made me really miss Thailand and that sweet penguin watch that I found at Chatuchak. I hope you enjoyed hearing a big about Bangkok and its endless possibilities. Have you been? Have anything specific you’d like to share? Let us know!