Bang for your buck in Bangkok

We arrive at the quite modern Suvarnabhumi International Airport at a sensible hour, fresh from an eight-day resort stay in Khao Lak Thailand, and excited about our upcoming ‘quickie’, three-night stay in Bangkok.

We hop on the skyrail from the airport direct to the city (about 25 minutes and 35 baht each – about A$1.50). Modern, seamless and runs every 15 minutes or so – how good is this? Melbourne, get your act together. As one of the world’s most liveable cities, we still don’t have rail access to the airport, after 47 years. Melburnians and travellers alike (35 million a year use the airport) are still puzzled by this lack of vision.

Back to Bangkok – I remember visiting 20 years ago when there was no rail access from the airport or around the inner city. The roads were clogged and the exhaust fumes formed a layer of unpleasant black smog that hung low over the city. Although many people say it’s ugly, the above ground public transport network (rail, road and skyrail) has significantly improved Bangkok’s infrastructure. The flow of traffic seems bearable and the air pollution is minimal for a city with a metro population nudging 15 million. During the day, the sun is actually bright for our whole stay.

Taxis are cheap and are abundant as are the tuktuks. It’s probably better to get a metered taxi for medium distances. They are air conditioned and have relatively conservative drivers – unlike the tuktuk drivers (negotiated fare, usually more than taxis).

The tuktuks are basically motor bikes with colourful open covered boxes made of stainless steel on the back and are much smaller and more manoeuvrable than taxis. Tuktuk drivers seem to have a death wish. A lot of their machines are hotted up, with large exhaust systems that emit deep burbling sounds of which V8 owners would be proud. Their mission is to get to a destination as fast as possible, seemingly crossing as many lanes and zebra crossings as they can and swerving and weaving in and out of traffic. They brake hard at every opportunity so that you can test the strength of the chrome bar behind the driver’s seat with your teeth. It doesn’t seem to matter that they scare the crap out of you. Despite all this, a tuktuk ride in Bangkok is a must (so long as you don’t mind white knuckles and your travel insurance is up to date)!

We check into our five-star Banyan Tree hotel that we booked through Luxury Escapes – and at $699 for three nights, it is a great deal. It has all the trimmings: spa credits; the use of the Living Room, a relaxing space that provided complimentary, all-day light beverages and snacks; a daily cocktail at the Vertigo bar (60 floors up); a superior room on the Club floor section and late checkout. The facilities and service are certainly at a five-star level.

We are the only people on a private, five-hour Multicultural Market tour we pre-booked through Viator (a TripAdvisor company) but with a WithLocals guide. It cost us $36 each, which is very good value, but we still have to pay for transport and lunch. We are met at the hotel by our guide ‘Meow’, and take a short taxi ride to the Chao Phraya river, then hop on a local ferry to the flower market, five stops upstream.

The ferries fly coloured flags – local orange, tourist blue. We take the orange option and are loaded onto the ferry. A guy up the back blows a whistle that sounds like a bastardised version of a Boatswain’s call to indicate to the driver what to do. The short toothless lady collecting money and/or tickets (15 baht, about 60c one way) bellows out instructions as she makes her way through the crowded boat. We look at each other and laugh at this comical scene. As soon as the last person is on, the whistle blower does his stuff and we are off – no longer than 20 seconds from go to whoa!

The tour continues and we walk through mostly local areas with no tourists. We wander through genuine silk stores – evidently most of the tourist markets sell fake silk. We slowly make our way through four blocks of the covered market which sells the usual cheap stuff for the locals. We have lunch in the Indian sector in an upstairs emporium where you purchase vouchers to buy food from the stalls. Apparently, this voucher system ensures an equitable rental system, but I’m not sure how that works. The food is really good and cheap, and we are now energised enough to cope with the heat (36°C and humid) and the next part of the tour.

In Chinatown, everything changes and our senses are now working to the max – smells, language, produce, architecture. The Chinese temple displays an array of portly Buddhas (the Thais usually go for the ‘thin Buddha’ look). We view the Golden Buddha, a 3m-high, 5.5 tonne solid gold statue. How much would that be worth? By my calculation, at $1600 an ounce, that’s about $310 million.

Now we take another white-knuckle tuktuk journey to Jim Thompson’s House (a beautiful original Thai house, gardens and outbuildings). Born in 1906, Thompson, a US architect, was passionate about Thailand and the silk industry. He revived the market and is responsible for the healthy state today of Thailand’s silk industry. He disappeared in Malaysia while walking in the jungle when he was 61 years old.

I highly recommend taking a tour. It is not on the standard tourist route and because of this, gives you a great feel for a local’s life in Bangkok.

I talk Jenny into heading out after dark to explore the red-light districts of Bangkok. I tell her it will be a great experience. She is not convinced. We get a tuktuk to Patpong Rd, one of the original red-light areas.

Over the years, this area has become commercialised to the point where there is now a night market down the centre of the road with bars and massage parlours operating on both sides. We don’t venture into any of the bars but view scantily clad women dancing on the stages. The music is blaring out of these dark and sleazy places. There must have been a table tennis tournament happening close by because I keep being asked if I want to see a ‘ping pong’ show!

We get out of there and head to Nana Plaza – ‘the world’s largest adult playground’ – or so it says on the archway. Three levels of bars, parlours, private rooms and of course, lady-boys aplenty.

Jenny is pacing, eager to get out of this place. I lag behind, interested in what is happening. As we explore the nearby streets, I am propositioned a number of times by many women hanging around. The bars are filled with ‘bogans’ and women are draped all over them. The music is loud, lights are flashing and the smell of booze fills the nostrils. You get the idea.

The next day we decide to get out early and visit the Grand Palace, probably the most visited place in Bangkok. The temperature is in the high 30s and it’s somewhat sticky. There are thousands of tourists swarming all over the grounds. It is a relatively expensive entry fee (500 baht or about A$20 each). Once you enter, you can pick up a free map/guide in many languages. Every hour or so, there are free tours with English-speaking guides. I reckon this place is a bit over-rated.

Thailand’s longest serving king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, died last October. This man was revered, and the Thais are halfway through their 12 months of mourning. As a sign of respect, many locals wear black or a black ribbon pinned to their chest. All throughout Bangkok, there are small makeshift shrines and billboards displaying the king’s photo.

His body is on display in a temple in the Palace grounds. Apparently, he is in a sitting position. We see large groups of black-garbed Thais being led into areas that are closed to the general public – to view the king, I assume. We wander around the grounds spying many structures and temples, all with gold, glitter and marble facades. The main attraction is the 14th Century Emerald Buddha, which is housed in the largest temple. It is solid jade and sits atop the central shrine.

The locals have an aversion to the sun and most have a brolly to protect themselves.

Wat Pho is a temple near the palace that houses the Reclining Buddha, a massive 46m-long and 15m-high gold alloy statue. The entry price is only 100 baht and well worth a visit considering there are fewer tourists here.

Our three days are almost up. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to visit the floating markets. Never mind, because I get the feeling that these markets are set up mostly for tourists, although I believe that they are popular with local Thais for weekend lunches.

Another popular activity is a canal tour on one of the many waterways in Bangkok. There are different tours available, so be selective. A night-time cruise on the river with a buffet meal is one that seems popular.

Bangkok’s rooftop bar and dining scene is vibrant. Our hotel was one of the first to introduce this. Make sure you visit the Vertigo restaurant and Moon bar on the 60th floor of the Banyan Tree. We spend our last night here and take in a magical sunset while sipping on a glass of red and eating scrumptious, crispy-skinned Atlantic salmon, which was swimming in a bed of delicious red coconut curry sauce. The meal comes with an appetiser and sorbet. It is not cheap and we wonder how the many families eating here can afford it. It cost us A$280 for two mains ($80 each), two glasses of house wine ($25 each) and two desserts ($15 each) plus 17 per cent tax. But the view is spectacular and well worth the price. At least we won’t die wondering!

Is Bangkok worth visiting? Well, it has all the ingredients of a fascinating city – exciting nightlife, rooftop bars and restaurants, day and night markets, cosmopolitan food choices, and a multitude of river activities including floating markets, ferries, canal tours, night dinner cruises and long tail boats. There are many other wonderful sightseeing opportunities as well. One tip though is to pick the right time of year to visit because it can get very hot and humid, particularly in the wet season. Another tip is to do some research before you travel and pre-book your tours, particularly when you are there for a ‘quickie’.

Related articles:
Getting around the Golden Triangle
Max and Jenny’s French Airbnb adventure
Max’s cut-price comedy cruise

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