Oh vacations! How I love thee! The feeling that for at least one week there will be no accountability for your time…the moment you are summoned to your gate…those few minutes before takeoff. The sheer thrill of it! And this time it was Bangkok. 🙂
We had not had a real vacation in a while. Our trips as “sandwich generation” expats often require that we head home instead. Although home for us is a beautiful place, there are some places we’d like explore before we head back home permanently. So our foodie alter egos spoke to us and said: Go.To.Bangkok.
And Bangkok is UNREAL!
Don’t be fooled by Bangkok’s sometimes shady reputation thanks to films like Hangover 2. While there may be some truth to those things, our trip there was not for the lure of seedy go-go bars and questionable nightlife, but instead for the appeal of Bangkok’s street food, temples, Tuk Tuk rides, Muay Thai, floating markets, massages, nightlife, its happy and smiley people, and did I say markets? Soooo many markets!
All of this combined will guarantee that you’ll be happy as a flea in a doghouse when you return back from your trip and tell everyone about it. As we all know, the minute you step out your door for a vacation somewhere far away or exotic, it demands that you tell its story.
So, I’ve broken it down like this….
Bangkok Food Tours
Booking tours of interest in Bangkok ahead of time are the only way to go. Being the foodsters we are, we went with several tours that centered on Bangkok’s markets and street food vibe.
The Best Eats Midnight Food Tour by Tuk Tuk was the ultimate food high! This tour consisted of a series of multiple nighttime hotspots throughout the bustling city. The first stop was a “secret stop” in the Phenon Petchaburi area. The resto’s name was in Thai so I can’t tell you what it’s called. You know it’s the real deal when there is no English translation. All I know is that it was good! Here we had Duck Salad, Green Papaya Salad, Roast Pork (divine!) and a clear broth version of Tam Yuk soup. The broth was a religious experience — a stand-alone worthy gut-healing broth I could just sip in cupfuls until my belly is full.
The next stop was at Ann Guay Tiew Kua Gai. Ann’s resto has been there for 21 years. The story goes that she originally sold food from a cart. Here we had a heavenly bowl of wide rice noodles with an omelet. This noodle dish for me was – hands down – the best meal of all the stops we did for the night! Those soft and sticky wide noodles will stay with me forever. NO wide rice noodles had ever tasted the same to me. Note to self: find these in Dubai!
But the show-stopper was when Tony (our Tour Guide) took us to the back to see where all the cooking action was. One female cook there will forever stay imprinted in my mind. She handled that wok like a boss! Even singing at one point. Her face hard and serious. Nary a smile. There was just something about her.
Next up was the flower market — Pak Tong Talad — where our money shot was taken: the bug degustation cart! No doubt a tourist trap. I smiled as I saw everyone instantly assume the IG position, dangling those crunchy, creepy critters over their mouths. Me – the insufferable foodie – chickened out at the last minute and Z stepped in to seize the moment. I can still hear the crackle – Eeek!
From there, we headed to The Grand Palace by night. This was a wonderful treat because seeing them by night was just magical. The inside of some of these temples are like a Buddhist version of the Sistine Chapel. We had visited a few days before during the day. I did not miss the crazy crowds. We got to see some parts not seen before, including some of the 30 monks that live next door. Seeing a glimpse of them and some of the nuns a few feet behind quietly returning to their quarters was such a treat.
After that, we walked on over to our next “secret stop”. It turned out to be a curiously splendid hidden bar on top of a B&B, tucked away in dark alley full of character and mystique. The kind of dark alley none of us would be caught dead walking into that late at night in Bangkok’s shady looking streets. We climbed 5 sets of stairs to get to the top…but it was so worth it! A spectacular view of temples glowing by the riverside. A moment of complete bliss!
We were treated to a cold beer and the op to take some great shots of the temples and river view. My clicks simply do not capture the intensity of what we saw. What got me was a blaring loudspeaker on that street right before we entered the B&B. It was very loud and I wondered what in the heck was being blared about in a dark alley with no people so late at night. Strange, yet intriguing. The cynic in me said it must be propaganda for a coup d’état. The idealist in me said nah – maybe it’s just a public reminder to watch your step, mind your manners, and go to bed soon…or sumphin’ like that. 🙂
The Final (Secret) Stop: Tipsamai. Best Pad Thai in Bangkok – per Tony. This place was buuuuusy! We tried both the original and the signature Pad Thai. Soooo good!
Stepping Away From the City
By the time this rescheduled tour day came, we were SUPER excited! We finally got to ditch the disorder of the city and see some of Thailand’s countryside. We smiled giddily as we noticed some of it reminded us of Trinidad and Puerto Rico. Prawn farms, green country sides, temples and random shops along the way. We felt like we could finally breathe the air with ease, relieved to be away from the crowded streets, smog and tourist-laden temples.
On our way to the floating market, our tour guide had the driver make a pit stop at this coconut sugar-making place. Z loved this place. This too reminded us of the Caribbean islands we come from.
We spent 8 hours with our Tour Guide – Tai – who was a gem. This tour included a visit to the Maeklong Railway Market (or Umbrella Pull Down Market) – which was SICK! – Damnern Sadual Floating Market in the morning and in the afternoon a Bangkok Walking Tour, which included a visit to the Golden Buddha, Yaowarat Market (Chinatown), Sampehng Market, Pahurat Market and the Thai Silk & Traditional Deserts Market.
Yes – it was A LOT, but soooo worth the tired feet at the end of the day. As we walked into the Maeklong Market, I felt the endorphins rush again as we maneuvered through this first little section — lots of mackerel in this one. I gleefully took in all what was happening there. I could spend a whole day just exploring this one section alone. So much to see, taste, touch and smell! This place is just legendary!
However, it was super crowded – loooooots of Chinese tourists. I’m glad we had a private guide because getting there on our own, we would have been clueless on what to do and where to go, AND where to stand safely. The train passes through four times a day. A few minutes before a warning call goes off and the vendors have to quickly move their stuff to make way.
Boats powered up to fight through the crowded waters.
The moment we’ve all been waiting for arrives. Lo and behold, there on sides of the sunlit train tracks against the vastness of a clear blue sky came the infamous train. Almost indignant, yet casual. We snapped some great videos of the moments before and when the train passed through what is often referred to as the world’s most dangerous market. Reportedly, there have been mishaps at this market, with at least one person losing their life to this unforgiving train.
The last stop in this tour was at Wat Traimit (The Temple of the Golden Buddha). What a stunner! Weighing 5.5 tons and more than 700 years old, this Buddha is made of gold and the story behind is fascinating. I was in rapture when we first laid eyes on this gold gleaming Buddha. The skinny on this one is that the gold part (it was covered in plaster) was discovered by accident in the 1930s while being relocated. Like the Grand Palace, you must cover your knees and shoulders and remove shoes before entering the temple. There were worshipers giving offerings at this temple, which was less chaotic than the other ones we’d visited. Donation boxes for ill monks and children’s schools sit in the back wall. A much more intimate experience compared to ones at The Grand Palace.
We visited a dizzying array of markets. The most memorable one was Pak Tong Talad — an authentic 24 hour flower and vegetable working market with a history dating back 200 years. What a joyful surprise and feast for all the senses!
Our timing was perfect because our visit was during Valentine’s Week, where they seem to be busiest. Red Roses everywhere, as well as Chrysanthemums used daily for offering at Buddhist temples and shrines throughout the city. Lucky us that we got to visit not once – but twice! During the day and in evening. A single rose will cost you 40 cents! If my calculation is right a dozen is about $5!
The evening is the best time to visit because that’s when the market really becomes alive. Tony explained that most of the flowers are harvested from the Northern region, packed up, and then driven down to Bangkok in an 8 hour drive, arriving around 10 pm. That’s when things get cooking. Workers are hyper-focused and work at the speed of light. Motorbikes coming out of nowhere, whizzing through the tiny corridors. Little old men pushing wheelbarrows. The smell of Jasmine is so pleasantly intoxicating that you can’t help but smile. Just phenomenal!
To be honest, we did not expect shopping to be much of a thing in Bangkok. Well, surprise, surprise — it was!
I was like a broken record the whole time saying “Damn, this is CHEAP!!!!!”.
The first shopping destination we hit was Asiatique — a wonderful open air night market located by The Riverfront. Here we found all sorts of handicrafts, local eats with, cold regional beers, a huge Ferris wheel and there was even a live techno concert the first night we went. The type of market that warrants a 2nd visit, so we returned later in the week. We were totally enamored with the market’s charming character, Thai food aromas impossible to resist, and its walk-through ease.
A few days later, we hit one of Asia’s oldest shopping destinations — MBK Shopping Center. Beware! You can lose yourself here for hours! So much to peruse through in this haven of cheap, cheerful and sometimes questionably branded goods. I’m talking everything from handbags, tapestries, furniture, costume jewelry, to T-shirts with bad English printed on them. 🙂 If you’re a hard bargain, this is your place to whittle down prices too.
But the star here was the food court. Oh, the food court!! I almost lost my mind there. Gazing, clicking pics, and trying to make up my mind on WHAT to eat. This is – by far – the best place in Bangkok to sample different Thai foods in a comfortable and air-conditioned environment. Most of the menus had an English translation, so that helped lots. Otherwise, you just gotta point to what you want and hope for the best. The cool part about this food court and some of the others we later stumbled upon was the voucher system. You pay for your value card and then proceed to order your food. Your card is swiped and you collect your food. If you have any change you can just redeem it before you leave. Everything moves fast so the system just works. This way, food handlers don’t have to fuss with money and change-making. Just serve the food!
Um – well this just makes all kinds of sense. Why can’t we have this in the U.S.?
I will never look at Thai food the same. Everything from here on will just be fake Thai food. It was THAT SERIOUS! What a sensory overload!
Let me explain…
There is so much more to Thai food than our American version of Thai food. We saw and tasted things we’ve never imagined. Nothing seems to be wasted in Thailand. Each part of the animal and plant life is utilized and brilliantly created into a culinary delight. I snapped my camera many times, but know I did not get everything. There are a million other things we saw in the insanely vibrant street food scene that we oohed and aahed about as we whizzed through our tours and walkabouts.
Every nook and cranny in Bangkok is full of eating coves and food stalls. There’s even a saying there that goes: Where there are people, there will be food. On one of our tours, we stopped at the Thai Traditional Sweets Market. I was over the moon when we stepped into this place of curious sweets and eats. Hundreds of sweets made of rice, pandan, corn, sesame, mango, coconut, taro and other things we’d never think about making a sweet from.
The walk-thru was fast, and I wished I could have just spent hours upon hours there…drifting aimlessly in a sugar-high stupor just popping colorful and unidentifiable sweets in my mouth. I had to be yanked out of there so we could head on over to our next stop: Chinatown. Which was a CRAZY hot mess.
For my birthday dinner, we chose Nahm — a London import run by an Australian Chef. It was conveniently located at our hotel – The COMO Metropolitan – which we can’t speak highly enough of about our stay there. The London one had a Michelin star, but was retracted after the Bangkok location was opened. Story is the original one lost its luster since the new one was being focused on so much. Either way, Nahm has been rated as one of Asia’s best restaurants. Not that any of these food geek facts matter. All we know is we had a lovely dining experience.
Then of course, we had to try the iconic Prachak Roasted Duck, a majestic gem that’s been around since 1909. Finding it was quite a treasure hunt. GPS did not take us there as we expected, so we hopped out of the taxi and walked a few blocks until we found it. There, we had the most succulent roasted duck — the dish they’re known for. After my first bite, I knew instantly why this eatery, with its captivating history presented on its wall, has not languished or gone away. I gobbled down my duck as it was the last Twinkie on earth. I was just smitten with what turned out to be our very own unplanned foodie adventure!
One afternoon, we decided to walk around the area we were in. Much to our amusement, we bumped into a few low-cost eateries, including a basement food-court in a high-rise building. There, we walked around in delight again and had a satisfying meal for $1.50 EACH plate. Insane! I can’t even get a darn slider for this back home.
At our first night at Asiatique, there were sooooo many places to choose to eat from, but we went with the “wherever has the most people” rule. We chose a resto that only offered seafood. There were so many wonderful choices. A meal of steamed mussels, seafood rice and 4 beers was only $32! Delicious and incredible!
And let’s not forget the bug-eating thing. Yes, it’s a tourist thing when in Thailand. I bet you can find just about every person who’s visited showing off a pic eating one of those crunchy critters unscathed. Z turned out to be the daring one, the Indiana Jones of the dinner circuit this time. Yes, I chickened out after the first glance all those bugs en vivo. It’s funny that I can down what some consider scarier pursuits such as a souse, morcillas, and chicken feet — but the buck stops at bugs, apparently. 🙂
Verdict: Bangkok is a culinary wonderland! Lonely Planet is correct when they say Bangkok tops as the best city to visit if you’re a food lover.
It’s hard to get a full grasp of a country’s culture in just one week, but I can say that we got a good feel of what this homogeneous culture is like. Though I imagine that city people are probably different to those who live in provinces far away from the metropolis that Bangkok is. But each encounter we had gave me the impression that Bankonians are gentle and caring. And definitely very smiley.
With over 10 million people living in Bangkok, and one of the world’s worst rated traffic, somehow there was a nice ebb and flow to everything. No one pushing, yelling, and arguing. I admired the taxi drivers’ grit as they swiftly moved through the traffic without a flinch and nary a curse word.
Things get super crowded at the popular tourist sites, and again, no one lost their shit. Common courtesy seems to prevail everywhere. Despite rubbing shoulders with lots of strangers, you find yourself calm and just going with the flow – unless you are severely ochlophobic. This says a lot about the local people. A standard of decorum is also part of the visit to the Grand Palace and Sukhothai Trimit Golden Buddha, where it is required that pants or long skirts are worn upon entry to the grounds.
We learned a lot about Thai’s love for the Royal Family and their tenacity during the past months to ensure they get to pay their respect to the late King Bhumibol. Some of them wait up to 12 hours outside the Grand Palace and have done it more than once! Yellow shirts for the King’s birthday. The ladies wear conservative little black dresses or casual suits similar to the ones in the 1950s. I saw many retailers selling these black short-waisted tailored outfits. They really seem to love their country. Their jovial mannerism is contagious. I found myself in a happy bliss the whole time I was there.
I noticed everything ended with Ka which – from what I understood – is like adding please to the end of a sentence. When a language does that, you just know courtesy is a big deal for the culture it used in. There is even a Thai word called Kreng jai which means: being aware of other people’s feelings and showing politeness, respect and consideration towards them. There is no one word for that in English. Catch my drift?
So my question was and still is what’s the secret to their happiness? How could someone making only $200 a month still manage to put on a smile? Not everyone in Bangkok is well off, as is evident in how hard everyone seems to hustle to earn a living. Some of us in the West have a hard time putting on a good face each day and have it 10 times easier than those who rub smelly feet for only a few bucks or the ladies who fry food all day in the Bangkok’s hot and humid streets. I think the answer may be Buddhism.
Buddhism teaches us that the real source of happiness is inner peace. If our mind is peaceful, we shall be happy all the time, regardless of external conditions, but if it is disturbed or troubled in any way, we shall never be happy, no matter how good our external conditions may be. Well, that must be it then. Mystery solved.
We also managed to grab a Muay Thai show and amateur performance. No way we could leave Bangkok without seeing what that was all about! Although the show – which was located at the touristy Asiatique was – well – very touristy, it was quite enjoyable. The show was a dramatization of the history of Muay Thai, a martial art native to Thailand going back about 700 years or so and defined by 4 major historical periods. It walked us through the history of Muay Thai and how valuable it is to Thai culture. We would have preferred to see a professional fight, but time was not on our side, so this was good enough.
Here’s what I did not like about the culture: their apparent obsession with white skin. Just like Dubai, ads glorifying light skin made my stomach turn more than the bugs we saw as food. This is the country, after all, that was castigated for this ad. A sick logic I just can’t wrap my head around. But – you know – everyone, everywhere has one issue or the other.
Oh the temples! The glorious temples! You cannot visit Bangkok without scheduling a trip to the Grand Palace. I’d venture to say The Grand Palace is Bangkok’s aesthetic pride and most sacred site. Over 200,000 square meters of meaningful sculptures, throne halls, golden temples, stately Buddha’s and a monk’s residency — YOU ARE MESMERIZED FROM THE SHEER SIZE AND GRANDEUR from the moment you walk in.
We intentionally went in February before Bangkok’s notorious hot, sticky, icky season came in. As soon as we banked the first corner and saw the number of people dressed in black walking there along with the infinity of Chinese tourists, we knew this place was YUUUGE in the larger than life sense. The death of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol seemed to have escalated the attraction to this magical place of sheer beauty that will just take your breath away. Our timing was perfect because we got to see the Thai people honoring their King in the most amazing way one can ever imagine. My heart warmed as we witnessed the blocks and blocks of people quietly waiting in line to pay their respects to their King (the world’s longest ruling monarch) who was known to have done much for his country and fellow countrymen. The sights of worshipers lighting candles and sticks of incense in ritual told us this place is not a novelty, but a sacred place of worship. This was the moment when the popular fleeting saying “Spend money on experiences, not things” really hit home for me.
THIS is all I need in my life. Right here. Right now. Standing in this enchanted place surrounded by these beautiful and most gracious inhabitants of this land of splendor wondering what would Kind Rama think of all this? Would he be proud of the global attraction the Grand Palace has become? Or peeved that this residence of Thailand’s kings is now inundated with the justle of so many foreigners snapping pictures to show off on Instagram?
After our day visit to the Grand Palace, our tour guide took us on a Canal Tour on a long tail boat. A little rough on the edges at first, but ended up being a very relaxing feat. We delightfully fed some huge catfish, saw locals selling sundries in paddleboats, more temples, a hospital, crumbled river homes and got to witness a friendly business transaction between our boat navigator and a river house we pulled up to.
One thing for sure, my love affair with Bangkok thus far grew deeper as I saw how amidst the crowds and chaos of the Grand Palace queue and hectic crowds, NO ONE was angry, NO ONE was pushing, NO ONE was spewing vile words, NO ONE was skipping lines, and NO ONE was frowning. There was a quiet ebb and flow. Crowds just moved seamlessly and courteously, as civilized human beings should. Even among the tired faces, there was a gentleness and sense of politeness among the people.
Communication in Bangkok was not problematic. Everyone was approachable in this smog-filled noisy yet calm city with little old ladies selling delicious soups from their tiny street carts down every alley you walk by. Even the most painfully gratifying $7 reflexology session was introduced and ended with the humble Sawatdee-kah or Sawatdee-krap. I was left feeling warm and fuzzy each time I heard it. Such a loving and assuming gesture that rings true as to what the Thai people are all about.
I honestly did not want to leave. I wanted to experience more of this country. Standing at the top of one of Bangkok’s famous rooftop bars and seeing a picture-perfect view of the city’s temples left me yearning to know what life was like before this massive concrete jungle, and what life is like in the provinces and countryside. This only tells me I must return one day.