“One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster….”
OK, it’s a cliche, but Bangkok is a marvelously eclectic city that is worth at least one visit in your lifetime.
The city is steeped in ancient tradition yet thrumming with a cosmopolitan vibe. Where else can you find golden temples, gyrating ladyboys and efficient mass transit?
Whether you’ve come to Bangkok to fill a spiritual void or to gorge yourself silly on exotic delicacies, there’s something here for everyone.
A trip to Bangkok is a real “tour de forks,” a culinary wonderland where cheap and plentiful street food reigns supreme. This is where you can get your fix of everything from traditional pad thai to fried grasshoppers. You’ll learn to love sipping soda out of a plastic bag (vendors often keep the bottles for deposit) and you’ll be hard-pressed to find fresher fruit shakes anywhere else.
When it comes to food safety, the rule of thumb applies: Stick with cooked foods and skip the raw fruits, vegetables, tap water and ice; however, most travelers only stick to those rules for the first day or so, and those who stray usually don’t suffer any ill effects.
It’s hard to find a street in Bangkok that’s not brimming with the sight and scent of street stalls and food courts. The hustle and bustle of Khaosan Road caters to budget travelers and backpackers with hostels, street vendors and massage parlors galore…and therefore is a hotspot for cheap eats. But this is a tourist destination, which means that the spice and the heat of local treats are often downplayed to satisfy Western palates.
Instead, try stepping off this treaded path for somewhat more authentic street food. Around the corner is the Banglamphu Market on Chakrapong Road, and running parallel is Rambuttri Road. This is where you can find a good mix of locals and visitors crowding the street stalls. Some of our favorite treats? Mouthwatering green papaya salad spiced with red chilies followed by a dish of fried bananas.
You’ve probably heard of the renowned Oriental Thai Cooking Class at the Oriental Bangkok, and, more recently, the upscale course at the Four Seasons in Chiang Mai. But if you’re on a budget and looking for some home-style cooking, try a smaller-scale course.
At the Silom Thai Cooking School, classes are small–only two to nine people per day–and it’s entirely hands-on (you won’t be stuck watching a chef showing off his knife skills on an unsuspecting mango). The day begins with a morning visit to a market, where your guide will explain the uses of local produce, meats and spices commonly used in Thai cooking. Consider this a good introduction to the art of haggling, where you can pick up a few pointers for your next market trip.
Once you’re back in the kitchen, you’ll help prepare a five-course meal from scratch. From creating fiery green curry paste from scratch (it requires 11 different ingredients) to simmering chicken in coconut milk, you’ll learn all the basics of Thai cooking…and taste testing is actively encouraged! Classes are 1000 baht per person (about $30). 668-4-726-5669, www.bangkokthaicooking.com
If you’re not familiar with the Blue Elephant restaurant, you certainly will be after this cooking class. The restaurant can also be found in London, Paris, Moscow, Dubai, Kuwait and several other major cities around the world, and it offers some of the best Thai food you’ll find in a chain. In Bangkok, the Blue Elephant Cooking School takes place in a 100-year-old mansion, complete with a fully-equipped professional kitchen. The day begins at the Bang Rak market, where you’ll get a lesson in Thai ingredients. Back at the school, a 45-minute demonstration briefs you on the techniques and flavors you’ll be using, followed by your hands-on preparation of four dishes. Lunch, of course, is on the house. 66 2-673-93-534, www.BlueElephant.com
Jewels, trinkets, Thai silk, pirated DVDs…it’s all available here in Bangkok. The major markets are Banglamphu and Chatuchak, but there are hordes of other, smaller spots where you can haggle your way down to great deals.
Whether you’re seeking good luck, a love charm, fortune, or well-being, Thai Buddhists have long considered amulets as a source of great power (they also make an excellent gift for your co-workers). Find all that you’re seeking on a trip at the Amulet Market, which takes place every Sunday. You may find yourself standing side-by-side with a Buddhist monk, sorting through jumbles of amulets, charms and talismans made of carved metal or wood (skip the ivory ones). You can also pick up herbs and traditional medicines to help boost your good fortune. The weekly market is located between Maharat Road and the river at the corner of Mahachai and Ratchadamnoen Klang.
Got a passion for exotic flowers? Don’t miss out on the Pak Khlong Talat flower market near the Memorial Bridge. Not only is this the largest flower and vegetable market in the city, but things start heating up at midnight! The market actually is open 24 hours, but crowds arrive in the late evening when the weather is cooler. Mounds of flowers arrive from all parts of Thailand, filling the night air with fragrant scents. You’ll be surrounded by locals bidding on a dizzying array of lush, tropical flowers. From perfect orchids to perfumed jasmine, here you will have one of the most incomparable nighttime experiences in Bangkok.
And they say New York is the city that never sleeps. Once you’ve collected your bouquet from the late-night flower market, visit the Suan Lum Night Market for a midnight snack and shopping spree. The lively party atmosphere continues well into the night, where locals and visitors alike converge to hear live bands and wander about the market stalls, an open-air food court, and even a beer garden. The experience is a little less intense than the jam-packed Chaktuchak Market, and you find it easier to haggle with the vendors down to extremely reasonable prices.
One of the most uniquely Thai experiences is the floating market. Only a few markets still survive, with boats being replaced by shops and supermarkets, and those that remain are heavy tourist attractions. Still, it’s a recommended experience if you truly want to be enveloped by cultural chaos. The most famous is the Damnoen Saduak floating market, about 65 miles southwest of the city. But if you’re too short on time to head out of the city for this belly-bursting excursion, stick a little closer to home at the Taling Chang floating market. Hordes of boats float along the canal Khlong Chak, selling fruits, vegetables, flowers, and plenty of snacks cooked right on the “floating kitchens.” The market is held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekend in front of the Taling Chan District Office in the west of Bangkok. 66 2-424-1742
Bangkok is, shall we say, a mecca for Buddhist temples. From the famous reclining Buddha at Wat Pho to the Giant Swing outside of Wat Suthat, you could spend weeks in the city and not absorb it all. Wat Benjamabophit is the newest temple in Bangkok, constructed in 1899. Its marble exterior earned it the popular moniker, the Marble Temple, and it is best known as the home to a world-famous collection of Buddhas.
While this temple isn’t entirely “off the brochure,” it’s a great location to experience ancient Buddhist ceremonies. The trick is to get there early: Arrive at the temple around 6:30 a.m. to see hundreds of saffron-robed monks standing outside to collect their alms (food and drink) from devotees. Visitors are welcome to place offering in the alms bowls, but make sure you use both hands and follow it up with the “wai,” the traditional Thai sign of respect (clasp your hands as if in prayer, pressing your thumbs against your chest, and bow your head). Within the temple is a canal, where worshippers (and casual observers) are invited to release fish and turtles into the water to “raise merit” to ensure a better afterlife. Admission is 50 baht (about $1.50). Si Ayutthaya Rd. (south of the Assembly Building near Chitralada Palace), 66-2281-2501
There are plenty of museums and dozens of galleries to explore great works of art throughout Bangkok (there’s even a postage stamp museum). One of the more elegant, less-touristed spots is the Prasart Museum, a private home in an eastern suburb that features an open-air exhibit of Asian architecture. Created by art lover Prasart Vongsakul, who dreamt of preserving his country’s treasures, the museum is made up of replicas of traditional buildings.
Set in a tropical garden guarded by iron gates, the grounds include a mini version of the Red Palace (the original teak building sits in the National Museum), a traditional Chinese temple, a Khmer shrine, and even a European-style mansion that was all the rage with late 19th century Thai royalty. These buildings are filled with art and antiques, including statues, furniture, portraits, pottery, porcelain, ceramics, and much more. Admission is by appointment only—you can call ahead a day or two in advance, and admission is about 500 baht (about $15). Soi Krungthep Kreetha 4-A, Krungthep Kreetha Road, Bangkapi. 66 2-379-3601 or 66 2-379-3607
This one isn’t for the faint-hearted. The Corrections Museum isn’t exactly toddler-friendly or even a great date spot, but it does give you a glimpse into Thailand’s darker side…torture. In 1990, the former Bangkok Remand Prison was turned into the corrections museum, exhibiting the history of punishment from ancient times until now. Some scenes can be more than disturbing: One of the more famous torture items is a large rattan ball laced with nails—the prisoner was stuffed inside the ball, which was then thrown to the elephants for their own macabre version of soccer. Admission is free. 436 Mahachai Road, near Rommani Nart Park. 66 2-226-1706 or 66 2-225-7320
We could fill an entire book on Bangkok’s nightlife alone, but here’s one gem you shouldn’t miss. Vertigo and Moon Bar at the Banyan Tree Hotel is one of the best spots in the world to watch the sunset. The elevator takes you up 60 floors and the rooftop is another climb up, where you can sit back, sip on your umbrella-decorated cocktail, and enjoy the show. 66 2 679-1200, www.banyantree.com/
Check out www.thaifly.com for a list of discounted flights and hotels in Bangkok.
The Malaysian site Asia Travel Mart (www.asiatravelmart.com) also offers information on bargain flights and hotels.
By Managing Editor Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com
Get more travel ideas for Bangkok and Thailand…
- Ask the Locals City Guide: Bangkok, Thailand
- Thailand Hotel Guide: From Luxury to Budget, From Bangkok to Phuket
- Fighting For Your Vacation
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