Whilst Bangkok’s Thai name nowadays is ‘Krung-thep’, which means ‘city of angels’, its original name was … Bangcok.
This meant ‘village of plums favoured by boars’. There aren’t so many boars, angels or plum trees in modern Bangkok, but this most effervescent of cities, after its recent sprucing up, does have a lot else to offer the visitor.
Drive down one of Bangkok’s many tree-lined streets and you can almost imagine yourself on a French boulevard, until the vehicle in front belches out a noxious blast of black fumes and the traffic policeman on the corner retreats inside his booth for a blast of bottled oxygen.
Whilst Bangkok’s pollution is still a big problem, the government’s promotion of public transport and encouragement of the use of LPG to power vehicles seems to at least have stopped the problem from getting worse. Visitor’s attitude to Bangkok’s pollution rather depends on whether they have been there before. Those who have will be pleasantly surprised by how much cleaner the streets are these days. Five years ago the canals, in particular, were really bad: bubbling chemical brews fizzing away under green crusts of goo, with the occasional pair of flip flops floating around on top, as if the former owners had been dissolved in the acid stew, leaving only their shoes behind.
Bangkok is no longer the city where almost anything goes, but not quite everything works: all those tourist dollars have improved the infrastructure considerably. More affluent travelers will have a great time sampling Bangkok’s futuristic clubs, luxury hotels, super-chic spas and novel eateries, but will not have to insulate themselves from the everyday life of the city, as is sadly necessary in most other large southeast Asian cities. Eating a bowl of duck noodle soup on a street corner, with the din and waft of street life pulsing all around you in this most cheerful and friendly of cities, is in its way just as satisfying an experience as a meal in the most suave of Bangkok’s swish eateries.
Bangkok- Top Ten
The unusual thing about food in Bangkok is not that it has a huge variety of excellent restaurants serving every imaginable cuisine, as this is to be expected from such a huge metropolis, it is the quality of the everyday food served at the stalls on every street corner. In a food-obsessed country where people greet each other with the question “have you eaten rice yet?” it is difficult to find a bad meal unless you walk into Burger King or McDonalds.
In marked contrast to other southeast Asian capitals, notably Manila and Jakarta, the average every-day food of Bangkok and of Thailand in general is clean, cheap and arguably the tastiest in southeast Asia.
A less laudable thing is that, outside the luxury establishments, restaurant waiters tend to have short memories. For example, what could be simpler than fulfilling your order for a glass of coke with ice? Even this simple task is beyond some of the waiters, who will forget your drink, then forget to bring you the ice you asked for, twice, and then forget to bring you your bill, after being reminded. But there’s no point in getting angry, as this will only make things worse: the best you can do is to maybe embarrass the waiter into better performance by, with a large if sardonic smile on your face, questioning whether his problem is with his brain or his ears.
Only the most avidly curious or impecunious of travelers ever snack on chicken feet or try the deep fried bugs that are sold out of barrows all round Bangkok. For a better feed, try the Royal Dragon restaurant, listed in the Guiness Book of records as the world’s biggest, which has a waiter who flies around supported by a cable and harness.
For an alternative take on the phrase ‘in-flight food’, try out the nearby Flying Chicken restaurant, where the cook sets light to a whole barbecued chicken and then hurls it to one of the edges of the restaurant, where it is caught on the pronged helmet of a child sitting on top of the shoulders of a waiter riding a unicycle.
For a gourmet meal out the visitor is spoiled for choice. If you take a dinner cruise along the Chao Phraya River, book one of the better ones for an under-cover table, musical serenade and waiter service.
Alternatively dine at one of the many superb and atmospheric riverside restaurants, one of the best of which is Supatra River House, which overlooks the Grand Palace and stages theatre performances every Friday and Saturday. For an unforgettable meal, non-residents as well as residents can catch the Oriental hotel’s ferry across the river to its riverside dinner pavilion, where their meal will be accompanied by maybe the best dinner-show in town.
The Author's Wing at the Oriental Hotel is an elegant if formal place to ‘take tea’ – just don’t forget to keep the little finger of your cup-holding hand off the cup. Biscotti at the Four Seasons Hotel is known for its Italian fare and Le Vendome for French haute cuisine. Madison at the Four Seasons Hotel, an American steakhouse with an improbable-looking but real fire place, serves Wagyu, Kobe and Matsuzaka beef. Taihei @ Banyan Tree has good city views and is one of the city’s best Japanese eateries. Sirocco, with the highest outdoor balcony of any restaurant in Bangkok, offers Mediterranean fare and live jazz performances. Cy’an at the Metropolitan Hotel is a cool place to enjoy Mediterranean-style meals on the open-air veranda fringing the pool.
Novel French gourmet food can be sampled, or maybe even gorged on, at D’Sens at the Dusit Thani Hotel. Redefining room service, the Bed Supper Club offers ‘dining in bed’ as well as an up-market club, a stage, a theatre, a restaurant and an art gallery: this is an in-place where guests are expected to be rich if not beautiful, so if you are no longer such an oil painting, maybe take your bankbook along to prove you’re rich enough to qualify for entry.
Rooftop bars are a speciality. Classy Vertigo & Moon Bar, an open-air rooftop lounge, offers breathtaking views of the river and the city skyline. Or you can quaff premium beverages in a romantic al fresco ambience at Hu’u, a club, bar and restaurant, whose kitchens won’t disappoint even the most discerning of foodies. The music ranges from Jazz, acid jazz, lounge to tempo.
Thais are some of the world’s biggest party animals and Bangkok is their capital, so it is not surprising that it has a humming club scene.
The carousing is not confined to weekends in the many clubs offering music for every taste and to clientele of every sexual orientation.
One of Bangkok’s biggest and best clubs, ‘Hollywood’, is popular with slightly older Thais and with tourists of all ages. Western dance-music is alternated with Thai cabaret in a sensational feast for the eyes as well as ears.
It can sometimes be disappointing when the management have been let down by acts and try to fob the audience off with dancing girls, which is not what the place is really about. You can almost imagine the pandemonium backstage: “what, the band haven’t arrived yet, OK, get the girls back out on stage, this time tell them to get their tops off, maybe that will keep the punters happy”. It doesn’t.
Younger visitors are advised to laminate a copy of the picture page in their passports and take it on a night out clubbing, as Bangkok’s bouncers may otherwise deny them admission:
When I was asked for ID by the door-man I was at first rather flattered, as I’m 30 years over the minimum age limit. Then I wondered why he had done so. He was wearing glasses, but not the sort as thick as coke bottle bottoms, so presumably that wasn’t the problem.
The only obvious mental problem he was manifesting was a twitch and the club entrance was fairly well-lit. I was reasonably well-dressed and relatively sober, so why wouldn’t he admit me? Eventually the club’s manager explained to me that it wasn’t that they doubted my age and that they didn’t doubt I was old enough to be allowed in, it was that they thought I was too OLD to be admitted. I was speechless. Then, in typical Thai style, his face broke into a huge grin: ”ha ha, just joking but I fooled you, ha ha, we only need ID to help police”.
He told me that I could come in provided I promised to write something nice about his club, which I refused to agree to do, but which I can in any case do.
The club is called ‘Curve’ and is better suited to the younger generation, as to most older clubbers the music will sound about as harmonious as finger-nails on a blackboard (this aversion on behalf of their elders being of course the reason that the kids love it so much). ‘Curves’ is packed with young Thais every night of the week, doing one of the things they are best at – partying to Thai music. If the Beijing Olympics were to include a ‘partying’ competition, the Thais would win hands-down, especially if teams got negative points for undesirable behavior like drug abuse and violence, which are less prevalent on the Thai club scene than elsewhere in the world.
Maybe the judges of this putative partying Olympic event could award extra points for friendly behaviour like sharing your bottle with all-comers, with special bonus points awarded for dancing in a sufficiently foolish fashion as to make everybody else think that they might as well join in, as they couldn’t possibly dance any worse than you do. If such points were awarded, however, then there would no point in holding the competition at all, as Thailand would take the gold, silver and bronze medals every time.
One of the nicest things about Thai night-clubs is that they lack the undercurrent of mindless random violence present in many Western establishments, where for many men the second best choice for an evening’s entertainment, if they can’t attract a woman, is to get into a fight with a stranger who they don’t like the look of.
Things are done differently in a Thai club, which the would-be clubber is advised to take note of.
Firstly, don’t march up to the bar and order a round of drinks. You should just wait until a waiter comes up to you and takes your order. He will then find you one of the least packed spots to stand and go off and get your drinks. When he returns he will bring a small waist-high drinks table along with your drinks. You never need to go to the bar:
Thailand taught me yet another lesson about patience when I went to a Bangkok club the other day. I was too impatient to hang about waiting to be served, so went to the bar and ordered a drink. After a while a waiter took my order and THB 1,000, then disappeared. For a long time. As my friends tucked into their drinks I became more and more impatient and went to complain. Just after I had got into my stride moaning, the waiter turned up with my drink and the change, making me feel so stupid that I wished the cracks between the floorboards would open up enough for me to be able to dive between them. He had been delayed by having to get change for my drink, which isn’t something that customers normally get until the end of the evening. I had thought that I had already learned the lesson that patience is best in Thailand, but obviously I had not learned it well enough.
One thing we have to thank recently-deposed Prime Minister Thaksin for is for insisting that all clubs close at the ridiculously early hour of 2 am. No doubt he thought he was doing all our livers a favour, as prior to that it had been hard to resist the temptation to stay up all night in this most unabashedly hedonistic of party cities. Insomniacs and die-hards can still, however, find a late drink by going to the seedy Nana Plaza, where old dears serve unlicensed beer to the lust-lorn and where you can enquire as to the location of the latest all-night bars.
3) Looking for Love
If you are looking for love then wear nice clothes and don’t worry about over-dressing. Thais set great store by how well you dress. If you look presentable then your friends will call you ‘law jang leu-ee’ (handsome) even if you are suffering from a red-eyed hangover squared and the bags under your eyes are big enough to carry your shopping around in.
Much as we’d like to ignore it, something must be said about Bangkok’s sex industry. It is thriving, fuelled mainly by older Western men but also by younger ones who would like to behave better but whose hormones, like immigration officers, block their roads to better places.
Trainloads of factory-farmed girls are still ‘harvested’ from the fields of Isaan every spring (directly after school’s-out) and are then sent to Patpong, Patong and Pattaya (the infamous three P’s). It is hard to know what to make of the business. On the one hand, many prostitutes undoubtedly do very well out of the job and drag their families out of poverty through it. On the other, successful prostitutes are the exception and many of the ones who succeed are so brutalized that they seem to lose sight of all morals: there are quite regularly cases in the press about prostitutes murdering their lovers to get their hands on their money. Anyone who would like to know more is advised to read the un-put-down-able book ‘Private Dancer’.
Bangkok’s main red-light districts are Patpong, Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza. Patpong and Nana Plaza are the busiest of the three places, whilst Soi Cowboy is the least pushy. Our reporter came to these conclusions after extensive and arduous personal research – on the internet.
The weekend Chatuchak market is enormous and extremely cheap. For those who would rather pay a fraction of the price and are willing to put up with heaving crowds, sore feet and no air-con in order to do so, it’s a shopper’s dream come true. Particularly impressive are the art, household goods, garden statuary and ceramics: if travelling shortly before Xmas then why not buy lovely presents for the whole family? This is Thai culture at its most manic, three hundred thousand shoppers per day crowding into fifteen hundred stalls and countless tiny restaurants, eating fantastic fast food off makeshift tables constructed out of random items like doors and old sewing machines.
The enormous Siam Paragon shopping mall is at the opposite end of the shopping spectrum. The largest in Thailand, it sits on fully 21 acres of prime central Bangkok land and has hundreds of shops selling just about everything under the sun: there are even car showrooms, an aquarium, cinemas and a high class food court in addition to the budget food court on the ground floor. The mall was designed to eclipse similar projects in neighbouring countries and put Thailand on a par with Hong Kong and Singapore as a shopping destination.
Walking around most of the other shopping malls, you will notice they all seem to sell exactly the same products. The Paragon has broken the mould to some extent, and has brands and designer outlets not seen anywhere else in Thailand.
Forget crèches for the kids and cine multiplexes: no shopping complex can compete with the Siam Paragon’s aquarium, where those with nerves of steel can dive into an aquarium full of sharks. At Siam Ocean World, in the basement, you can go eyeball to eyeball with ragged-toothed sharks while your other half eyeballs Gucci shoes. Sounds scary?
Actually, there’ll be no need to wet your wetsuit, as none of these sharks will attack people unless seriously provoked. Once in the water, however, there is no guarantee that that knowledge will necessarily insulate you from the primal fear of big, pointy teeth.
Maybe the least frenetic big shopping malls in Bangkok are the elegant and swish ‘Central’ chain, where you will find dozens of fashion boutiques and several English language bookshops. Stop for lunch at either Fuji, the scrumptious chain of Japanese restaurants, or at MK Suki, for a ridiculously cheap steam-boat: the prawns are best if dipped in the steam-boat for only 5 seconds.
For electronics head to Pantip Plaza, whose 6 floors are packed with cut-price hardware and software. The police regularly raid the place for counterfeit software, but the supply is never held up for long, as the vendors have an effective early-warning system in place.
MBK Shopping Mall is very popular with locals, has excellent fashion boutiques, and is THE place for anything related to mobile phones, if you can stand the heaving crowds.
Even those normally averse to temples and palaces are encouraged to give Bangkok’s a try, as even the most well-templed travelers will normally find the Grand Palace and next-door Wat Po, complete with its masseur monks, worthwhile, if not totally spell-binding. The architecture is much more colourful than that of the West. In the Royal Palace every colour in the rainbow is used in a dazzling montage of vivid hues themed on a back-drop of burnished gold. Quite how the architects managed to use so much colour without the result being in any way gaudy is a mystery, but is surely a testament to Thai good taste. Perhaps garishness is avoided by the ground being paved in grays and whites, so providing distance between the strength of the colours used so prolifically. After the Grand Palace’s formal splendour, Wat Po is more relaxed, with a fountain and some shady spots to rest. One wall of the inside of the Reclining Buddha temple is lined with 108 metal offering bowls.
You can buy 108 one-quarter-baht coins and then put one in each bowl, which is surprisingly satisfying: the sound of the coins tinkling into the metal bowls is pleasant, as is the breeze which blows in through the open windows, out of which little boys can be seen playing five-a-side soccer. After your temple tour, why not jump into a taxi and get driven to a nearby river-side restaurant, from where you can watch barges plough slowly up and down the river as the ferries and water-taxis scuttle around them. If feeling adventurous then why not instead, after leaving Wat Po, just jump on a ferry (cost THB 3.5) and see where you end up?
The Bungsamran Fishing Park is one of Thailand’s best fishing lakes, beaten hands down only by Ao Nang’s Gillham’s Fishing Park
Thailand is Asia’s premier golf destination and it is no surprise that the capital has many international-standard courses nearby. The Thai Country Club has won many awards, whilst the Bangkok Golf Club features night golfing facilities. Thana City Golf and Country Club has a variety of lakes, sand traps and streams fiendishly placed to gobble up your balls. The 27-hole Pinehurst Golf and Country has loads of high-tech training equipment.
8) People watching
Like any great city, Bangkok is a great place to watch your fellow humans at work and play. Maybe the best place to do this is on one of the most cosmopolitan and busiest streets in the capital, the backpacker centre Khao Sarn Road. This street has improved a lot since a few years ago, when it was populated by a boringly homogenous set of people whose Thai-fisherman clothes jarred with their silly hairstyles and whose conversation, which mostly revolved around narcotic excesses on Koh Phi Phi and at Koh Phangan’s Full Moon Party, included the words ‘like’ and ‘mai pen rai’ irritatingly often.
Recently Khao Sarn has become popular with Thais and a more varied set of Westerners, and at weekends takes on an almost carnival atmosphere, with live music, peculiar street performances and the world’s highest concentration of VW minibuses converted into bars. Maybe while away a while gossiping about the relationships between the random strangers who pass (“is that her Granddad or is it her boyfriend?”), or hone up your fashion sense by discussing the fashion faux pas of the passing throngs.
9) Macabre Museums
The Siriraj Museum, whose exhibits are too horrifying to describe on these pages, is possibly the grossest museum in the world. If you have a strong stomach and an appetite for the macabre, this is the place for you. If you manage to hang on to your guts then, for a real challenge, head on to the Corrections Museum, which includes a display of the instruments of torture used to get confessions out of state prisoners in bygone days. Quite why torture was ever used for this purpose is a mystery, as the prisoner would obviously admit to anything rather than have these arcane lumps of red-hot metal applied in unprintable ways to his body.
10) Crocodile Farm and Ancient City
Thirty kilometres southeast of Bangkok lies the Samut Prakan Crocodile Farm, where 60,000 animals are farmed for their hides and meat. It’s quite a sight to see a handler enter an enclosure full of dozens of huge crocs and push them around like sheep. Apparently they are too well-fed to bother taking a bite out of the handler, unless he has annoyingly interrupted their mid-day snooze. However, not averse to a bit of human flesh to spice up their diet of geriatric battery chickens, in 2002 the crocs devoured a Thai woman, who committed suicide by jumping into a pit at feeding time and whose last act was to thankfully embrace the crocodile that was tearing her apart. The farm is almost the last abode of the crocodile in Thailand, as only two individuals are known to exist in the wild but in romantically inconveniently different places.
Ancient City, a nearby attraction, is a 200 acre park shaped like Thailand, on which models of Thailand’s present and past architectural wonders have been placed in the geographically appropriate places. Beautifully laid-out grounds, small waterfalls and manicured lawns make this a lovely place to spend a few hours. If it’s not too hot or there’s a bit of a breeze, a snooze under one of the trees outside the replica of the Grand Palace of Ayudhaya is highly recommmended.
Click here for vacation Thailand