Chilling out in Bangkok
Because our last few days in Paris were marked by stressful encounters with crowds and tight schedules, Mr T made me promise that our 4 days stopover in Bangkok would be a relaxing break.
While Anne and I have never been, he used to visit Thailand regularly during his working life in SE Asia years ago. His memory of Bangkok is of a fun and carefree yet chaotic and hazy city. “I am not looking forward to the traffic” he tells me gloomingly.
We arrive at lunch time at the beginning of a long weekend in celebration of Thailand’s new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn (otherwise known as Rama X) ‘s coronation. We didn’t plan this, but with 3 days of ceremonies involving processions and public audiences, it means that some landmarks and roads are closed near the palace and other popular areas of the city where the royal party is in residence. So, while our program needs slight modifications, the upside is that a lot of the locals have left town for the holiday making traffic a breeze by Bangkok standard. Mr T is pleasantly surprised!
We are staying at the Ramada Plaza Menam Riverside on the riverfront. The hotel location is ideal for us, close enough to town but in a quieter area by the water. A free shuttle boat takes guests from the hotel wharf to the main pier 10mn away. From there we could catch the train/transit all over Bangkok if we want to. We never get around to do that, however, preferring to stick to water travel (no traffic on the river!)
Our first day is spent recovering from our 15-hour flight from Paris. We’re made to wait a couple of hours before our room is ready, whiling away the time in the executive club with offers of cakes and snacks. Still, by the time we’re settled in, it takes a bit of coercing to go out and explore our surroundings. Admittedly our “room” is a spacious 2-bedroom suite with 2 bathrooms, a lounge room big enough to host a party of 50 and most importantly, a lovely view over the Phraya river and south Bangkok.
Anne and Mr T would be happy to laze around in the air-conditioning but it turns out that we are a 5mn walk from Asiatique the Riverfront, á night bazaar and a mall all rolled into one with more than a dozen eating places ranging from high end dining to street food stalls.
We end up buying prawns skewers, pad thai, some fried rice, and samples of grilled meats and retreat to the cool comfort of our suite.
Sleep comes easy that night.
The next morning, Anne and I hop on a tour bus at dawn to visit the ancient city of Ayutthaya while Mr T elects to sleep in and later chill by the pool. We don’t often split that way, but the prospect of “being herded along other tourists in 35C heat thru countless temples” is just too much to bear for him so we agree to disagree and go our own way. Turns out to be a wise decision, as it ends up being a very long day of driving, sightseeing and eating for us girls, and while we enjoyed it immensely, I know that Mr T would have hated it. By the time we return, late afternoon, he is waiting for us by the pool, a beer in his hand, his mood improved tenfold courtesy of a leisurely walk around his old haunting grounds and an in-house massage.
His appetite is back and he is really keen on a buffet dinner at the hotel. As Anne and I have just finished a buffet lunch earlier on the tour, the least we feel like is eating again, but we don’t have the heart to say no and guess what? Somehow we find the room to fit another buffet dinner! We just can’t resist these curries…
Jet lag kicks in with a vengeance the next day and it is my turn to ask to take it easy. Making the most of the in-house spa and massages, we laze around the swimming pool until we realise we should at least check out some part of downtown Bangkok. So we take the boat shuttle to the main pier, and walk along Chareon Krung Road.
This is the oldest road in Bangkok, running parallel to the river and home to 5-star hotels, antique shops, jewellers and cheap and cheerful food vendors. It leads north to the so called Creative District, an area hailed as a place where “the old meets the new, east meets west“ anchored around the Thai Creative and Design Centre. We don’t make it that far though, browsing at the Roberston’s mall instead, where Anne and I try to make sense of all the various Asian cosmetics on offer (white snail mask anyone?).
Mr T paces patiently, then declares it’s Happy Hour and we need to find a bar. “We’re in luck”, I say. “The Sky Bar is right around the corner! “We’re talking about the rooftop bar located on the 63rd floor of the Sky Tower building, made famous in The Hangover movie and notorious for offering some of the best views of the city.
We’re down for it, but unfortunately, we don’t even make it past the elevator. The dress code gets us: no shorts for men (what else would you wear in 35C heat?), no flip flops for ladies, no backpacks and no shopping bags (well, that rules us out, with my leather backpack and Anne’s shopping!) We’re annoyed but not that upset, looking at the bright side we’re glad to save ourselves spending mega dollars on cocktails and apparently, they don’t serve beer. Imagine that!
So we’re back on the boat shuttle and decide to try our luck at Asiatique again.
This time, we wander leisurely around the bazaar (that’s how it feels) before settling down at Baan Khanitha for dinner.
This restaurant offers traditional Thai food in sophisticated colonial-style settings. Rooms are decorated with wood-panelled furniture, delicate wood carvings and colorful orchids. The menu is extensive and it takes us quite a while to decide, eventually asking our waitress for recommendations.
We start with the mixed appetisers, playing it safe with a platter of deep-fried shrimp cakes, fish cakes, spring rolls and chicken wrapped in pandanus leaves. Yes, everything deep fried, though they each come with their own separate dipping sauces (soy and sesame, plum, chili garlic and fish sauce).
Our mains arrive all together: stir fried salt and pepper pork, deep fried sea bass smothered in sweet and sour sauce, pineapple special fried rice and a red curry with crispy mushrooms. While the first 3 dishes are familiar flavours, not very different to any Thai takeaway we’d find in Sydney, the latter dish is intriguing: it is a cross between a soup and a stew, full of flavour from the red curry, betel leaves and bamboo shoots but what blows me away is the texture of the mushrooms. They actually pop in your mouth, with a crunchy texture on the outside but soft and sweet inside. Called “hed poh” or Thai puffball mushrooms, these are wild fungi that only grow in Northern Thailand and are available during the rainy season. I make a mental note to look for them back in Australia, maybe in a can?
We decide to skip dessert, not only because we feel fairly full but Anne has spotted a gelato van further down the mall.
Annette Tuktuk sells handmade ice creams out of a custom built tuktuk. The gelato on sticks come with a variety of flavours and quirky designs. Each look like small toys, and Anne can’t resist the coconut cool cat. In fact, she enjoys it so much, she grins like a cheshire cat all the way back to the hotel. It was a fun night, though quite pricey by local standards.
There is no doubt that Asiatique is aimed at the tourists that we are, it feels like Disneyland with its large Ferris wheel, kids rides and souvenir shops. It’s all clean and organised, leaving Mr T in some sort of shock, wondering what happened to the traffic clogged city of his youth. Maybe times have changed. Or it is only temporary, being a long weekend…
Which brings me to our last day. The holiday weekend over, river access to the area around the Grand Palace is restored so I grab the opportunity to hop on one last river cruise. The Chao Phraya Tourist boat leaves from the main pier and runs a hop-on-hop-off service all day, stopping at 9 piers along the way, each one allowing access to different districts in the city. With a few hours before our flight home to Sydney, my plan is to catch the first boat out and cruise up to the Grand Palace then walk our way back down to the Pak Klong Taladd flower market before heading south back to the hotel.
I cannot believe how easy it is to travel by boat in this city. Traffic is light, bar a few longtail boats and river taxis. There are hardly a dozen people onboard and most get off at the Grand Palace, as we do. It is not a long walk from the pier to the Palace, however it is long enough to have hustlers offering their services as guides and when we decline, telling us we won’t get in as Anne is wearing shorts. Dress code again!
We both decide we’d rather stay outside the palace and walk along Maha Rat Road, mixing with locals instead of tourists. The road runs along the perimeter of Bangkok’s most revered historical attractions such as the Grand Palace, the temples of Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew, as well as the old learning centre Wat Mahatat.
While we can’t enter the premises, we certainly get a glimpse of the magnificent architecture and any disappointment we may have quickly dissipates as we wander down the wide tree lined avenues, pass traditional street food vendors, never mind that we get lost in the odd back alley…
That’s my fault, the flower market is further than I thought from the Grand Palace, and the lack of public transport makes it difficult to travel in the heat. We end up finding Tha Thien pier where we cross the river to Wat Arun, another landmark temple high on the tourists’ lists but we don’t have time for a visit, as we are already running to make the ferry to the flower market.
Pak Klong Taladd is the largest fresh flower market in Bangkok. It is at its busiest in the early hours of the morning, when flower traders from all over the country convene to offload their blossoms in bulk. It is rather sleepy when we arrive mid-morning, we obviously missed the trading action.
But that means a relaxed stroll amongst a kaleidoscope of colours and a heady mix of fragrances from chrysanthemums to orchids.
Behind the markets are dozens of tiny shops, stocked up with fresh produce. Now, this is the busiest I have seen Bangkok so far;
men loading their scooters with bags of fresh garlic,
human sized baskets filled with green leaves,
and chiles shining like jewels, …
I wish I didn’t have a plane to catch so I could follow them. But time is a funny concept here. With a couple of hours to spare, I feel that’s enough to explore Chinatown up the road and possibly fit in some shopping while still returning to the hotel on time. However, Anne reminds me of our propensity to lose ourselves and taking one look at the busy traffic, I decide to be a responsible parent and cautious traveller.
We walk through the Yodpiman River Walk, while waiting for the ferry, which is running late. The complex is relatively new, consisting mainly of tourist shops and a few restaurants.
Not much happens here during the day, the place is almost empty of visitors and after visiting a couple of jewellery shops we end up sitting in the waiting area, being serenaded by the local busker and enjoying the view of Wat Arun across the river.
I think of the many “unmissable” sights we could have fitted in, had we been prepared to hit the ground running faster than we have, but in the end, leisurely watching the world go by on the Chao Phraya seems a pretty fitting conclusion to our relaxing stopover.
A Thai friend, Vida, said before we left “3 days in Bangkok is not enough! ”. Now I know she was right.