I have been to Bangkok numerous times. This marks at least our 5th trip to the city. You would think I would be an expert on Bangkok travel by now. Instead, my arrival in this tourist mecca of Southeast Asia continues to instill nervousness and a little bit of fear. Bangkok travel is something that continues to mystify me.
I am comfortable in Singapore, it is hard not to be. It is easy, with English speakers, clean, and accessible in every way. Now, that I have spent more time in Kuala Lumpur I feel confident about getting around. Again, though, it is a modern city, with decent English accessibility, and an easy to read language. I have spent so much time in bustling Hanoi that it does not take me long to orient myself and find my favorite spot for a coffee, pho, or our favorite beer garden.
But, Bangkok intimidates me still.
Bangkok was our first city in Southeast Asia, back in 2006, when we also traveled to Chiang Mai. Back when we had jobs and I had a bright future in the law, we stayed at the Royal Orchid Sheraton and the Peninsula Bangkok, both located on the Chao Phraya River, which became our main road as we traversed the tourist sights of town, meandering through Chinatown, seeing the National Palace and the famous reclining Buddha. We found a decent restaurant combined with a nice day spa near the Sheraton and ate several meals there. It was where Eric fell in love with his favorite Thai dish – ground pork with basil and chili.
I loved everything about Thailand immediately – the Buddhist temples, the polite wai greeting, the reverence to the King, whose picture is plastered everywhere, the colorful tuk tuks. This was true when we were exploring Chiang Mai as well as Bangkok. But, what did we really know about the city? What did we really know about Bangkok travel?
Perhaps we did ourselves a disservice by staying at Western hotels, but for our first visit to Asia, and with a virtually unlimited budget, it seemed like the thing to do. We were Asia novices.
When we returned in 2009, we were still “new” to Asia. We landed after our tour of Australia and New Zealand, and felt like we were exploring Asia for the first time all over again.
We stayed at the Westin Bangkok, using points. Back then we had a ton of them. Eric had his SPG Platinum status and we were whisked to the executive lounge, offered free breakfast and happy hour, with cocktails and food. We found a food court next door, attached to the grocery store, and ate several meals there. For some reason, we did not explore the food stalls and markets nearby. I am not sure why. Perhaps it was the free meals twice a day.
We walked along Sukhumvit Road, and even explored Soi Cowboy, a big mistake. We hit a few malls, and that is about it. After all, we had seen almost all the tourist sites in 2006.
We returned to the same Westin several weeks later during another stop over, and were back at our old habits. Enjoying the lounge, the air conditioning, television, and internet – all the things a long term traveler craves, in an entirely clean and sterile environment.
This brings us to our fifth time in Bangkok, still feeling like relative newbies. Granted, our prior trips have only been for 2 or 3 nights at a time, which is not a lot of time to explore a city like Bangkok.
There is a valid reason why Bangkok intimidates me – it is big, sprawling, busy, loud, dirty, congested, and has loads of traffic. This time, during our one night in Bangkok as we connected from Bali to Koh Phangan, we decided to take the bull by the horns, as best we could, in such a short amount of time – a little more than 12 hours at the hotel.
We explored the food stalls nearby, waiting in the rain for crispy, grilled rice cakes, freshly made green papaya salad, Halal fried chicken, and the go to favorites – Pad Thai and mango with sticky rice. We continued to play it safe. I am not even sure if Pad Thai is a real Thai dish, or one made for tourists and export consumption, like beef and broccoli at a Chinese restaurant. I still feel like I know so little about real Thai food, although we ate Thai at least once a week back in DC. But for us, we pulled the bandaid off.
We walked the stalls on Sukhumvit Road for a few blocks surrounding the Aloft Bangkok hotel, where you can buy everything from vibrators, to gay porn, and Viagara – all from somebody on the street, and I am sure entirely authentic. There were typical souvenirs for sale, but also sun glasses, shoes, lighters, electronics, and sexy underwear. We finally saw the Westin in the distance and felt better about recognizing a place – it always makes me feel better about returning to a city when I can recognize someplace I have been to before.
We left in the morning to head back to Don Mueang Airport. When we return to the city in a week, we will be staying a full 7 nights in a serviced apartment, away from Sukhumvit and away from the Chao Phraya. I hope to finally explore the city in more depth, to hopefully eliminate the nervousness. I will conquer this city!