10 Things I Like About Bangkok
As there seems to be an emphasis lately on what’s bad / wrong / getting worse in Bangkok, I thought I’d list things I like about the great city. Nothing controversial or insightful – just a quickly dashed-off list. Outside of the bar scene and ‘naughty’ night-life, there’s actually stuff to do in Bangkok. While there’s no small appeal to these former jewels, there are other aspects to the city that are pleasurable and attractive: (Note: I’m anything but wholly accurate, so pick me up on the details, but that’s not the point of my submission.)
1. Bar Service: Go-go, beer bar, western-style bar or high-end lounge or hotel bar. In these places, Bangkok employs a novel approach: you, the customer, sit right where you are…and they come to you, take your order and bring you the drinks with a running total bill. You pay at the end! Bill-padding and bringing wrong change all goes on, but the mere fact that you don’t have to queue for your own drinks is a great thing. Appreciated even more when you leave Bangkok / Thailand and this service is not there!
2. Sports Coverage: Whatever sports you are into (save bullfighting – Ko Samui has buffalo fights!) it's fairly easy or at least possible to find a bar – somewhere – that shows it. UK Premiership Soccer is pretty much wall-to-wall, F1 Grand Prix, Golf, Tennis, Cricket etc. ‘Bullshit’ you may say, but I’m an occasional visitor and found them all without even trying. There’s often a good atmosphere in places showing sports during major tournaments. The locals get on board, supporting their favourite ‘second nations’ – with lots of Thais wearing their adoptive countries’ sports strip. God, the Thai women look cute in those football shirts. <Half of Isaan seems to have WBA shirts and I am not sure what that is all about – Stick> NASCAR? Gullivers! UFC? I know just the place. Crown Green Bowls? Follow me, Geoffrey Just don’t ask me where to watch Rugby League – weirdoes. (Borat-style thumbs-up) ‘Is Naaiiice!’
3. Ice Cream Parlours: Svennsens, Baskin Robbins, New Zealand Natural, etc. Loads of these chain ice-cream parlours everywhere in the malls of Silom and Chidlom / Siam. Cheap, good service, loads of flavours, and staffed by jasmine jail-bait in miniskirts. Girls work here too. If I lived here, I would be the size of a houseboat – entirely due to my Svennsens-guzzling habit. Apparently the parlour makes for a good date with your Thai ‘good girl’ and attendant chaperone ($$$) but what would I know? One time I was in Svennsens in Silom and there were about 15 girls in Svennsens uniform sitting at old-style school desks at one end of the shop taking some sort of written exam. Nearly drowned in my ice-cream float from laughing.
4. Wat Arun & Wat Pho: There’s a serenity to these places in the late afternoon that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else in the world. Even when busy with sightseers, there isn’t the sense of urgency to ‘keep moving’ like there is in Wat Phra Khaew (fabulous for other reasons) and it's easy to steal off to a deserted courtyard or quadrant, find a bit of shade and absorb the surroundings and atmosphere with utter contentment. Climbing the main Prang (spire) of Wat Arun affords, in my opinion, the best view in all of Bangkok. And seeing the reclining Buddha in Wat Pho is one of those genuine ‘wow’ moments.
5. River Boat Taxis: The Public Taxis (orange flag) traversing the Chao Praya river charge about 13 baht to go from one end of the line to the other. They can get crowded but there’s loads of space once you get the hang of them, stop being shy, and move down as room allows. They’re ideal for north-south travel and there’s no way I would sit in mid-day traffic if I was going between Silom and Khao San with this alternative available.
The Tourist Taxis (yellow flag) are an ‘express version’ of the orange flag boats in that they miss out certain minor or non-tourist-popular stops. About 20 baht, they also include a tour-guide commentary which is often eccentric and sometimes hilarious. One tubby, camp young announcer has me shaking with laughter whenever I get on his boat – public transport shouldn’t really be this much fun?!
6. Young Thais: No, I haven’t gone all Gary Glitter here. Let me explain: As you encounter young people around the city, you’ll notice that most of them behave in a civil and polite manner that is an absolute credit to their nation. I observe their behaviour in malls and on the Skytrain with admiration. Of course there are the exceptions, but these are a tiny minority compared to what you experience in the West. I was approached during the day in Siam Square by a group of students wanting to interview me for their studies. It was all good-natured and they welcomed and even encouraged my corrections to English grammar, etc. When they finished, they all wai’d in unison – about 15 of them. I was surprised to find I had a lump in my throat!
7. BTS Skytrain and MRT: Cheap, fast, efficient and reliable. ‘You wouldn’t say that if you had to use them during the AM rush hour’ I was told. I’ve since had reason to do that several times– and still think they are 100 times more bearable than the London or NY subways. This is made possible by the fact that most Thais are more polite and patient in crowded situations than their Western counterparts. (notice a pattern here?) These networks are also modern and have had the inefficiencies of older metro networks ‘engineered out’ of them. Lots and lots and lots of eye-candy as well. However, the yelps and screeches of the audio adverts really does grate on the nerves!
8. Walking: Perhaps I’m a bit touched in the head, but…seriously. It helps if you don’t mind walking in the first place, and can forget dashing about in a pointlessly frenetic manner. Once you do this, walking the streets and sois becomes an enlivening – even fascinating – experience. There’s much to see and you notice a great deal more when you take in the city on foot. Odd neighbourhoods and surprises can lurk around the next corner – discover a large cheap covered food hall, huge deserted temples, a Japanese neighbourhood, a coffin-shop ghetto…the haven of an ornate public garden where you didn’t expect to find one…plus there’s the countless cast of offbeat characters populating the streets and by-ways. Generally very safe to walk around as well, even when you veer off the main drags. Personally, I love some of the sois off Sukhumvit and Chitlom…Grand houses, a shady and peaceful canal…the odd restaurant springs up from no-where…someone calls out ‘welcome, sir’. There’s worse ways to spend an afternoon…
9. Lumphini Park: Got to be my favourite place in the world to go jogging. From about 5 PM onwards the runners and joggers hit the 2.5 km path around the perimeter of the park. Everyone runs in the same anticlockwise direction (bar the odd West-coast textbook liberal) and the views over the lakes with the Silom skyscrapers looming overhead are great. I’m not going to say running is easy in Bangkok – I used to be a middle-distance athlete and even I struggle, sweating like an escapee rapist crawling past San Quentin’s sniper tower – but if you take it easy and just do what you can, listen to your body to slow down or stop, and have a drink handy at the end, the Bangkok runner’s high is hard to beat. The heat is also good for the muscles – no pulls or strains here! Avoid starting your run between about 5.40pm and 6pm though, otherwise you’ll be expected to stop for the anthems when they’re played over the loudspeakers at 6pm sharp! (Borat-style bow) ‘Yoshimessh’
10. The King: I read a brief account of Thai history and the Royal Family. One thing I now greatly admire is that the Thais, for all their problems, have at least one institution they believe in and trust unquestioningly. It is touching to see their regard for their King and I for one am happy to stand while the anthems play at 6pm. They have a common ideal. Sadly, we often can’t say the same…
I know I’m cheating here…but couldn’t possibly omit…
11. FOOD: Where do you start and where do you end? It’s immediately obvious when you arrive in Bangkok that eating is considered a national sport and the choices on offer are simply bewildering. Thai food – it’s not like Thai food outside Thailand. Western versions pale in comparison. Seafood and Pork is king. Duck noodles are divine. Pad Kee Mao – spicy flat-wide noodles with pork and veg are a marvel. Fried Chicken and cashew nuts – not the limp stuff you get at home – but strident flavours from simple constituents. In the UK we have a ridiculous ‘chef culture’ – with professionals and amateurs regularly weeping with joy on TV when they pull off a simple dish in a contest. What would those teenagers in MBK food-hall make of it all – while standing behind their woks and cooking up a storm with their eyes shut? Speaking of Fried Chicken, go to Polo Fried Chicken, order quarter or half with sticky-rice and tell me that’s not the best fried rooster you ever ate. Hell, even the street it’s on is named after the place! (Soi Polo, off Th Witthayu) One time in here, I got an invite from a middle-class Thai family to come with them to their home out near Suvarnabumni and meet their daughter (not present). Politely declining on this offer might be my biggest regret, if the looks of her sister were anything to go on.
Western Food – this can be great, too, and it’s all here if you want it. Debates rage over where to get decent pizza in Bangkok. Even when it’s bad, I think it’s ok. Italian and French restaurants are numerous and many are outstanding. Great burgers and steaks can be had – again heated discussions rage – it’s all good doing the research for yourself. Then there’s Japanese and Chinese – no end of quality outlets in Bangkok. There are culinary gaps – Mexican for instance – I won’t lie and say you can get South/West-Coast US standard Tex Mex, but even here there are options. I’ll happily stuff my face in Sunrise Tacos as I zig-zag back up Sukhumvit from…er…a business meeting in Washington Square. (Borat thumbs) ‘Great Success!’
Street food – can be daunting but there’s nothing to fear from the recognisable stuff. Fried chicken again – absolutely heavenly – how much delight can you fit in a small plastic bag? Isaan-style spicy sausages – once you start on these, you’ll go on quests to find that stall you bought those ones from that time that were better than all the others but the cart has moved and you’re sure that woman there was the same one…