Last time I posted about Bangkok, I told you that one night wasn’t enough – and that’s true, so here is part two of my blog about visiting the Thai capital! Last time I spent much of my visit seeing numerous wat (temples) which dot the capital. And to prove that in Bangkok you really can get wat-ever you want, I now turn my focus to the modern city.
Bangkok is a city which straddles the past, the present and in some ways the future. It is still known in Thai by name Krung Thep, which means the ‘city of angels’. This is a shortened version of its full name, which is (deep breath): Krung-devamahanagara amararatanakosindra mahindrayudhya mahatilakabhava navaratanarajadhani puriramya uttamarajanivesana mahasthana amaravimana avatarasthitya shakrasdattiya vishnukarmaprasiddhi. So you can see why Thai people just call it Bangkok or Krung Thep! In case you’re wondering, the full name translates as “The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated God, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarma”. These days, that full name is only ever used on ceremonial occasions. Thais are taught to remember the name by using a song – a bit like the English “alphabet song” which we learn in school. I asked a couple of people if they could say Bangkok’s full name for me, and all of them could do it only by reciting the song! Therefore, Bangkok holds the Guinness World Record for having the longest place name.
Bangkok was once the epitome of the sticky, stinky Asian metropolis. Modern popular culture continues to portray it this way, but here’s a secret they won’t let you in on; the past decade has seen a dramatic facelift which has left Bangkok looking a bit more like Singapore. The air-conditioned Skytrain network (a high capacity monorail) propels commuters over the streets and between gleaming skyscrapers, whisking them from shopping mall to shopping mall. Of
course, the subversive, seedy elements which gave Bangkok its ‘anything goes’ reputation still exist – it’s just that you’re less likely to run late or break a sweat while getting there or away. Two parts Hong Kong and one part Tokyo, served street-side with a fading hint of Jakarta – that’s the Bangkok of today.
It’s also just as likely to be washed down with a frappuccino as coconut juice – American brands feed an increasingly affluent, young and hip population. My first day in the modern Bangkok started and ended at a shopping mall. Paragon, Bangkok’s most upmarket mall, features American brands which haven’t yet made it to Australia, along with fashion boutiques, book shops and a Lamborghini showroom (you know, just in case you wanted to pick up a supercar with your bread and milk). Throughout the air-conditioned corridors, oversexed and spaced-out looking elderly white men were being dragged between the designer shops by young Thai girls, while the vast majority of other locals looked on disapprovingly. By the time I had made it out of Paragon, the heavens had opened up with a tropical downpour. “Pissing down” doesn’t even begin to cover it – sheets of waters curtained us into the centre for about an hour. When I finally made it outside, I realised that with very few exceptions, Bangkokians are much less precious then their other Asian city counterparts. Faced with a puddle on the road, even little Miss Louis Vuitton powers on through it; perhaps through necessity, even precious Bangkok residents seem pragmatic.
That’s not to say that there’s a conflict between the new and the old Bangkoks though – far from it. I stepped into the Platinum mall, a silver-faced shrine to consumerism, to find an upmarket fake goods market. Imagine stepping into the greatest shopping mall facade you’ve ever seen, then finding a flea market inside! This scene was repeated again and again, and rather than being filled with crap, there were actually some really nice (quality!!) clothes there, with seemingly well-to-do locals buying up big. MBK, Bangkok’s foremost mall, is one such place. A couple of independent outlets, a lot of stalls and fake-goods sellers, and all topped off by a spotless international food court and 8 Gold Class Cinemas. Unbelievable!
One afternoon I took a sunset ride on a riverboat, witnessing the atmospheric sunset over temples and skyscrapers. A cruise boat sailed by, with some crazy Thai woman screaming out woeful renditions of Vengaboys hits. That night I went to Khao San Road, the Ground Zero of the backpacker scene in South East Asia (as you may have already guessed, all roads in the region lead back to Bangkok, and all backpacks lead back to Khao San Road!). By the time I had made it halfway down the street, I had already been propositioned, seen gangsters beating each other up while European families stood by and watched with their kids, passed people getting foot massages on the
footpath, seen fake diplomas and drivers licenses for sale, been offered a suit menu, been stabbed in the gut by a pizza box on a motorcycle, been serenaded by Brian McFadden’s greatest hits, seen advertisements for bars offering “very strong cocktails – bucket size – no ID needed!!” and been cut off by an ATM on wheels which parked in front of me. At that point, I could hear the song “(What if God was) One of us?” wafting out of a nearby bar. Note to Joan Osborne – if God was indeed one of us, it’s doubtful that God would appear on Khao San Road. (Then again, weirder things have been witnessed – see above). I wandered back along the street, picking up freshly-cut, super sweet pineapple and delicious fresh mango with sticky coconut rice from the vendors which lined the pavement.
And yes, just like a bad infomercial, don’t go anywhere, there’s more to come! Bangkok Mk III is here!
When to go
December and January – it won’t be too rainy, or too hot, although you will have to share the sights with sundry other holidaymakers. The middle of the year can get very hot and humid.
Culture shock: 5/10
Language difficulty: 4/10
Quality of food: 9/10
Physical demand: 3/10
Advice and warnings
The usual precautions apply – no walking alone at night if you can help it, keep a close eye on your valuables, etc. Be aware of pickpockets, especially in crowded places.
Most Australian passport holders are eligible for a 30-day visa on arrival, free of charge at Bangkok’s airports. Pakistanis must apply to the Royal Thai Embassy in Islamabad; visas cost PKR 4000 and take at least four working days to process. See the website for the list of documents required. Indian passport holders are eligible for a 15-day visa on arrival so long as they can produce the necessary documents on arrival at the airport in Bangkok. For stays longer than 15 days, Chennaikers may contact the Royal Thai Consulate – General in Chennai.
Getting there and around
THAI flies to Bangkok at least once daily from each of Melbourne, Lahore, Sydney and Chennai. All THAI flights arrive and depart from Survanabhumi International Airport (Bangkok’s main airport).
Melbourne (from $1079 return)
Lahore (from PKR 61,759 return)
Sydney (from $1096 return)
Chennai (from INR 23,306 return)
Discount airline Air Asia flies from Melbourne to Bangkok via Kuala Lumpur from $513 return, while Sydney to Bangkok via Kuala Lumpur is from $547 return. Air Asia flies directly from Chennai to Bangkok from INR 10,826 return. Note that Air Asia uses Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok, the older airport which is now popular with discount airlines.
Discount airline Jetstar flies directly from Melbourne to Bangkok with fares starting from $563 return. They operate into the main Bangkok airport at Survarnabhumi.
Taxis in Bangkok are cheap, plentiful and should be metered – if not, then ask the driver to flick it on and they usually oblige. Occasionally a flat rate will be asked for during peak hours – it’s normally around the same, but feel free to shop around if you think you’re being ripped off. The BTS Skytrain and the underground metro system are both excellent, but not really useful for the old city – much better for the shopping areas. To get along the river, consider a riverboat – it’s cheap, scenic, and beats the traffic jams on the roads.