One country that we really wanted to visit this past spring was Thailand – and it seemed at a glance to fit quite well on our path of places from New Zealand to Japan. That said, on closer investigation, the guidebooks suggested that our timeframe of early May would be an uncomfortably hot time to visit, which a coworker from Thailand confirmed. Most of the guidebooks suggest November to March as the best time to visit.
Given that the kids’ school schedules would make it tough to visit during this period (barring Christmas break), and that I’m planning to go back to work relatively soon, I (Jeremy) decided to make a week-or-so-long trip there solo. My goal was to see if it’s a place we’d like to go back to as a family sometime in the future. The fall airfare specials didn’t hurt either.
Transit: Late Wednesday, October 31-Friday, November 2, 2018
It always takes a while to get across the Pacific, even from the US West Coast. A few hours after my kids finished trick-of-treating on Halloween, I got in an Uber Share for my 1am flight. But I didn’t reach Thailand until mid-afternoon on November 2 (almost 2 days later, when including the +15 hour time difference). My hotel in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit district was a short walk from the Sky Train, which meant that I could avoid Bangkok’s Friday evening gridlock to get to the hotel. After that, I had energy for a walk to get a quick bite to eat before sleep deprivation got the better of me.
Unlike many countries we’ve visited, TMobile’s free [throttled] data roaming plan didn’t seem to work on my phone in Thailand (it was supposed to, and is otherwise highly recommended). I ended up picking up a local 1-week tourist SIM card in the airport for $7, though, which worked very well – probably better coverage and speed than at home in many cases.
Saturday, November 3, 2018
After waking up predictably early from jet lag and getting breakfast, I headed towards the core historical sites in the ancient city by the Grand Palace. Instead of taking a taxi, I followed a recommendation to take the Sky Train to the Central Pier (Saphan Taksin stop) and take one of the locals’ orange-flag river ferries to the Grand Palace. The boat ride was worthwhile, though it took me a few stops to get a seat.
Between the Grand Palace dock and its actual entrance were hawkers selling just about everything, so I picked up an inexpensive hat to shield from the warming sun. I rented an audio guide as well on the way in, which was informative, but slightly long-winded.
The actual Grand Palace was a very impressive, with interesting architecture as well as cultural/ceremonial areas. It’s clear that every other visitor to Bangkok also makes a visit, so it’s relatively crowded, but definitely worth visiting. The structures just so different from what I’ve seen elsewhere – it was hard to capture the essence with photos.
One caveat to be aware of is that despite the hot weather (“this is the cool season?”), shorts are not allowed in places with temples, including the Grand Palace. Some people brought sarongs to cover up just in time, but otherwise plan to wear something long and drink lots of water.
Nearby Historical Temples
Next, I walked down the road for a few minutes to Wat Pho nearby, which is a temple with a famous large reclining Buddha. I also walked around the grounds for a while, which were somewhat elaborate.
Since it was almost noon at this point, I considered eating either the street food inside this temple, or one of the restaurants right outside. That said, since a ferry was just about to leave, I decided to take a ferry across the river first to my next destination, Wat Arun, which was on the other side.
After ferrying across the river, I walked a few minutes and found a small restaurant, with a really awesome basil chicken dish. The food here overall seems to be a little “lighter” than the “Thai food” that I’m used to at home (less sweetened, harder to describe). As a plus, the meal was about $2, including a drink.
After lunch, I did explore the Wat Arun temple for a little bit. That said, there were many of preparations going on that I didn’t quite understand. I found out a little later that the King of Thailand was visiting at 3pm for a ceremony, and that this sort of thing only happens infrequently. Fortunately, I was able to mostly finish the visit before the police started closing off the site.
Chatuchak Weekend Market
Given the king’s visit and the impending road closures, I decided to get away from the vicinity, and go to the recommended Chatuchak Weekend Market. I used the “Grab” app (like Uber, but for South East Asia) to get a ride. The 30-40 minute ride across town cost me roughly $8. The ice-cold air conditioning for the duration was refreshing.
The Chatuchak Weekend Market a very worthwhile visit, very vibrant. It was absolutely enormous. I got a bit of street food there, but most of it was stalls of various merchandise. Tons of people were out and about.
By about 4pm, I made it to the other side and rested in neighboring Queen Sirikit Park for a little while, hoping to fight my jet lag with the sunlight there. The vast park was an interesting contrast to the market.
I noticed that the train near the Queen Sirikit Park went to the Siam stop, with a large cluster of malls that were rated well in the guidebooks. As it was nearing sunset, that seemed like a good idea.
The Siam area malls were huge – and it really felt like a major meeting place, with lots of people there, shopping, eating, and just hanging out. One mall seemed to transition to another, with a different theme, and was definitely worth seeing and spending some time there. I ended up getting dinner from a mall food court, which had some tasty food.
From there, I took the Sky Train a few stops back to the hotel and collapsed. One thing about the Sukhumvit neighborhood when I stayed – it’s a good central location to get to transit, but it’s very expat/international, and much less “Thai” than other neighborhoods.
Sunday, November 4, 2018
Today, I decided to take a long walk around Bangkok. Not planning to go to temples where pants would be required, I put on some comfortable (and cool) shorts. In retrospect, I should have taken more taxis, since, per my phone, I walked 18+ miles, and my feet were sore by the end. (Usually, when the 4 of us travel, the boys stop us well before we reach that point). That said, walking gives a unique vantage point to the city.
I started the day walking towards from my hotel in Sukhumvit towards Lumpini Park, a major park in the city. Along the way, I walked by the US Embassy – which I like to see in cities if convenient. While American embassies always seem to be built like fortresses, this one seemed to have the reasonable touch of painted murals about US/Thai relations on the outside.
Anyway, on getting to Lumpini Park, there were lots of people out walking and exercising in the park, as it was Sunday morning. The large ponds seemed to provide a nice respite in the middle of the city, and there were some food stalls around as well. I spent a little while wandering there.
Silom and ferry
From there, I walked through the neighboring Silom district, though Sunday morning was probably not the ideal time to do so, since it is probably more busy on weekdays or evenings, as it is a business/financial area. That said, it wasn’t completely dead, and by 11am, I stopped for an iced drink in a food court near the Central [ferry] Pier. I hopped on the same ferry as the previous day, except this time my goal was to go to Chinatown.
The Chinatown district was amazingly big, and it was a lot more crowded than the pictures below show. The guidebooks suggested getting lost in Chinatown, and I’d recommend it too as a means of exploring and getting a feel of the area. Lots of food, lots of stores and stalls, lots of everything.
I was less organized about lunch than would have been ideal, debating about whether to piece together street food (which looked great) or sitting down somewhere. I did end up sitting down, but having a later lunch than I expected.
From Chinatown, I kept walking back towards the ancient city by the Grand Palace, since there were some sites that I had skipped the previous day. Note: the distances seemed shorter on the map than in real life. That said, I found a few nice places to stop in along the way, including this Saranrom Park:
From there, I went to the nearby Museum of Siam, which described the history of the Thai people and how the Thai culture came to be. Thailand was essentially the only country in the immediate vicinity not colonized by the West, and the exhibits described some of that history as well. Ideally, I would have maybe visited the Thai National Gallery as well, but it was getting a little too close to closing time, and it wouldn’t be open on Monday.
From there, I walked along the other side of places in the ancient like the Grand Palace that I’d seen the other day. After a while, I made it to the famous Khao San road. Khao San road was put on the map by the original waves of hippie backpackers from years past. That said, more recent write-ups seem to suggest that its present is a shadow of its past history. That said, it was worth a walk through.
By this point, it was nearly 5pm, and my feet were quite tired from walking all day. I did, however, stop at the Phra Sumen Fort and sit down by the water for a bit before taking the 30+ minute taxi ride back (again, roughly $8).
After resting my feet at my hotel for a bit, I went to an expat Lebanese restaurant and got a doner kebab for dinner. The main surprise was that the accompanying herbs/vegetables were very fresh, as one would expect in Thai food – it was an an interesting take on a middle eastern dish.
Monday, November 5, 2018
Jim Thompson House
My first stop of the day was to the Jim Thompson House, and it was a very worthwhile visit. It was owned by an American who settled in Thailand after being stationed in the area during WWII, and who later on ran a business to popularize Thai silk around the world. The inside can only be seen on a guided tour, where no photos are allowed. The tour showcased a nice collection of older Thai art and the it was a good showcase for this Thai architecture. While waiting for the tour, the outside gardens were nice as well:
Golden Mountain Temple
From the Jim Thompson house, I took a taxi to the Golden Mountain Temple, which is a temple 300+ steps up a hill, and not too far from the ancient city. There’s a nice view from the top of the surrounding area:
More Ancient City
Coming down the mountain, I decided to just wandered around, using the map, and just found some really interesting monuments as I further explored the area to the east of the ancient city. For instance, here is the “Giant Swing” and the “Monument to Democracy”:
More examples of uniquely Thai architecture that I saw along the way:
Along the way, I found lunch and explored until I was somewhat hot and tired, and felt like I’d seen many of the highlights. By this point, I took a taxi back (30+ minutes again). The late afternoon heat made it much easier to appreciate a a refreshing dip in the hotel pool on the 25th floor:
By the time I swam, showered, rested, and sorted photos a bit, it was closer to 5pm. Since I’d ticked off the highlights, I decided to go back to Siam area malls, where I had dinner and also explored for a while longer.
It felt like 3 days was enough time to get a first pass of Bangkok, and I’d enjoyed the city more than I expected. There’s a nice energy and vibe to the city, with great food, architecture, and an interesting culture. The next day I’d be on to Chiang Mai!