What I love most about Bangkok is finding a bargain boutique hotel room and spending a couple of days eating my way along the streets. Pick the right part of town and you’ll find some of the best hot woks and steamy soups that you’ll have in your life. And it happens all over the city, you really can’t go wrong when ordering on the streets of Bangkok.
This is a vibrant city so having a lovely hotel room to recharge your batteries is essential. Bangkok delivers some of the best value in Asia for accommodation, and booking online through sites such as Agoda has made it even more affordable to get the room you want, where you want it.
Food is my favourite activity in this city, along with some shopping for cheap camera gear and being tortured by a tiny Thai lady in the traditional art of massage. But mostly it’s the food. Street eating is my preferred adventure, on the streets of Silom, Sathorn, Phra Ahtit or Yaowarat.
I have some friends at Grasshopper Adventures who run cycling adventures around the city, indeed they were the first to do it. They get away from the crazy traffic and find the quiet little lanes. But you have to like the hot weather, although rolling through the khlongs with a gentle breeze is rather nice. I like them as friends however, as they tell me about the lovely places to try street food!
This part of town is full of embassies and expats, a combination that gives it a slightly gentrified feeling without losing that Thai charm. On the main streets at night the market stalls pop up to crowd the footpath, and on the street corners you’ll find all the usual Bangkok street eats that make me love this city.
Silom is far more relaxed than most of the tourist rich parts of town. Tucked down the smaller lanes are some of the bigger pubs, bars and restaurants, the ones designed to appeal to westerners looking to spend a few dollars instead of save a few cents. This makes Silom a quiet part of town, and yet you can still get cheap eats on the street and find bargain boutique hotels to make your stay affordable and comfortable.
Silom Serene is typical of Bangkok’s ability to provide outdated hotel rooms that are essentially very nice and anything but flashy. They come with genuine service that the big hotel chains make a mockery of, and never charge for WiFi.
The street eats are really good in this area, day or night, but there are also lots of very classy dining options here thanks to the strong ex-pat community. My two favourite ways to class it up in Silom are David Thompson’s Nahm restaurant, for dedicated foodies who want to explore imperial Thai cuisine and serious chili action in the salads, and the Moon Bar at Banyan Tree Bangkok. These are both next door to each other so you can double up for a glamorous night out. Moon Bar offers stunning views of the city from up high, but is very very popular and you need patience to get a seat. The cocktails are worth the wait however.
When the new subway station opens in Chinatown this neighbourhood will finally be easy to reach by tourists, but for now you need to battle with taxi drivers or tuk tuks to get in and out of Yaowarat. Or do what I did and spend a few nights actually staying in the middle of it all.
Shanghai Mansion is the best kind of boutique hotel, modest from the outside and stylish on the inside. The rooms are modest in size but big on charm. It’s a quiet haven from the intensity of the streets outside. At night time the lights of Yaowarat come to life and the streets fill with food stalls, some Thai and some Chinese and all of it delicious.
We were lucky to pick up a copy of a really good guide book for Yaowarat, written by a former traffic cop who spent his life on the streets of Chinatown. He’s whittled down a list of 100 of the best street foods and it makes for a compact and accurate companion when visiting. We discovered the best fish ball soup I’ve had in my life and went crazy over the crab noodles at Odean. We also ate a small village worth of Mango Sticky Rice, old habits die hard.
The Chao Praya is lined with some great hotels and stunning views. It’s worth spending a few nights in Bangkok to experience this side of the city, and makes it easy to utilise the river ferries to skip up to the Buddha Market and Wat Po sightseeing.
Behind the river itself, anywhere near a ferry terminal or skytrain station, you’ll find great street stalls in indulge in, My favourite riverside stay is actually a block back from the water at Lebua State Tower. They over do the service at times but breakfast is dynamite and the views are stunning. The rooftop bar is also one of Bangkok’s best scenic spots.
My favourite part of staying on the Riverside is quick access to Prachak, the best Thai-Chinese restaurant in the city. Crab meat and wontons meet roast duck and egg noodles. It’s a winner and easy to find on Google Maps.
The parts of town that I prefer to avoid in Bangkok are of course the busiest. Khao San Road has matured a little over the years, once a seedy backpacker enclave full of drunk Australians, it’s now an *ageing* seedy backpacker enclave full of drunk Australians *and* Europeans. This part of town does have lots of budget accommodation but really the better value is elsewhere in town.
If you want to hang out with the loud people, head for Khao San, otherwise there are some great little streets just away from the bars. Phra Athit has the river on one side and Kao San on the other, and you’ll find some of the best variety of cuisine in town from dedicated fish restaurants, cute little cafes and the usual street stalls at night.
Sukhumvit pretty much exists to service the city’s demand for beer, bars and blow jobs. At night the streets are rife with those kinds of tourists who give Australia a bad name. I’ve made the mistake of trying out hotels in this area a few times and usually regretted it. The pity is that there are some cute little boutique hotels and yummy eats once you get off the main strip, and lots of residential apartments for ex-pats and Thai people, but it’s pretty obvious what most of the visitors here are interested in.
This is the heart of shopping in Bangkok and a central location for the BTS and subway services. There are lots of hotels around here too if you want a shopping holiday, but if you head too far east the seedy side of Sukhumvit becomes obvious. Stay classy Bangkok. If you want some fair priced clothes or electronics, head for MBK. If you want fashion labels, head for Siam Paragon. If you want some attitude, hop down the line to Emporium. If you get worn out from shopping there are lots and lots of genuine massage places on the side streets here, the kind that will twist you into knots in true Thai style.
Traditional massage in Thailand is a twist on therapeutic torture. A tiny lady applies pinpoint pressure to various parts of your body while contorting your limbs like a pretzel. And it’s great.
My advice for Thai Massage is to have a proper session that lasts for 90mins or longer so they can work through the entire procedure. Immense training and skill goes into this massage form as they work carefully along your body to identify muscles that need work. Elbows, knees and forearms are mostly used my the masseur to apply force.
Relaxation massage is easy to find around town if you want a little oil and a rub down, but the Thai Massage begins by changing into billowy pyjamas (usually Thai fishermans pants and a traditional shirt). It’s not a naked affair and is entirely respectable. So gents, please give it a go. A decent Thai massage is not just for the ladies.
The more expensive your hotel the more upmarket the street price will be for a massage. Five star hotels typically charge around $120 per hour for massage treatments and spa, but step across the road and you’ll get equally therapeutic attention without the frangipani incense for $20 an hour. Any shopping malls will have massage shops too, most do the full body twist instead of just a foot rub or neck and shoulders.
Bangkok is that kind of place that makes you sad you can only eat three meals a day. It’s a city for food lovers, and in my view the street eats are the best way to enjoy Bangkok. I’ve heard people say they’re too scared to eat off the streets, in case they get sick. That’s paranoia and it’s bollocks. Thai people pride themselves on fresh food, only the good stuff. The locals only eat fresh, this is why street food is such a winner. You see your meal being prepared on the spot, hot off the grill, hot off the coals and hot out of the boiling pot.
To explore more about what makes the street eats so great, have a read of Iron Chef Shellie’s posting about Bangkok food.
Ironchef Shellie / Street Eats Bangkok
TravelFish / Best Guide to Bangkok on the Web
Yaowarat Street Foods / Book
Lebua State Tower
Banyan Tree / Saffron / Vertigo
Nahm / David Thompson
Grasshopper Day Trips