48 hours in Bangkok
Emerald Buddahs, sizzling satay and tuk-tuk rides add up to a heady Thailand trip. By Jeremy Cripps
Saturday 31 July 1999
Bangkok in the summer is noisy, hot and smelly, but scratch beneath its grimy surface and you'll find several good reasons to plan a trip now. Low-season air fares and, occasionally, reduced room rates are two such reasons, although the popularity of Alex Garland's The Beach means that Thailand isn't likely to have much of a quiet season this year. Even if you don't fancy following the crowds, at least drop by for a quick but expert stopover massage en route to other destinations in Asia or Australia.
Non-stop flights between Heathrow and Bangkok are operated by British Airways, Eva Air, Qantas and Thai International. Do not buy direct from the airlines; hundreds of agents will sell you cheap tickets on dozens of airlines between the UK and Bangkok. The cheapest non-stop deals are likely to be on Eva Air, while connecting flights for even less are available on Balkan via Sofia or Biman Bangladesh via Dhaka. Bridge the World (0171- 911 0900) has a fare of pounds 551 on Kuwait Airways.
Stroll around the glittering Grand Palace
SUNDAY MORNING GO TO...
...the waterfront for a boat ride down the city's khlongs (canals). The skinny long-tailed boats can be rented from piers and platforms up and down the waterfront, and a tour from Tha Thien pier behind Wat Pho (12) will cost around 270 baht (pounds 5) per person per hour. Manoeuvred expertly along the narrow khlongs, this is an exciting, if sometimes dirty (thanks to smutty splashes), way to travel and you can choose an itinerary to suit. One of the most popular routes is to head out to the waterfront temples, the Royal barges and, for those with strong constitutions, the snake farm at Thonburi (13). On the way back, watch out for giant catfish thrashing about for food in the water and children waving cheekily from their homes on the water's edge.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
Jim Thompson's house (Soi Kasem San 2, Thanon Rama 1) (14) is built in traditional Thai style but nestles away near the glamour and modernity of Siam Square. Jim Thompson was an American silk trader who mysteriously disappeared in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia in 1967. Today, the airy rooms of his house - which is an unusual architectural amalgamation of all the best bits from various characterful Thai houses - are a welcome retreat in the steamy height of summer. Visit to gaze at the hundreds of pieces of art and furniture that Thompson collected on his trips around Asia, then stroll into the gardens. Set overlooking a quiet khlong, this is the ideal spot to escape from the rest of the city. If you want to hear more of his story, take a tour for 100 baht (about pounds 2).
TAKE A RIDE
Tuk-tuks, the converted motorbike taxis that race up to three passengers at a time through the busy city streets, are a good way to ride in Bangkok. Hold on tight as they race from light to light. In the evening, ask your driver to zip you up to the notorious red-light district, Pat Pong (11). For many people, this is merely another stop on a tourist itinerary, and those with more modest dispositions can amble through the area's interesting night market to stock up on souvenirs: gilt embroidery, handicrafts, fake designer clothes and watches. If you feel seduced by the bass blaring out of the bars that line the market and the glimpse of a go-go dancer gyrating around a pole, sober up with the thought that the rate of HIV infection among those working in Thailand's sex industry is extremely high.
Chilli monsters will love Thai food; the eye-watering lemon-grass salads, Thom Yum soups, and green chicken curries that have seized space on so many modern British menus are even better in their home territory. Milder palates can usually find noodles and Chinese-style dishes in restaurants, and vegetarian diners bored of oyster sauce can opt for delicious Indian dishes at the Gaylord Restaurant, tucked away on Chakrapong Road in Banglamphu. Alternatively, go for a graze among the street vendors for delicious bargain satay-stick snacks and bags of fresh pineapple and watermelon. For something a bit more special, make your way to the seafood market off Silom Road (10). Here you can choose your selection of fresh king prawns, red snapper and lobster - and have it served up (either barbecued or cooked in garlic or chilli sauce) as your prefer, either outside in the heat or tucked away in the air-conditioned restaurant. Expect to pay up to 800 baht (pounds 15) a head for a serious seafood fest.
Forget the gentle approach to exploring a city's sights. If you haven't got much time in Bangkok, head straight to the golden spires and the Emerald Buddha (which sits grandly guarded by huge demon sentinels) of the Grand Palace (3). For an entrance charge of 125 baht (pounds 2.50) and an extra but worthwhile investment in an English-speaking guide (it'll cost about pounds 3), you can entertain yourself for hours with the intricate and shimmering murals that depict Thai history. Only part of the palace complex is open to visitors - the rest still functions as a formal palace - and it does get busy. The king is revered by the Thais (you'll probably see his portrait hanging in nearly every shop and restaurant in Bangkok) so, accordingly, you are expected to dress appropriately. That means trousers or long skirts only - no shorts or flip-flops - and, if you turn up in a vest top, you'll be given a loud Seventies shirt to wear - very Wallpaper.
If you're after the most legendary place to sip Cosmopolitans or swirl martinis, you're probably best advised to stake out a bar stool at the Bamboo Bar at the Oriental (00 66 2 236 0400) (7). The music is good too. On some evenings, this exceedingly swish spot also doubles as a popular jazz venue. Otherwise, those with more down to earth tastebuds, will enjoy the Singha beers and pool at Gulliver's and Susie's - both on Khao San road (2) (the latter is popular with Thais as well as the visiting backpackers).
In fact, despite its grungy image, this street is now busy smartening itself up, and many of the bars and restaurants look clean and attractive, a far cry (though no doubt influenced by the money the book has brought the area) from the legendary sleazy traveller's ghetto featured in The Beach.
Get around by boat on the Chao Praya river
GET YOUR BEARINGS
There is a helpful Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) booth at the airport (1) which provides maps of the city and general advice. Most areas of interest (including the travellers' ghetto, Banglamphu (2), the Grand Palace (3), Chinatown (4), the glamorous shops of Siam square (5) and temples such as Wat Pho (6) lie to the east of a curvaceous kink in the Chao Phraya River (itself one of the most convenient means of transportation), but the city has a web-like quality that can make it difficult to get a sense of direction.
Service is one of Thailand's strong points, and attentive hotel staff, eager to demonstrate their hospitality, are one of the reasons to visit. For a glamorous break, try the famous Oriental (00 66 2 236-0400) (7). Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Noel Coward - and Babs Cartland - have all snoozed at this regally sited hotel overlooking the river. Rooms start at US$190 (pounds 125). Or try the sleek Beaufort Sukhothai (00 66 2 287 0222) (8), its minimalist Asian interiors designed by the same architect as Phuket's famed Amanpuri hotel. Rates start from around $143 (pounds 90) per person per night. Alternatively, book into one of the hotels around Sukhumvit Road (9) and Siam Square (5) and expect to pay between 800 and 1600 baht (around pounds 15-pounds 30) for a decent double room. If you're on a tight budget, head for the guest houses of Khao San Road in Banglamphu (2). Rooms here cost between 100 and 300 baht (around pounds 2-pounds 6), but be warned that some are little more than cells with a fan. For something more respectable, the Sawasdee Guest House (00 66 2 281-8138) on Rambutri Road has recommended rooms with balconies for 250 baht (pounds 5).
TAKE A HIKE
Wat Pho (6), a sacred temple that houses a famous Reclining Buddha, makes a great starting point for a stroll. The lethargic-looking Buddha literally fills the building (his feet alone are at least three metres long), while devoted visitors light candles and incense or buy tokens to drop charitably into the line of bowls behind him. Spiritually soothed, head outside to the gardens for some air, and then enjoy a massage before you leave (there may be quite a wait). Wat Pho is one of the country's top schools of traditional Thai massage and you can be pamperingly practised on for 220 baht (pounds 4) per hour (with or without hot herbs).
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Once you've been pulled and pummelled into shape at Wat Pho, work up an appetite with a stroll into nearby Chinatown (4). If you're not put off by the smell of drying fish and squid (both are local specialities), choose from the mass of tempting food stalls that line the streets and guzzle down on some healthy noodle soup. For little more than pounds 1, you can fill your stomach among all the market activity and then work off your extra pounds in the nearby Thieves Market.
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