Travel: city breaks: 48 hours in the life of Bangkok

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The Independent Online
You need a break - and a short-cut to the soul of a city. Each week, `The Independent' provides a prescription for the perfect weekend break. This week, Simon Calder spends a 48-hour stopover in the Thai capital.

Why go now?

Pragmatically, because January finds steamy Bangkok at its coolest (though this is a relative term). Financially, because meltdown in the Far East means prices have been halved in the last six months. Spiritually, because serenity can still be found within a frenetic city of six million.

Beam down

The cheapest non-stop flights that I could find are on Eva Air for pounds 469 return from Heathrow, booked through World Plus (0181-771 0218). If you are prepared to change planes in Prague, then Flightbookers (0171-757 2444) has a fare of pounds 340 from London or Manchester on Czech Airlines.

Bangkok is, of course, a popular stopover on trips to Australia; Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322) has a fare of Alitalia via Rome of pounds 624 return to Melbourne, if you book by next Saturday.

Get your bearings

The runway at Don Muang airport has been there since 1912, making it the oldest airfield in the world that still has the same location. Thankfully the terminal buildings have been enhanced over the years, and new arrivals are given some protection from the touts that used to converge.

Unless you arrive during the morning rush-hour, the easiest way into town is probably a metered taxi, a relatively new invention. Including tolls on the expressway, you will pay around 300 baht for the ride - which, at yesterday's rate of exchange, is about pounds 2.50. In rush-hour, you'd be better off following the signs to the train.

Watch out for ...

Food and drink offered by strangers, as it may be drugged, according to this month's travel advice from the Foreign Office. It continues: "The standard of driving is poor and there have been several fatal bus crashes on Thailand's roads in the past few months."

Check in

The parsimonious will head straight for Khao San Road, the 500-metre long Westerners' street just east of the Democracy Monument. As well as travel agencies and shops selling counterfeit fashions, you can find backpackers' bunks for as little as pounds 1. But on a short stay, you owe it to yourself and the people of Thailand to splash out a bit. My favourite is the faded chic of the Royal Hotel (00 66 2 222 9111), just south of Khao San Road, where a perfectly comfortable double room with television costs pounds 15 a night.

For luxury, it is hard to beat the Oriental (00 66 2 236 0400), overlooking the river south of the railway station, which this week is offering rooms with views for pounds 150 a night.

Take a ride

Whether or not you reside at the Oriental, liberate yourself from Bangkok's choking streets and board a riverbus. These gallant vessels zip up, down and across the Chao Praya river, yielding views that make sense of a city that often feels overwhelming. Go ashore at Thewet, on the east bank in the north of the city. Less favourable forms of transport include the tuk-tuk (to imagine these screechy three-wheelers, cross a Reliant Robin with a bus shelter) and the back seat of a taxi-bike, usually a decrepit Honda 100.

Take a hike

From the boat station, go east to the relative calm of the Ambara Garden. But be warned that "Bangkok" and "nice walk" do not sit easily in the same sentence.

Lunch on the run

The present parlous economic state means you can get a fine, instant bowl of noodles and vegetables from one of the capital's zillion roadside food vendors for as little as 10 pence. Eat plenty and often; you deserve it, and so do they.

Cultural afternoon

The Grand Palace is a mandatory call for every visitor, a fabulous concoction of architecture so intense that it looks like a Hollywood film set. Note that it closes for the day early (3.30pm), and dress - as you should everywhere in Bangkok - with decorum.

Window shopping

Bangkok is the bargain basement of the world at present, and you can barely walk along a street without encountering a retail frenzy. For dramatic sights and smells, explore the lanes around Chinatown (mainly south of Charoen Krung Road, stretching down to the river). For the keenest clothing prices, try Pratunam Market (east of the city centre) - though most Westerners end up paying a bit over the odds and picking everything up in the relative calm of Khao San Road.

An aperitif

Pratunam Market also tees you up neatly for the ideal sunset view - from the Sky Lounge at the top of Baiyoke Tower (00 66 2 252 3890). The whole outrageous sprawl transforms itself as you sip your Singha beer, a bargain at pounds 1.40.

Demure dinner

You could stay put at the top of the tower, but an even more alluring place to dine is the Oriental Hotel - and you can choose from seven restaurants, from Thai to Italian. Make do with local beer rather than imported wine, and the final bill will be approximately halved.

Sunday morning: go to church

Among Bangkok's hundreds of temples, one wat stands out: Wat Po, which commands a vast block south of the Grand Palace. You may well spend most of the day at the city's biggest and oldest temple, drifting around grounds adorned with exquisite sculptures, and admiring the 46-metre reclining Buddha. But the main draw is a massage at the Thai Traditional Medical School in the temple grounds. For pounds 2 or so, you can undergo an hour's comprehensive pounding. Don't underestimate the pain this involves; but there is no better cure for jet lag and other aviation ailments. You'll be in fine fettle for your onward flight.

The icing on the cake

If you have never been in a first-class lounge at any airport, Bangkok is the place to try it. Holders of even the dodgiest economy ticket can buy their way in. Just through passport control in Terminal 1, you'll see the Louis Tavern - a sumptuous subterranean bolt-hole where graceful staff bring a constant flow of chilled drinks to your deep leather armchair. Two hours of this treatment is much more comfortable than the Wat Po massage - and a darn sight cheaper, at 600 baht (about pounds 7).

A cut-price alternative is the Food Centre, in the passageway between International and Domestic terminals. With two dozen stalls preparing fresh dishes to order, this is possibly the finest, and certainly the cheapest, airport catering establishment in the world.

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