48 Hours In: Bangkok
Great food, superb shopping and a vibrant culture make the Thai capital an ideal gateway for a journey to South-East Asia.
Saturday 16 October 2010
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Why go now?
November to February is Thailand's cool season, making it the ideal time to explore a city that is, for the rest of the year, drenched in rain or sweat. The political climate has calmed down since riots in May, and as traders seek to boost business all kinds of deals abound.
British Airways, Eva Air, Qantas and Thai Airways fly non-stop from Heathrow to Bangkok. There are also dozens of connection possibilities via Europe, the Gulf and Asia. Getting into town from Suvarnabhumi airport, 25km away, is a doddle since the opening in August of the Skytrain, a futuristic railway straight out of The Jetsons, that glides you over the suburbs and into the centre in about 40 minutes. Until January, there is a promotional flat fare of 15 baht (£0.30) each way. The most useful downtown station is Siam (1), at the heart of the Siam Square area.
Get your bearings
The Thai capital sprang up in a kink on the east bank of the Chao Praya river about 220 years ago, in the area now known as Ratanakosin south-west of Khao San Road (2), and hasn't stopped sprawling. The main city is still east of the river, and can be roughly divided into the areas on either side of the central Hualamphong railway station (3): the Grand Palace (4) and Chinatown to the west, and the shopping centres and nightlife of Siam Square (1) to the east.
A pleasing feature – and useful orientation points – are the canals, even if the water tends to be black and rat-infested. These backwaters provide useful, er, rat-runs for locals who pile on to longboat water-taxis that hurtle at alarming speeds.
At the Rambuttri Village Inn (5) at 95 Soi Rambuttri (00 66 2 282 9162; khaosan-hotels.com), 750 baht (£15) buys a simple but immaculate air-conditioned, en-suite double room and access to the rooftop swimming pool. A good mid-market option is the new Lamphu Tree Inn (6) at 155 Wanchat Bridge Phrachatipatai Road in Phra Nakhon (00 66 2 282 0991; lamphutreehotel.com) with rooms from 1,450 baht (£30), also boasting a pool, free Wi-Fi and luxury bathrooms. At the top end are all the big chains, but none beats the Mandarin Oriental (7) at 48 Oriental Avenue (00 66 2 659 9000; mandarinoriental.com/bangkok) for literary connections: Somerset Maugham, Barbara Cartland and Graham Greene have stayed (though not in the same room on the same night). A double without breakfast costs US$394 (£263).
Take a hike ...
... through a cultural phenomenon. Start at the striking Democracy Monument (8), rather lost in a swirl of traffic, and aim west and a touch north to the start of the Khao San Road (2). This is the strangest thoroughfare in Asia: in a street barely 500m long, you can get a tattoo, buy a fake student card, sip at Starbucks, eat a Big Mac, listen to Bob Marley's greatest hits or pick up the latest souvenir – who can resist a T-shirt with a neon panel that pulses in time to whatever disco song is playing?
As an antidote, wander through the grounds of the Victory Temple (9) and make your way to the riverside Santichaiprakam Park (10) – location for the last surviving lumphu tree in this area, which was named Banglumphu because of the erstwhile profusion of them.
Lunch on the run
In Bangkok, the edge of the road isn't a kerb – it's a kitchen, and you are never more than a chopstick away from a street food stall. Plunge into Chinatown and get lost in the chaotic network of traders and food stalls.
For a tourist-free shopping experience in Chinatown, wander across to the streets radiating from 22 July Circle (11), where each road is dedicated to a different specialist trade, from clock-makers to wire wool vendors.
Bangkok is an excellent place to get a bespoke suit made for a very reasonable price. If you seek quality, avoid the countless "two-suit/five-shirt" tourist deals and head for Thanon Charoen Krung (New Road), where A Song Tailor (12) at 8 Trok Chartered Bank (00 66 2 235 3190) makes beautiful suits from a good selection of fabrics. Allow time for several fittings and expect to pay about 6,000 baht (£120), a fraction of the Savile Row equivalent. Buy a cheap suitcase and take home a couple of spares.
Most of the rest of Bangkok's shopping is centred on Siam Square (1), where the slick Paragon Mall just north of the Skytrain station, houses many big-name brands and the labyrinth of small sois (lanes) in the area make for enjoyable browsing.
An apéritif Blow your weekend's food budget for a cocktail with a view: 800 baht (£16) to see the sun set and the city light up. Several Bangkok buildings have rooftop bars, including the 63rd floor of the State Tower (13) at 1055 Thanon Silom. Don't arrive before 6pm or you'll be shown into the inferior of the two bars, Distil. Insist on the Sky Bar, on the other side, where you emerge down a sweeping staircase on to a tiny platform big enough to hold only a bar and a handful of customers, high above the city lights, pretending to be too cool to be impressed.
Dine with the locals
Make up for your apéritif extravagance by economising on dinner. The covered markets offer trestle tables where you can install yourselves and people-watch. One such market is to be found at Soi Saladaeng 2 (14), just south of the Silom complex, which serves a good range of seafood dishes. For something a bit more formal, Yong Lee (15), a Chinese-run place on the corner of Sukhumvit Road and Soi 15, is popular with locals and tourists alike.
Sunday morning: go to a temple
Buddhism is the national religion and is practised by nine out of 10 Thais, who pay their respects at shrines at all times of day. If you see only one temple, or wat, make it Wat Pho (16) – the oldest and biggest in the city. The temple (open 8am-5pm daily; 50 baht/£1; 00 66 2225 9595; watpho.com) is a labyrinth of 35 structures, one of which is the 43m-long reclining Buddha. Wat Pho is also a centre for traditional Thai massage; you can indulge for 220 baht (£3.50) for 30 minutes, or learn massage yourself: see watphomassage.com for the options.
Then go just north to the Grand Palace (4). It was the official residence of Thai kings for nearly two centuries until 1946. You'll find the most important of Thailand's many shrines: the sacred Emerald Buddha – a surprisingly small figure raised on a giant pyramid which draws as many locals as tourists. Cover up and take your shoes off but be sure to sit with your feet tucked behind you to avoid a telling-off. It opens 8.30am-3.30pm daily, admission 200 baht (£4).
Take a ride
The Chao Phraya River Express is a fast, high-frequency antidote to the crowded city streets. Ferries shuttle up and down the river, for example from the Tha Tien pier (17), serving the Royal Palace and Wat Pho, to the Oriental (7) for a flat fare of 14 baht (£0.30). Evidence of Bangkok's proximity to the sea (easily forgettable most of the time) is provided by the giant black barges towed up and down the Chao Phraya, four or five hooked together and pulled by tiny tugs.
Out to brunch
Step out of the boat at the Oriental Hotel (7) and step into 1930s Shanghai: the China House restaurant (00 66 2 659 9000) occupies a colonial building and serves a spectacular weekend brunch. Then seek out the original 19th-century hotel and explore the travel memorabilia decorating its elegant walls.
The Jim Thompson House (18), at the north end of Soi Kasemsan 2 (00 66 2 216 7368; jimthompsonhouse.com), is the former home of an American CIA agent who fell in love with Siam during a wartime tour of duty and stayed on to live in some style. He made a fortune selling Thai silk to the West, after taking a sample to the editor of Vogue, and used the money to buy up six traditional Thai houses, which he relocated to a genteel canal-side site, knocked together and made his home.
The first-floor entertaining rooms evoke the atmosphere of louche expatriate life. Thompson disappeared in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands on Easter Sunday 1967: his body has never been found. Tours run 9am-5pm daily, 100 baht (£2).
A walk in the park
When it all gets too much, head north to Dusit Park – a calm, elegant, spacious area where many government departments are based. Admire the Vimanmek Palace (19), built by King Rama V as a summer retreat and inspired by his visits to Europe. Or drop into the zoo (20), open 8am-6pm daily, 100 baht (£2).
The icing on the cake
If you started the day with a massage, end it the same way. A shoulder or foot rub is a part of the daily routine for many Thai people, and costs as little as 200 baht (£4) for 30 minutes. Parlours with rows of recliners in the window can be found on almost every street, and the standard is high.
A memorable alternative treatment is offered by the fish tanks of Khao San Road (2): a shoal of tiny gara rufa fish will nibble the dead skin off your feet. 100 baht (£2) will buy you 30 minutes, though I lasted only five.
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