a short stay in... Bangkok
Forget traffic and building sites: the economic crisis has made the Thai capital more civilised. By Natalie Bennett
In recent years, Bangkok has been placed into many travellers' "too- hard" file. Fearing the infamous traffic, the pollution and the rampant construction industry, they have chosen to flee to the southern beaches or the cultural north. Yet by doing so, they have missed some of the key sights of Thailand, and an essential part of its character.
With the economic crisis the traffic has lessened, the level of pollution has fallen as building has ground to a halt, and Bangkok has become a far more accessible place. The exotic temples, the colourful markets and the great restaurants are now back on the travel map.
When to go
The best time to visit is November to February. This is the "cool" season, with daily top temperatures of around 30C and moderately cool nights. April and the first half of May are to be avoided (the peak of the hot season), as are August and early September, when there are often floods.
TravelSelect (www.travelselect.com) offers a Finnair flight via Helsinki for pounds 398, but recommends going direct by Eva Air for pounds 460. Travel Trade Consultants (tel: 0171-434 1681) offers a Kuwait Airlines flight for pounds 395, until 9 December. Thai Airways flights before the Christmas peak cost pounds 525.
Meter taxis are the easiest way to get around; avoid taxis parked outside hotels and tourist sites. By meter, the cost across Bangkok is unlikely to exceed 150 baht (pounds 2). From the airport into town should cost around 300 baht. Few drivers speak English, so get your destination written down in Thai. If you get a driver you like, try to arrange a day rate - around 1,200 baht is reasonable. If you are staying near the river, the regular ferry services are a good way to avoid traffic.
What to see and do
Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace This is the very centre of Thai national and ceremonial life. The wat (temple) is also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Buddha itself is a bit disappointing, only around 75cm tall, but the overall setting is magnificent, with colourful murals, acres of gold, and ornate decoration in every crevice. There are also a number of museums in the grounds. Foreign visitors must be "appropriately dressed" (ankles and elbows covered). Entrance is 125 baht and the complex is open from 8.30am to 11.30pm and 1pm to 3.30pm daily. The ticket for the palace also covers the Vimanek Teak Mansion, to the north, although you do not have to visit on the same day. A curious mix of Western and Thai from the turn of the century, set in lovely gardens, it is well worth the trip.
Wat Pho Most famous for its enormous reclining Buddha, this temple also has many other features to explore - look out for the wonderful Chinese-style carvings and the curious statues of European visitors in top hats. The centre for teaching of Thai massage, Wat Pho, features the cheapest and arguably the best massage service in Bangkok, although if you want air-con luxury you have to go elsewhere. Loose clothing is also preferable, as you don't get the pyjamas available elsewhere. Entrance costs 10 baht and the temple is open between 8am and 5pm daily, although the ticket booth is closed from midday to 1pm. Just across the river by ferry is the unique Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), its decoration largely made from broken porcelain. It is open the same hours and also a must- see.
Chinatown Off Yaowarat and Ratchawong Roads, Bangkok's Chinatown is not as "authentic" as, say, Kuala Lumpur's, the local Chinese community being more integrated into Thai life. But if you want the classic crowded, smelly, messy, exciting Asian market scene, this is the place to go. It shades almost indistinguishably into the traditional Indian quarter, Pahurat, which specialises in fabric and clothing. The Indian restaurants are also well worth checking out for a change in flavours.
Lumphini Park At the corner of Silom and Rama IV roads, this is where Thai joggers, aerobics practitioners, weight-lifters and Tai Chi aficionados let off steam. Best time to visit is early morning or evening.
Jim Thompson's House, Soi Kasem San 2, Rama I Road. Preserved almost as the famous American silk-merchant (and possible spy) left it when he went for a short trip to Malaysia in 1967 and mysteriously disappeared, this is a fascinating, eccentric place. Thompson lived in the era when you could stub your toe on a buried ancient statue and call your workmen to dig it up for your collection. There are some great Khmer, Chinese and Thai treasures, all explained in an excellent guided tour. Entry costs 100 baht (benefiting Bangkok's School for the Blind) and the house is open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday.
Bangkok is a great place to buy crafts from throughout South East Asia, from a variety of ethnic groups. Shoulder-bags from the Myanmar border, great Shan cotton shirts and jackets, Burmese jointed wooden puppets and the famous triangular floor cushions are among the favourites. If you look hard enough you can probably find anything at the open-air Weekend Market (Chatuchak). But it is hot, noisy, confusing and incredibly crowded, and the soft-hearted should definitely avoid the live animal section.
There are great deals to be had on clothing and handicrafts. For a good range of handicrafts in air-conditioned comfort and with reasonable (fixed) prices, Narayana Phand, opposite the World Trade Center, is the best option.
In the World Trade Center, in nearby Gaysorn Plaza and the Sogo Department Store, designer bargains can be found, although clothing in larger sizes (normal European), can be in frustratingly short supply.
Food and drink
Lord Jim's, The Oriental Hotel (tel: 2360400, ext 3202). Featuring the best of the spectacularly good Thai seafood, this is a top-class restaurant, with great views over the river and great service. It is surprisingly affordable. Dressing up is essential. The seafood platter for two, which comes steamed in a giant copper pot with a selection of sauces, is heaven. Any of the other restaurants at the Oriental are also superb.
Lemongrass, 5/21, Sukhumvit Soi 24 (tel: 2588637). Bookings are essential at this very popular, high-class nouvelle Thai restaurant, which can be reached via Rama IV Road. The servings are small, but the flavours superb, in the pleasant setting of an old Thai house decorated with antiques.
Bussaracum, Sethiwan Building, Pan Road off Silom Road, (tel: 2666312). Specialising in "royal Thai" cuisine, as was allegedly served in the palaces of old, this is a long-established Bangkok institution, with many imitators. Unfortunately, it has moved into a modern office building, but you would never know once you are inside. The food may be a little over-the-top for some tastes - nothing goes undecorated or unspiced.
Cabbages and Condoms, No 10, Sukhumvit Soi 12. It is worth fighting your way through the Sukhumvit traffic nightmare for the experience of this well-known restaurant run by the Population and Community Development Association of "Mr Condoms", Meechai Viravaidya, who led the early battle against HIV. The food and service is foreigner-friendly and instead of after-dinner mints, there is a choice of condoms to take away.
Pho, 1st Flr, Alma Link Building, 25 Soi Chidlom (tel: 2518945) Ideal for a light lunch or dinner, this restaurant near the World Trade Center is one of a small chain specialising in Vietnamese food, although there is also a Thai menu. Don't miss the fresh spring rolls.
Where to stay
Hotel selection is the key to a successful holiday in Bangkok. Pick a hotel in the middle of a major traffic jam and you'll spend your days staring at exhaust pipes. Generally, at present, any hotel on Sukhumvit Road is to be avoided. Hotels on Silom, Surawong and Sathorn roads offer the best bets, with easy access to many sights and the expressways. Since the floating of the baht, many of the better hotels charge in US dollars. Rates don't include taxes of 21 per cent, although these are not charged at the cheapest establishments. Prices shown are peak season.
The Oriental Hotel, Soi Oriental, Charoen Krung (New) Road (tel: 2360400). Arguably the best hotel in Asia. The service is superb, the setting on the river magical, and even if the modern rooms are not particularly distinguished, you can look down on the Authors' Wing, where many famous European characters of Asia strutted their stuff. In the arcade, you can also browse in the most expensive shops in Bangkok. Doubles from $220.
Evergreen Laurel, 88 North Sathorn Road (tel: 2669988). A new, classy hotel in a good position for getting around, with a selection of fine restaurants. The immediate vicinity is a little dead at night, but it is only a short distance from the nightlife of Silom Road. Rooms from 5,200 baht.
Swiss Lodge, 3 Convent Road (tel: 2335345). Just off Silom Road, in a good area for restaurants and nightlife, this is a quality hotel that gets lots of repeat custom, particularly from professional people. Doubles from 3,073 baht, including tax and service charges.
Narai Hotel, 222 Silom Road (tel: 2370100). Very conveniently situated at the river end of Silom, the staff at this mid-class hotel are notably helpful. It is right beside Silom Village (a touristy collection of shops and restaurants) and in the middle of a small night market. Doubles are 2,900 baht.
Khao, San Road. This is the backpacker capital of Asia.The locals come to gawp at that strange species, Homo backpackus, which seems to dress exclusively in scanty tie-died cotton and sandals, and always features multiple piercings. It is a bit of a ghetto, but room prices start from 100 baht, the restaurants and shops are cheap, and for the budget traveller, it is definitely the place to go.
No one will be surprised to read that whatever you want in the way of nightlife, however seedy, you can find it in Bangkok. The level of non- sex-industry entertainment has risen significantly in recent years, and it is now possible to enjoy a night out without encountering lovely young women with numbers pinned to their dresses.
Silom Soi 4 This started out as a gay area but has now become a mixed, young-dominated nightclub and restaurant scene. Depending on the night, the mix is about 70:30 Thai/foreign, the music is almost up-to-the-minute and the drinks aren't too ridiculously priced. It doesn't really get going until around midnight and unfortunately (as with most other places in Bangkok) shuts down under police edict at 2am.
Patpong Just up Silom Road, the infamous centre of Bangkok's seedy nightlife hardly needs introduction. If you visit go-go bars, choose ground-floor ones (easier to get out of in case of trouble and so less likely to rip you off). Also watch your wallet at all times. An alternative, slightly less seedy, nightlife centre is Soi Cowboy, off Sukhumvit Soi 23.
Silom Soi 2 This is now the gay nightlife centre, featuring some very seedy places (men with numbers) but also the DJ's Station, which has a lively nightly cabaret show and a friendly, fun atmosphere. Foreign women are quite welcome. The cover charge is 200 baht and for that you get two drinks.
International In recent years, a number of English-style pubs have opened. Perhaps the best and most popular is the Barbican, in Soi Thaniya, off Silom Road, rather incongruously situated in the middle of a lot of Japanese- only sex joints.
Out of town
Just north of Bangkok is Ayutthaya, the national capital until 1767. There are many fine temples, an excellent Historical Studies Centre, and a peaceful atmosphere very unlike Bangkok. Many people visit Ayutthaya, which can be reached by road, rail or river, on a day-trip, but with sufficient time, it is well worth staying overnight.
East of Bangkok is the infamous Pattaya, which developed as an American rest-and-relaxation base during the Vietnam War. A better option for a day or two at the beach is to the south, at Hua Hin.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand is at the international terminal (tel: 5236576) and the main office is at 10th Floor, Le Concorde Court, Ratchadapisek Road (tel: 1155 or 6941222). In case of trouble, the tourist police (who speak English) can be reached on tel: 1699 or 2541055. Bus maps, sold everywhere there are tourists, make getting around easier and give extra information.
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