I’ve always resisted the idea of visiting Bangkok. I’d envisioned it as yet another big, crowded city filled with skyscrapers, malls, traffic jams, and hustlers. Guess what? I was right. And yet… I would go back in a flash. Bangkok suffers from multiple personality disorder, and I got to meet several personae.
First off – and my personal favorite – was Old Bangkok. Think Mysore on a small dose of acid. You can tell when you’re nearing Old Bangkok, better known as Ko Rattanakosin, by the steadily dwindling height of the buildings. There are more tuktuks (autorikshaws, dahling!) than cars, more trees than buildings, and more canals than roads.
We elected to stay at a small hotel called Aurum, the River Place, chosen for its location, and of course, for its pocket-friendly price. It’s a gorgeous little place, right on the bank of the Chao Phraya river, a quick three-minute stroll away from Wat Pho, Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple, and a 15-20 minute walk from the Grand Palace. Smallish, air conditioned rooms with lots of character: teakwood floors, scented cupboards, an armchair, plush beds. [Tip: if you want a river view, request room 301 or 401. Whatever the website says, the other rooms do not have views. Personally, I don’t really care – I won’t be spending much time in my room gazing out of the window… Also, know that there is neither room service nor a restaurant in the hotel. It isn’t a five star.]
Full stomach, full wallet
You won’t find fancy restaurants in this area. What you will find is your sense of adventure.
You’ll discover, for example, what it’s like to walk into a roadside eatery (there’s one just around the corner from Aurum) where no one speaks a word of English, point to something that looks or smells delicious, and communicate without words the fact that you lust after it. You’ll then experience the pleasure of sitting down at a tiny table and inhaling delicate aromas until you can no longer bear to defer gratification. You’ll bask in contentment as you watch people go about their business, smug in the knowledge that you have none. Our first day’s breakfast at one such establishment cost us the princely sum of 109 baht for the four of us.
L to R: Soy-marinated egg and tofu with rice; chicken and pork flat noodle soups; pork mince with mint leaves, ginger, and fish sauce over rice. Sum total 109 Baht.
Each evening, the fragrance of grilled meat suffuses the air as rot khen or vendor carts flaunt their wares. Dinner, anyone? 16 or 20 satay sticks (pork, octopus, chicken, gizzards) a packet of sticky rice, cabbage or lettuce leaves and spicy sauces to go with it, return to room, and enjoy a sumptuous meal. All for 110 baht.
Take the khlong way around
Take a break from gaping at the gorgeous Wat Pho and gasping at the over-the-top, baroque Grand Palace… visit a floating market for lunch. These involve boats docked at a floating wharf, serving delicious seafood and accompaniments, or even the Thai family favorite: fried chicken with som tam and sticky rice.
Getting there is half the fun, as you get to see Bangkok’s canal (or khlong) life up close, and travel the way a good part of the population does – by boat. The canal transportation system is pretty well organized, and you can travel from pier to pier by boat for a few baht – or do the unashamedly “touristy” thing, splurge, and hire a boat for yourself (it costs 1500 baht for two hours if you ignore the touts and walk to the counter at the end of Tha Chang, or Chang Pier, opposite the Royal Palace).
Things to do and see
What else can you do and see in Old Bangkok? Other than Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha in the Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Arun, the National Museum, Royal Barge Museum, and National Art Gallery? Visit a flower market and ogle at the orchids. Take in the fascinating amulet market near Tha Chang. Climb to the top of the 80m high Golden Mount for a bird’s eye view of Bangkok.
Or just wander around; the area oozes old world charm and isn’t frenetic like the “other” Bangkok. If you’re there at the weekend, the iconic Chatuchak Weekend Market is a 20 minute cab ride away. If you want to venture further afield, I highly recommend taking a day trip to Ayuthayya, the ancient Thai capital, from Ko Rattanakosin (skip the “guided tour buses”… an air conditioned, chauffeur-driven car cost us 2800 baht for the day, to get to, from, and around Ayuthayya. We relied on guide books and pamphlets, and the knowledge of our driver to learn about the monuments).
Here’s what you cannot do in Old Bangkok: visit nightclubs and discotheques and go bar-hopping. Dine in a fancy restaurant. Shop till you drop for high-end brands and cheap electronics. Indulge in any activity other than stargazing after 8pm.
Stuff to know before you go
Sound like your cup of chai? Here’s what you need to know:
It’s a three hour flight from Bangalore. Not very many places accept credit cards in this area, so you’ll need cash. If you confine yourself to eating roadside – and in the interests of good food, you should – you can expect to spend 200 baht a day for three sumptuous meals, and in-between snacks besides. Bottled water costs 12 -15 baht a liter, and you’ll need lots of it. The minimum cab fare is 35 baht. Tuk tuks are a law unto themselves – avoid if you can – in this area, they are all, without exception, out to fleece you and con you into visiting gem stores or tailors from whom they earn a commission. Once you’re there, however street smart and savvy you are, you will be hooked like a hapless fish on a line, and reeled in – with your wallet – all the way to the cash counter. I speak from lemon zest-bitter experience… but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.