Sunday, 27 March 2016

Surviving Bangkok

After writing a post called "Surviving Marrakech", I though it would be fun to write "Surviving Bangkok". As a matter of fact, for many travellers the capital of Thailand is the first encounter with Asia, and for this reason it can be a bit intimidating. I must confess that when I first arrived in Bangkok from Europe I didn't know exactly what to expect and I had only a vague idea of how to navigate it.

The Grand Palace in Bangkok
Bangkok is huge, chaotic and full of energy. It has grown without rules, with no center and no urban planning, because Western colonizers, with their obsession for tidy spacious boulevards and squares, never conquered Thailand. As a result, Bangkok has many souls: from the opulent temples of  the historical island of Rattanakosin, to the lively and chaotic Chinatown with its Chinese street signs, or the ultra modern areas of Silom and Siam, with huge shopping malls and luxurious hotels, Bangkok has something for everyone.

Chinatown, Bangkok
One of the fist things I noticed about Bangkok is that it has a traffic problem. Luckily, the public transport helped me, in particular the BTS Skytrain, an elevated metropolitan train that is easy to use and also rather cheap (fares start at 15 baht, 0,38€). Unfortunately, this does not reach all parts of the city. On the day that I wanted to visit the Grand Palace and the temples nearby, I was advised by the staff at my hostel to take a boat. This revealed to be a rather adventurous and very cheap trip on a low motorized boat with a lady that walked barefoot on the wooden rim of the boat to collect tickets.
Another great way of getting around the city is by taxi, even though as I mentioned you can get stuck in trafic. I usually try to avoid taxis, but in Bangkok they run on the meter and they are pretty cheap (typically less than 100 baht, 2,5€). The only place where I've seen that they refuse to use the metre is around the Grand Palace, because it is the most touristic place in the city and taxi drivers know they can make more money by agreeing a price. If a taxi does not want to take you on the metre, then flag another one or walk a little further. 
A taxi near Chatuchak weekend market
In Bangkok it is tiring to walk from place to place because of the hot humid weather, and it can take forever to reach your destination on foot. It is nevertheless interesting to try it once, if it's not too hot. I decided to do part of my journey back from the Grand Palace on foot, and I was rewarded with some interesting sights of Bangkok daily life, like these people playing checkers on the sidewalk.  

Playing checkers on the street

Bangkok is a safe city, if compared to any European city like London or Paris. Moreover, locals don't bother tourists that much, and the only scams I've seen are really harmless. The most common cannot even be called scam and I recognized it immediately, but I was with two other girls and they insisted on taking the suspiciously cheap tuk tuk. These drivers, for the equivalent of 1 or 2 euros, take you around to see several temples, but in exchange they want you to stop at a tailor's shop to have a look at the clothes, while they receive fuel vouchers. Don't feel obliged to buy anything!

Tuk tuk driver

If Bangkok offers interesting sightseeing during the day, it is even more exciting because of its famous nightlife. Even though I'm not into luxury holidays, I went to a rooftop bar one night, on top of a skyscraper! There are several in Bangkok, but the one I went to is called Vertigo and Moon Bar and it is on top of the Banyan Tree hotel. The view of the city from the 61rst floor is pretty amazing, as you can imagine. I went with some people from my hostel, and even though we had to wait quite some  time for some seats, it was worth it. The prices aren't for everyone, I must admit.

View from the Moon Bar

Where to eat in Bangkok? It might seem incredible if you've never been to Thailand, but the most incredible meals I had were by the road. There is no lack of restaurants in Bangkok, but the ultimate experience here is to eat a pad thai, or another simple but delicious dish, in one of the many improvised stalls that pop up in the evening almost everywhere in the city. Around my hostel, in Ratchadewi, there were many. They cook the noodles, or whatever your ordered, right on the spot with fresh ingredients, and for around 40 baht (1€). With cheap and delicious meals like that one after the other, you can afford to have a drink at a rooftop bar, right?

Grilling meat in Bangkok

Another reason to write a post called "Surviving Bangkok" is to learn how to cross the street! Streets in Bangkok often have several lanes, they are very trafficked and can intimidate you. You will often see some overpasses for pedestrians. In many parts of the city, it is the only way to cross the street so do take them. If you have to cross the street but you are unsure how and when, just follow the locals!

The main tourist sights in Bangkok can be visited in two or three days. The most expensive is the Grand Palace at 500 baht (12,70€), but it is unlike any other temple complex I visited in Thailand. Never in my life have I seen so much gold! Be prepared for hordes of Chinese tourists, and make sure to arrive early, because it closes at 3.30 pm.

Chinese tourists visiting the Grand Palace

Learning how to bargain in Chatuchak Weekend market or around Khao San Road is something I never learned to do properly, even though theoretically I know the rules, like start at 50% below the asked price and work up from that. Don't do like me the first time I was in Morocco: I was so unsure of my bargaining skills that I ended up not buying anything (and there were plenty of beautiful things to buy for cheap prices).

For the rest, just enjoy the energy of this city. If you're on a longer trip you'll end up going back to Bangkok more than once, and each time you'll be more at ease there.

How was your experience in Bangkok? Did you, unlike me, learn to bargain?
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