Bangkok is Southeast Asia’s gateway to adventure. Typically, tourists treat Bangkok as a jump-off point to the islands in southern Thailand or as part of a backpacking trail through neighboring countries Cambodia and Vietnam. Other cities in the region may be equally accessible to other noteworthy spots in Asia, but Bangkok is unique in terms of affordability, flurry of activity, hospitality, and general nuttiness.
Pop culture, fueled by the Internet, has introduced Bangkok to the rest of the world because of its red light district – a kind of modern-day Yoshiwara. Travelers troop to this metropolis to experience a clash of cultures within its city limits – ghetto areas and ultra-modern zones, temples and red-light districts, monks and working girls all in one heady destination.
BUDDHISM AND WORLDLY HEDONISM
Majority of Bangkok residents practice Buddhism, the country’s dominant religion. Gilded temples around the city are hard to miss. It won’t be a quintessential Bangkok experience if you fail to visit at least one of the important places of worship here. If you’re pressed for time and want to cover a lot of sights while in Bangkok, both Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) are part of river boat tour being offered in almost all hostels. The boat cruises down the famed Chao Phraya River which gives you a glimpse of the houses and shops lining the river bank.
At night you can check out Khao San Road where backpackers from all over the world converge. Here you’ll find stalls and shops selling all sorts of trinkets, bars overflowing with buckets of beer and whiskey, all manner of exotic street food, as well as delicious Pad Thai costing next to nothing. It’s a place for forging connections with like-minded people, swapping travel anecdotes, and just hanging out.
Stop by to see what the fuss is all about but better book a room somewhere else. Due to the popularity of the area, it is teeming with tourists. It has become relatively more expensive to stay on Khao San Road despite its reputation as a backpacker’s area. Some travelers are okay with the prices as it comes with upgrades in facilities and services, however if you’re keen on pinching pennies, you can find cheaper accommodations Samsen Road or those near Lumpini Park. Better yet, book your rooms via Airbnb to connect directly with locals and access more options depending on your budget and comfort level. It goes without saying: do your research.
If you happen to be in Bangkok for a weekend, visit the Chatuchak Weekend Market (or Jatujak) for the ultimate retail therapy without busting your budget. Go early before the droves of people arrive and secure a map if you are looking for a specific purchase and avoid wasting precious time. Otherwise, feel free to wander around where you’ll find everything from books and clothes to furniture and pet rabbits. It’s enough to eat up hours off your itinerary.
To address the million dollar question whether to check out the infamous Ping Pong Show or not – it really depends. To help you decide whether you have enough nerve to sit through the show, here’s a fairly recent account of what to expect from a typical ping pong show at the Patpong night market.
Pro tip: A lot of farang (foreigners) have fallen prey to various scams that an entire website has been created solely to document and expose these scams. A little know-how goes a long way.
A TASTE OF THAI CULTURE
Beyond the pretty Instagram posts and tales of misadventures, traveling is essentially about immersing yourself in other cultures and opening up your worldview in the process. Escape the bubble of touristy places to get a holistic view of Thai culture.
Be a little more adventurous with your food choices. By all means indulge in a healthy helpings of delicious Pad Thai and Pad See Eew, but there’s more to Thai cuisine than just Pad Thai, and I don’t mean the insect stall at Khao San Road, but if you have a taste for exotic eats then give it a go. If you’re a foodie and not planning to scrimp on food, here are some excellent gustatory options for you when you want a break from your Pad Thai or street food diet.
Another foodie destination is the floating market, Damnoen Saduak, about two hours away from the city. Between 8AM to about 11AM, you’ll see hundreds of vendors and consumers in rowing boats going about their business; buying, trading, and selling goods. You can purchase cheap flowers, fruits, vegetables, and food made fresh from their boat.
For a more lasting souvenir, why not learn how to cook those Thai dishes you love so much. There are various cooking classes you can take while vacationing in Thailand. The best part? You can impress your friends with you newly-acquired skill and give them a taste of your Bangkok adventure.
While on the subject of food, sample Southeast Asia’s “king of fruits” – the Durian. This polarizing fruit with its spiky rind and a slimy mess of yellow flesh inside will surely make a mark on your palate. Even locals are divided on whether they love it or hate it. The distinct feature of this fruit is its pungent smell which has been described as “wet socks” and “rotten fish,” so that should give you an idea on why it’s polarizing. The smell is so overpowering and has a tendency to linger that it is banned in areas with enclosed spaces. If you can get over the smell, maybe you’ll appreciate the nasty but sweet taste of the mushy meat. Some people swear by it though, even hunting down different varieties and sampling other durian-flavored goods. I suppose it’s an acquired taste.
The search for authentic experiences will take you out of your comfort zone, hence practice utmost caution in scouring worthwhile experiences that can give you a healthy mix of spontaneity and security.