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09 Jun


Bangkok: Urban Modernity with a SE Asian Twist

June 9, 2014 | By |

Over the past few months, we have been in and out of Bangkok a handful of times. It’s been a modern respite from our SE Asian travels, and a great place to deal with errands, catch up on life outside Asia, and enjoy a more urbane environment.

We have been super lucky to be able to stay with our friend Becky while here. Becky is an old friend from home who moved to Bangkok maybe 8 or 9 months ago for work, and she has been possibly the most gracious hostess imaginable at her apartment in the Sukhumvit area for our many trips through Bangkok. Big cheers to her, with a mangosteen-rambutan-vodka smoothie in hand!

There aren’t many stories (qua stories) to tell, so here goes… a random smattering of events, experiences, and thoughts:

Where else to start but food?

Considering how expensive everything else is in Bangkok, it is amazing how much incredible food you can get for reasonable prices in restaurants or through street food stalls. But truly, the first observation about Thai food in Thailand is that it is actually really similar to Thai food in the United States! It’s shocking.

We ended up eating several meals around the corner from Becky’s apartment at Sukhumvit Soi 38, where every evening they have a bunch of semi-street food stalls/restaurants. For about USD $2, you can get a dish of duck, noodles, and wontons, or a delicious khao soi dinner, which is a coconut curry noodle soup (ie: one of the best food inventions ever). And, equally priced, mango sticky rice, which is one of the best desserts known to man. To note, if you get any of the above as take-out, you will get a plastic bag containing about 10 other plastic bags, each tied up with its own rubber band.

One night we met up with a few of Becky’s expat friends plus my friend and mentor Jim (who was coincidentally here from the States for work) for dinner on that little block. It was so good to spend time with Jim – catching up over many meals, drinks, street wanderings. And Becky’s friends were really great. I particularly enjoyed talking to Jackie, who speaks Thai fluently and teaches English here. She had a really interesting perspective on the challenges of learning Thai for us, and of learning English for them. For example, here, there is no past tense for verbs, and no helping verbs like we have in English, which makes so much sense in terms of where the slips in English grammar are here.

But we digress, back to food… In some of the (many) shopping malls, you can get a totally decent meal of pad thai and whatnot for super cheap. There are also a ton of great spots for street food scattered around the city outside of certain BTS (elevated train) connections and even inside the weekend market. Personal favorites are takayaki (a Japanese doughball with squid or octopus in the middle and lots of delicious sauces and toppings) and these gooey-crispy fried chive dumpling things. There’s also this dessert called cendol with slimy green noodles (like German spaetzle in consistency), sweetened condensed coconut milk cream, and then you add a ton of shaved ice. If any dessert will top mango sticky rice, this may be it.

There are also several western food options that are not fantastic, but definitely give you a fix of western food. You can actually get delivery pizza: the downside is that it’s Domino’s and expensive compared to Thai food, the upside is that you can get delivery pizza. And right around the corner from Becky’s apartment is a little place devoted to cheesecake (totally decent), and another place devoted to hot dogs (it looked good but we didn’t try any).  We also went for a totally good brunch – eggs florentine, frittata, and other totally un-Thai treats.

We went to the grocery store and made dinner at Becky’s once for a fix of home-cooking and western food. It was really great (and felt so, so good to cook), but ended up being more expensive than just eating street food. The grocery store was oddly instructive. Even if just for the lack of cheese ($20 for a sliver of brie!), I don’t know if I could live here. Asian culture shock comes at funny moments… so far I think the grocery stores and the sense of being illiterate take the cake.

One night, Becky took us out for a nice meal at a trendy place called Iron Fairies, where there was incredibly done steampunk-inspired décor, with a variety of tightly-packed (think NYC-packed) seating areas with different kinds of chairs and trunks and such as tables. There is an area for a live band with a singer platform up these freestanding circular stairs that end abruptly at a music stand. And somehow they managed to have steampunk-styled bottles of glitter lining the walls (how they did steampunk-glitter is beyond me, but I like it!). The cocktails, food, and presentation were all lovely – I had a jasmine gin concoction, Mitch had a tequila with burnt rosemary, and Becky had watermelon with toasted marshmallow. We had various burgers and such, plus sorely missed mac & cheese.

One of our last nights (prior to our last-day-in-Thailand-gorge-on-Thai-food), we took Becky out for sushi at “In the mood for love,” a restaurant right near her apartment. Having sushi was so freaking good – I don’t think we’ve had sushi since we left NYC 7+ months ago, and just having a different set of flavors was a treat. Plus the fresh fish, beautiful presentation, such a treat. The only problem is that the pieces were too big for our mouths.

Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, we found out that our friend Marc from home was here in Bangkok to celebrate his birthday, so we met up with him at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, which is an indication of a super fancy and expensive way to experience Bangkok. Then we walked over to a place called Cabbages and Condoms in Sukhumvit, where they promote safe sex in a surprisingly lovely garden bar/restaurant with condom-based artwork, including some impressive clothing.

Durian Mishap

Perhaps you’ve heard of durian? It’s this large prickly fruit that is banned from many hotels, mass transit, etc. because it has a noxious smell. A lot of people compare it to some of the cheese that have a rank smell but delicious taste. We had never had it before, and decided to buy some on the street (they pre-peel it so you have just the edible areas).

Annnnd… about 3 minutes after I discovered that true to rumor and despite the smell, it has a delicious flavor and fun texture… I discovered that I am allergic to it and my throat started to close up. It was a traumatic 45 minutes as I tried to determine whether or not I was going to need to make an emergency trip to a hospital or find a pharmacy and communicate “Benadryl” to them. Lucky for me, I know that as soon as my tongue gets itchy it’s not a good sign, so I had only eaten about 2 pieces of it and my breathing went back to normal on its own.

After all the drama, we were passing by a nice stylized-diner looking restaurant and decided that I needed to be comfortable and treat myself, so we had a long and fancy lunch at a place called White Flower. The food was good (don’t bother with the pastas, but the Thai food is great), and the Thai Tea Crepe Cake was ridiculously good.

Mass Transit & the Pedestrian Experience

We made plenty use of Bangkok’s three major mass-transit options. The BTS (elevated train line) and MRT (subway line) are both super clean and very user-friendly… it almost feels like civilized mass transit. People even stand in line to wait to board! Adorably, they both have special monk seating areas. The biggest issues are that they don’t go to all areas, and they are not connected, so you have to transfer between them with separate tickets. The water taxi is also super useful; more on that later. One day on the BTS, we ran into an interactive art show with weird perspective things on the floor that you could stand on for a 3D photo. Oooh. Fancy.

We ended up walking around a LOT.  Generally speaking, there are sidewalks – which is a major plus compared to some other areas of SE Asia.  And the sidewalks aren’t too cluttered with motorbike driving and parking… But, lest we forget we are still in SE Asia, occasionally you need to remember that sidewalks are for driving motorbikes too.

Because we were dealing with our Myanmar visas at the time, we ended up taking a few long walks starting at the Myanmar embassy and going to wherever else. We walked through markets, industrial areas, university areas, tourist areas near the river, and specialized areas… such as the area where there are thousands of engines being repaired and stacked on the street, with an oil slick over the whole roadway. Or the area with stereo parts, in case you want to build your own speaker system. Thankfully, in the middle of our wanderings, there are also a ton of shopping malls, which give you a bit of air-conditioned respite from the heat.

There are also tons of markets that you can just stumble upon in your wanderings and transfers between public transit connections. One afternoon we chanced onto the flower market area. In the mornings, it’s apparently a wild and amazing experience. In the afternoon, it is mellow, muted, but still fragrant. And another afternoon we wound up in a covered street market thing with items ranging from gay porn to puppies to stationery to LED lights. All critical life necessities.

One evening we walked around. It was probably only 7 or 8pm, but we got an early view of what would become one of Bangkok’s many hubs of debauchery within a couple of hours… complete with the requisite young girls doing their hair on the sidewalks in front of the many entertainment establishments, and preparing for their evenings of short skirts, absurdly high heels, and I don’t (ever) want to know what else the middle-aged foreign men might find interesting.

On our last foray into Bangkok (after the military coup), a walk took us past the Philippine embassy, where they had a big festival and we discovered that Philippine boys have way more flair to their dancing than the girls do.  We intended to wander into a big park, but when we got there, we discovered it was closed by the military – the first time that the coup has actually impacted our plans.  Apparently there are several resistance efforts happening (including borrowing a salute from Hunger Games, who knew), so the military has occasionally closed down parks, public transit, etc.

Water Taxi (River Cruise + Mass Transit)

The water taxi is Bangkok’s original mass transit system. It’s not nearly as civilized as the BTS or MRT, and definitely feels much less modern. But, it is a surprisingly efficient way to get around the city and fills in many of the gaps left by the BTS and MRT. It’s also amazing to watch the dock helper dude (who jumps on and off the boat at each dock) and the captain, who are able to communicate through a wonderfully complex system of whistles.

Some people talk about doing Bangkok River Cruises, and we heard that the water taxi is a cheap alternative. At about $0.50 per person per direction, it was far better than the touristic alternatives and we spent a half day going to one end of the line and all the way back.

To be totally fair, as one of Bangkok’s “things to do” it was kind of meh. From the boat, you can see some gorgeous wats (temples) as well as some super fancy high-rise and boutique hotels. But you can also see how polluted the water is, and there are some really dingy dwellings that are shockingly run down for what seems like prime real estate.

Bangkok Arts & Culture Center

We barely stopped in, but it’s worth a note… the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center seems like a neat Guggenheim-inspired structure where they try to create an artistic environment. Unfortunately, when we stopped in, they were between shows so just had this one weird photo exhibit, but it seems like it would be a neat environment at other times. They do, of course, have an art-oriented shopping mall area inside. Because what would anything in Bangkok have if not a shopping mall?

Chinatown Market

The Chinatown markets are crazy – crowded streets and alleys with an absurd amount of little stalls selling everything and anything you could possibly want, EVER. It goes on for an extraordinary number of streets. When you get to an intersection, you kind of make a decision about whether you are going to escape the market and get a breath of air, or just dive right back in. We opted to dive back in for quite a while. Possibly the most impressive thing was the quantity of “stuff” with very little repetition. Lucky or unlucky for us, my no-buying moratorium interfered with my going crazy for a wide range of tiny hats, fascinators, and sparkly things.

Chatuchak (JJ) Weekend Market

When we asked friends for Bangkok recommendations, a few people had said that we should go to the weekend market. But despite our initial thought of “how is this market different from all other markets?” we gave it a chance… and it was super awesome and a highlight of the city.

The main thing is that it’s huge. Like, enormous. Like 35 acres enormous. You could get lost inside and spend hours without finding your way out (thank goodness for GPS and offline Google Maps). Or conversely, you could spend hours inside without ever seeing 90% of it. And there is everything there… from designer clothing to cheap clothing to puppies and fishes to art galleries to scented candles to housewares. Plus the street food stalls in some of the open plaza areas have some great treats.

As far as we were concerned, we’ve enjoyed having the same set of clothing for the last 6 months, but we took the opportunity to leave behind a few shirts and buy a few new ones just to change things up. Funny enough, the clothing change-out was most necessary for each other… we have become sick of seeing each other in the same damned clothes so much!

Malls, Critical to the Thai experience

We already mentioned that malls provide useful food courts and air-conditioned respite from the heat.  But one of our last days, we went on a short mall trip that included seeing a drumline competition outside the mall (we wanted to stay to watch it, but the outside area was absurdly crowded and the sky was about to open up).  Instead, we wandered around the mall and were distracted by a fashion show in the lingerie department of a department store which was so over the top to be comical. Because of Thai modesty (we assume) they had three farang models showing the lingerie in a fashion show, while a Thai lady sang an Adele song on stage.  Somehow, it was simultaneously bizarre, degrading, and captivating.

Side note that when we were in Myanmar, we saw a newspaper article that a visiting Thai dance troupe got into some trouble at the big water festival parade.  Their outfits were too skimpy so they were banned from the parade.  The Thai girls quickly got new costumes with a bit more modesty, although there seemed to be some lasting controversy.

Wat Pho

Wat Pho (“wat” means temple) is a huge Buddhist temple complex here that is known for its enormous reclining Buddha. We were also told that we had to go there for a massage.

It turns out that there is a massage school inside the wat that is one of the centers for southern style Thai massage. It’s strange… there is definitely a factory feel to the massage room, and you are laid out in rows getting your massages. But the massage itself was pretty great, and really interesting from our recent forays into studying Thai massage. They managed to border on being painful without ever crossing the line, found points precisely and quickly, and they seemed to hone in on issues quickly. It wasn’t too expensive and totally worth the experience.

The wat itself is bizarre. It’s a huge temple complex with beautiful buildings, stuppas, and Buddhas, including a few rooms lined with giant golden Buddhas. It’s famous for its 45-meter-long reclining Buddha, has these wicked mother of pearl inlays on the bottoms of its feet.  To note, if your shoulders are exposed, they will lend you a fancy green bathrobe!

The weirdest thing, though, was that the whole thing was a bizarre fundraising tourist trap. It was almost like they hired a fundraising consultant and said “propose all ideas – nothing is dishonorable”… and then took all of the ideas! There were prayer bowls where you could buy a stack of baht (the Thai currency, worth about 32 B / USD $1) and drop 1 in each, a gong with a donation box in front so tourists can take photos ringing the gong, etc. We stumbled into a young novice monk’s ordination where a bunch of monks were chanting in this awesome and striking drone way. The ceremony might have been even more striking if some of the monks didn’t look totally bored and distracted, and if the novice’s family (we assume) weren’t checking their cell phones.

Mitch says:  “Look!  I’m a stuppa!”

Cat Café

Cat cafés are amazing – every city needs one! Lucky for us, Purr Cat Café is a 10-minute walk away from Becky’s apartment. Pretty much, it’s a café where you can get overpriced desserts and smoothies, while hanging out for hours and playing with cats in a cat-themed kitschy environment. The cats were overwhelmingly long-haired, so they kept the room cold, but overall very friendly with each other and very playful with humans. So, you could play with a fishing pole toy or a laser pointer, for example, and end up with 4 cats surprise pouncing. The café seemed to take a lot of measures to ensure that the cats stayed healthy and that people didn’t mess with them – you had to agree to their rules before going in or risk a fine of about $50 if you don’t comply.  It was definitely worth a trip (well, two trips) during our time in Bangkok.

Here’s a gallery of photos from our time in Bangkok: