Bangkok is quite the assault on the senses at any time of year, with endless sights, smells and sounds coming from every direction (not to mention cars and motorbikes - you need your wits about you on the Bangkok streets!). Add in the March humidity, where it's stiflingly hot and your clothes are soaked through within minutes of leaving your door, and it's a pretty intense experience.
Profuse sweating aside, my sister and I were determined to enjoy our couple of days in Bangkok and see as much as could of the city. As we were driven from the airport to our hotel, however, we began to get some perspective on just how enormous Bangkok is and what a challenge even scratching the surface could be. We were assured we were on the 'fast route' using the toll road, yet it was a solid 50 minutes to travel the approximately 30 kilometers to our hotel. With thirteen million cars on the streets of Bangkok (and probably three times as many motorbikes), it seems a bit of a free for all.
Arriving during daylight hours meant we had our first glimpses of the city. Bangkok is a metropolis that has grown spectacularly over the last couple of decades, and it certainly appears there was no town planner consulted in the process. Financial juggernauts have built spectacular skyscrapers where ultra stylish young professionals chat on their smartphones, while just streets away little old ladies who could be your grandma have rustic hole-in-the-wall eateries frequented by everyone from young backpackers on gap years to Buddhist monks clad in orange robes.
In Bangkok, there are a few rites of passage for travelers. The first is trying to eat at a place for locals, and nearly having your face blown off by the amount of chili the Thais call 'mild'. The second is being scammed. Just go with it – it's inescapable. Plus, sharing all of the different ways you were cheated out of your hard-earned baht is a great conversation starter with fellow travelers, right?
While some common incidents are not so much scams as straight up theft – such as reaching into your pocket only to find out that some light-fingered chap has taken your wallet – others are less nefarious and just get a bit tiring. For example, the ink from our passport stamps had barely dried when the taxi driver was trying to convince us he knew of a special store having a one day only sale (what were the chances?!) on jewelry and he could take us there. We managed to convince him to take us straight to our hotel instead.
We were staying at Aloft Bangkok, a swanky, modern hotel on Sukhumvit Road, one of the longest boulevards on the planet. Near us were many of Bangkok's attractions, as well as a subway stop to connect you with pretty much the whole city. One of our favorite parts of the Hotel is the gorgeous rooftop pool, where you can get a gorgeous view of the Bangkok skyline as you swim. It's particularly beautiful after dusk. Very luxurious!
Given our brief opportunity to discover Bangkok's top sights, sleep was traded in for extra adventure and we woke up pretty early on our first day in Thailand's capital. While Bangkok does have a great subway system, we were not keen to try to navigate it in our semi-jet-lagged state, and given how much we were sweating in the Bangkok heat, thought it may be best we avoid crowded places! So, it was round two with a Bangkok taxi as we asked to see the most famous building in Bangkok, the Grand Palace.
Of course, saying you want to visit the Grand Palace is as much as a giveaway that you're a tourist as wearing elephant-print harem pants (no shade to said pants, they are cute and comfy), so we could almost see our taxi driver's eyes turn to dollar signs. After about a kilometer, he excitedly told us about his friend, who had a silk store, and was having a great sale today (today as well? What a coincidence!). We told him maybe after the Grand Palace.
Arriving at the Palace, it appeared we had not arrived quite early enough, as the line was very long and the sun was already starting to bore down on us. In preparation for our visit we'd dressed as required – no shoulders or knees visible, and a sarong over our chest for good measure. We may have been respectful, but we were also very hot. I started to wonder if I'd evaporate on the pavement before I got into the Palace.
Once we got inside, however, we were soon distracted by the sheer opulence and grandeur of the buildings. Spread over the large grounds are many different buildings, nearly all in the traditional Thai style and many embellished with gold leaf. The Thai peoples' love for the Royal Family is truly something else, and it can be seen in the delicate and extraordinary details all over the expansive complex.
Inside the complex is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or Wat Phra Kaew. Inside a beautifully ornate building, a jade Buddha sits atop a pedestal. That's not a typo – the Buddha is actually made from semi-precious stones including mostly jade, not emerald. Nonetheless, not only is the figurine quite beautiful for its intricate carving, but it also holds great significance for Thailand.
The 15th Century Buddha is said to be the country's palladium, an object on which the whole safety of the nation of Thailand depends. Despite having such a big responsibility, the Emerald Buddha looks very peaceful atop his pedestal, where he's sat since being brought down from Chiang Mai (via Laos) by elephant in the 18th Century.
After our visit to the Grand Palace complex, it was back to our taxi and off to our next stop. Of course, our patient driver had not forgotten our "promise" to stop by his "friend" with the silk store on the way to our next stop. Realizing we did need a few souvenirs, we agreed to stop by the shop. Gleefully, our driver made a call and we were off. Arriving at the store, we politely looked around but it was quite expensive and it was impossible to tell the authenticity of the items. As we walked out empty handed, the owner shook his head at our taxi driver. Seems we'd failed to bring him home a commission, much to his disappointment!
Nonetheless, he kept in good spirits as we went to our next destination, Wat Arun. Another famous site in Bangkok, it is a beautiful temple on the water's edge, which gives it a beautiful, tranquil atmosphere. Built in the 18th Century, the Wat is still in use by Buddhists today. As a result, it is important to dress modestly – we'd taken to carrying a shawl 'just in case' at any rate, but there is clothing to rent if needed.
After Wat Arun, it was back to our taxi to take us back to the hotel for a quick dinner before our final stop. I was excited to experience Bangkok's infamous nightlife, but thought we'd best sample as much Thai food as possible during our stay. We had a delicious feast of Pad Thai and Duck Rice, before turning our sights to Ce La Vi Nightclub. I also purchased the first of what turned out to be many, many Thai Teas on the street.
Filled up on Pad Thai and Thai Tea, jet-lagged and having lost about a liter of hydration from the humidity, it was quite the accomplishment for us to make it to the dance floor. However, there's nothing like some Top 40 bangers paired with cheap cocktails to get you moving for a couple of hours!
We'd managed to resist the urge to consume too many Thai cocktails the night before, so we managed to make it out of bed at a respectable hour, ready for more adventures. Our first stop was Wat Pho, which is the largest and oldest temple in Bangkok. When we arrived, we were pleased to find less tourists than had been at the Royal Palace, although it was still pretty busy.
Wat Pho is home to the enormous, 46 meter long reclining Buddha. Plated in gold, his foot alone would probably pay off my tuition five times over. It is certainly another grand yet beautiful sight in Bangkok. The Wat is also considered the home of Thai Massage, so it seemed to me there was no better place to try it out – particularly after all the walking (and dancing!) we'd done over the last 36 hours.
Now, if you're expecting a soothing touch and calming aromatherapy, prepare to be disappointed. Thai massage involves a lot more yanking and pulling then I'd typically associate with a relaxing spa treatment. Thai Massage is influenced by yoga and draws a lot from various positions – honestly, I'm not much good at yoga, as I soon found out. Nonetheless, I did feel really rejuvenated after the massage and would definitely recommend it, whether at the Wat Pho Massage School or elsewhere.
It seemed the massage was the final ingredient to finally convince my body it needed rest, so it was back to the Hotel to take a brief nap. Given how tired I was feeling, I didn't trust myself to remain calm with any more taxi drivers and their 'friends' with special offers, so we decided to call an Uber. I much recommend this to avoid frustration for everybody!
After my nap, my sister and I decided it was time to indulge in a bit of the night-time shopping that Bangkok is so famous for. Not too far from our Hotel was Sukhumvit Street Market, between the Asok and Nana subway stations. The market was for both tourists and locals, selling everything from used electronics to cheap souvenirs and knock-off watches. While a lot of it was not exactly our cup of tea, we did pick up a couple of nice gifts for our friends back home.
Also on Sukhumvit Street is Sukhumvit Street 38 – a market devoted to tasty street food. Thai street food is undoubtedly amongst the best in the world (just watch out for those "mild" local curries), and this market is one of the Bangkok staples. After some more Pad Thai, we had some mango rice and coconut ice cream, two tasty Thai deserts.
Having restored our energy with a nap and some sweet food, we decided to give the Thai nightlife another go and headed to Sugars Night Club near our hotel. Known as Sukhumvit's only hip hop club, I had to hand it to the DJ who had a great catalogue of old and new hip hop and rap. As the night got later, however, the vibe got a bit seedy and we started to suspect a few of the ladies may have been "working the room". We decided that was probably our cue to call the night and head back to our hotel.
Although the pool was closed, we did head up to the roof to have one more good look over the Bangkok city skyline. Despite the humidity and near-constant scams, the charisma of Bangkok was undeniable.
Day One: Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and Wat Arun
Day Two: Wat Pho, Thai Massage & the Night Market