As the most visited city in the world Bangkok needs another travel blog like we need a sixth star to the spicy rating system. And yet here I go.
I'm writing this because a) I said I would b) I need an outlet to justify carrying around my camera in 95 degree heat and c) when I set out to plan our trip to Thailand I was completely overwhelmed by all the options. Guidebooks are fantastic travel aides but nothing beats personal referrals to get you pointed in a direction. So thank you to several of you who shared your Thailand travel stories and those who assured me that the probability of encountering a snake were about as likely as my family catching dengue fever. Guidebooks, like State Departments, are required to tell you about all the potential threats and experienced traveler friends are there to remind you 30 million tourists made it safely home from Thailand last year.
(By way of full disclosure, none of us got dengue fever but we did get touches of a few angry somethings in our tummies and while there weren’t any snake sightings the jellyfish were as reported ... except so much bigger.)
I am also writing this to give you the confidence to plan your own trip rather than buy one of those all-inclusive packages. Here’s something I learned from my 18 year old who studied tourism in Thailand as part of his Geography class … when you buy an all-inclusive package to Thailand from a travel company based outside of the country 80% of the money you spend leaves the Thai economy. 80%! That leakage is disheartening when you consider how much Thailand’s economy depends on tourism and how hard they work to make you feel welcome. So if you can, DIY!
I should say at the outset that there are two ways to do Thailand – the budget way and the more comfortable way. If the former, I’m not sure these pointers will be of much service but if air conditioning is a prerequisite of your travel jam then maybe …
1. Pick a hotel or apartment that will serve as an oasis from the chaos. Bangkok is a stimulating, exhausting city so you will be glad if you splurge a little on lodging where you can recharge your batteries. I'd also encourage hotel over apartment as hotels are plentiful and the Thai service which would be absent in an apartment is so warm it would be a shame to miss it.
We spent three nights in Bangkok at the beginning of our trip and one additional night at the end. The first hotel we stayed in was the Metropolitan Como, a contemporary hotel set back on a quieter road from the embassy-lined and busy Sathorn Road in Silom. It’s a 169 room hotel with beautiful people, close to shopping with a large 20 meter lap pool, a spa that looked fancy and the world-renown Nahm restaurant (ranked 22nd in the world.) We ate there and it was fabulous and probably one of the most affordable of the restaurants in the top 100. As a family we had two adjoining, very spacious rooms with a full service breakfast included. You know it’s full service when there are multiple french toast options and quinoa porridge on the menu.
The second hotel we stayed in was the Ariyasomvilla, a traditional Thai style house that was converted into a 24 room hotel with lovely gardens set close to the well-known Sukhumvit Road which is interesting by day and too-many-single-white-males-walking by night. The English owner previously worked building Shangri-La Hotels in Asia so the boutique hotel which was initially his father in law’s house has a quality aesthetic and service approach. In addition to the gorgeous rooms with let-me-sleep-longer-linens they also have a very nice non-meat restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and mojitos. This hotel is highly rated on Trip Advisor and for good reason, especially if you want a more authentic Thai place to stay.
2. Get out on the streets and walk. Bangkok is a city of crazy contrasts where skyscrapers and upscale malls are scattered like seed without regard to neighborhood. Street commerce - especially the food stalls - is every bit as busy as places with a street address (assuming you knew how to read them.) You need to smell the smells – most good, some challenging -- and watch people do or create something with what my Western sensibilities found to be a ridiculously small amount of personal space.
When you are done walking, the BTS Skytrain will almost always be faster than a taxi. And because it’s elevated, the air conditioned Skytrain also gives you a great bird’s eye view of the city. It’s not an economic decision but a time one as the traffic in Bangkok makes Seattle traffic look breezy. The few times we asked the hotel for a taxi, they suggested the Skytrain or Metro. The traffic of cars, vans, pink taxis, scooters, tuk tuks and pedestrians in Bangkok is more “civilized” than in other parts of Asia because everyone is following the same rule: “just keep moving.” Be aware however that “just keep moving” at 11:30pm without traffic in a tuk tuk means way faster than you will be comfortable without a seatbelt. Oh and do yourself a favor and accept the transport service to and from the airport if your hotel offers it.
3. Hire a private tour guide to see the city’s major temples and attractions. If tours aren’t normally your thing (our case) or if you tend to do larger group tours, I would urge you to hire a private tour guide. The price is right (very cheap) and with a private tour guide you can craft your own agenda and go at your own pace which is important for when you start melting or need some sticky rice with mango. In addition to getting the benefit of their knowledge you will also save boatloads of time not having to worry about navigation. Now I know some of you like your map challenges but even my world-tested navigation team agreed it was nice to be off duty from maps when trying to cross a city with the purpose of visiting temples, the heart and quiet soul of the very busy city.
Private tour guides is a competitive business in Bangkok so there are many affordable options but do book ahead. Like weeks/months ahead. I booked an 8 hour day with Your Thai Guide and requested Nina as our travel guide. Opting for public transportation instead of private van, we did the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and a canal tour through Thonburi by private long tail boat plus lunch which amounted to a very full day. We learned and saw more during one guided day than we could have manufactured ourselves in three days. Nina was fantastic and like so many Thai people enjoys kids (even mine after 8 hours!) and I would highly recommend her to anyone.
4. Do a food tour. Food is so central to the Thai culture and every meal, breakfast included, is a feast. There is much food being sold on the streets as in the restaurants and so you will want some guidance on what and where to eat.
We did two food tours and no one in the family can say which was better. The first one we did was a cooking class and market tour called Cooking with Poo. The class starts at the Klong Toey wet market where we saw all kinds of local Thai produce along with insects, chicken feet and a host of other things we didn’t know were edible.
After the market tour and rain storm, we headed back to the cooking school (via van) which is still in the slum where it started. Working in two shifts of six people, each of us – my kids included - got to make/prepare 3 Thai dishes. Now that they’ve made green curry I have skilled help to pound the paste. The food part was great fun, instructional enough to learn a few new tricks, but hearing Poo’s story and the story of the cooking school was the highlight. Her testimony to the beauty of community meant that in addition to leaving with tummies full our eyes saw more than the slum when we left.
The second food tour with Bangkok Food Tours was completely different. We choose the Best Eats Midnight Food Tour by Tuk Tuk as a means of experiencing both street food and late night Bangkok in a slightly more civilized way. Even though it doesn’t qualify as a hidden secret and it took a little of the mystique away when we bumped into another group of 12 with the same company at a few of our stops it is still completely worth doing. With eight stops along the way – including a stop at Wat Pho at night to let the previous food stop digest, a night time flower market and a rooftop drink stop along the river with spectacular views of Wat Arun – you get to sample a lot of food and connecting the stops via tuk tuk was much like having an amusement park ride between courses (fyi, you do sign a waiver). At 11:30pm one of my children (not the youngest) was face down asleep alongside his plate of Bangkok’s best pad Thai. (We took it to go.)
5. Once you go deep and experience Thai culture in Bangkok, head to the beach for some relaxation. There are lots of options in every direction so give consideration to the way you most prefer to unwind. We are of the not big resort, golf club or national luxury hotel brand type but there are lots of options if that is your speed. After exhaustive research I finally choose the Aleenta Hua Hin which is a local boutique resort in the little market town of Pranburi, 30 km south of Hua Hin (about 3 hours by van from Bangkok.)
Set on an un-commercialized stretch of long empty beach nestled between “baht billionaire villas” and local fish cafes, we spent five nights in our 3 bedroom villa which was about 100 meters away from the main Aleenta building. We did nothing noteworthy except to enjoy the peaceful beach, a few massages and the afternoon entertainment of kite surfers. You know you are staying in “Old Thailand” when you see a man walking his sheep on the beach. Aside from a few lunches a the local fish cafe, we ate all our meals at the two very good but shy of excellent Aleenta restaurants with a mix of Thai and westernized fare where all the organic food is sourced within 30 kilometers.
Aleenta means “a rewarding life” ... I'll spare you any more details ... but you can trust me when I say after 22 countries, all three boys declared this "the best trip ever."