Welcome to Bangkok. A vast, humid metropolis with a suitably dramatic skyline crisscrossed by sky trains and neon lights. Think Bladerunner. While taking it on in from the heady heights of the capital’s tall skyscrapers is a must, it’s down on ground level where you’ll find most of the action.
Here, the streets heave with vendors cooking fire-blasted woks, lines of multi-coloured taxis cause gridlock along the wide roads, long wooden boats ply the canals and there’s a distinctly exotic feel even amongst the towering, glassy buildings.
It’s a culture shock for a first-timer, but those stay longer than simply passing through on the way to the sun-soaked islands find one of Asia’s most intriguing places.
Thais almost entirely shun the idea of having dishes sold solely at breakfast. Forget the hotel’s stagnant buffet and hit one of the local markets like Nang Loeng (the oldest in the city). Your best bet is following the heave of office crowds to the best vendors. Jok, a type of rice porridge cooked in chicken stock and topped with slices of ginger and deep-fried garlic is always a crowd-pleaser. As is khao man gai, poached chicken on rice accompanied by a spicy ginger and garlic sauce.
Coffee may not have originated in Thailand, but they’ve taken it on as their own and now roast and sell some fine beans. You’ll rarely spot someone on their way to work that isn’t clutching a cold coffee. If you’re on a shoestring, grab one of the freshly made cold coffees from a vendor in the market. Alternatively, make a dash to Gallery Dip Coffee for something a little more refined. Selected beans from Northern Thailand and Ethiopia are roasted and hand-ground in-house.
Even if sightseeing isn’t your bag, it’s hard not to be bowled over by Jim Thompson’s House, a museum and the former house of an American expat who reignited the Thai silk trade in the ‘60s and then mysteriously disappeared in Kuala Lumpur. This beautiful wooden property, surrounded by pond-studded gardens, is one of the last remaining traditional homes in the city. There’s are few places better to get a sense of old Bangkok.
It’s time to try one of Thailand’s most treasured dishes – gai tort. Move aside KFC because no one does crispy fried chicken like Bangkok. Its best is, arguably, found in Polo Fried Chicken. It’s grown from a humble street hawker stand to the fine establishment you’ll find today. Whole chickens are fried overnight creating a lightly spiced and, most importantly, a crispy coating which wraps around tender meat. Best eaten with fistfuls of deep-fried garlic and chewy, sticky rice.
Time permitting, you could take a stroll through nearby Lumpini Park, an oasis of calm in this fast-paced capital. As you walk along the pathways, you’ll find lakes dotted with swan-shaped pedalos and fringed by tropical flora, towering Chinese-style pagodas used to playing chess or cards and silver-haired residents practicing tai chi and scampering monitor lizards, a less threatening and smaller cousin of the Komodo dragon.
Darkness closes in around 6ish year-round in Bangkok. There are some fine vantage points to watch the sun setting, but a clamber up Wat Arun makes for one of the best spots. The temple lies along the western edge of the meandering Chao Phraya River and a steep staircase up the main prang opens provides some magical views over the city’s skyline. This is a temple, so be sure to wear the right clothing – flip flops and shorts just aren’t appropriate.
The night time is the right time in Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown district. Locals and visitors know this is one of the best places to eat in the city. Unless you want to get lost in the maze of dark backstreets, your best bet is sticking to the main neon-lit drag. Waiting in line for a table at T&K Seafood is always worth it. Banana-sized prawns grilled on the al fresco barbecue, zingy tom yum soup and lemongrass-infused mussels are some of the best in town. Sign off the evening meal with some fried Chinese dough dipped in pandan custard from Pa Tong Go Savoey, an outdoor hawker who’s recently had a nod from Michelin.
For after dinner drinks, head to Teens of Thailand. Despite the odd name, this isn’t a hang-out for Bangkok’s youth. Instead, you’ll find a small, sophisticated cocktail bar within in one of the old Chinatown town houses.