We visited Bangkok in March 2017 as part of our ‘Around the World in 30 Days’ trip. We had just a few days to explore the city before heading to Laos, so we didn’t waste any time!
We arrived to Bangkok in the afternoon and tried to get an Uber from the airport but, as usual, we failed (we are like 1/8 on getting Ubers from airports overseas). Even having the mobile router for 3G access which made us not reliant on airport WiFi didn’t make a difference as the driver just drove around and around. So, we ended up having to get in line and wait for a regular cab. They have an automated ticket system to assign cabs which is pretty neat, but it doesn’t automate a price so you’re still at their mercy. I knew an Uber was going to cost about 400 THB (~$11.75), so when the cabbie told us it would be 500THB (~$14.70) including “tolls” (apparently the rider usually has to pay the highway toll–first time seeing this!) we said it was alright. We then settled in for what would be a ride of over an hour to our hotel. Traffic was insane!
Also, the heat hit us like a ton of bricks as soon as we left the terminal. In Hong Kong it was drizzly, dreary, and about 60 degrees (F) the entire time we were there. Arriving in Bangkok felt like we were walking into an oven, and it quite literally drained the life out of us.
The Conrad Bangkok hotel (see my review here) happens to be right next to the U.S. Embassy, but pretty far from all the sights. The hotel was very nice, but not any more so than the others we’ve stayed at on this trip. We got our room upgraded one level (but not a suite–woe is me!). However, this Conrad had an Executive Lounge (unlike the one in Chicago) which was pretty great. They had “afternoon tea” from 2:30-4:30 with snacks, a “happy hour” from 5:30-8 with real food (could have had dinner there), and drinks all day. Pretty impressive. The gym and pool were quite nice as well.
We hung out at the hotel for a bit trying to figure out what to do so that we could avoid the thick afternoon heat. We booked a food tour for the next night and made dinner reservations for that night at a place called Celadon at the Sukhothai Hotel, which was very highly rated. We headed there at about 7pm via Uber and had a great Thai dinner (we did their “Lemongrass Menu” which had samples of many different dishes).
Some were so spicy I couldn’t finish them, but most weren’t bad. The setting was really nice– it was in a cool little garden away from the busy and noisy streets. They even had some dancers show up and perform some traditional Thai numbers.
This place was much more relaxed and quiet than others we had already experienced. It was also orders of magnitude more expensive than the traditional Thai street food you always hear about, ringing in at about $115 for the two of us.
In the morning we got up and headed down to “The Cafe” restaurant for breakfast. They had a huge spread with just about everything you could want including Thai dishes. It was great! We planned out our day over fried eggs and noodles and then headed back to the room to get ready. There isn’t actually a ton of touristy things to do in Bangkok other than the temples, but we decided to start at the National Museum and work our way around. We had an Uber pick us up and bring us there, which took almost an hour in the traffic. Ugh. When we got there, the museum was closed. Of course, the information online said it was open that day and no one was answering the phone when we tried to call and inquire. Story of our lives.
After some confusion we decided to walk toward the “amulet market” and gaze at some of the Buddhas and charms for sale there. They had some interesting pieces, but otherwise not very exciting.
To escape the already piping-hot heat of the day, we ducked into a small cafe for some bubble tea before making our way to the Grand Palace.
We spent quite a bit of time at the Palace, both because it was absolutely swollen with tourists and because there is a lot to see. You are not allowed to wear shorts inside, so when we arrived we were directed to wait in a line where they would let you borrow a pair of pants to wear over your shorts. 15 minutes into my wait under the mid-morning sun, an employee announced that they were out of pants. Grrr. I had to leave the palace, go across the street, and buy myself a pair for 200 THB ($5.87). Not expensive, just annoying.
Back at the palace we were finally able to get in, pay the 500 THB ($14.60) entrance fee, and check the place out. The palace has a huge area with a couple of temples, which were very cool to see up close. They are covered in millions of tiny pieces of mirrored porcelain to make up their exterior. Everything was pristine!
The heat was absolutely stifling and the place was jam-packed, which made it a bit difficult to move around and take decent photos. After a couple hours baking there we’d had enough, so we made our way to the “Dawn Temple”: Wat Arun.
To get to Wat Arun, we had to take a ferry across the Chao Phraya river which cost 4 THB ($0.12) each per direction and only takes a few minutes.
Wat Arun was much less crowded than the Grand Palace and even had some parts you could get into for free, so instead of paying the 50 THB ($1.47) fee we just walked around the extensive garden area.
We only spent maybe half an hour there as we had pretty much reached out capacity of Buddha sculptures and wanted to move on. Also, the spire on the main temple (the real attraction) was under construction so it really wasn’t worth going inside just to see a bunch of scaffolding.
Our last thing to check out for the day before heading back to rest up was the Giant Swing, but before getting there we stopped for our first taste of Thai street food.
These kinds of carts are found all over the city and they more or less all serve the same thing: meat on a stick. The one we stopped at also had giant shrimp, potatoes, bananas, sausages, and crab.
Each stick cost between 20-30 THB ($0.50-0.80), and so a meal could be had for less than $2. We piled up a few different kinds and found a shady spot to have our street lunch before venturing back into the oven,
The Giant Swing is exactly what it sounds like–a huge structure that looks like a swing, but doesn’t have a seat. Originally constructed in 1794, it measures 20m/60ft high and has served many religious and ceremonious purposes as well as suffered a lot of damage and subsequent renovations. Now, there are several Wats and Shrines nearby but no active swinging. Too bad, we were hoping to see some kind of acrobat doing their daily trapeze routine.
After the rather long walk to reach the swing and the lack of excitement it produced, we were thoroughly beat. We hailed an Uber and went back to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon until our food tour that evening.
Since the Bangkok Food Tour was an adventure in and of itself, I decided to give it it’s own post. Check it out here for a full review!
The next morning I went down to the lobby of the hotel at 6:30am for a group run organized by the hotel. I read about it in one of the information pamphlets in our room and thought I’d check it out. Only a couple of others showed up and they were walking, so it was just me and two hotel employees running. We headed over to Lumpini Park, not far from the hotel, and ran a couple laps around.
There was close to zero elevation and the pace was slow, but it was so humid that I was completely drenched when we got back. Quite a workout! We ended at the spa, where they gave us some fruit smoothies and towels, which was nice. Veronica was doing some laps in the pool so I went inside and did a few exercises in their nice gym before heading upstairs to shower.
After breakfast that morning, we decided to stay in the hotel for a bit instead of going back out into the wild. We were feeling defeated by the traffic and stifling heat, so instead we caught up on some work and made arrangements and reservations for other parts of our trip. We were also checking out of the Conrad and into the Aloft in Sukhumvit that afternoon, so we packed everything up and had an Uber take us across town to the other hotel.
There isn’t much to say about the Aloft other than it’s in a ‘hip’ part of town and caters to that demographic. It was a cheap redemption using my SPG points and the room was perfectly fine, albeit unremarkable.
That evening we went to the MBK Center, a large shopping mall, as I had found online that they host amateur Muay Thai fights every Wednesday. There were several sites and Facebook pages/comments that corroborated this, and since fights in Bangkok can get expensive (you’re guaranteed to get the ‘tourist price’ of 5-10x the charge of a local), I thought this would be a good alternative. We walked a few blocks to the center, sun still sweltering, and went around and around the center trying to find the ring to no avail. I even messaged the moderators of the Facebook group to ask what the deal was, but they didn’t get back to me for a couple of days. As it turns out, they are not doing the fights anymore (at least they weren’t at that time) but failed to update any of their social media despite having recent posts. This type of miscommunication is what drives me crazy in other countries. I have to assume that I was not the only one who inquired about this throughout the entire duration that they have not been hosting fights, so why not just post an update and be done with it? But I digress. With nothing more to see at MBK and our plans foiled, we grabbed some food from some of the vendors they had outside.
We then went across the street to the Bankok Cultural Center, where they had a really neat exhibit of photography by Sebastião Salgado.
This was actually one of our favorite stops in Bangkok–and not just because it was air-conditioned! The exhibit was free, not at all crowded, quiet, and had some fantastic photography. I was very much impressed by the display and my frustration about the botched Muay Thai fight was immediately squelched. After taking it all in we made our clammy walk back to the hotel for the night.
I got up and went to the gym in the morning for one more workout in their sweet gym. We had to check out and were heading to Laos, so it was going to be a long day of travel. We packed, returned our keys, and grabbed an Uber to the airport to start our journey. As it turns out, getting to where we needed to be in Laos was quite an ordeal, so I’ll write a separate post just on that.
Impressions of Bangkok
- The city is stupidly and oppressively hot–all the time. It’s hard to do much of anything during the daylight hours and especially between 11am-4pm.
- Traffic is a disaster. The best bet is to take the Sky train, but it doesn’t go to many places outside of city center (e.g. the airports) which is wildly inconvenient.
- Cabs are scams just like in every other third-world metropolis. They’re cheap, but they will rip you off at every chance. Tuk tuks are worse. I hate dealing with it, so we used Uber most of the time. It’s more expensive, but requires no haggling or need for cash.
- That being said, Uber in Bangkok can be a pain as well since arrival times are whack. Sometimes it would say 3 minutes and then jump to 12 once the driver accepts, then they’d show up 1 minute later. I’m sure it’s partially due to traffic, but also due to their algorithm, which I think differs by country. Either way, it was not without it’s own issues and delays, although the one time we tried to hail a regular cab and it took us 20 minutes to both find one and we paid 3x the Uber rate. That experience alone made it worth the effort of Uber..
- I’m pleasantly surprised at how clean the city is and how nice people are in general.
- I can see why people come here, but I don’t get all the hype. I guess because I get annoyed at the heat and disdain traffic, I’m not looking for a prostitute/girlfriend/wife, and I don’t care to shop for cheap garbage I’m not really the demographic of someone who falls in love with the city. I can tell, though, that there is some great stuff to see outside of Bangkok and I’d love to explore the countryside more.
- All the outlets in hotels and other public spaces are the multi-type which can take all kinds of plugs (including U.S.). This is genius and I can’t understand why other countries don’t all do this. GET TO KNOW.
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Brandon Chase is a writer, endurance athlete, and guide based in Maine. He is a former Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State and spent nearly a decade overseas serving at embassies in Egypt, Cyprus, and Pakistan.
Along with a 98-day thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, he has summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, hiked the West Highland Way, fastpacked in the Himalayas, and trekked around New Zealand and South Africa. He also regularly competes in ultramarathons at the 50k, 50-mile, and 100-mile distances. He is a Lead Guide for Andrew Skurka Adventures and the New England Outdoor Center.