Breathtaking Bangkok: Exploring the Thai capital

The city’s unwholesome reputation belies its rich culture and hospitality. (Shutterstock)
Updated 15 November 2019

Breathtaking Bangkok: Exploring the Thai capital

BANGKOK: I traveled to Bangkok with a certain level of apprehension — all I knew of the place was what I had seen in the movies and read in the press, all of which made the city seem, to be generous, kind of seedy.

The fact that my hotel was based in the city’s Sukhumvit district — where Thailand’s longest road starts, and where much of its seediness resides — didn’t bode well either.

But the Sukhumvit district is also home to popular air-conditioned malls, some fantastic street food, a wide selection of tailors who will make you a suit for $165 in less than five days and the Skytrain (BTS), which will whisk you away to some of the city’s more-salubrious areas for less than $2.

The city’s Sukhumvit district is where Thailand’s longest road starts. (Shutterstock)​

I’m a big fan of markets, and Bangkok’s are fantastic. The Thai capital is home to numerous markets littered across the city, tucked away among its vast urban sprawl — each crying out for its own Insta Story.

If you’re there at the weekend, it is well worth spending a few hours at the Chatuchak Market. Open only on Saturday and Sunday, it boasts thousands of stalls divided into numerous sections. There’s a map at the entrance, but if you’re not in a rush then this is the perfect place to lose yourself down the narrow lanes selling just about everything you could possibly want, and more besides.

The food at Chatuchak is fresh, cheap and tasty. The restaurants have a high turnover, so there’s no real risk of any nasty bugs.

The Thai capital is home to numerous markets littered across the city. (Shutterstock)

Food is a big deal in Bangkok — there’s a multitude of restaurants on most streets, selling everything you’d expect in a place where East meets West, but it is well worth trying the street food: Look for the places where you can see it’s cooked fresh and frequently.  

I went several times to a restaurant called Krua Khun Puk, initially because of its close proximity to my hotel, but after the first instance to work my way through a number of their mouth-watering dishes. I ate tom yum goong soup, a green curry and, later in the week, chicken in coconut milk. Each dish was cooked to perfection and delicious.

It’s also worth also visiting Jay Fai, which gained attention when it became Thailand’s first street-food restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. The place doesn’t look like much. It is located in an open-fronted shop in the Samran Rat district of the city. They advise you to book in advance, but you can turn up and queue (although this can take up to four hours). And, be warned, it is not cheap. I paid $33 for the famous crab-filled omelet and nearly $20 for a rich, fragrant bowl of tom yum soup. The food was undeniably great, although personally I preferred Krua Khun Puk.

Jay Fai gained attention when it became Thailand’s first street-food restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. (Shutterstock)

That might just be me, though. When I went to Jay Fai, two members of the Backstreet Boys were sat at the table next to me and they seemed very content with what they had. (I didn’t actually find out they were Backstreet Boys until they’d left.)

Bangkok is a place built for wandering, so yes, go see the reclining Buddha, ride the river boats past the stunning Wat Arun Temple, and definitely visit the King Power Mahanakhon Tower to see the city from up high, but it’s also worth buying a travel pass and riding the BTS to wherever it takes you.

I did this and I found myself getting off at stations where there were narrow markets where the locals shopped — vibrant and filled with fantastic Instagram moments. At one station I wandered down the road and found a street-food restaurant filled with Thai families, where they served cockles cooked to perfection.

The food at Chatuchak is fresh, cheap and tasty. (Shutterstock)

The Skytrain is a cheap way to spend the day and filled with endless places to jump off and wander around. It’s also a very simple way to navigate your way across the city, rather than paying through the nose for a tuk-tuk or cab.

One of the city’s less well-known attractions is the Red Cross snake farm at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute. There you can see snakes doing what snakes seem to do a lot — i.e. not much. The real fun is the live show when the handlers bring out a selection of the slithery reptiles, including a king cobra.

Bangkok is one of those places that offers a vastly different experience to each person, because there is so much to do. Despite my initial doubts, my experience was great, and it’s a place I would happily return to.

What We Are Reading Today: A Wonder to Behold

Updated 11 December 2019

What We Are Reading Today: A Wonder to Behold

Authors: Anastasia Amrhein, Clare Fitzgerald, and Elizabeth Knott

In the ancient Near East, expert craftspeople were more than technicians: They numbered among those special members of society who could access the divine. 

While the artisans’ names are largely unknown today, their legacy remains in the form of spectacular artworks and monuments. One of the most celebrated works of antiquity — Babylon’s Ishtar Gate and its affiliated Processional Way — featured a dazzling array of colorful beasts assembled from molded, baked, and glazed bricks. 

Such an awe-inspiring structure demanded the highest level of craft; each animal was created from dozens of bricks that interlocked like a jigsaw. Yet this display of technical and artistic skill also served a ritual purpose, since the gate provided a divinely protected entrance to the sacred inner city of Babylon.

A Wonder to Behold explores ancient Near Eastern ideas about the transformative power of materials and craftsmanship as they relate to the Ishtar Gate, says a review on the Princeton University Press website. This beautifully illustrated catalogue accompanies an exhibition at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.