Last updated 9 June 2020
Discovering the best things to do in Bangkok
In a city of almost ten million where the streets hum with a constant flow of people moving to and from their destination, imagine finding a little slice of serenity.
Would you think it possible?
Recently I travelled to Bangkok with a group of writers and bloggers from Brisbane. We flew with Air Asia – the low-cost airline who recently added direct flights out of Brisbane.
Here are five new and interesting experiences I discovered in Bangkok – including food, sights, where to stay and how to get around.
Fly Air Asia direct from Brisbane to Bangkok
Flying time from Brisbane on Air Asia without delays is nine hours 20-minutes. We have a few minor hiccups which delays our scheduled departure by 45 minutes. Storm cells over Bangkok meant we had to circle for another 45 minutes before landing. On the ground, we clear customs efficiently and meet our smiling guides, Suree and Tenh from Absolutely Fantastic Holidays Co. Ltd
The downside of arriving at night is trying to establish the layout of a new city. When the driver pulled into the driveway of Shama Lakeview Asoke in downtown Bangkok (30 km from the airport) I’d no idea exactly where in Bangkok we were. No biggie. The warm and friendly greeting we received from the Shama staff quickly erased any memories about flight delays. A welcoming duo of drinks was passed around. Time to celebrate. This morning we were in Brisbane and tonight we’re in Bangkok.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t erase the fact our bodies were on Aussie time. With the three-hour time difference, it was time for sleep. After a long but fun day, I check into my apartment. My HUGE king-sized bed looks inviting. Time to recharge in readiness for Bangkok adventures in the morning.
Bangkok Day one
The morning after the night before
Eight hours of sleep later, I drew open the curtains. The view from my 19th-floor window is very different than the dark landscape of the night before. Beyond the rooftops of single-storey dwellings, is a lake fringed by a thicket of greenery mirrored on its unbroken surface. The sprawling cityscape frames the scene in the background. Peaceful looking lake Ratchada was likely the inspiration behind the Hotel name: Lakeview. I wanted to take a stroll around the lake. But luxuriating too long in my comfy bed, left no time for exploring this morning. Our group was on a tight schedule with many new Bangkok experiences planned.
Breakfast is at the downstairs Coffee Club – conveniently accessible from the hotel lobby. Sukamel Mondal (Shama’s General Manager) stops by to say hello. (This casual friendliness from the staff was a highlight of my Shama experience.)
With half an hour up my sleeve, I duck outside for a quick reconnaissance of the hotel’s facilities. The pool looks inviting. At 25 metres, Shama Lakeview’s hotel pool is a decent length for swimming laps, something I like to do whenever I can find the time. (Hoping to squeeze in a swim before the evening’s activities.)
Out on the streets, Bangkok was well and truly awake. Street food vendors, their carts parked precariously on the narrow footpath were selling various hot food. A small market with eclectic items from limes and flowers to clothing and kitchen gadgets was tucked away down a side street. On the intersection of the main street and Sukhumvit Road, were floors of shops in Terminal 21. Another place to add to the ‘maybe later’ list.
Getting around Bangkok on the BTS Skytrain
It was time to tackle Bangkok’s public transport. One of the simplest and most convenient methods of getting around the city (and stay off those congested roads.)
Suree explains how to use the BTS Skytrain. I’d worked that one out during my last visit to Bangkok (and if I can do it – anyone can!)
At Saphan Taksin Station we catch a hop on hop off boat Chao Phraya Tourist Boat. The first hop on hop off boat in Thailand, stops at 11 attractions along the Chao Phraya River. An inexpensive way to watch the vibrant river life – the boats, local vessels and the houses on stilts above the river’s banks. Purchase a ticket for 200 baht (approx $10 AUD in 2019) allowing travel on the river for 24 hours from when you start using it.) Painted in bright colours, tourists will easily find these boatss.
Wat Arun Temple
Thailand and temples go hand in hand. With over 31,000 temples it’s impossible not to make a visit to at least one or two during a trip to Thailand. Last year during the ASTW Conference, I visited a few of Bangkok’s popular temples, but I’d only viewed Wat Arun from the river.
This Buddhist Temple, also known as the Temple of Dawn is said to be spectacular viewed either at sunrise or sunset with the morning (or afternoon) light reflecting off the Temple’s white surface. It was still spectacular (despite the midday heat.) Dating back to the end of the Siamese Ayutthaya Kingdom (ruling from 14th – 18th centuries) the original (smaller) temple was largely destroyed by invading Chinese and Burmese armies. It was rebuilt by General Tatskin during the Thonburi Kingdom (1768 – 1782.) The central spire, known as the Prang is the tallest in Thailand at 70 metres.
The white temple is covered in colourful tiles of varying patterns made from pieces of pottery that broke during the journey by boat from China.
“The Thais caught onto recycling early,” says the always smiling Suree.
She explains each tile is hand cut and no tile is the same.
My favourite sculpture at Wat Arun is the green-faced statue of Totskan guarding the entrance to one of the temple buildings. (10 pairs of hands and 20 faces.)
Lunch at Supatra River House
A boat drops us at a Supatra River House in Soi Wat Rakang. This house originally belonged to Khunying Supatra Singholkala, the founder of the Chao Phraya Express. An entrepreneur and astute businesswoman, she operated Bangkok’s river ferries and was known as the River Queen and lived in the house from 1975. In 1998 the house was converted to a fine dining restaurant.
As our first official Thai meal in Bangkok, we hand the task over to Suree to order a selection of dishes. I enjoyed the Thai Chicken and cashews and the DIY crispy prawns wrapped in bethal leaves. Thank you Suree for demonstrating how you combine the elements. (Need to careful not to overload with too many chilies.) Washed down with a refreshing watermelon crush drink.
The food is superb as is the outlook – watching river life passing by metres from our table. We left Supatra River House very content and calculating when we may be able to return.
Chinatown for street food
We travelled the streets of Chinatown on the Thai Bus Food Tour. It was a little voyeuristic sitting upstairs in our comfortable air-conditioned double-decker bus, being served afternoon tea Thai style while looking out from our high vantage point watching the street life unfold below us.
Returning to Chinatown via a Tuk Tuk the next night was something else. The atmosphere was electric – literally – thanks to the copious amount of neon signs typically found in Chinatowns anywhere in the world. The streets are teeming with people and street food vendors. An interesting combination of cooking smells, traffic weaving in and out, at times uncomfortably close to those not used to such proximity! Crowds of people – locals and tourists – a uniquely exciting dinner on the go experience.
We start on Yaowarat Road (corner of Sawat) at a Michelin star stall PaTongGo Savoey selling patongo – deep-fried Chinese dough (who knew street food would be Michelin star?!) Topped with your choice of Pandan custard, sickly sweet condensed milk or chocolate – these fluffy light rough shaped pieces of were sooooo good!
Now Street food experiences can be a bit of trial and error. But with two experts like Suree and Tenh who know all the best places, we enjoyed some delicious dishes. We followed those two ladies like lost sheep. They would grab the food and bring it over to us. The flow of people would step around us as we stood huddled together, passing plates of food around listening to our guides as they explained each dish.
If it sounds chaotic, it was, but that’s all part of the Chinatown street food dining experience.
We consumed Chinese green noodles, slurped on chicken soup with vegetables, watched as stir-fried noodles were artfully tossed in the air before being expertly caught in a large wok then returned to an open flame. This was street food theatre at its best.
We saw the famous Jay Fai in action. This 73-year-old legend cooks everything herself at her shophouse eatery, Raan Jay Fai. Her real name is Supinya Junsuta – but they all call her Jay Fai (translation: Chinese Aunty with a mole.) She is the chief cook and receives very little assistance from the staff. In 2017 Raan Jai Fai was the first ‘shophouse eatery’ in Bangkok to be awarded a Michelin star.
Rene, from our group, had read up about Jai Fai and said she’s featured on Netflix in a doco about street food. Standing beside her open kitchen set-up – watching her sinewy arms expertly maneuver ingredients in a couple of pans over charcoal and flames – was something else. Jai Fai is a character – check out her ski goggles and bright red lipstick. The cooking smells combined with that unusually pungent smell of gas or coal (?) filled the air. As we’re all travel writers it was irresistible to not take a picture, but we were told by a member of staff, “No video.”
Online videos indicate her crab omelet is 1000 baht. Her food is above street food prices but as with anything that becomes popular through social media, the prices go up as the waitlist grows longer. The sign pinned to the front of her eatery says bookings are for two months in advance.
But what a spectacle, the flames, the heat, the smoke from the charcoal fire and Jai Fire in those goggles – it’s just so unique.
The media may have raised her profile to the level where she’s this popular, but she’s definitely got something going on. It’s not fancy fine dining, but tables are packed as we saunter past reluctantly leaving Jai Fai to her cooking and her customers who have waited months for the privilege of eating there.
Fact: Apart from Jay Fai, most of the street food costs around $2AUD per plate – incredible value.
Not sure I would be bothered lining up halfway down the street for food. But patrons are doing this at Thipsamai – a few doors up from Jai Fai. Arguably the best Pad Thai in Thailand. Thankfully our clever guides ordered ahead before we started our tour of Chinatown and we skipped the lines. Tenh picked up a bunch of Pad Thai dishes to ‘go.’
We’d had so much street food I wasn’t sure I could squeeze any more food in. We jumped in our Tuk Tuks with our containers filled with Thailand’s ‘best’ Pad Thai to try later on in the comfort of our serviced apartment (later!)
Good to know: Shama’s rooms are fully serviced apartments. Each room has a kitchenette with microwave, cooktop, utensils, and a very large standard-sized fridge. There is a washer/dryer combo.
With so many amazing food choices to try in Bangkok, you wouldn’t likely choose to eat in, but if one morning (or evening) you wanted to stay in and have vegemite on toast (provided you BYO the vegemite) Shama Lakeview Asoke has all the facilities to accommodate in-room cooking or dining.
Exploring the quieter side of Bangkok
There’s always something going on in Bangkok. It’s a challenge to find time to explore the quieter areas during a busy schedule. But I did manage to squeeze in a walk around peaceful Lake Ratchada on my last morning. Backing onto Benjakitti Park, this green space has cycling and a running/walking path and is accessible within a ten-minute stroll from the Shama Lakeview Asoke. (A walking bridge over the busy road made this easy.)
And I did manage to fit in a few laps in Shama’s pool. Helps work off the Thai food (that’s what I tell myself!)
These are a few of Bangkok’s ‘little beauties’ I discovered. And when I say little, I don’t mean they’re tiny.
Now that Brisbane has direct flights with Air Aisa – you can travel to Bangkok with $$$ saved to throw towards a Thai meal or foot massage (or two or three.)
Fly Air Asia direct from Brisbane to Bangkok
From the 26th of June this year (2019), Air Asia is flying a new route four times a week (Tuesday/ Wednesday/ Saturday and Sunday) from the river city non-stop to Bangkok.
Voted the world’s best low-cost airline at the Skytrax World Airline Awards for the 11th year in a row, Air Asia offers economical fares. You can choose to upgrade some experiences by pre-purchasing extra bundles, like checked baggage, meals and choosing your plane seat.
Tip No. 1: On the night flights out of Bangkok, don’t expect a complimentary pillow or blanket – these cost extra. These are only offered when you purchase Premium Flatbed. So, remember pre-purchase a blanket or BYO something to keep you warm – snoozing when you’re chilly is a challenge! Or
Tip No. 2 The inflight meal, if you pre-order one, is not huge and we only ordered one! Water is limited to two bottles – one on take-off and another at the meal (or you can buy onboard but the service isn’t regular.) I suggest filling up your recyclable water bottle at the chill station (located on the way to the toilets in the departure lounge.) On a nine-plus hour flight you should be drinking a few litres of water – says mama Jen!
Tip No. 3 BYO snacks – especially if you are travelling with constantly hungry teenagers.
In the interests of keeping this blog post from becoming too long, my other Bangkok highlights will be in a separate posts:
UNESCO Listed Ayuthaya Historical Park including Candy Floss Street
Jim Thompson House and Museum – the home of the Thai Silk King
Fine dining at Michelin Star restaurant Saneh Jaan
I travelled as a guest of Air Asia and Hug Thailand. All opinions expressed are my own.