I did not expect to like Bangkok.
I knew that it would be very similar to my native Manila: dirty, crowded, hot, loud. Thailand was high on David’s list. But for me, Bangkok was a necessary stop to the things that I really wanted out of this trip. As I’ve grown older, my travel style has changed. I no longer seek out bars and clubs and too much “excitement”. Temples and ruins, yes. Beach on an island, yes. A city, especially one with Bangkok’s reputation? Not so much.
It was not helpful that when I was looking up where to stay, various forums and travel sites had conflicting information on where was best, and my conclusion was that all areas were rife with one or more things we probably would not enjoy too much (read: shady alleys full of clubs and bars, crowded parties, unsafe neighborhoods).
Arriving into Bangkok: DMK Airport
From Siem Reap we took a quick one-hour Air Asia flight to Don Mueang Airport. The airport is easy enough to navigate. There were three or four money changing booths by baggage claim, all with signs that stated they all have the same rate, what that rate was (about 30 THB to 1 USD), and much to our appreciation, that they did not charge any fees for currency exchange, which is quite a rarity. Knowing that Thailand would be much like Cambodia, where cash rather than credit is the norm, we picked the booth with the smallest line, changed all of our dollars and walked out to the much bigger arrival terminal.
My research said to take a taxi to Asoke. The official airport taxi stand is at the far left end. The line itself was not too bad although the stanchions can hold quite a lot of people. You come out the doors to the sidewalk where there are about 8 designated queues of people. Taxis are regulated and you are given a receipt when you board with a number to call in case of any issues. The taxis line up in spots from left to right, usually two to each queue. This ensures that the wait time is pretty much the same no matter where you end up, which I thought was a pretty good system. There was a steady flow of cabs when we were there (2PM on a Wednesday, the wait was less than 15 minutes).
I showed our driver the hotel name and address on my phone, and off we went. Traffic was not horrendous, though we did slow down once we got to the Sukhumvit area. Please note that you should have cash ready to pay the tolls, although they do give change at the toll booths. We paid THB70 and 50 respectively, I believe. The driver was uncertain of our hotel’s location and ended up calling the front desk for instructions (sounds like this is pretty common unless staying at a very big or well-known hotel). We made it to Asoke Residence Hotel in about a half hour. It was about THB200 for the ride, including tip and a THB50 airport surcharge.
A note on the hotel area. We really liked Asoke, so much that we booked another night here at the end of the trip. The MRT (subway: Phetchaburi or Sukhumvit station), BTS (skytrain: Asok station) and Airport Link are all in walking distance, which makes getting around really easy. This is more of a business area however, so if you are looking for a bar or club or some sort of entertainment, you will have to take a train somewhere else. This suited our needs and we felt perfectly safe in the area as well as avoiding the crowded and busy sidewalks that we later encountered near the BTS in Silom. Since transportation is pretty inexpensive, we recommend this area.
Checking things out
We then had the immediate goal of finding Hualamphong Rail station and purchasing our train tickets onward to Ko Samui, as I had read that tickets sell out quickly. We made it in record time, less than fifteen minutes from Phetchaburi to Hualamphong, which was good since advance ticket sales close at 4pm.
The rail station reminded me a lot of Grand Central in New York: high ceiling, trains everywhere, lots of food stations. We headed to the ticket booth. The agent was friendly but to our disappointment, the train that we wanted for Saturday (#85, 730 PM) was full in second class. The train before that (#167 at 630 PM) had second class available. We opted for the fan cabin, but there were no bottom bunks left… we had read up on this and figured that top bunks would suffice (a big mistake). The agent then offered ferry tickets as well. The whole package with train, connecting bus and ferry tickets cost a little over THB1500 for the two of us. Not bad.
That done, we had some time before our 6 PM cooking class in Silom. It was time to sample some food! We had passed a lot of very interesting and appetizing things: at the side of the road, in little booths, pretty much everywhere. Bangkok is known for its culinary delights.
Now, this is something important to know about me and David: food is IMPORTANT. It can make or break a place. We try to eat like locals, we love street food, and we don’t like fancy restaurants. The rail station food court definitely fit the bill. Vendor booths line one side, and you have to exchange your baht for coupons to get food. We found a vendor at the end that had likely-looking dishes laid out cafeteria-style (no labels or descriptions of the ingredients, at least not in English) and got our coupons. THB40 to share a plate with rice and two different dishes, not bad! We sat down and took our first bites, then I got up right away and got a THB10 bottle of water. =) Everything was spicy. Good, mostly sauce with bits of meat and vegetable, but quite spicy. Well, I can’t say that was unexpected.
On our way out, we got some fried corn with chili sauce (I love corn, this was very greasy, and a bit odd due to the chilly sauce) and a bun (sadly unremarkable despite looking amazing) from the Mr. Bun just outside the main rail station.
We were still a bit early, so while David enjoyed his coffee, we explored the rail station a bit (having learned from a previous potential disaster in Rome). Then we got back on the MRT to Silom station, where our chef met us for the cooking class. More on that later, but I do suggest trying a cooking class while you’re in Bangkok, specially if you like Thai food. Silom Thai Cooking School was a fun experience for both of us. I have yet to test out my newfound skills; I will be sure to report how that goes.
At around 9 pm, happy and full, we headed back to Asoke on the BTS. We passed a myriad food stands and massage parlors along the way, and observed the bright lights of the city center. But cooking (and eating!) is hot work on top of the general heat and humidity, and we were ready for a shower and bed.
My first acquaintance with Bangkok fulfilled my expectations and exceeded them. Yes, it was dirty, hot and loud. But thanks to the amazing trains, it was easy to get around, and we got a respite from the heat. The people we encountered were friendly and cheerful, and we had so far not encountered an overwhelming crowd. And, there was amazing food to be had, all within easy reach. We had two more days to explore and I was ready to be surprised again.