Bangkok: Urban Exploration

In previous posts, we talked about how a tour guide had mentioned the five things you have to do in Bangkok. To refresh your memory, here they are:

  1. Visit the Grand Palace.
  2. Visit the temples.
  3. Get a massage.
  4. See a floating market.
  5. Go shopping.

I shared our experiences with #s 1 and 2 here. As for the massage… there are so many establishments available everywhere, for varying prices, offering varying services, that it is hard for me to say exactly which ones you should try except to suggest that at least once, you must have the traditional Thai massage.

THAI MASSAGE

What exactly is a traditional Thai massage? No oil is involved (and I have read that in some areas, asking for an oil massage might actually imply that you desire a “happy ending”). Instead, the masseuse will provide you a set of loose clothing, have you lay on a pallet, and then proceed to “pretzel” you. That’s David’s term and is pretty accurate for what happens. Pressure is applied on various areas of your body, head to toe if you desire, a concentrated area if you specify it. It will be a deep-tissue type massage and will occasionally hurt; you definitely have to speak up if the pain is beyond what you can tolerate. The masseuse will use a variety of different body parts to keep you in place and apply pressure: arms, elbows, fingers, toes, legs, knees. They may sit on you and also occasionally walk on you, depending on the establishment. They will have you bend backwards, pull, lean over, and you’ll hear your joints pop everywhere.

This is no relaxing massage; you will be an active participant. You may also feel achy up to a day after. But why do it? Well, it definitely feels good. Personally, I carry a lot of tension in my back, and use of a computer and phone all day have caused my right shoulder to have especially awful knots. One of the therapists commented that I was intensely stiff on my upper back, and she’d be concentrating there but that I would hurt for possibly a couple days after she was done. The massages (I had 2 within 3 days in Bangkok, along with a foot spa) definitely eased a lot of that tension.

As for prices, as I said, they vary. Traditional Thai massage can be as low as 500 Baht; every other type will be more expensive. One of the massages we had simply because we felt like having one after dinner one day, and we walked into the next likely-looking studio in Silom. The other (at Ruen Nuad) we looked up. We were pretty pleased with both experiences, though maybe we were just lucky. Do your research, or be daring and try the next one you see, but if you like massages, Bangkok will definitely have something for you.

LUMPHINI PARK

Straying off-topic here a bit to share a hidden gem in Bangkok. Even though we were only there for a few days, we found ourselves wanting to escape the crowds of the city for a little while. Our helpful guide book had a list of green spaces in the city, and Lumphini Park afforded us a couple hours of serenity.

Besides trees and grass, Lumphini Park has a man-made lake and a small creek. You can paddle-boat in the lake, though when we went, we would have risked heatstroke if we had done that; the sun was so warm and there’s no cover on the lake. It was nice enough to walk around, watch the birds and turtles and occasional jumping fish. And, something that I have not seen elsewhere in the wild: monitor lizards! Lumphini Park is home to many, some small and some almost scary in size. We made a game of following them and trying to spot the biggest one (we found a massive specimen, maybe as big as 5 feet long from snout to tail, at the creek with the water wheel).

TALING CHAN FLOATING MARKET

Taling ChanWe headed out nice and early on a Saturday to enjoy one of Bangkok’s truly unique experiences: floating markets. The most popular of course is Damnoen Saduak; this is the biggest as well and is generally open everyday. However, it is a HUGE tourist trap and is actually rather far south of Bangkok, which means getting up at the crack of dawn to make it there before it gets too crowded. So we chose to go smaller and closer to Bangkok: Taling Chan.

The easiest way to get to Taling Chan is by taxi. It’s a small market, but when we got there, we found exactly what we were looking for: boats, fresh seafood, and best of all: David seemed to be the only person there who wasn’t Thai (eventually a few other obvious foreigners showed up, but not many).

fresh seafoodThe structure is basically a walkway with various goods (oils, plants, pastries, food, etc) that led to the water. More food and drinks along the edge of the water, and then a wooden plank that led to a platform on the water itself. This platform has long tables where you could sit lotus-style and enjoy a meal. Small boats are tied up to the sides of the platform, and this is where the idea of the floating market comes from: vendors make food right on the boat.

They have a menu you can order from (most of the time, only with the vaguest references in English). You order what you want, they cook it, and bring it to the table.

A bit rustic, but an enjoyable experience. There was a good number of people but not so overwhelming that we couldn’t find anywhere to sit, and of course the seafood was some of the freshest and tastiest I’ve had. It was fun to stroll through the walkway as well and check out all the various things. The only challenge was that, since Taling Chan is more of a local market, I had no idea what I was looking at half the time. Still, that gave everything a more authentic feel that we welcomed.

CHATUCHAK WEEKEND MARKET

Immediately after Taling Chan, we took a cab over to Chatuchak Weekend Market (also known as JJ Market). It is reachable from downtown Bangkok as well, by both BTS (Mo Chit station) and MRT (Chatuchak Park or Kamphaeng Phet).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe market is huge, and you can buy anything there. Anything. Shoes, clothing, food, drinks, furniture, household goods, pets… name it, there’s a stall for it somewhere in there.

Navigating Chatuchak is difficult. You can get a map that details zones, which calls out general ideas for what you might find in each area. It’s not exactly accurate though, so don’t count on that. My suggestion is to find a spot from which to orient yourself: perhaps one of the entrance gates, or the clock tower at the center. Then, radiate outward from your chosen location.

Chatuchak is HOT. When you’re following the main streets, you will be in the sun, and when you go into one of the many alleys, you will be in a suffocatingly small space (except for the occasional stalls that have fans and air conditioning). Be prepared. Wear light, breathable clothing. Don’t carry a lot to start with; you’ll find yourself with stuff before your time here is over. Bring water, buy shakes at the market, whatever it takes to stay hydrated. Be patient with crowds: fellow shoppers, store owners.

Looking to buy something for a good price? This market is a good bet.

Looking to buy something for a good price? This market is a good bet.

Haggle. The suggestions I made in this Siem Reap post apply here as well. And when you choose to buy something, inspect the merchandise well; there are no returns and refunds here! And on that note, carry cash, or make note of ATM locations for when you run out. It may be wise to set yourself a limit as well; like I said, you can buy everything here, and even with the best of intentions, you may find yourself purchasing more things than you expected. If you’re with someone who doesn’t like to shop, knowing what you’re looking for and setting a time limit might also help.

And most of all, have fun!

CHINATOWN

ChinatownFor some of the best food in Bangkok, a visit to Chinatown is a must. Getting there is fairly easy: take the MRT to Hualamphong and walk west across the channel along Th Charoen Krung, which will lead you into the heart of Chinatown.

Street food is great here, as well as (obviously) some really delicious Asian food. We bought fresh pomegranate and citrus juice, chestnuts and durian from street vendors.

Vegetarian FestivalWe also happened upon the Vegetarian Festival, which happens around the last week of September or beginning of October, depending on the lunar calendar. Temporary stalls lined Charoen Krung Road, most of whom had yellow flags to signify purely vegetarian offerings. In typical Bangkok style, however, the main road itself wasn’t closed to vehicles, so it got pretty challenging to navigate the small part of the road blocked off for pedestrians. Besides the food, they also had contests and performances going on, and it is definitely a different experience and one that is unique to Bangkok.

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