I don’t even know where to start. Maybe with the fact that getting an on-arrival visa in Bangkok Don Mueang Airport for the first-timers is a pain. There are no clear signs, no clear guidelines. (For many countries a visa is not needed, but unfortunately Latvia is not one of those).
If you are one of the unlucky ones who has to get one, know that:
- You have to have you photo right (4×6 cm), and if you want to avoid extra waiting time, make your photo before (making it in the Airport will probably be more expensive than in a local photo studio, definitely, if you travel in SE Asia);
- I did not know it, but on-arrival visa application form can be found online. Print it out and fill it – again, some time saved;
- You have to pay for the visa in Thai Bahts. Be smart – exchange the money before queueing for applying the documents. The exchange desk is near the visa lockets. There will probably be many people applying for visa. Avoid waiting in line twice.
- Make sure you have filled in the arrival and departure card they give you on the airplane. Keep the departure card and do not loose it – you will need it once you will want to exit the country!
After queuing for getting a visa and finding our luggage on a different belt it was supposed to be, we had another waiting to do – the line for taxi to get to the city. At least the taxis charge according to the meter. And we had pretty clear directions how to get to our residence.
We planned to spend a week in Bangkok. Because it was in the middle of everything, because all the cheap flights go through Bangkok, because Stijn had a website project to work on. Following a suggestion by a friend of Stijn, we looked for an Airbnb place around Ari (Aree) area. It was one of the best pieces of advice we have followed. Ari is a residential area with new cafes and restaurants popping up like mushrooms after rain. Away from the tourist centre, backpackers streets, crazy night life and noise of the big roads. And the train line just at the hands reach. With working days ahead of us, looking for an apartment seemed a much better idea than a private room. We stretched our budget a bit and opted for a nice, white studio with a washing machine(!), in the heart of Ari. We could not be happier with the location and the apartment. (Ok, I would call it heaven, if they had a swimming pool on the rooftop of the building, but, hey, we are still kinda trying to travel budget conscious).
For anyone interested: here is the AirBnb listing.
If you rent an apartment for more than 3 days, you might consider to keep some stock of food for breakfast and when ever you are hungry. As Stijn was in his computer works, my task was to do grocery shopping. We were very fortunate, because Villa Market, selling all kinds of Western goods, was just next to the Ari train station. I got some basic supply of bread (I could chose from several varieties of dark and wholegrain kinds – that is something!), cheese, yoghurt, muesli and few packs of cookies for my hard working man. I could not resist taking a bar of Hershey’s cookies’n’cream. That was one of the biggest treat back in my childhood. And very hard to get. The whole shopping was like returning to comfort zone. Having a piece of bread with cheese and siping green tea for breakfast… God, that felt good!
The city train was almost at our door and in one swing could take us to the Embassy of Vietnam, the Siam square of never-ending shopping centres and back from the weekend market. The train is fast, new, pretty and freezing cold. There are many screens for adds and train announcements. I was amazed about the city scape through the windows of the train and the adds too. A friend of mine once said, that adds are the most interesting thing to watch, if you have not see TV for a while. I absolutely agree.
One thing that is specific about the trains, and I have not made up my mind whether it is convenient or not, is that you buy the ticket with coins. Usually coins are the disturbing round things that make your wallet full and heavy. If you are buying a one way ticket (a day pass is available, if you are planning to hop on and off the train many times), you have to get it from a machine that accepts only coins. No change? They will happily exchange your bills, but not sell you a ticket in the ticket counter. So in Bangkok, keep your coins and keep them close by.
When the station gets crowed with people willing to take the train they do not make groups, trying to squeeze closer to the safety line. No, they form straight lines. There are even special arrows giving directions for the recommended movement flow. The middle of the opening doors is kept free for passengers getting off the train. Those willing to get on the train have to queue on the sides of the doors. We learned this system the hard way, loosing our good spot, just because we did not notice the forming of lines, but now we know.
The Weekend market
We did not do much of recommended tourist places, but we made it to the Chatuchak weekend market. Ari is about 30 minutes walk from it. On a relatively early Saturday morning we left Ari to head towards North. At the beginning it felt windy and even chilly, a big surprise from humid and hot Bangkok. But soon after we realised that it was very temporary. After 15 minutes walk, we were soaking wet. We were still early, as some of the shops were just about to open. The perfect timing, if you ask me. Only few other tourists and a little of locals. Stijn was up for updating his wardrobe. That was our main focus. We saw some nice shops, some, that were very specifically targeted (hippy outfits and gangsta-rappers’ wear being the most popular), some were beyond any quality standards, but extremely cheap. We found a pair of short, a shirt and a T-shirt for Stijn. He is now ready for Chinese New Year celebration in Vietnam. Not too bad for a shopping day. After 3 hours of systematically browsing through the alleys of the weekend market we were exhausted and gave in for one of those foot massages offered in the market. Sitting in the comfy chair in an Air conditioned corner separated from the rest of the market with a plastic curtain, relaxing while rest of the market is sweating out and struggling with their purchases. After the massage we were too relaxed to stay in the market that was getting too crowded and hot. We found the first exit and took a train back to our flat, where we could put AC on.
The city from above
Stijn took me to bar Cloud 47, one of the freely accessible bars located at one of the top floors in one of the countless skyscrapers of Bangkok. The afternoon was slightly clouded, the perfect condition for a cocktail at sunset, watching over the skyline of Bangkok. We paid for the view with having few pricy cocktails, at least they were good. All there rest were the beautiful things you can see only from above, and some very charming architecture. My favourite is a dusty pink skyscraper.
The cocktails seemed to do the trick and make me hungry. A street food vendor with a little grill and an arsenal with little meat kebabs on sticks, marinated in sweet sticky, fragrant sauce, was selling his good just close by the building of Cloud 47. I had spotted him before. The nice smell had already seduced my senses before. After the aperitif, I could not resist anymore. We got each a stick with chicken meat. And it was so good, that both of us got another one. We did not do much of street food in Bangkok. Simply because we were not on the streets that much. We had a noodle soup with all kind of varieties of fried meat and seafood products (undefinable thought). It was not my favourite dish, but not too bad either. I got a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice once. We were meaning to try out the seafood truck that was trending so much on Foursquare and was located about 200 m from our condo, but we ended up having too little evenings during our stay.
Talking about food… To get a coffee (just black coffee, no nescafe) in India is a big challenge. Not all tourist friendly places will make the effort to offer a cup of real coffee. In the tourist hotels of Myanmar coffee is found a little bit easier, they even have few coffee shops in Yangon. Bangkok sinks in good coffee, excellent coffee and Starbucks. There are coffee shops every 50 meters. 80% of locals are running around the city with huge mugs filled with ice, milk and coffee. I do not know, if it is a national addiction or following the trends set by coffee chains or a little bit of both. But the locals are taking their mugs very serious. Having all that coffee places around did not do good for us. We gave in for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake too many times.
One of the greatest things about our location (yes, we are totally in love with Ari) was that we could easily extend the working desk to the adorable bike-café La Liart that was just next door. It made us feel a bit home sick, as we have a lovely bike café in Mechelen, Belgium (Peloton de Paris). Another good place with lots of cakes is Porcupine Café. But the fusion cakes, brownies and scones of La Liart attracted our taste a little bit more. Stijn even convinced the staff and the costumers to participate in a video, that he made for his nephew.
For dinner we tried few places around the block, some of them were good (Salt, Lay Lao and few more), some ok-ish (e.g. Fatbird) and there were many that we did not have a chance to try out. But there was a restaurant about 200 m from our place called “Tête et Nez”.
We passed it several times doubting, if we should try it. Jugging by the French name, we assumed it will be a very expensive wine place. Few times we spotted same couple sitting there, once even giving us “thumbs up”, while we were checking out the menu. It was only our last night in Bangkok that we decided to try it out. I regret that we did not do it earlier. The food was great and the owner of the place had come up with a whole new concept of wine. As a fragrance expert she had nurtured an idea to boost wines with edible perfumes. Sounds a bit strange, as we know that good wines are all about his and that fruit, berry, wet forest and sunrise nuances. The wine experts will and do frown at this, but the fragrances bring a whole new taste to the wine. Even thought the added perfume does not change the taste of the wine, the mind is tricked by the nose and the wine suddenly tastes different. A new discovery for sure. Besides the wine, the food was excellent. No complains. And the finely selected French inspired playlist was lovely too.
Shops and shopping
Common it the saying that nowadays going to church is replaced by going to shopping malls. We went to a very big complex. Siam is the shopping heaven. Hectares with luxurious fashion brand stores, showrooms of the fanciest of fanciest cars, exclusive SPAs, exquisite cafes and gourmand grocery stores. All wrapped in extensive decorations.
Not all of the shopping centres around Siam are like that though. One can also find trendy middle class clothing, gadgets, toys, beauty products and what else not. One day is definitely too short, to discover all the hidden gems. I must admit that after 3 months traveling around, buying food (mostly cookies and crisps, sometimes a piece of fruit) from small vendors and fighting off the souvenir sellers, it felt like arriving in wonderland. For a change it was nice to stroll around the huge shopping cathedrals and let my self be a little bit amazed.
Bangkok is a very fashionable city. You can buy everything that is trending right from the brand shops or get a close enough copy just a kilometre further in the MBK shopping centre. Everyone can afford a BAO BAO bag these days. Some will buy the original Issey Miyake, some will get the more pocket friendly replica. And no-one will tell a difference form a far.
In general people are very well dressed. Just doing some people watching was one of my biggest delights. And they have some very nice shops, oh-my… All the big brand names, for sure, but also many local brands or a crazy mix of different designers at agreeable price. If my backpack could be stretched and I did not have to do two more months of traveling, I would for sure got some quite authentic and original pieces. Antwerp would definitely appreciate that.
From his previous visit to Bangkok, Stijn had a wish to see a movie in the art deco Scala Theatre. Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight was recently out – that seemed like a perfect match. There was only one stand with few snack and popcorn and a bored older lady selling it. Seemed that Scala is not the most poplar place these days. But it still has a lot of past days charm – the seat are assigned on a big paper chart made for each movie. As we entered the big studio our tickets were checked by two men in suits, equipped with torches, to show us our seats. It was like going to a cinema in an American movie. Most of the people chose to see movies in modern cinemas. We were sharing a very big hall with only few other spectators. We were doubtful about the seats as we would have to sit for quite a log time (Tarantino’s movies are not the shortest ones), but they turned out to be very comfortable.
Note by Stijn (because Elize forgot to mention it).
To our pleasant surprise, just before the movie began the national anthem started playing. Same like our movie experience in Mumbai, all visitors did rise and did sing along while a rather old-style video clip of the king of Thailand was showing. Knowing the age of the king, most of the photos were from his more active days. I wonder how it would be if the same habit was introduced in Belgium.
I did not have a list of places to see in Bangkok, except one. The Siriraj Medical museum. Our Yangon friend Katie told me about it. My grandmother being a doctor (she is a dentist, but she claims that it is the best kind of doctor, as dentists have to be able to assist a child delivery in case it occurs in the dentist chair) took me once to the Medical museum in Riga. I was absolutely amazed. Following the recommendation, I decided that the Medical museum would be the one place I’ll visit in Bangkok. And I was so excited that I event went to the Siriraj Medical museum twice…
The first time I took a local bus No 25 from Siam to the Royal palace (paid only 7 THB and got stuck in a very bad traffic). From there I had to take a boat to cross the river. I had no clue which. So I lost 15 minutes standing on the wrong pier as none of the men organising the passenger flow bothered to answer my questions. They were just dividing everyone in two groups – locals and the rest (aka tourists). Locals were coming and going, but tourists had to wait for a boat that would come in 10 minutes. But was not quite clear where it was going. I went searching for an answer and was directed to a different pier. 3 THB and I was on the right boat that crossed the river. I got out and looked for my way to the museum. Signs took me to the right one (there are two, if you want the creepy stuff, look for Siriraj Medical museum).
I reached it around 4 pm. I was not sure, if it still be open, as I had contradictory information on the closing hour. But the lady at the reception explained me that there was another problem. The museum is closed on Tuesdays. It was Tuesday! I did not find that information on their web page. There is only a laminated sign in the museum it self.
Probably touched by my sad face the lady offered me a free visit, if I come back tomorrow. Oh, well… I guess tomorrow it is. I had been on the way for the last 2 hours, I was too tired to get upset.
Now I had to get back to Ari. Once again Google Maps provided me with the necessary bus number and the women at the bus stop confirmed that it is the right stop. I had to wait quite some time, but eventually bus No 157 came. It was air-conditioned and I got a seat at the window. 16 THB and 1,5 hours later I got out close by our flat.
The next morning, I took the same bus to get back to the museum. I could have a free entrance after all. The collection on the museum is quite impressive, but smaller than I expected. Lots of skeletons and embryos, all organs of human body, as well as sideways sliced man. It was definitely interesting, but I would have liked more descriptive texts in English or even a tour guide. It took me less than an hour to go through the exhibits twice. The place is worth the visit, if you are into anatomy and anomalies.
The hours spent on the local buses I took as very cheap tour around suburbs of Bangkok. The other passengers were very curious about me, as they see tourists rarely on the old, wooden floored relicts. Getting back into the train was like traveling in time.
I guess Bangkok was the perfect combination of busy metropole keeping enough distance for one to be. After spending last 3 months in India and Myanmar, Bangkok totally had me. Maybe I just missed Western-ish lifestyle, or a bit of organisation. I found the people very well dressed and charmingly distant. I never thought it would, but the skyscrapers and the hidden private houses in between amazed me. Despite of the big overlapping roads, transport, huge buildings close to each other, Bangkok is green. At least the parts we saw.
We had 7 days in Bangkok, that was how much we thought we would need. But when it was time to leave, we did not really want to. Our stay had been too short. The days had run by too fast, we had not tried all the places around our block. We could have had more and more of the city. We promised our selves to come back soon and stay longer to soak it up completely.