Bangkok that is big, tall, fast. Bangkok is a quintessential modern metropolis for most and I love it. Yet, the more I think about it I don’t love Bangkok because it is so big, tall, and fast. I am always a bit stunned when guides recommend the Siam Centre, tell you not to miss its shopping malls. I have been a few times and only once did I set foot in the Siam Centre with a very specific purchase in mind. When the shop didn't have what I needed I stayed for a Jaimie Oliver pizza and wine to get over my disappointment of having wasted time in a mall. That and seeing the Hello Kitty cafe was the only highlight of it.
No, I don’t love the big, tall, and fast, my heart beats for the old city Bangkok. The part of town where time stands still and no Skytrain station is in sight. The part where you don’t see many tourists, where locals sell food from little holes in the wall and where birdcages with priced chirpers hang from the awnings.
And yes, that’s what all the birds are there for! They ain’t mere pets or even decorations, they are working birds, kept to make their owners some money in chirping competitions. Champions are worth a lot and well-taken care of so they can chirp another day. This and more I learn from my friend Toni while we make our way through little side roads and I wonder aloud about all the bird cages.
I met Toni a couple of years ago on an Intrepid tour through Thailand and when I return to Bangkok he is in town for lunch and a chat. Needless to say, I let him pick the restaurant and am excited to learn that I am staying in the middle of street food lovers paradise: Saochingcha.
Toni leads me to Kai Yang Boran, a little wood-clad restaurant on Tanao Road where he orders candy flossed catfish with peanuts (for a lack of better description) for us, which tastes better than it looks. For dessert, we head to Mont Nom Sod, a place that sells nothing but toast with variations of sweet condensed milk, custards, and jams. What sounds like an odd concept to me, is beloved by Thais, many of them tourists, and we have to fight hard to get a table. I am amazed that anybody would travel for toast though it is quite yummy.
I, however, prefer my favorite green pandan custard with Pa Tong Ko, Thai donuts. Alas, it is only lunch time and Mr. & Mrs. Donut only open their little stall called Pa Tong Ko Sawoy at 5 pm. Instead, Tony leads me past the Giant Swing and the city hall to Chao Phor Seua (Tiger God Shrine) also on Tanao Road, especially exciting when Chinese New Year is in full swing.
Incense, incense, and more incense await us as well as vendors who have set up shop around the temple. They sell little, prepacked parcels with offerings: a piece of bacon, a hard-boiled egg, and some yellow flowers as well as red envelopes, firecrackers, and, of course, more incense. The inside of the temple is filled with smoke thanks to the latter and doesn’t invite to linger unless you are a truly devoted.
For a sunset stroll and to walk up an appetite for dinner (because if you stay in the area you need to eat ALL the food!) I make my way up Lod Canal and head towards the flower market, one of my favorite places in one of my favorite Bangkok neighborhoods. On my way, I get to watch a live sidewalk Thai boxing class. The champions of tomorrow and their coach are busy with practice and don’t seem to mind an audience. The ‘arena’ is covered with rose pedals due to its proximity to the flower market, not that the boys care. The coach is an austere looking man and lives up to the cliche of a boxing coach: gold chain, stern look and a master himself at spitting and shouting.
When a tiny boy is paired with the biggest in the group I can barely look, it is a proper David again Goliath match. The little one though defends himself well and is quick on his feet, earning praise from the coach and a round of applause from the bystanders. Chubby Goliath looks sour and takes his place on the sidelines, it is time for some others to take to the street and for him to sulk.
I move on to relish in mountains of orchids and be hypnotized by the smell of jasmine garlands. I could live here just to buy a bouquet of orchids every week.
The next day I make my way to the ferry stop on the Chao Praya River behind the Royal Palace*. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha and Wat Pho are also just a short walk away, making this the perfect area for culture and history fans. Just in case you feel like doing something else than eat… Wat Pho also houses the oldest school of Thai massage and a boat ride across the river sits the Wat Arun, the one with the prettiest name: Wat Arun.
I, however, hope on an express ferry boat to the Mandarin Oriental which, of course, has its own ferry stop. While the lobby oozes old world charm and grandeur, the waiters are less than gracious when they find out I am not a staying guest and only here for a snack with a view. The view itself is not very exciting either and the most entertaining is a couple next to me, he barely grown up and thinking himself posh in a polo shirt and she clearly his sugar mommy.
I don’t mind paying premium prices when the location and service are worth it, but here I decide to stick to a coconut water and take my lunch money back to the hood - after all, I live right next to the best Bangkok street food.
Where to stay in old town Bangkok?
There is no shortage of great Bangkok hotels but to me, the old city is also the best area to stay in Bangkok. A new-found favorite is Bangkok Bed and Bike, a charming old town hostel.
Have I mentioned that I used to be scared of hostels? Yes, the idea of a shared dorm and no door to close makes me hyperventilate. Only recently have I come to realize that there is a new generation of beautiful design hostels out there that usually offer private rooms as well.
Bangkok Bed and Bike is one of them. The irony that I am staying in a place that offers bicycles is not lost on me (I hate cycling with a passion for those of you who don't know that about me) but it looks so pretty so I make an exception and ignore the bikes parked up front. A good decision because my room is serene, comes with a big bed, a window sitting area, and even a little make-up table. And while the bathrooms are shared, they are pretty enough to get away with it. The only downside is the microfiber towels that remind me of my mother's dishcloth and do not dry.
Bed and Bike has teamed up with some other fabulous Bangkok hotels and hostels in the area as well as Nok Air to bring guests some authentic Bangkok experiences. Knock Knock: Bring Home - A deeper appreciation of Thai culture. Knock Knock offers tea ceremonies, testing your spice levels or Bangkok walking tours and many more - if you attend at least 3 of these free activities you have a chance to win a flight with Nok.
Unfortunately, this time around I get lazy and decide I want it all - dinner & a massage. It is a nice walk from Bangkok Bed and Bike to Rambuttri Road and there is much to see on the way. Rambuttri runs parallel to Khao San Road and it is just as naughty. But I still go because the massages are cheap and I wonder how bad the pad thai can be after not having one for months? Pretty bad as it turns out. Only the G&T makes the meal slightly more bearable but I walk back to my neighborhood tail in between my legs. The next day I come across a little stall at the end of Tanao Road where the pad thai is less than half the price and so good that I return again for dinner. Dinner & a donut it is this time around.
Map from Bangkok Bed and Bike. For more awesome street food places in the area check out ImportFood.com.
*As the former king of Thailand is being cremated in October 2017, the Grand Palace and The Temple of the Emerald Buddha will be closed for the month.