I’ve been to the City of Angels several times, and I’ve discovered that even more important than “what to do” is the question of what not to do when time is short. This is my pick of the most interesting things that Bangkok has to offer. It is easy to suggest ninety things to do in this fabulous city of great food, great shopping and great artistry, but because nine is the Thai lucky number, having the same meaning as ‘step forward’, we’ll stick with the single digit number, gao in Thai!
1) Siam Niramit
Travelling with children? Look no further than this one-of-a-kind place, a cross between a faux village and a show, with dinner thrown in. I visited it with a bunch of adults, but the complex swarmed with families out with young children. It’s an evening place: the show starts at 6.30 pm and the complex itself opens at 5.30 pm. I found the village fascinating: houses from every region of Thailand have been painstakingly brought to the site and reassembled. Most, if not all, of them are made of wood and each has a craftsperson weaving or doing basketry. They are all dressed in traditional costume. I don’t plan on visiting the remote areas of Thailand any time soon, so checking out the Siam Niramit village was good as going around the country. However, the main attraction is the show. With a caste of 150 dancers, performers and musicians, it is a spectacular extravaganza and beats Bollywood hollow. The show is about the history and culture of Thailand and lasts about an hour. The weak link in it is the dinner (it costs extra). I found the buffet that includes western, Indian and Thai nowhere in the same league as the rest of the package.
2) Cooking school
Exactly why Bangkok bristles with cooking schools I wouldn’t know. And whether they are all as much fun as the one I went to, is another moot point. But with a 300 year old private home that you reach by motor boat, and a kitchen garden bursting at the seams with herbs and spices, as well as a rooster and a hen as mascots, how much more charming can it get? I imagine that there would be no-nonsense cooking schools for professionals and semi-professionals, but Amita Thai Cooking Class is run by Tam, a youthful lady of some 60 summers, in the privacy of her heritage home, with an assortment of nieces and neighbours to help her. Each class (cost: Thai Baht 3,000) lasts four hours and includes a pick up by motor launch, a wander around the garden smelling peppers and lime leaf, and some hands-on cooking with upto nine other people, in an idiot-proof set-up. I may not be able to recreate the kai bai krapaw and the chicken with pandanus leaf that I bumbled through: it’s chiefly the camaderie and the convivial settings that I remember.
3) Sky Bar Lebua
Bangkok is not an expensive place to have a holiday; it’s probably the least expensive city that I have eaten well in. I can, without much effort, eat a street-side meal for less than 100 baht. So 500 baht for a single beer may sound like a big deal. But once I stood in the endless queue for the elevator to take me 66 floors up, surrounded by Bangkok’s smart set, I entered another world altogether. The setting made me feel like a movie star, when only the velvet night sky is above, and the entire city is spread out hundreds of feet below. The gentle breeze, the glowing golden dome at the top of the building, a band playing jazz and, unusually for Bangkok, no trace of ethnicity all make it uniquely glamorous. The bar counter is lit from within and you can’t even see a concrete wall: it’s Perspex and it’s invisible in the near dark. I’ve never been smitten by a place like this: indeed, I’ve never encountered anything remotely like this. Mumbai’s Aer would be a distant relative. Sky Bar is a personal favourite for the high that it gives me. It will make you feel more beautiful, more powerful, more complete than you’ll ever be in your life. There’s only one downside: nowhere else in the city even comes close.
4) River Cruise
If you actively seek out places of tourist interest, you’ve come to the right address. Speaking for myself, I loathe sightseeing with a passion, but I have too many hosts who live in the city and are convinced that a day of culture can do my soul no harm, so I have been dragged off to the Buddhist temples that line the Chao Phraya River. I’ve even been inveigled into accompanying my friends to Ayutthaya, a two hour drive away, where ancient temples make it a world heritage site. In Bangkok, the river is where many top hotels are located and it is easy to hire a boat for the day and navigate your way downstream, with or without a guide. I have been to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Pra Kaew), the Royal Palace and Wat Arun but the one temple that caught my fancy is Wat Pho. For one, it is a huge temple complex cum living museum, the statue of the reclining Buddha here is 150 feet long in gleaming gold, and the plethora of courtyards, spires and subsidiary temples makes it worth an evening’s excursion. If you plan to see the whole nine yards, be sure to take sun hats with you. Bottled water, iced jasmine tea and (hygienic) cut fruits are available the length and breadth of the route, with the best options around the Royal Palace.
5) Siam Paragon + Aquarium
Sooner or later you will stop by at Siam Paragon, a centrally located mall opposite teenybopper hangout Siam Square and a short walk away from knockoff capital MBK. Inside the mall is a humongous food store. You will see obscure Italian cheeses and just walking down the chocolate section will give you your daily exercise. Ditto for the Kinokuniya bookshop upstairs: it is so large, and its travel section so fascinating that you could spend half the day browsing. Of course, there is lots more to Siam Paragon and its next door neighbour Siam Discovery than food and books: there is every brand you could ever hope to find from the western world as well as a few Thai brands, both established like Naraya and upcoming like the funky Hellolulu for ergonomic camera bags and knapsacks. If you are traveling with young children, you’ll be coerced into paying a visit to Siam Ocean World, the aquarium or to Madame Tussauds. Nowhere as poker faced as the original in London, you’ll be standing in line to have your picture taken with the likes of President Obama or Angelina Jolie.
6) Foot massage, foot reflexology, body massage
I suppose it is possible to have a bad massage in Bangkok, but you’ll have to try really hard. Tiny Thai girls have considerable pressure in their delicate hands. Around the areas with a preponderance of hotels – notably Sukhumvit and Bangrak – you will pass a foot massage centre every few steps. You’ll find one in all the large malls: Centralworld, MBK – you name it. Foot massage centres themselves are of two kinds. One is the Thai foot massage, and the other is a reflexology centre. This is a Chinese concept and far from being a pleasant massage – it has a medicinal, curative purpose and can be quite painful and uncomfortable, but I’d look out for the mandatory reflexology chart somewhere near the entrance: a good reflexologist is worth his/her weight in gold. Full body massages, or parts thereof: head, neck and shoulders require larger premises, so they’re not as ubiquitous as foot massage centres. For some reason, the vast majority of people in the trade are women.
7) Rose Garden Riverside, Nakhon Pathom
Just outside Bangkok city limits is this fabulous jewel of a place. On the banks of Ta Chine River, you’d never know that this was a serious MICE destination: in the few hours that I lazily rambled around the 70 acres of artfully manicured gardens and ponds, listening to musical birdsong, I didn’t see a single muscular bus disgorge an army of corporates clutching power point presentations, but they do have conference rooms on the premises. What was of greater interest was the restaurant in which they served a dozen of us a great Thai lunch at a moment’s notice. Bangkok undoubtedly is a busy city, and when its charms pall, Rose Garden Riverside with its landscaped vistas and restored traditional wooden houses is just what the doctor ordered. You can lose yourself in the stillness of the gardens with a book for company, go for a spa treatment, enjoy everyday Thai food cooked with ingredients grown on the premises, play golf or learn to make Thai squashes and form ropes out of hemp.
8) Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, Ratchaburi Province
Two hours from Bangkok is a charming little village with its khlongs intact. Khlongs or canals were integral to Thailand even until two decades ago, but now ‘progress’ means that most of them have been turned into six-lane highways or luxury residence complexes. Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is one of the last floating markets in the vicinity of Bangkok. The charm lies in the fact that it occupies the intersection of local and touristy Thailand. So, you’ll find straw hats, coconuts, mango with sticky rice and musical instruments all in one giant jumble. The way it works is that you thread your way out of the car and bus parking lot and head for the khlong. Virtually all the shops here can be accessed from boats that ply up and down the canals. You get into a boat (all are a combination of motor and paddle) and you’ll be taken for an hour-long ride, past virtually all the shops and handicraft stalls. It’s not unlike a shikara ride on the Dal Lake: just as touristy and just as charming and unique. And the local snacks are irresistible.
9) Eat Fruit
On my very first trip to Thailand, I saw a nifty little glass showcase mounted on a bicycle at a busy main road. The showcase, no more than a couple of feet in length, had a variety of fruit on display, all neatly peeled and set on ice. The fruit-seller spoke no English and I no Thai, so I proferred a modest amount of money and pointed to his cart. He picked out a yellow watermelon, some guavas that looked unripe, an absolutely green mango and half a pineapple, put them all into a plastic bag, cut all the fruit through the plastic bag without damaging the bag at all, sprinkled a powder on everything and gave me an extra long toothpick to pick up the fruit without messing my fingers. Not only had I never tasted – or even seen – yellow watermelon before, I had no idea that a mango that is dark green outside could be sweet inside. Ditto for the guava. The pineapple was full of juice. I was in heaven for the modest sum of twenty baht. The powder that I was given was a mixture of sugar, salt and chilli powder. You may have tasted grapefruit elsewhere in the world, but none is likely to be as sweet as the Thai variety. And that’s without talking about mangosteen, dragon fruit, ice apple and other fruits that don’t grow in India.
Half the fun of Bangkok is discovering your list of nine must-dos.