Bangkok gets kind of a bad rap and I’m not gonna lie, I was iffy about coming here.
I’d heard about the prostitutes and pickpockets and ping-pong shows, and most of the backpackers I’d chatted with so far had only negative things to say about this town. Hell, even Alex didn’t have a great time when he visited back in 2012.
As a result, my expectations were pretty low, but luckily they were totally blown out of the water. Yeah, the seedy part of Bangkok does exist, but if you can look past that and get out of the Khao San Road bubble, you’ll find an incredibly lively city where, whatever your whim, you can find something to interest you. Basically, you’d have to be insane - or not trying hard enough - to be bored here.
Perhaps it helped that we were coming off of seven weeks in India and were craving Western conveniences, which Bangkok has in abundance. The mere existence of indoor convenience stores (I love you, 7-Eleven) was a revelation to us and we were thrilled to be back in a world where simply buying shampoo doesn’t require a 45-minute time commitment and awkward sign language with an elderly shopkeeper who stores everything behind locked glass cabinets.
There’s an entire section of the city called Siam Square dedicated to these huge, immaculate mega-malls that offer anything your heart could possibly desire from luxury designers in glitzy boutiques all the way down to fake purses sold in little stalls. It. Was. PARADISE.
We spent our entire first day bouncing from mall to mall absorbing the atmosphere. Since it was mid-December, there was Christmas music blasting from every speaker and it really put us in the Christmas spirit, which was much-needed since we had been feeling the tiniest bit nostalgic for holidays at home.
We also spent a lot of time exploring Siam Square’s many food courts. Obviously Bangkok is infamous for its glorious street food, but the food courts are just as good (and a little more accessible). Each mall in Siam Square has at least one, often more. They’re universally delicious, affordable, and hygenic, making them a great way to sample the local eats or find some home-style comfort food.
Siam Paragon, which is the most high-end mall here, has a first-floor food court full of Western favorites from McDonalds and Auntie Anne’s to, incredibly, Garrett’s Popcorn. It was surreal to get lost in this enormous Asian mall and emerge in front of one of Chicago’s most famous restaurants. I wasn’t even aware that there were Garrett’s locations in other states, much less halfway around the world, yet here we are.
Siam Center’s food court, on the other hand, reminds me of a Thai-style Foodlife (an expansive food court in Water Tower Place, Chicago). There are stations for everything from crab noodle soup (Alex’s pick) to curry stir-fry (my choice) to fruit shakes, BBQ ribs, fried oysters and anything else you could possibly think of. You pre-load a little debit card with cash, and use the card to pay at each vendor. We gorged ourselves here for under $10.
The mother of all food courts, though, is MBK Center. It’s chock-full of local street foods, ridiculously affordable, and universally delicious. The mall itself is worth a visit, because it’s chaotic and cluttered and a whole different world from the luxe Paragon/Center/Discovery trio across the street. If you’re hesitant about hygiene at the street stalls but consider yourself an adventurous eater, run, don’t walk, to MBK.
Of course, there’s also a plethora of amazing food outside the malls, and we certainly ate our way through the city as much as we possibly could. We had great luck using TripAdvisor to find restaurants, although we made an effort to avoid the uber-touristy area around Wat Pho and Khao San Road, because those places tend to be more expensive and less spicy (and we LOVE spicy food). Still, there are a couple gems in that area, and we really enjoyed Home Cafe Tha Tien. Just off Khao San Road, we loved the tiny Susie Wong's Beers & Buns for a quick bite.
We also visited Polo Fried Chicken, a humble little restaurant commonly considered Bangkok’s finest chicken joint. We can confidently say that it lives up to the hype - Alex visited here back in 2012 and he spent the weeks leading up to our arrival hyping up this chicken quite aggresively, and he wasn't BSing. Get the whole chicken (or half if you’re by yourself), drench it in the accompanying sauces, and pair it with a cold Chang for a taste bud explosion. Make sure to eat the crispy bits. I don't know what they are, and to be honest I'd rather not think about it too much, but they are the best part.
Closer to our hostel in Silom, we enjoyed Siam House Cafe which has a nice big menu and always seems crowded. The Local Canteen was one of our favorites, with lots of local flavors customized to our spice preferences, plus a great selection of affordable craft beers.
By far our best meal in Bangkok, though, wasn’t so much one meal as it was a veritable smorgasbord of Asian treats slowly devoured over the course of a very wonderful evening in Chinatown. I’m seriously struggling to put into words just how epic this evening was. Armed with only a couple cursory Google searches, a street name, and a paragraph in the Lonely Planet guide, we made our way to Yaowarat Road, hopped out of our Uber, and set off in search of some of Bangkok’s famous street eats.
We were not disappointed. What’s the opposite of disappointed? Ecstatic? We were that, definitely. From prawn cakes and fresh seafood washed down with cold Chang beers to 30-baht Pad Thai and all manner of dumplings, gyoza, and dim sum, Chinatown offers a little bit of everything. You can even get shark-fin soup (although you shouldn’t, and if you don’t know why by now, I encourage you to do a little Googling) and something called birds’ nest, which as it turns out is literally made with birds’ nests. No thanks.
There were also some more adventurous stalls, like one selling a variety of Chinese desserts made with traditional herbs and plants like lotus pods. We sampled bean curd in ginger syrup, and it wasn’t our favorite, but it was fun to branch out. At the end of the night we tried to visit this famous toasted bread stall, but the line was at least an hour long so we opted for some egg custard buns from a dim sum shop instead, and they were probably the most delicious thing we ate all night.
I’ve just realized that I’ve written almost a thousand words solely about food. I mean, I guess that’s not entirely wrong considering how much of our time in Bangkok was spent eating, but we did other stuff too, I promise!
To be completely honest, when we arrived in Bangkok we were both suffering from some serious post-India burnout. India was amazing, don’t get me wrong, but it was also incredibly difficult travel-wise and required all of our mental (and physical) energy at all times. As a a result, we wanted to take some time to just relax and be present. Bangkok was great for that - there was always something to occupy our minds but we were able to find the quiet time we needed to recharge, whether it was a quiet cafe or a good-painful Thai massage.
One afternoon we visited Siam Paragon’s beautiful 5th-story cinema to catch the new Star Wars. The theater offered something called a ‘4-DX Experience’ which turned out to be basically a thrill ride at Disney World. The movie was in 3-D, but in addition they pumped in air blasts, water sprays, and strobe lights at appropriate times during the movie, and the seats moved around! It was definitely the craziest movie-going experience we’ve ever had. I’ll skip the spoilers, but we enjoyed ourselves even if it wasn’t the best Star Wars movie ever made.
We’d be remiss if we went to Bangkok and didn’t visit one of the city’s many rooftop bars. While we’re too poor to go to the famous Lebua Skybar (the one from The Hangover 2), we did find a much more reasonable option in Nest located in Le Fenix Hotel in Sukhumvit. We also visited Brewski, a craft beer bar in the Radisson Blu, and loved the view from here although we did have to wait a while for a table. You can order drinks at the bar while you wait, though. The skyline is truly impressive and the urban sprawl stretches to the horizon in every direction - it’s a majestic sight.
For better or for worse it wouldn’t be Bangkok if we didn’t hit up Khao San Road. This street, full of backpacker bars and fried scorpions on sticks, can seem like the worst of the worst place in Bangkok from hearing people talk about it, but we had a blast. We found a 2nd-story bar with live music and posted up on the balcony overlooking the street below. The people-watching here is unparalleled. I think the biggest mistake you can make is assuming Khao San Road is a microcosm of the whole city - that’s not at all true, and you’ll have a bad time if you don’t leave this area. If you branch out, though, you’ll love Bangkok - I promise.
We didn’t spend much time visiting the big sights, and we regret that a tiny bit, but Bangkok has so much to offer that we didn’t feel like we missed out all that much. We highly recommend visiting Wat Pho and the Reclining Buddha. It was scorching hot on the afternoon we went but that didn’t stop us from spending hours wandering around the temple and going into every room we could to inspect the many statues and beautiful artwork.
In terms of logistics, we found it incredibly easy to get around the city. We used Uber 90% of the time, although we found that wait times here are generally inaccurate due to the massive traffic gridlock that seems to strike at random times. When we couldn’t get an Uber, we’d haggle hard with tuktuk drivers. We suggest flagging one down instead of approaching a driver that’s already parked especially if you’re in a touristy area. We never used the taxis as we heard getting them to use the meter is hard, but again if you flag one down they’re more likely to be honest. We also used the SkyTrain system extensively as it’s cheap and efficient, especially during times of heavy traffic.
For lodging, we stayed at Lub’d Silom and highly recommend it - this is easily one of our favorite hostels worldwide. We had a private room with a shared bathroom that was perfectly clean at all hours. There was a lovely downstairs common area with a cafe, lots of seating, and a friendly vibe. There’s another Lub’d location closer to Siam Square and we’ve heard good things. I strongly feel that where you stay has a huge impact on your enjoyment of Bangkok, and for that reason I suggest you stay away from Khao San Road. Silom has a lot of hostels and hotels to choose from and is in a convenient, central area.
For money, many places take card but you’ll need cash for street food and the like. ATMs are ubiquitous throughout the city. If you feel unsafe or it’s late at night, just use one in front of a 7-Eleven or Family Mart as they’re well lit and have security cameras. Do be aware that Thai ATMs charge a 220 baht fee for each transaction, which is absolutely absurd (that’s about $8 USD!). We both have Charles Schwab checking accounts so all ATM fees get refunded, but if you don’t have that option you will likely be withdrawing large amounts of cash at a time, so be sure to use your hostel locker or safe to keep extra cash safely stored away.
For phone service, we bought sim cards at the airport. We went with True Mobile and paid roughly $20 for 4GB of data plus talk and text, good for 30 days. There might be cheaper options, but True was fast and easy, and we had working phones within 2 minutes of approaching the counter. We had reliable 4G throughout the city as well as the islands.
I think it’s safe to say we fell in love with Bangkok so leaving was really hard. This city truly offers something for everyone, and we got swept up in the sights and sounds and mayhem that make this city such a fantastic destination for everyone from the ultra-rich to lowly backpackers like us. I think we could live here forever and not get bored, and we’re already plotting ways to squeeze in another visit before our trip is over.
If you’ve heard negative things about Bangkok, I urge you to come here and experience things for yourself - you never know what you might discover.