A 36-hour Speed Date With Bangkok

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I landed in Bangkok at noon and literally hit the ground running. My guide Nemo met me at the airport and that’s when my speed date with this sprawling, delightfully frenetic city kicked off. We dropped off my suitcase at the Pathumwan Princess Hotel, which is located in the heart of the city’s shopping district, and then we walked to the nearby Sapan Charoenpol to catch a river taxi to the Golden Mount Temple.

 

Bell selfie at the top of the Golden Mount Temple in Bangkok.

Golden Mount Temple
This temple is one of the oldest in the city and it’s one of the best spots to get a 360-view of the skyline as it’s build on a man-made hill. To reach the golden stupa, you have to climb 300+ steps that wind there way around the hill. Along the way you can ring bells for luck and listen to the monks chanting in the distance. Inside Nemo tries to teach me how to fold lotus flowers to leave at the base of Buddha. “In the old times, if a lady couldn’t fold them so they floated, that meant she couldn’t get married,” she tells me. I think I would have remained single for a very long time, given the state of my lotus offering.

Nemo at her fave street food spot, Tee’s Yen-Ta-Fo on Maha Chai Road.

Street Food
Bangkok is famous for its street food, especially the stalls along Maha Chai Road. One of the most Insta-famous spots is Thip Samai Pad Thai. There’s a line up when we arrive but the restaurants on either side of it are doing half the business. “The other places are just as good, but they’re not on Instagram,” explains Nemo. “My favourite spot is Tee’s Yen-Ta-Fo. It’s where the locals eat and they have more than 10 kinds of noodles.” It’s a few doors down and when we get there Nemo orders practically everything on the menu. (See video below). After dinner, we walk by another street stall with a long line up. It’s Jay Fai and it’s famous because it is the first Thai street food stall to be awarded a Michelin star. (The owner reportedly wants to give it back, saying the star has been a curse.) It’s also Insta-bait for foodies who want to instill a little FOMO. Beside me there’s a group of people who have arrived wearing traditional Thai costumes. Nemo tells me they’re just coming from the place we’re headed to next.

Aun I Lak Festival in Bangkok.

Aun I Lak Festival
Nemo flags down a tuk-tuk and we’re off to the Aun I Lak Festival. “Always negotiate your price first,” she says, as we climb in. “And when it’s moving keep your arms inside and hold onto your bags!” As we pull up to the gates of the Royal Plaza, all I can see are light-filled trees and groups of people wearing colourful ornate costumes. “You stand out now because you’re wearing black,” Nemo explains. “But not long ago you wouldn’t have because everyone was wearing black in mourning for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.” It’s a cultural festival—so there are traditional flower garland demos, food stalls and dance performances. And Nemo is right, I definitely stand out in my unfashionable black.

Streetfood for insect fans at Backpackers’ Alley.

Backpackers’ Alley
Before returning to the hotel Nemo suggests we head to Khao San Road, or backpackers’ alley to check out the scene. It’s a mix of food stalls, bars, foot massage joints and street performers, including a pint-sized singer (see video below.) If eating scorpions or even a tarantula are on your #foodgoals list, this is the place to make that happen. That’s day 1.

Boat Temple in Bangkok.

Boat Temple
Next morning Nemo arrives and we head to the Boat Temple, which is on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. (And, yes, it looks like a boat.) It was built in the early 1800s as a memorial to the Chinese vessels that had been used to bring money and goods to the area. After a tour, we walk to the river where a group has gathered to toss fish, turtles, eels and snakes into the water as offerings. “We believe it brings luck into your life,” says Nemo. “We do it on our birthdays. The animal you choose depends upon which day you were born.”

The banyan tree inside the entrance to Harmonique restaurant.

Banyan Trees + Bauble Shopping
On our way to the nearby Mandarin Hotel to check out its high tea, we walk along Charoen Krung street so I can pop in and out of the jewellery wholesale shops. I found a ring there, which is very similar to one I spotted in a market in London and didn’t buy. (#shoppersregret). It’s from India and is made from diamond shavings that are normally disgarded. This time the ring didn’t get away. One of Nemo’s fave lunch spots in the area is Harmonique. It’s a quaint restaurant filled with antiques and it’s known for its homemade red curry and the giant golden banyan tree at its entrance. “We believe that banyan trees have angels to protect us,” explains Nemo.

“Scratching the Surface” art piece by Farto—or Vhils.

Street Art + The Grand Postal Office
This imposing building was—as the name suggests—once a post office but today it’s the Thailand Creative and Design Center. Inside there’s a library, café and studio installations showcasing young Thai textile, jewellery and furniture designers. Outside we pick up some fried banana, taro and sweet potato from a vendor and head to King River to catch our longtail boat to the children’s puppet show. On the way Nemo stops outside the Portuguese embassy to show me the evocative art piece by Alexandra Farto. From a distance, it looks like a series of black-and-white portraits painted on the wall. It’s only when I get closer to it that I realize Farto—or Vhils as he’s known—has etched out the series of faces from the wall. It’s part of his “Scratching the Surface” series, which seems a fitting metaphor for how I’m feeling about my tour of this city.

 

Golden Buddha at the Wat Traimit temple.

Hun Lakorn Lek (Thai puppet show) + Golden Buddha
After going through the river lock, we leave King River and enter the small canals of Chao Phraya. On route to the puppet theatre, we pass by wooden homes on stilts, Buddhist temples and the occasional 6-foot-long lizard sunning itself on a wooden dock. The show, which is done by children working with life-like puppets, is about a traditional Thai love story involving a mermaid and a prince. After a puppet kisses me (see video below) we zip back on the boat just in time to see the Golden Buddha at the Wat Traimit temple. The gold statue, which weights 5.5 tons, was hidden for years under stucco until the plaster chipped and the gold was revealed.

 

The Jam Factory: (Never ending summer… that’s the dream!)

Klongsan Plaza + Yum Fest + Jam Factory
For a mix of tradition vs modern Bangkok, Nemo takes me to the Klongsan Plaza market. It’s where locals shop for food and clothes and there are few tourists. Nearby we stop at Yum Fest, a street food fair that looks like it’s been airdropped from Seattle. It’s a different scene to the stalls along Maha Chai Road. The food is international and adventuresome—from butter chicken, marble steak from Australia to spinach pumpkin ice cream. Nearby there’s the Jam Factory, which is an art gallery, café and bookshop that’s been created in an old industrial space alongside the banks of the Chao Phraya River.

Bangkok’s Yaowarat Chinatown.

More Markets… More Food!
It’s getting late but Nemo wants me to see Bangkok’s Yaowarat Chinatown. Before we hop in our van we walk through the Klongsan night market to pick up some steamed bread with pandan custard (See video below). Chinatown is a Klongsan market on steroids. The neon-lit streets are packed, it’s loud and frenetic. Add to this scene the smell of durian fruit. (It’s considered the worst smelling fruit in the world and it lives up to that reputation.) “Would you like to try some?” Nemo asks. “Perhaps later,” I suggest. (#nochance) Outside Lek-Rut Seafood there’s also a long line up. “It’s another Insta-restaurant,” Nemo says. “So is T & K Seasfood across the street.” The other online hit maker in the area is Yaowarat Bread, where they serve up white buns warmed up over charcoal and stuffed with condensed milk, peanut butter or pandan. Sweet Time is another dessert haven for Chinese sweets like black sesame balls, deep-fried bean curd and grass jelly.

 

Bangkok’s famous tuk-tuks.

Nightcap
“Are you up for one more experience?” Nemo asks. She takes me to a cool little spot that you don’t want to miss. Click here to find out where we went.

Bonus: Designer Lauren Yates (aka @PonytailJournal) shares her ultimate guide to Bangkok.