Finding travel bliss is a series on how and where to enjoy quiet moments in busy places around the world. So far, I found travel bliss in
Because the capital of Thailand Bangkok, population 8 million, was my gateway to Southeast Asia, the first stop on my first-ever trip to the area, discovering inner peace here concerned getting as gentle an introduction to the country and the region as possible. Even though it’s probably impossible to ease into this intense city, I managed to experience a number of blissful moments.
Travel bliss in Bangkok is possible.
I thought I was ready but I had deluded myself. When the escalator spewed us out of the Si Lom MRT metro station into post-nightfall Bangkok, the onslaught of sensory stimuli began without warning. Cars, taxis, minivans, busses, and tuk tuks roared past on the ‘wrong’ sides of the road while overhead the BTS Skytrain accelerated from the station and whizzed around the bend.
After a few minutes of jetlagged wandering we finally identified Si Lom Road and started walking toward our guest house.
To be more accurate, we only managed to shuffle forward. Food carts and stalls brimming with cheap goods lined the sidewalk on both sides, reducing its span to two shoulder widths. While I’d expected to smell exhaust from all that traffic, my nose filled with wave after wave of strange and beautiful scents of odd-looking foods being deep-fried, stir-fried, grilled, baked, cooked, boiled, and mixed everywhere. A businessman exchanged a green 20-baht note for a plastic sack of soup.
Vendors of counterfeit watches, fake pills (Viagra! Valium!), garish t-shirts, hats, dildos, pirated DVD’s, plastic Buddha statues, and tons of other merchandise were touting their wares. A man standing on a crate was holding up a fashion magazine and next to it a garment depicted on the page, yelling at a throng of young women around him.
When we turned into the quiet Soi 33 and left the ruckus behind, I found myself not only missing it already but looking forward to returning without an ulterior motive.
On another night we came across a traditional Thai music-and-dance performance.
One afternoon we found our soi (side street) clogged with traffic being diverted from reaching Si Lom Road, whence issued the sound of whistles, techno music, and megaphoned speeches. We entered the boulevard at the tail end of a peaceful protest march.
The market, the traffic, the noise, the food, the smells, the demonstration, the performance…
We walked the short stretch of Si Lom Road between our soi and the metro station at least twice a day, three days in a row. I had expected to be overwhelmed and frustrated and with my guards up, but I caught myself smiling every time, at the beautiful, crowded, organized chaos, at the priceless introduction to the subcontinent and the country’s culture, at my own, child-like enjoyment of it all.
Walking down Si Lom Road was akin to an aquaphobe discovering pleasure in cannonballing into the pool’s deep end over and over until he drops from sweet exhaustion.
Since American mall food courts contain the worst the country’s cuisine has to offer, the praises by Carmel of The Journey Itself of the Terminal 21 mall’s food court fell on my deaf ears. But then we went and I was better for it.
All travel bloggers recommend eating street food in Thailand and I was looking forward to sampling the country’s cuisine that way. But part of me was apprehensive: I had landed in Bangkok still feeling the effects of a food-poisoning episode in Rotterdam; I had read about the many precautions to take with food and water in Southeast Asia; and I know little about Thai food whose variety I can’t fathom.
The 5th floor food court at Terminal 21 on Sukhumvit Road, at Ratchadaphisek Road (take MRT to Sukhumvit or BTS to Asok), eased my concerns with a wide variety of Thai and other regional cuisine in a clean environment and at reasonable prices.
Each of the many food stations only accepts payment with a pre-loaded card available from a desk at the entrance. The most expensive dish we had, a double portion of mango with sticky rice, came to 70 baht ($2.10). Entrees tended to be around 40-50 baht ($1.20-$1.50)—music to our wallets after the 5-euro sandwiches in the Netherlands.
On multiple visits I tried various curries and other dishes and the experience prepared me for street food adventures better than anything else.
I never thought I’d find travel bliss at a mall food court!
Finding travel bliss in Bangkok: Get a massage at massage school
We could see two massage parlors from our second hotel in Bangkok, Retro 39, at Sukhumvit Road Soi 39; a handful of others were touting for customers within a few minutes’ walk. Not only am I skeptical of places that tout for customers, Thai massage was a complete unknown for me.
Yet when I asked the receptionist for a recommendation, she pointed me in the other direction toward Watpo Massage School.
“Cheap and good,” she said.
And very popular, she should have added. Frequented by the area’s Japanese populace, the lobby was a hive of activity, with people checking in and out, signing up, and getting foot massages.
My Package P consisted of a 1-hour traditional Thai massage and a half-hour back-and-shoulder massage, which cost 350 baht ($10.70)—the right price for an introduction to something I wasn’t sure I’d like.
After the masseuse washed my feet, she gave me a pair of slippers and led me upstairs to a room divided up with curtains into stalls. I changed into a loose T-shirt and thin lounge pants and lay on my back. Then came the marvels of Thai massage: my limbs got pulled in every which direction and pressure points pressed in a steady rhythm.
No soothing music, no aromatic oils, no gurgling minifountains, no other supposedly relaxation-inducing frills that always make me wonder about their value—just an advanced student of massage performing a service to the monotone of an air conditioner. A simple, affordable exchange that introduced me to Thai massage, rid me of some of the tension accumulated in six month of travel, and provided precious moments of relaxation.
Ride a public bus
To get around Bangkok we mostly rode the MRT metro, which is convenient, inexpensive (never more than $1 per ride), fairly new, and well air-conditioned.
When we found ourselves exiting the Grand Palace too tired to walk 45 minutes to the nearest MRT station at the Hua Lamphong Train Station, we confirmed with Tourist Police staff that the #1 bus passing by every few minutes goes there. We boarded the rickety bus, bought 8-baht ($0.25) tickets from the conductor, and settled in for a wild, half-hour ride through Chinatown. Judging by the makeup of the riders, I concluded that the MRT is for the city’s middle classes and tourists, whereas the public bus is for lower-income inhabitants (we were the only farangs on board and in general I rarely saw anyone but the locals riding).
The aggressive young driver honked and weaved and made abrupt turns and halts through streets choked with traffic. We watched street life outside (impossible on the metro, of course). Draft coming through the open windows provided breaths of fresh hot air and fumes.
And during a long pause in a detoured portion of the route I managed to catch a quick snooze.
Finding travel bliss in Bangkok: Sip tea in Chinatown
Bangkok’s Chinatown teems with street-food joints; non-touristy brick-and-mortar establishments are hard to come by. So it was with elation that we stepped into a deserted Double Dogs Tea Room (reviews here and here) squeezed among gold shops, red-and-gold colored souvenir carts, and clothing stores in the commercial frenzy on Yaowarat Road, the district’s main thoroughfare.
As we sipped blue tea out of tiny cups and munched on assorted tea pastries, we watched a family break down their Chinese T-shirt stall for the day: the grandmother loaded big polyester bags with the merchandise, the mother tended to a baby in a stroller and disassembled the stall, piling the pipes and planks on the sidewalk and her husband hauled it all away.
By the time we got our check, there was no trace of any business having been transacted at the spot.
Have you found travel bliss in Bangkok? Where, how?