Sunday, 22 March 2015

Bangkok on a budget with limited time!


Time Spent - 5 nights, 1 full afternoon, 1 full morning
Modes of transport - taxi, sky train, coach, walking
Places stayed - Sawasadee Banglampu Inn (Khao San Road); Imm Fusion (Sukhumvit)

I recently spent two weeks in Thailand and Cambodia (with work and on holiday), and Bangkok was something of a base while I was there. I was never here for an extended period of time (I think 14 hours was my maximum), but I made the most of every second, and it's definitely possible to get a real feel of Bangkok on a budget - both monetary and time!

On my arrival into Thailand, and the subsequent nights when I returned from travelling to Surin, Sangkhlaburi and Koh Phangan, I stayed at the Sawasadee Banglampu Inn just off Khao San Road. There are three Sawasadee Inns in a small area; they're cheap (around £6 per room per night), very centrally located (30 seconds from Khao San Road, 15 minutes walk from the Grand Palace and the temples), clean and the staff are friendly. I didn't have breakfast here (6am is too early to eat!) but they have a breakfast every morning of fruit and bread etc., and it's only 190 baht (around £4) which isn't too bad. It's definitely the domain of the backpacker, and can get a little loud in the evenings, but overall I enjoyed my stay here, and would stay here again if I were to visit Bangkok.

Sawasadee Bangkok  Sawasadee Bangkok
(Pictures from Sawasadee site - I was generally too tired to take my own!)

I had a single room to myself (decent sized double bed, air conditioning, good shower and western-style toilet), although they're more commonly twin or triple rooms, and it's all you need for a good base on Khao San Road. It's close enough so that you can nip out to the many bars, restaurants and street stalls on the backpacker street, but far enough away that you don't get any of the loud music or the crowds (the noise at night tends to come from people returning from partaking in said entertainment).

On my first night in Bangkok, I was met by a member of staff from our partner organisation out in Thailand, and he took me out to Khao San Road for dinner and a couple of drinks (I didn't have more than one; jet lag + no sleep on the plane would have had me at risk of making a fool of myself, not a good first impression!). We went to a restaurant on a street parallel to Khao San (nicer, not as full of bars and stalls), then to the Silk Bar for a few drinks as it's cheap and cheerful. We sat on the balcony here, and it's a great place to people-watch! When I finally had to call it a day around midnight, it took me approximately four minutes to fight my way through the crowds and into bed - that's not a bad result!

Khao San Road

Bangkok Grand Palace

I headed over to Surin overnight the next day, but returned to Sawasadee the next night, where I had a free evening before heading to Sangkhlaburi at 6.45am the next morning. As I had such a busy trip, and such early mornings for the most part (and because I don't really drink), I didn't really take part in the nightlife of Khao San Road (it's not really my scene), but from the people I spoke to, there are lots of great places to go out. I stuck to what I do best - food and shopping - and also spent an hour just wandering around all the little streets nearby. I didn't feel unsafe at all, and apart from one instance of a stall-holder grabbing me to try and make me look at his goods, I wasn't hassled. I'd expected it to be like African markets, where you're accosted from all sides, but because there are so many people on Khao San Road, the stall holders don't need to put so much work in - people are literally fighting to get to them! It was a refreshing change, and meant I could shop and actually buy things (something I rarely do in Africa, because I don't like being bullied into buying).

There are a couple of 7-11s on Khao San Road, a Boots, McDonalds, Subway and Burger King for those who are really desperate, but if you can, try things from the multitude of food stalls and restaurants lining the road. I steered clear of the scorpion, but the pad thai, chicken skewers, fruit (mango, watermelon and pineapple) and coconut ice cream are perfectly safe, and often a refreshing treat as you fight the humidity and 30C evening heat!

Bangkok City Pillar Shrine


On my return from Koh Phangan at the end of the week, I checked into Sawasadee for the fourth time, and finally had a free morning the next day, before heading to Cambodia, to explore a bit more of the city! I'd tried to visit the Grand Palace a couple of evenings before, but it closes at 3.30pm, so forgoing a lie in I got up at 7am, and grabbed a quick breakfast from 7-11 before heading out to see as much as possible before I had to head to the airport at lunchtime.

The Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha were highest on my list, so I decided to head here first, then see if I had time for any of the temples afterwards. It's only around a 15 minute walk from Sawasadee (although I was glad it was early morning), despite having to fight your way across eight lanes of traffic, with drivers who don't seem to obey any road rules when it comes to pedestrians.

Bangkok Grand Palace

It was on my walk here that I was scammed for the only time during my trip, and I was livid because I knew exactly what was happening and I was powerless to stop it. I've travelled enough to know something odd when I see it, and around 5 minutes from the palace there was a woman with around 50 pigeons crowded around her. Suspecting something fishy, I tried to cross the road, but with eight lanes of traffic and no pedestrian crossing, it simply wasn't going to happen. I decided to just keep my head down and walk straight through the crowd, but she was having none of it. She threw pigeon seed around my feet so the pigeons descended, then forced the seed in open bags into my hands, so that half of it fell on the ground. She then motioned me to throw the rest of it in the opposite direction, so the pigeons would leave. Knowing I'd been well and truly had, I did as she said and tried to walk off, but she was having absolutely none of it; she and her friend circled me demanding 150 baht for the seed (around £3) and clearly weren't going to leave me alone. Luckily, I had around 40 baht (80p) in my pocket, meaning I didn't have to get my purse out, and I shoved it into her hand before marching away from her.

It put me in a bad mood for the rest of the morning; not for the money (even I don't complain about something as little as 80p), but because of the scam itself. I'd recognised it for what it was, and still been unable to avoid it. Fortunately, it was tame compared to others I've seen, and no harm was done, but for a first-time traveller (or anyone) it's not a particularly pleasant experience. Had she been selling something worthwhile (lots of people were selling cold drinks or crafts), I might actually have given her more money, but having it forced out of me left a sour taste in my mouth.

Bangkok Grand Palace

Bangkok Grand Palace

Despite the bad start, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. You have to dress very conservatively as it's a very religious site; I thought I'd done ok wearing a dress that covered my shoulders and the tops of my arms, and almost went down to my knees, with leggings covering almost to my ankles, but it still wasn't good enough and I had to get a skirt to wear when I was there (leggings don't count as covering up apparently). I definitely wasn't the only one, and it's very quick and easy (they take a 200baht deposit, which you get back as soon as you hand the skirt or scarf back), but if you want to avoid it, err on the side of caution.

I'd given myself a couple of hours there to make sure I had time to get to the airport at lunchtime, but you could definitely spend longer there. The heat was relentless, even at 10.30am, so take it slowly and take lots of water with you. The cost for entry is 400 baht (around £8), and involves entry to both the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Grand Palace itself. Even early in the morning, the place is swarming with school groups and tour groups, so it's not a relaxing visit. You can get a map which helps you get your bearings, but it's generally quite a chaotic atmosphere and can be a little confusing to find out what you're looking at.

All the buildings are, quite simply, stunning however. They're very ornate, covered in gold, jewels and brightly coloured painting, and wherever you look there's something to catch the eye. You see Wat Phra Kaew first (the temple), which is incredibly ornate and glitzy, and you can head inside the temple (shoes off first, of course) to see inside, although no photographs are allowed here as it's incredibly sacred.

You then head through the compound to the Grand Palace; I was running out of time and energy at this point (it really was incredibly hot - around 38C), so I didn't see much of this apart from the outside, but the style of the building is very different. It's still stunning, but it's less ornate and more like a very fancy government building (which I guess is exactly what it is!).

Bangkok Grand Palace

At this point, I had to head back to Sawasadee and to Cambodia, but fortunately I knew I had one more afternoon in Bangkok at the end of the week, so could see more of what I missed. I wish I'd seen Wat Arun, Wat Pho and the floating markets while I was in that part of the city, but that'll have to be on the list for next time!

After returning from Siem Reap at 2pm later the next week, I only had one afternoon left in Bangkok before heading back to the UK the next day. To maximise my time (and because I'd had enough of Khao San Road by this point), I'd booked myself a nicer hotel as a treat (around £20/night), closer to the airport in Sukhumvit. This is more of an ex-pat area of town; there's a Tesco Lotus just down the road, and a Skytrain BTS stop around 2 minutes away, which made it very easy for me to explore a different part of the city.

Imm Fusion is a stunning hotel; it has amazing facilities and the staff were very helpful. It has a pool if you have time to use it, and the hotel is themed in quite a spiritual way that I really liked. There's a book next to the bed that enables you to learn a bit about Buddhism (it wasn't preachy, just generally informative), and the rooms were spacious with cable TV and western-style bathrooms. The only gripe I had (and it's a tiny one) was that the air conditioning was so noisy that I couldn't have it on for long periods, but I haven't seen that mentioned anywhere else, so it could just have been mine!

When I arrived here, I'd spent two weeks in South East Asia, but hadn't done any shopping, as I only had a small backpack, and unless I saw something amazing (like the throw I got in Siem Reap!), I didn't want to be carrying it around with me unnecessarily. I'd ditched all my toiletries in Siem Reap, so when I got to Bangkok, I knew I had to visit Chatuchak Market. This used to be just a market for wholesalers, but now tourists have got in on the act, it's a big draw. Markets of any kind are my worst nightmare, but it'd been recommended to me by lots of people, so I figured I might as well go, and I could always leave if I needed to.

Travel Thailand

The best way to travel there is on the Skytrain BTS; it's mainly used by Thai people for commuting, but it's a tube/monorail that helps you avoid the traffic (which is absolutely mental in Bangkok!). It's two minutes down the road from Imm Fusion (Om Nut stop), and for 40 baht it takes you all the way to Mo Chit, which is where the market is. It takes around half an hour, but it's fully air conditioned, and if you time it right you can get a seat, which makes it a little bit of heaven in the sweaty humidity of the city!

I was pleasantly surprised by Chatuchak Market - it's absolutely gigantic, with narrow, winding corridors packed with market stalls, but it's not too busy, and you're not being clamoured from all sides to buy anything, so I actually had quite a relaxed shopping experience. I had in mind what I needed to get, and the market is split into sections depending on what they're selling, so if you paid attention it was easy to navigate (although I got a bit carried away and spent two hours there, which I didn't intend!) There is a section devoted to animals, which wasn't easy for me as they aren't cared for, and I passed by some cages of some miserable-looking (and some dead) mice and other rodent-type things, and some puppies in a cage that didn't look too happy either. I have to force myself to accept this as part of the culture, but I definitely wouldn't recommend visiting this bit if you can help it (I tried to avoid it, but got lost and stumbled across it).

Overall, I really enjoyed Bangkok. I'm not a city girl, so I probably wouldn't spend any longer than I did there (although consecutive days would be good so I could fit more in), but there's definitely a lot you can do in a short period of time, and on a budget.

Bangkok Thailand Backpack

My top tip would be to walk if you can (although be prepared, carry water and take breaks if you need it - it's HOT!), and to stay in a couple of different places so you really experience the city. Taxi drivers don't tend to speak English, so write down any addresses and get confirmation emails in Thai as well as English if you can (although you can usually find someone to translate). Make sure you get a taxi with a meter (it can save you a few quid) and learn a couple of phrases in Thai. Hostels and restaurants speak a little English, but if you show them you're trying, you'll get treated a little more nicely!)

Hello - Sawasadee [SA - WA - DEE] ka(f)/kap(m)
Thank you - Kop Khun Ka(f) Kap(m)

I didn't go to any of the sky bars (expensive, but worth it for the views I think), the floating markets, or as many of the temples as I'd have liked, but I got a real sense of what Bangkok's all about, and what people really experience when they first visit this crazy city; it really is a mixture of east and west!

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