Saturday, April 11, 2020

Postcard from Bangkok, Thailand

Sawadee Kha!

Did you know Bangkok is the most visited city in the world? Surpassing perennial favorites like Paris, London and New York City (second, third, seventh, respectively), according to a Business Insider article. We had no idea. We did know Bangkok is a hot spot for medical tourism and that Thailand is one of the top countries for retirement.

We had visited Bangkok and Phuket (south Thailand) back in 2001, and came home with some unforgettable memories.
Floating Market in action
The Grand Palace
Phi Phi Island, south Thailand
This time we wanted to experience a taste of local life. We rented an Airbnb south of Bangkok for the month of December. It's a 15 minutes walk to Lumphini MRT (subway) station. Unfortunately, there is no sidewalk in the neighborhood. We learned real fast how to navigate the narrow and congested lanes. Admittedly Thai drivers are quite skilled; we did not witness any accident while there. Sure, we could take the taxi, but these taxi drivers always refused to turn on the meter, and we were sick and tired of haggling with them. Every Single Time. So we resorted to walking, and tried not to get killed, especially at night.
flower garlands adorn the Erawan Shrine at a busy intersection

Traffic jam at night (taken atop Baiyoke Hotel on the 84th floor)
Bangkok's river transport system is fascinating. Boats from barges to ferries and water taxis compete for space on the busy Chao Phraya River. The skilled captains and deckhands mesmerized us, and we rode the water taxi from one end of the river to the other, a total of 13 miles one way. For a mere 15 baht (US$.46)!
One major attraction along the river is ICONSIAM, the glitzy megamall that opened in November 2018. Bangkok is famous for shopping, and this is the latest gem in their shopping mall offerings. We are not into shopping, we go for the food. Most malls have food courts that are well run and cleaner than street vendors. Not to mention air conditioned. Our favorite food court was at the airport-inspired Terminal 21 mall. Located on the 5th floor (San Francisco terminal), it is decorated with San Francisco memorabilia, complete with a mini Golden Gate Bridge. We felt right at home here. Did we mention the restrooms are equipped with bidet toilets?  Even San Francisco malls do not have that!

The colossal ICONSIAM mall is a kaleidoscope of colors, smells and sounds. As you amble inside, SookSiam, the indoor floating market charms you at once with its exotic décor and numerous vendors selling goods from Thai arts to clothing and jewelry. And lots of yummy food and fruits.
Floating market at ICONSIAM mall
Going to the movies has never been more glamorous! We enjoyed Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in 3D. We discovered that you had to rise for the Royal Anthem in honor of His Majesty the King before the movie starts. The high tech theatre, the spaciousness and selection of seats or theatre (based on the price) all contributed to the amazing experience. There are free ferries to ICONSIAM from many piers; we took it from Ratchawong Pier, a short walk from Chinatown. The weeks before Christmas and New Years were especially chaotic; we waited for hours under the oppressive heat to get on the ferry. If you go during these times, come prepared with hat, sunscreen and sunglass.

We read that Thailand has the most Chinese people outside of China. However, we found these people more Thai than Chinese as most don't speak their mother tongue. We ate at several restaurants, including Tang Jai Yoo (no doubt made even more popular by Anthony Bourdain of No Reservations with Thai chef McDang as his guest), but found it overrated and overpriced.
Roast suckling pig at Tang Jai Yoo
On one walking tour, we ventured into a covered alleyway (might have been Sampeng Lane) that is lined with shops selling everything from fabrics to bric-a-brac, and oh my, how incredibly crowded! Motorbikes are allowed here, and when they come through, be prepared to inhale some nasty smoggy air. Not recommended for people with breathing problems.
the sight, smell and sound assault your senses at Yaowarat (Chinatown)
After we ushered in the new year, we visited a couple other Southeast Asian countries. In mid January, news of the Coronavirus in Wuhan, China went from bad to worse. When the city of 11 million people was locked down on Jan 23, we knew this was no trivial matter. Concerned about the raging spread of the virus, we tried anxiously to move up our departure date, but it was ridiculously expensive. We flew back to Bangkok per our itinerary, to spend our last week there in a hotel. As soon as we touched down, we immediately bought some masks. A few days later, you couldn't find masks anywhere.

There were a lot less tourists and traffic, as you can see in the photos below.
now you see it (bustling traffic in Centralworld on Dec 18)

now you don't (taken Feb 1, the coronavirus kept tourists away)
For the entire week, we hunkered down at our hotel and at nearby Central Embassy, a luxury mall with a lesser crowd. The top floor has a cinema, cafes and an awesome bookstore Openhouse with an array of interesting books in many languages, and comfy couches. To add to that awesomeness, there was even live music!
musicians at left serenaded us at OpenHouse

Surfing and reading behind the books
Countless restaurants dot the fourth floor. When we were not eating at our go-to Chinese restaurant Din Tai Fung (this international chain is in most major cities, and the wait can be 1 hour or more, none here), we were feasting at Eathai, a food court in the basement. After eating Pad Thai and duck noodle soup at Eathai for almost a week, we deem it the best and classiest food court in Bangkok.
Found the best pad thai here!
Duck noodle soup (some people in our party lived on this all week!)
We are so glad to have come home in early February! With social distancing and curfews in place, we are resorting to reading books and magazines, doing virtual traveling through the internet (check out some of my favorite links on the right side of the page). We will get through this and we will travel again.

Stay safe and be careful!

This post is shared on Through My Lens and Our World Tuesday.

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