All photos by Michelle Rae Uy
It was early afternoon on a Wednesday and we were finally making our way through Bangkok after a couple of blissful days in Krabi. It felt like we had been huddled in our small van for at least an hour as it fought its way through the city’s nightmarish traffic. From my window, I saw hundreds of cars and a few motorcycles and tuk tuks, bumper-to-bumper and hardly moving.
It hardly made for a good first impression of the city. It did, however, sum up what life is like in this sprawling metropolis: hectic, relentless and very much involved.
This is the first thing you have to know when visiting the Thai capital. Bangkok is one of the world’s most congested cities, which naturally makes it one of the top five cities in the world with the worst traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian. And the city’s modern rapid transit system, aptly dubbed SkyTrain, along with the MRT, barely helps the situation.
The second thing to know is that if you do not speak the language then you better have your hotel’s address printed in Thai on a piece of paper. That is, if you’d rather not use the precious time you could be spending in traffic hopelessly looking for a cab driver who might vaguely recognize your hotel name in English instead. After all, while Bangkok is a top Southeast Asian destination, hauling in Western crowds in droves each year, it is still the center of a country whose official language is not Latin script based. Not many locals will know the English names of places there.
And yet Bangkok’s draw is easily perceivable. It has this absorbing kind of energy that reels people in, especially when coupled with its urban textures and the enticing exoticism of its fecund night markets, golden temples, and vibrant, if a little blotched with dubious antics, party scenes. It only took a quick visit to Khao San Road, one of the city’s most obvious stops famous for its hodgepodge of street vendors, restaurants and massage places, for me to realize that.
It’s that same aura that makes folks want to stay for a little while longer as they start to slip into the city’s slower rhythm and venture off the beaten path to experience its lesser known attractions, which in my opinion are the real shoo-ins here.
Take, for example, the arterial waters of Chao Praya, the main river that meanders through the city. Along with its canal (klong) tributaries where waterfront homes, some dilapidated, others flourishing with blossoming plants and gold-leafed trimmings, the river affords a cluster of offbeat experiences one might not see a lot of in a city as thoroughly explored as this.
On a longtail boat klong tour, visitors can catch a glimpse of denizens going about their usual business; walk along an interconnected trail of over water balconies that boast tiny cafes, shops and artist studios; see a traditional puppet show that stars eerily real looking puppets with excellent comedic timing; feed an excitable school of catfish; and visit Buddhist temples that might not be as grand as Wat Pho and its Reclining Buddha but are just as worthy of attention.
Bangkok’s less traveled path isn’t just about the traditional. Like most big cities these days, it’s got its roundup of fresh blood too, boutique-y establishments that may initially be designed for millennials but also attracts older clientele. Rustic yet high-end cool, A Never Ending Summer is one such establishment. The brainchild of celebrity architect Duangrit Bunnag, it’s one of the first establishments in town to upcycle an old warehouse, and mix modern aesthetics with well-loved Thai dishes.
A few doors down is coffee shop-slash-bookstore Candide, a popular local hipster hangout flourished with the same chrome pendant lamps and sleek director’s chairs as the restaurant. And right next door is Anyroom, a furniture and lifestyle shop that appeals to those with mid-century modern sensibilities, myself included.
It’s the temples, however, that resonated with me the most. I had my fortune told with Kau Cim sticks for the very first time at the beautiful and impressive Wat Suthat, one of the ten temples in Bangkok with the highest royal temple grade and home to Thailand’s largest surviving Sukhothai-period bronze statue.
And at Wat Khuhasawan Worawiharn, our group participated in a private prayer and blessing ceremony during which three monks chanted over us. Sitting on the carpeted floor with my hands over my heart and my eyes closed, the monks’ hypnotic chanting immediately put me in a meditative state, their voices reverberating through my clammy, sunburnt skin, and within minutes effectively reduced me, for no apparent reason, to tears.
These were exactly the type of authentic immersions I wanted to have during my visit.
Later that night, I found myself having a lovely dinner with my group on the swanky rooftop of Banyan Tree Bangkok, one of the most striking skyscrapers in the city.
The gorgeous hotel served as my home away from home, my 57th-floor room boasting the plushest bed, the most glorious stand-alone tub and the best views. That is until I sat on that rooftop restaurant, which has made its mark in the city’s bar scene. From there, we were treated to a stunning, sparkling 360-degree panorama of the entire city. As tired as I was from our day’s adventure, I could not deny the radiating electricity that makes Bangkok... well, Bangkok. And it was irresistible.