Last week, back in the office after a business trip, I discovered that I had a lot of holiday to use. I had to go on holiday that week to use it up. So on Saturday I booked the flights and on Monday morning caught the flight from Heathrow to Bangkok. I had the first two nights booked in a particularly comfy hotel to get over the flight and the jet lag. And a rough plan in mind. Head to a couple of places I’d never been before : Ayutthaya, the old capital of Siam, and Battambang in Cambodia, recently recognised by UNESCO for its food.
It’s the gateway to this part of the world. A good, well-connected airport and a charismatic old town area that’s easy to visit.
Landing here at just after 5am it was pretty quiet. Two jetways connected to the plane allowed a full set of passengers off pretty quickly. A few travelators and I was through immigration with barely a wait. Into the baggage hall and there were cash points and phone SIM booths, so you could sort yourself out before waiting for the bags. This is a great setup, better than anywhere else I know. The bags started coming quickly, but were fed through at a slow pace. Otherwise, quickly down to the basement to catch the metro into town. It was one of my best airport experiences.
Off the metro it was a Grab car to the hotel; Grab is SE Asia’s equivalent of Uber, it’s well worth setting up on your phone before arriving.
The Khao San area, Banglamphu to give its correct name, has been a draw for backpackers for decades. When I first visited in 2004 I stayed on the Khao San road itself. It was slightly brash then, with numerous bars and cheap backpacker hotels. The market at the western end was then was 50% stalls selling pirate DVDs and cracked software.
Since then the Khao San road has become extremely brash, to the point of parody, with the bars competing to have the loudest sound system. These days even standing in the street it is ear-bleed level.
The market is still there selling T-shirts, tourist nick knacks and carts of edible insects that have a charge to photograph them. But the pirate media has all gone; a change in the law more than a decade ago pushed that out of Thailand. A more recent change in the law, the legalisation of cannabis, has lead to a profusion of a new type of shop :
However, the roads and alleys around the area are much more civilised. Soi Rambuttri (curling round Wat Chana Songkram) to the west and the collection of Soi Samsen to the north all have good selections of hotels and restaurants on reasonably quiet alleyways. They are my favourite places to stay, eat and people watch.
One road north of Khao San Road is Thanon Rambuttri. Bustling, but sane, it hosts some more pleasant bars. A personal favourite is the Molly Bar at the eastern end. Outside it has comfy, laid back chairs well positioned for watching the street. The patrons there are mostly foreigners (farang) but with a few Thais. The Thais will be sharing a bottle of whisky plus some mixers. Head inside to find it air-conditioned and lit with low bluish lighting. Often with live music, it is all Thais in here. On a shelf to the left of the entrance are a series of labelled, part full whisky bottles, waiting for that customer’s next visit. That mix of Thai and visitor is what I love about the Molly Bar and this local area.
Stopping in front of me at the Molly Bar was a kebab cart. I’d already eaten so didn’t try, but maybe sometime in the future with the beer munchies…
Just a bit to the east is Susie Walking Street. It has the one remaining 2nd hand book store in the area, popular in 2004 and killed by the Kindle since. It also has a couple of bars that are only patronised by the Thais.
Although elements of the area are brash and tacky, they are never sleazy. You may get offered by a tuk-tuk driver to take you to somewhere sleazy, but they have to take you away for sleaze. There are no bars populated with bored Thai girls here. That’s a sharp contrast to the area of new-Bangkok with the big hotels that the travel agencies will put you in.
Staying on Soi Samsen 2 gave me some good restaurants right on my doorstep. My first meal in the city was at a place a knew was good from a previous visit; I had a couple of my favourite dishes.
The next day I tried a place that was new to me that was just up the alley, Jok Pochana. It didn’t look like much, with a few metal tables on one side of the alley and an open kitchen on the other. However the food was excellent, the portions of the vegetable dishes generous and the prices were low. You just had to get used to the occasional car making its way past. In the picture below that’s the corner of my table at the bottom.
On my one full day in Bangkok I paid a visit to Chinatown. In between the packed streets are alley even more packed with markets selling anything and everything. The other reason for visiting this area was it gave an excuse to ride on the Chao Praya Express boat. This is the local river bus service and is my favourite way to get around Bangkok, along with the equivalents that ply the canals. Ignore the tourist boats and use the one the locals do. 16 baht (36 p) for a one way ticket.
It avoids the Bangkok traffic and is a great way to see the city from the river. In the video above see how quickly they dock; the video ends as the first passengers are about to get off (including me, hence the video ending).
The next day I was travelling up to Ayutthaya. 50 miles north of Bangkok, it was a 55-minute journey on the express out of the new train terminus. This station has a couple of quirks. Firstly, it has two names : Krung Thep Aphiwat Central Terminal Station & Bang Sue Grand Station. The latter as it was being built, and then the former when it was opened in January this year. Secondly, it is designed for three times as many platforms as it now has. This makes it a cavernous, mostly empty space. Despite the modern station the express train was decidedly well-used and from a different era. My seat would not stop from reclining if I leant back so thankfully the train departed and then arrived on time.