One of the most unique things about Bangkok is the myriad ways of getting around. If you’re not viewing the city from your taxi window or breathing in the heat and smoke from your tuk-tuk – or moto-rickshaw — then you may be on the sky train or the metro, beating the traffic while riding with the stylish locals on their way back from work. Then there are the motorcycle taxis, but bring along the nerves of steel necessary for zipping through standstill traffic on a careening, noisy bike.
But the modes of transportation I find the best – and the ones that really allow you to feel the pulse of the city, are perhaps the humblest: bicycles and boats.
Bangkok by Boat
On a recent morning, the sound of the engine can be counted as the only unwanted sound as I glide through the khlongs, or canals of Bangkok on a water taxi, easing towards the Chao Phraya River, the vital waterway which snakes through this frenetic city. The river gives an intimate perspective of Bangkok impossible from the bustling streets: aging houses poised on stilts; others built in the traditional Thai style, looking like beautiful wooden temples. I spy an open structure under which two babies are being rocked to sleep in their handmade hammocks. A large breadfruit tree stretches over the water, its oversized fruit dangling over the river. In a large, prosperous house with pots and plants on the balconies, a woman lying lazily on the floor follows our boat with her eyes until we turn the corner. As a blistering sun beats down on the stretched canvas of my water taxi, a cup of Thai ice tea in my hands, I silently watch Bangkok’s inner life stream past. Cloaked in an abundance of greenery – frangipani trees, ferns, and lavender I long to pick – the riverbanks look cool and appealing. It’s at this moment I have the realization it is possible to turn back the clock in Bangkok and see the city on its own terms using more languid forms of transportation.
What is entirely unique here is being a spectator from a boat. It’s not just the views of houses and lush plants, but the intimate portraits of locals going about daily life, like vegetable and fruit sellers in traditional conical hats plying their trade from their boats, or seeing a woman make soup for passersby on her small craft. It is pure Bangkok. The other thing that strikes me as I take in the city is that had I not heard about the riots earlier this year in the news, I wouldn’t have known anything transpired. It was as if the constant buzz of Bangkok dissipated the incidents and didn’t allow me to notice otherwise.
Bangkok by Bicycle
Combining perfectly with the ferry experience, bicycling through Bangkok and its outskirts go together like satay and peanut sauce. Starting off near the Grand Palace early in the morning, my guide leads me along the water, then crossing the river in a ferry, we bike through the narrow streets inside villages in Thonburi, the Old Capital. Men and women fold their hands together respectfully as we pass them. Vendors
hawk soup and toast with colorful toppings and motorcyclists weave past us. Riding a bike, we have the time to stop and watch three men hammer at a piece of metal to thin gold into delicate leaves for the Buddha statues in temples.
Cycling and the ferry boats, hand in hand, were what allowed me to see the real Bangkok, the city that breathed behind the façade of malls and sky trains and taxis. There was, however, one more incident involving the oldest form of transportation in Thailand – the elephant — that stood out among everything I experienced there: being kissed by an elephant. An hour away from Bangkok, in Ayutthaya, I visited an organization called Elephantstay, an elephant rescue program where the massive mammals are trained and rehabilitated. Some have daily jobs at the nearby ruins taking tourists for rides on their backs, and some are even taught to paint. (For those interested, Elephantstay also organizes programs for those who want to live with and learn about elephants).
As I was leaving, one of the more clever and friendly male elephants waved a forwards and backwards goodbye with his trunk and then, carefully placing it on my cheek, sucked a little and let go with a slight spurt of air. Certainly the best elephant kiss I’ve had, and the perfect good-bye to a memorable Thai experience.
Sukhothai (13/3 South Sathorn Rd.; +66-2-344-888) stands out as one of our favorite hotels in Bangkok. Designed by Ed Tuttle of Amanpuri fame, the Sukhothai is a tranquil oasis that melds modern design with luxurious Thai influences.
Bangkok Shangri-La (89 Soi Wat Suan Plu New Road, Bangrak +66-2- 236-7777) offers superlative service, handsome rooms with riverview balconies, and features multiple fine dining areas, including the outdoor riverfront Next2 and elegant Salathip, serving traditional Thai fare.
Peninsula Bangkok (333 Charoennakorn Rd.; +66-2-862-2888) offers a superior level of service with stunning views from this high rise wonder. Located on the Thonburi side of the river, the hotel’s spa is one of the best in Bangkok and the infinity pool overlooks the Cha Praya River.
The Oriental (48 Oriental Ave.; +66-2-659-9000) is one of the most famous landmarks in Bangkok. The hotel’s Riverside Terrace is ideal for an evening drink or drop in for afternoon tea in the over-the-top Authors’ Lounge. If you feel like splurging then check into one of the Author’s Suites and save up for a spa treatment.
Four Seasons (155 Rajadamri Rd.; +66-2-251-6127) is conveniently located near top shopping destinations and the sky train. Sip a fresh coconut water while lounging at the ultra-stylish pool or check out one of the Tony Chi-designed restaurants.
The Metropolitan (27 South Sathorn Road; +66-2-625-3322) is an urban chic respite with Asian touches. The city’s young and beautiful professionals congregate at the elegant Cy’an restaurant that overlooks the pool.
See & Do
Elephant Experience Whether you just want to schedule a short visit to experience a ride on an elephant or schedule a longer stay to really bond and learn about these magnificent animals, Elephantstay offers various packages
The Jim Thompson House (6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road; +66-2-216-7368) is a landmark museum of six traditional Thai houses that were once home to the American silk entrepreneur Jim Thompson. This remarkable house-cum-museum showcases Thompson’s vast collection of antiques and artworks from all over the Southeast Asian region. The shop features a wide range of high quality silk scarves, kimonos and shirts. A small patio restaurant offers delicious Thai dishes and overlooks a lush tropical garden.
Grand Palace (Ferry stop: Tha Chang N9) used to be the home of the King and his court, and it continues to be the spiritual heart of the Thai kingdom. Crowds flock here to see the Emerald Buddha, and the entire palace complex, over 200,000 square meters, reflects Thai history and culture. Appropriate dress (modest cover-ups for women; no shorts for men) is strictly enforced. Admission: 250 baht.
Pirom Spa (78 Sukhumvit Rd.; 66-2-655-3525-8) is a full-service spa with skilled masseurs and natural products in a tranquil setting. While massages are offered on nearly every corner in Bangkok, this spa is worth a visit. Try a traditional Thai massage or relax with a hydrating facial.
Eat & Drink
Biscotti (Four Seasons; +66-2-253-4638) is pure theater, a bustling restaurant with an open-air kitchen and exciting food to match. Don’t miss the wood-fire pizzas and excellent pastas.
Celadon (Sukhothai; +66-2-287-0222) is one of our favorite Thai restaurants, set within the calm atmosphere of the Sukhothai. The green curry is outstanding, but if you can’t take the heat, make a request for mild flavors.
Greyhound Café (Sukhumvit Soi 24; +66-2-664-8663) offers fresh Tahi fusion in a cool contemporary ambiance, is a perfect spot for lunch while shopping along Sukhumvit Rd.
Vertigo Grill & Moon Bar (Banyan Tree Hotel; +66-2-679-1200) boasts 360 degree views of the city at the world’s highest open air restaurant and bar. Located on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree hotel, this former helicopter pad is the perfect place for a sunset cocktail.
Met Bar (Metropolitan Hotel; +66-2-625-3322) hosts Bangkok’s young and beautiful who flock to this low-lit lounge that serves exotic cocktails like Tom Yumtinis.
Emporium (Sukhumvit Soi 24) stands as one of Bangkok’s largest and glitziest shopping plazas packed with upscale brands like Versace and Prada along with top local fashion designers and sleek home design goods.
Siam Center and Siam Discovery Center (Siam Square; Tel: 66 2 694 1222) house trendy shops and outlets for most of the top young Thai designers as well as imported brands. The Discovery Center is more upscale, with home décor shops like Habitat and Anyroom.
Siam Paragon (991/1 Rama 1 Road; +66-2- 2690-1000) is an upmarket, five-story shopping and entertainment colossus. Truly consumer heaven, it’s home to more than 250 famed international and local luxury brands.
Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok
Take the MRT underground rail to Bangkok’s famous weekend market for an unforgettable shopping extravaganza. Exit the Kamphaeng Phet Station which delivers shoppers straight into the market that sells everything from exotic animals to antiques.
Skip city traffic by using the SkyTrain, or BTS, which runs through Bangkok on two lines. The MRT (a new underground rail system) also makes central downtown stops.
Express Boats The Express Boats are the most popular ferries. You’ll generally be able to hop on and off the boats from anywhere along the Chao Phraya River. Express boats feature colored flags which denote their stops and are available for general boarding (ie: the yellow flagged boats go to Nonthaburi – Sathorn – Rajburana piers.
Bicycle Tours Spice Roads organize day-long and more extensive trips in Bangkok and throughout Southeast Asia.