Bangkok, up until our holiday in July, was never a destination I’ve felt a burning desire to visit. Now the capital city of the ‘Land of Smiles’, named after it’s grinning (and often toothless) residents, sits firmly at the top of my ‘Really Want To Go Back There’ list. Hot, sticky, loud, crazy and stinky in parts, Bangkok was everything Hubby and I expected – and more. Three days simply wasn’t long enough and I was really sad to leave.
Firstly, if you are reading this with a view to learning Bangkok’s history, or to find out which sight-seeing spots I recommend, stop reading now… On the other hand, if, like me, shopping is dear to your heart, keep reading.
“Crowded” is probably one of the first words that springs to mind when you arrive in Bangkok. Home to some 8 million residents, the mind boggles where it’s going to fit the 15.8 million projected visitors over the course of 2013. The place is PACKED. The World Metrological Organisation named Bangkok as the world’s hottest city in the world a few years back, I’d agree with that: We sweated buckets in July, with temperatures in the early to mid 30s. I’d not want to be venturing outside when the mercury peaks and the locals start complaining about the heat. Small Child’s statement when he stepped outside Bangkok airport sum it up “Mum, it feels like someone is blowing me with a hairdryer!”.
We didn’t head to Bangkok to see temples and palaces, though in hindsight I now regret that we didn’t, but we’ll do that next time. Nope, we were there for a family reunion and to shop. As for relaxing and sightseeing: We were in Bangkok for three days and then travelling to the island Bangkok Koh Samui for ten days. We reckoned we’d have plenty of time there to do cultural stuff!
We stayed fairly central at the Indra Regent Hotel in Bangkok’s Pratunam area, which is a key discount shopping district. We even had a (cheap) shopping mall, complete with a McDonalds attached to the hotel foyer. There was also an abundance of sidewalk traders right outside the hotel’s front door.
Importantly, the Indra Regent was was nice, clean and, importantly the service was great. I always find the best measure of service is how forgiving and accommodating they when you, for example, need to get them to break into your room’s safety deposit box at 10pm after you’ve stuffed up the pin and inadvertently locked ALL your money and passports in it. They were understanding, accommodating and, importantly, kind (unlike my husband who was pissed off at my carelessness!) We loved their pool, which probably wasn’t anything too special in hindsight, but in the first few days while we were acclimatising to Bangkok’s unforgiving humidity, it offered us a welcome relief! I’d recommend the Indra Regent, based on a great location, price and customer service.
In terms of getting around, Bangkok’s traffic is a tourist attraction in its own right! On every overhead bridge you see tourists, like we did, clicking away in awe of the congestion. I never thought I’d say this, but I wish I’d taken more photos of the traffic. There’s no shortage of transport options: Buses, sky trains, MRT (underground), boats, motorbike taxis, tuk tuks and then there’s the delightful pink-candy coloured taxis on every corner. If you can’t see a taxi, just listen out then follow the voice screaming ‘Taxi Madame!!!’. We caught a lot of taxis, as there were six of us, we were usually in a hurry and it was the cheapest option: We’d all pile like sardines into one taxi (the things you do on holiday right?!). If you want to get to your destination really fast, get a ride with a motorbike taxi. Then again, if you want to arrive at your destination alive, don’t take a motorbike taxi. Taking a ride in a tuk tuk is a must, at least once, purely for novelty value. We had a great ride in one, with four of us crammed into three seats, with the tuk tuk behind us pretending to play dodgems with our driver and nearly ramming us the entire 3km ride. This was to the utter delight of my shrieking six year old, which only served to egg both tuk tuk drivers on. Actually, I’m not sure who laughed most, the tuk tuk (aka dodgem) driver, my Small Child, or my mother, who had tears of laughter streaming down her face. The ride was chaotic, weaving in and out of the traffic, cutting off other vehicles, zipping in and out of alley ways to avoid main roads. This is all whilst it’s like someone is blowing a stinky blow-drier at full speed in your face, you are trying to hang on to the roll cage of the tuk tuk for dear life and, with your other hand, you are clasping onto your shopping bags in case some bastard zooming past leans in and nicks your three new handbags, four pairs of shoes or, heaven forbid, cashmere scarves.
A couple of tips on non-public transport options: Make sure you agree on the price before you go anywhere and don’t be afraid to barter the price down. Secondly, be wary of offers to unexpected tailors or gem stores: The driver often receives a petrol voucher or commission for taking tourists there. Don’t get sucked in.
Bangkok is a shoppers paradise and features regularly in the Top 5 world shopping destinations. There’s shopping malls and markets galore. If you like a bargain, you’ll be in heaven. If you are planning to shop till you drop, don’t hesitate to take a Nana-like shopping basket trolley, or a stroller bag. Seriously, everyone uses them!
Bartering in the markets, with sidewalk traders, or in some local stores, took a bit to get my head around, as a general rule of thumb you take 60% off the asking price and to use this as your bartering starting point. The key is to be firm and respectful, but not pushy. Barter hard, but don’t lose out on buying (another) handbag over a teeny difference like 25 Baht (NZ$1). That said, my Hubby, who was ruthless with his bartering, got enviable bargains!
I was rapt we stayed in the Pratunam district as this chaotic place is particularly well known for its fashion factory outlet/malls and street markets. Pratunam is a key place to go for bargain prices for all kinds of clothing, fashion accessories, shoes, watches, jewellery, belts, handbags etc. When I say bargains, I’m referring to, largely, the knock-off items that are for sale in abundance here. I was very happy (and unapologetic) to indulge in knock-off shopping. Some of my favourite finds were a Longchamp handbag for NZ$7, fake Havaianas jandals for NZ$4, and a fantastic (fake) ‘Urban Decay’ Naked eyeshadow palette for NZ$17. Hubby got a gorgeous Tag Heuer watch for NZ$35.
Shopping markets aside, the modern multi-storey malls were a shopaholics wet dream. Bonus too, they are air-conditioned, offering welcome relief from the unrelenting heat. If you want to indulge in more upscale shopping, head to Terminal 21, Central World Plaza, or the flashest mall of them all, Siam Paragon. Platinum Fashion Mall is definitely worth a mention, this is a wholesale mall that’s open to the general public and has 2000+ shops selling, mostly, clothing, footwear and accessories. A word of warning though, most of the shops at this mall had a ‘no try on’ policy. At best all you can do is hold the clothes up to see if you think they’ll fit. For this reason, as well as because the clothes were for teeny sizes (I’m only a size 12-14 for goodness sake) I pretty much left empty handed. On the plus side, I do have tiny size 6 six feet, so I could (and did) take advantage of petite Asian shoes.
If, like me, you are a bargain hunter, I personally don’t think you can beat the King of Bangkok Shopping Malls: MBK. This is a lower-end (budget) mall, crammed with 8 floors (and 2500+ shops) of bargain heaven, again, largely rip-offs. My best finds here were a $7 ICE watch, loads of 100% pashmina scarves ($7 each), fake brand t-shirts ($6 for fake Quicksilver t-shirts for wee man) and shoes. Oh, the shoes. I got four good quality pairs and the most I paid was $20. Having lived in the UK for a few years, I was beside myself with excitement to find Boots the Chemist and I went crazy stocking up on Revlon lipsticks at prices you’d never see at home (NZ$9 for a lipstick that retails for NZ$28). I guess these are made in Thailand anyhow, so you aren’t paying for transportation costs added onto each item.
Hubby and my brother spent four hours on the technology floor at MBK and both picked up some Monster Beat headphones (all the rage, apparently) for $60. We later compared these with real ‘McCoys’ (which retail for $500+) The look, feel, as well as sound, are all authentic.
Along with makeup, beauty and food, handbags is another subject dear to my heart. I did A LOT of research before we went to Bangkok on the best place to buy designer knock-off handbags. I wanted to get a couple of bags and a new wallet and was prepared to part with a bit of cash to get something that looked authentic and would last for years. My research paid off and I easily found handbag heaven on the second floor of MBK: Pharaoh and, right next door, KK. I got a Mulberry handbag and wallet, as well as a lamb skin Balenciaga handbag. All are fantastic quality and, at NZ$100 for each handbag, it was totally worth it. Note, I got the bags at these prices after some serious batering (e.g. I got the sales assistant down by half). But, I suspect, in hindsight, I should have bartered harder. Lots of big luxury brand bags are in both Pharaoh and KK (including Burberry, Gucci, Chloe, Louis Vuitton etc). I wish I’d bought more! (Note, at the end of our holiday in Singapore I wandered into the Balenciaga store on Orchard Rd, carrying my make version of their bag. The saleslady and I struck up a conversation and, following her admiration that I owned one of their bags, I fessed up it was a fake. Under close scruitiny of said bag she said she couldn’t tell the difference between mine and theirs: That were selling in their store for S$2000+…)
Here’s a tip: If you, like me, are a shopper, I’d recommend doing your homework first. Think about what you want to buy, make a list, look around on websites/blogs to find out which malls/shops/markets will best serve your needs. By nature I’m not the most organised creature, so I knew that without planning and a shopping list I’d get overwhelmed and distracted by the size and scale of everything. So, kitted out with a shopping list and maps of shopping malls, I was able to be fairly systematic with my shopping and I quickly got everything I wanted! Without this I think I would have been overwhelmed at the sheer size and scale of the malls and I’d have been in a dithering state of indecision.
Food wise: Be adventurous. Ignore people who warn you against dining local style/eating the street food! Seriously, common sense prevails: Would you buy chicken on a stick from a vendor back home in 35 degree weather, if it looks like it’s been sitting there a while and you can’t spot any refrigeration? No? Well, don’t do that on holiday either. We followed common sense on food hygeine all holiday, dined local style, ate ourselves stupid on street food: No worries, and certainly – no food poisoning! Rant aside, we went on a mini expedition every morning to find breakfast as the first meal of the day wasn’t included in our hotel deal. We gathered random assortments of food from local street vendors. Whilst we gave the BBQ roasted toad a miss, we dined like kings on mini bags of sticky rice, pork on a stick, salted BBQ catfish, steamed dumplings, spring rolls and bags of fresh fruit. Most mornings NZ$6 fed all three of us till bursting, much better than forking out $24 each for a bog-standard Western-style buffet breakfast at the hotel. We ate regularly from (air-conditioned) food courts at shopping malls, the food was always fantastic and seriously cheap (NZ$4 will buy you a feast). We had one meal out at a restaurant, the quirky named Condoms and Cabbages, which I highly recommend, apart from novelty value, the food and service were superb.
Money: We took cash, in the form of the local currency – Thai Baht. I’d wondered if it was worthwhile taking US dollars, but we didn’t bother and that was the right decision as I can’t think where we would have needed it. In addition to having a small amount of cash ready for your arrival I would totally recommend taking a pre-loaded Mastercard or Visa card, like Air NZ’s OneSmart card or a Multi Cash Passport. We got one each of these just to be safe: I’m paranoid of losing my only access to money when I travel as I’ve ‘been there and got the t-shirt’ from when I dropped my credit card, aka only source of funds, on the floor at the train station in Venice and I was up s**t creek for a few weeks. Anyway, what you do is pre-load the card, e.g. the OneSmart card, with New Zealand dollars before you travel and then lock in an exchange rate on up to four foreign currency wallets before you travel. At the time of our travel there were eight currencies to choose from, although Thai Baht wasn’t one of them (Singapore dollars was, which was handy for the last leg of our holiday). How these cards work is you can withdraw money from ATMs anywhere in the world (wherever the Mastercard or Visa card symbols are shown, as appropriate), so in effect you withdraw cash as you would using a debit or credit card. The benefits of these cards pre-loaded cards are enormous: You save money, generally the fees are less than using your credit card; Convenience, you can use the cards to purchase anywhere, online, in store. For me, the ‘no surprise’ benefit was the best: You are spending your money – not your bank’s money! We got home knowing exactly what we’d spent. There were no unexpected surprises. One tip with these cards though, whatever card you get, get one where you can choose your own PIN number. The Multi Cash Passport did my head in, as you can’t choose your own PIN number… I have a bad memory at the best of times, I’m surprised I didn’t get locked out of my own account for too many incorrect PIN entries.
In short, Bangkok exceeded my expectations by a country mile. If Bangkok was a personality, it would be spontaneous, casual, disorganised, a starter (and not a finisher), a change initiator, a person who likes to keep their options endlessly open. I loved everything about it: The heat, the smells, the crowds, the food. Everything was a complete assault on my senses – and unlike any other place I’ve visited. I loved it and I could (and would) do an ex-pat stint there. But, shamelessly, it was the shopping that made Bangkok a highlight for me and I’ll be indulging on much more of this on my next trip, as well as taking in a few more cultural sights (I feel bad we didn’t see more).
Oh, just in case you were wondering, what to take? Nothing – buy it there. Go with an empty suitcase, or better still, leave home just with a carry-on suitcase and buy a suitcase there! We did (two of them!)…
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