Tandem Travel Tales: Bangkok

TRANSITIONING TO SOUTHEAST ASIA

Thailand is a place, that in my more youthful mind, was impossible to fully envision. A place so far away had to be so different, you’d have to practically turn the world upside down to get there. Almost two years ago I had my first visit to nearby Nepal. It gave me validation that Southeast Asia is a wonderful place. It is a place with friendly, hard-working people, bustling industry, vivid food culture, and beautiful traditions.

Yaowarat Road daytime Bangkok @travelingintandem
A taste of Chinatown during the day, Yaowarat Road

Realizing every day that there’s much more to appreciate throughout these parts of the world, I was elated to return. The prospects of the land of smiles, the cuisine and curries, and the reverence in this culture, are all so much more than I could have imagined. So after our three-month expedition through Europe, it was time for our flight from Paris to Bangkok!

temple Bangkok @travelingintandem
One of the many temples in Bangkok

EXPECTATIONS AND PLANS

The most fundamental component of our life on the road is the pursuit of experience. As the places we call home and the individuals we call friends evolve, so do the preparations for our future. Perhaps the experience of planning almost the entire three months in Europe gave us the comfort to change our strategy in Bangkok and kind of wing it. Rationale aside, with our new home in Thailand, we, for the first time, had an open itinerary.

The one tidbit we had secured ahead of time was our guesthouse, The Orientale. Sitting just on the eastern outskirts of Bangkok’s Chinatown, it ended up being the perfect location for us. We were back to relying on Wifi without an active phone, and we knew we had to be diligent in planning each step as it came. Otherwise, we had to find contentment in time and energy spent wandering.

Rooftop at The Orientale Bangkok @travelingintandem
A cozy hideaway on the rooftop of The Orientale.

Assured by our comfort in the lack of planned direction, we were free of our own expectations. I’ll admit, on several occasions I envisioned myself exploring our new city’s cuisine like Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern- enjoying great company with strangers as they shared with me an ordinary, yet fantastic treat. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly this hope became a reality.

Our otherwise itinerary-less exploits throughout this limitless city just unfolded one day at a time. Looking back, I’d say it was a success.

CHINATOWN

A hub for Chinese populations keeping and sharing their traditions in another country, Chinatowns always offer unique cultural insights. Often these people have undergone heightened times of hardship due to bias and racism. The history of the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires of 1906 is a brutal example of how racism can destroy a community. But it is also how Western cultures came to see Chinatowns as they are today. Bangkok’s Chinatown is known as not only one of the most vibrant in the world, but also one of the first, having been established with the city in 1782.

Yaowarat Road in Bangkok @travelingintandem
A picture of Yaowarat Road at night in Chinatown

Most famous for the culinary expanses and niche foods, Chinatown also shines through its architecture, decor, and unique ceremonies. Located just northeast of the Chao Phraya River, which snakes through the city, it may appear tiny on the map, but there’s a lot there.

Yaowarat Road is the heart of Chinatown, running northwest-southeast through the district. The signage is intense, the buildings tall, and the street vendors line both sides of the road in beautifully organized chaos. It can be sensory overload at first glance, but as you get more comfortable the vibrant details come alive.

Yaowarat Road in Bangkok @travelingintandem
We saw this man every night and he really enjoyed jiving to computer-generated house music while he fired his wok all night long.

This hub is certainly one of those places that takes a different form during various times of the day. Early morning is captivating with its order and vendors preparing for the long day ahead. The swing of the day is moderate, with most of the activity disseminating through the bountiful retailers and distributors. The evening is when things get exciting as the town concentrates its activity back to Yaowarat. And if you’re wild enough to be wandering back through that way in the wee hours of the night, you’ll be amazed at the diligence with which the locals take care to return order and cleanliness to their respective corner of the street.

The adjacent streets have their own offerings to enjoy. Just south of Yaowarat is an expanse of narrow walking streets lined with varieties of retail making up Sampeng Market. We capitalized on a great daypack for Brittany while visiting. To the north are strips of the Chinatown Market with a more local feel. Here you’ll find retailers with mostly consumable goods. During our visits, we gathered a variety of unique snacks and lovely rosebud tea. Also known to be a hub for gem merchants, if you’re interested in browsing these shops you’ll find them on the southeast edge of the district.

City Market Bangkok @travelingintandem
A great representation of one of the many bustling city markets

Reflecting on our time in Bangkok’s Chinatown, our experiences were extensive. From our first meal on little plastic stools to becoming a regular at my favorite iced coffee cart, each day was unique. We were greeted with endless kindness and inclusion. The medicine man offered a shot of his root extract alcohol and refused payment, while other locals became friends who treated and spoiled us like family.

Be sure to visit, get comfortable, and smile.

The Orientale in Bangkok @travelingintandem
The wonderful crew at The Orientale studying the art of latte making. Teddy, Eh, and Boom.

TEA AND COFFEE CULTURE

So we arrived in Bangkok via Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) at 7:00 AM local time and managed to make our way directly to our guesthouse, The Orientale, via the light rail, metro, and a short walk for less than $4.00. When first opening the doors we were greeted by a couple of fantastically warm smiles and “hellos” by the fellows opening the coffee shop which occupied the first floor. This is a common arrangement in Bangkok. Guesthouses often have cafes or coffee shops on the first floor and guest rooms upstairs. They offer an enjoyable contrast to the numerous street vendors and restaurants just around the corner.

The most commonly known Thai drink to American’s is the Thai Iced Tea, and of course, this is available everywhere and I must admit that my favorite version may have come from the drink dispenser at the local 7 Eleven. Regardless your preference, be sure to enjoy one from a street vendor with bubble. This was the advice given to me by some school children on break, and as always, the local advice paid off.

Tha Tian Market Bangkok @travelingintandem
I caught Brittany eyeballing some dried fish in the Tha Tian Market

As a black coffee drinker at home, I was surprised that my favorite part of my morning routine quickly became the iced coffee with milk, AKA Thai Iced Coffee. This decadent little monster is a concoction, varying by its concocter, of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and coffee, poured over plenty of ice. Additionally, you might have some powdered milk and sugar thrown in there in there for fun. The biggest variant is the use of either instant coffee or Thai Coffee, made by using a cheesecloth net and a can of hot water. However it’s made, the result is a divine, joy-inducing coffee I craved daily.

If you’re looking for a more Western-style cup of coffee, you can easily find quality. The barista’s attention to detail at any formal coffee shop is that of a laboratory technician. They always have the traditional offerings available in addition to their own inventions. Try them. They are usually expensive relative to Bangkok prices, but still cheaper than back home and they’re amazing. Intelligent infusions of peanut, rosemary, citrus, or coconut are not things commonly encountered back home, each and imparts an unusual and enjoyable profile.

overpass train tracks Bangkok @travelingintandem
Industry along the overpass train tracks in downtown

Check out these coffee shops:

Also, drink a taro milk tea with bubble for me.

BEER & BOOZE

If you’re going to enjoy a beer in Thailand, everyone’s grabbing a Chang, Leo, or Singha. And that’s about it. I wasn’t sure of the open container law initially, so when the clerk at the 7 Eleven asked, “Open?,” upon the purchase of one of my first bottles of Chang, I happily said “yes”. Not a nation of craft, you really won’t find much else beyond the big three. And if you do see something, it’s probably a big domestic from another Southeast Asian country. If it’s not and it’s cheap, I suggest not buying it. I suppose craft does exist but there are some strange laws barring brewing in Thailand, so you see a lot of import. We had our one and only craft beer later on in Chiang Mai at My BEER Friend Market. While it was delicious, we paid for it.

root liquor Bangkok @travelingintandem
The local medicine man’s root liquor

Speaking to the laws in Thailand, advertising alcohol is illegal. This means a selfie with your beer can land you in Thai jail. Beer is only sold between 11 AM and 2 PM and 5 PM to midnight, but you’ll see people selling it roadside at all hours of the day and night. Additionally, it is illegal to brew beer in Thailand unless you produce 10 million liters per year, essentially erasing any chance for craft establishment or niche beers to arise. However, it seems that many are throwing caution to the wind and fighting back by slowly introducing their own illegal product to the market or “gypsy brewing” across the border in Cambodia and importing their product back into Thailand. Who knows what will happen, but we were surprised to learn of all of the nuances.

In addition to beer, booze is also around Thailand. My only taste in Bangkok was by chance. One afternoon I set out to enjoy a bit of our neighborhood around Chinatown. Walking a more local street by a little corner shop a small table of fellows belted “hellos” and “Where are you from?” I stopped to entertain the inquiries and was soon offered a glass of the booze being passed around. Sangsom is a Thai rum they referred to as a whiskey and is often served with soda water.

Local friends Bangkok @travelingintandem
My local friends down the road from the Orientale after a few glasses of Sangsom. Boi, Bia, and friend.

It was really that moment of random humanity, mutual interest in one another, and the joy of spending time with new company that propelled the conversation and smiles. The fellows even put a bowl of soup in front of me before it digressed to a few silly photos and happy goodbyes. In the end, the crew invited me to return for their Sunday watch party of the Muay Thai matches and we ended up stopping by to see the action.

CASH ONLY

Be ready, because Thailand is a country of cash. You’ll get used to the conversion quickly enough. During our time here the conversion rate was just under 33 Thai Baht per USD. But seriously, 95% of daily transactions will be cash only. Only at larger establishments will you have a chance to use your plastic, and even then there are card minimums or transaction fees.

Thonburi Wat Bangkok @travelingintandem
A beautiful, spontaneous discovery of the wat or temple near Thonburi.

If you intend to make a quick visit, I’d recommend bringing a fair amount of cash to exchange to Thai Baht rather than withdrawing from the ATM. The exchange was favorable, often with less than half of a percent penalty. However, the ATM’s are all set up to capitalize on your need for your pocket money, and every single one charges a 220 Baht fee, or about $7. Beyond that, you are bound to have your own banking fees for international withdrawals to take into consideration.

Negotiating Cost

Another thing to take into consideration when dealing with money is transparently establishing cost. When buying something or riding in a taxi, get in the habit of asking the price before committing to anything. In most cases, you’ll be treated fairly one way or another, but there are exceptions. Tourists are most commonly scammed by tuk-tuk drivers. We overheard many disagreements about final payment in Bangkok. Asking ahead of time just makes things simple. Once there was an agreed upon price, we never had an issue.

Fikeaw Yaowarat Bangkok @travelingintandem
Fikeaw Yaowarat restaurant, where we accidentally ordered a one kilogram lobster.

Also, take cost into consideration when buying things by weight.  At our celebratory, first-night, streetside plastic stool dinner we decided to have a 150B/100g lobster at Fikeaw Yaowarat. Oh, what a treat. Ignorantly thinking that the lobster might weigh a pound and set us back about $20, the bill had me awkwardly headed to a nearby ATM to cover the 1650B bill. We got that $50 lobster, the most expensive food purchase of the trip, out of the way on our first day in Bangkok.

WHAT DOCUMENTATION?

Grilled lobster Chinatown Bangkok @travelingintandem
Brittany pleased to welcome our grilled lobster to the table at Fikeaw Yaowarat

Don’t expect to get a receipt with any of your purchases. Honestly, the cash culture is really efficient and just makes sense for the way a lot of the businesses are run throughout the city. But if you’re trying to keep track of your budget, you’ll have to keep your own running ledger. This is something Brittany and I have done in our travels since almost day one. Keeping an eye on your cash flow is paramount in long-term budgeting and they don’t help you out with receipts as you see all across Europe.

THE LAND OF SMILES

If you hadn’t already heard, Thailand is known to be the ‘Land of Smiles’. Perhaps it’s the fact that some folks back in The States can’t comfortably make eye contact, let alone utter a friendly acknowledgment, but this was such a warm surprise. Bangkok lives up to the nickname wholly. There’s something so satisfying about the simple exchange of a smile between strangers. These smiles are indicative of greater cultural warmth, and I’m certainly a believer.

Temple from The Orientale in Bangkok @travelingintandem
The Temple of the Golden Buddha from the roof of The Orientale

One of my favorite moments budded from a simple exchange with a pineapple vendor. Having passed the fellow once before, he was happily down to his final bag and was all smiles. The bags of tops and trimmings were left as evidence of the hours of work prior. Perhaps the last sale of the day incites extra happiness, but it was contagious nonetheless. In the midst of the giggles, I motioned to the extra small pineapple being used for display. It was trimmed and on a stick but still retained its top. Without hesitation, he immediately placed it in our hands as a gift. Already spoiled, the now immortalized “pineapple guy” then directed us to take his seat to enjoy the treat. It was perfect.

Coconut vendor Bangkok @travelingintandem
My friend Boi at his stand near the Golden Buddha Temple selling coconuts

The theme of “Land of Smiles” continued to show itself throughout our time in Bangkok. At one point we approached the fellow captaining a local ferry back and forth across the river near Wat Arun. The gent was proud of our admiration and happy to have a photo with me. The interaction incited further engagement with coworker fluent in English. He happily told us more of the captain’s 45-year career navigating the river before a giving us a chipper farewell.

The readiness with which people engaged in a conversation here was refreshing. Keep in mind many people don’t have much of a grasp on English, but those that do are proud to converse. Just don’t be naive, as there are scams running here just like everywhere else in the world. If you need help with something, there is often accountability with individuals who are working. Sometimes those asserting their help on the street don’t always have the best intentions.

Regardless, get out there and make yourself a five minute friend.

Wat Arun Selfie Bangkok, Thailand @travelingintandem
A selfie of us in front of the central temple at Wat Arun

TEMPLES? WAT TEMPLES?

Certainly, everyone dedicates some of their time in Bangkok to visit the magnificent temples throughout the city. While walking the streets you’re sure to hear Buddhist chanting echoing from one of these magnificent structures. With more than 95% of the country’s population practicing Buddhism, evidence of their religion is everywhere. Don’t hesitate to walk in, just be sure to take your shoes off at the door.

There are certainly landmark temples and some that keep national treasures. Of course these are magnificent, but as a result, they carry a very costly entrance fee. The Grand Palace was 500 Baht per person, just over $16, while entrance to Wat Arun was only 50 Baht. That being the case, we made the trip to Wat Arun but chose to forgo The Grand Palace in favor of our budget.

Wat Arun Bangkok @travelingintandem
Blue skies over Wat Arun

Wat Arun

Strikingly unique in design, Wat Arun will catch your eye if you choose to take the ferry on the Chao Phraya River. Located on the west bank, just across from The Grand Palace, Wat Arun the is a mosaic of broken ceramics full of lovely and unique touches at every turn. The temple itself is surrounded by a series of gardens and smaller shrines. Be sure to give yourself time to enjoy the area beyond the central temple. Here you’ll be able to find some peace away from the more concentrated tourism.

The Grand Palace Bangkok @travelingintandem
A shot of The Grand Palace from beyond the wall

If it’s within your budget and you want to go appreciate one of the most noteworthy national treasures of Thailand, then don’t be like us. Go to the Grand Palace Complex. This huge campus was once home to kings of Siam, dating back to the late 1700s. More interestingly today, the grounds are also home to Wat Phra Kaew, the temple of the Emerald Buddha, and Wat Pho, the temple of the Reclining Buddha. To be honest, I do have a little regret because we missed this opportunity, but I have to remind myself of our goal of long-term travel. We’ve been finding great peace in slowing down and enjoying our surroundings, rather than scrambling and stretching for more.

I found some of my greatest experiences during unplanned visits to smaller, less touristed temples. On one independent walk, I came across Wat Ratchabophit Sathitmahasimaram. A magnificent example of architecture and decor, I was the only tourist on its grounds. Following the hum of chanting, I was invited to join the ongoing worship. Accepting the offer, I enjoyed a communal period of peace amongst Buddhists in the midst of their practice. These are moments that truly make me smile.

Captain on Local Ferry Bangkok @travelingintandem
Our new friend, The Captain- navigating the local ferry between Wat Arun and the east bank

TRANSPORTATION DESERTS

Be warned. As much as you are solicited for tuk-tuk rides in some places, if you make your way outside of the more commonly visited parts of the city, there will be no one to drive you home. There are some really clean and timely metros and light rails available in Bangkok, but the network is somewhat limited. It lies east of the river mostly concentrated in the business and consumer districts. The presence of ferries that run the river is effective for north/south transportation. However, these public transport systems close nightly, often before 6 PM. You might just find yourself walking through the midst of a transportation desert if you don’t pay close attention.

Rainy day Chaya Phraya River Bangkok @travelingintandem
One of the many boats traversing Bangkok’s Chaya Phraya River on a rainy day.

The Metro & Skytrain

The Bangkok Metro (MRT) and Skytrain or light rail (BTS) are really well maintained and efficient if your destination is on their route. They are reasonable too, anywhere from 15-52B from point A to point B, or 130B for the day. Unsurprisingly, they are cash only. Be aware they run from 6 AM to midnight. After that, you’ll be on foot or negotiating with tuk-tuk drivers. Also, know that individual tickets must be purchased according to your destination, so you cannot jump on the metro and choose your stop at random.

Bangkok BTS
The Bangkok BTS light rail line from the Sheraton Grande

The River Ferry

Filling the north-south void in public transportation is the ferry system on the Chao Phraya River. These systems are a little less intuitive to utilize initially, but you can get a handle on them easily enough. The option that worked the best for us was the “orange flag” express river boat taxi. These boats bounce side to side as they travel up and down the river, costing only 15B per ride. I’d say the experience and the views make this a must! Just remember they only run from 6 AM to 6:30 PM.

The night we learned our lesson, we had taken the BTS north to check out the Phraya Thai neighborhood. While this local area was great to explore on foot, our happy mistake was deciding to wander back Southwest away from the BTS and expecting to find a tuk-tuk along the way. Sometimes expectations are not met, and this was surely one of those instances.

It quickly became clear that GoogleMaps can make distances look smaller than they actually are in a city as vast as Bangkok. The train sits about halfway between the BTS and the river, so we gave it a go for a late night ride down to the main station. No such luck. As it turns out, having to walk through areas that travelers don’t usually visit can be a pleasant surprise. We passed the Chitralada Royal Villa, home to The King before we found the empty and illuminated Marble Temple. Cool! Further on we began to pass dozens of military men posted along the road. Curious, we asked a stern-looking officer about the occasion. He immediately smiled and explained The King was out for a bike ride. Haha, of course!   

Chao Phraya River docks Bangkok @travelingintandem
One of the many local Ferry docks on Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.

DIVERSITY

Cities are always a host to a great spectrum of diversity; monetarily, racially, and culturally. In Bangkok, you’ll experience such visibly drastic examples which sometimes excite and sometimes cause pain. The disparity or union in many of these circumstances is thought-provoking and should be pondered. Most importantly, Thailand’s diversity is representative of a country and a culture in which there are things to appreciate and learn from, but these situations are always changing relative to who is in charge.

Since we arrived in Bangkok early in the morning, we rode the metro right in the midst of the morning commute. This was our first real view of the city, and we were intermingled with the working core who were silently packed onto a train looking at their phones as portals into another world. Watching the train shoot past rice paddies and little homes on stilts while heading towards the concentrated industry ahead, we were immediately aware of the progression.

Calypso Cabaret Bangkok @travelingintandem
Part of the show at Calypso Cabaret

Thai Kathoey

Bangkok is a city known for ladyboys. In Thai, the term used to describe ladyboys is Kathoey กะเทย, or transgender, and the individuals often identify as phuying, ผู้หญิง meaning women. Sometimes individuals identify as phet thi sam เพศที่สาม, or third gender. In any case, it outwardly appears as if these women are accepted by society, which is unique to the rest of the world and lovely to see. However, you can go down a rabbit hole trying to further understand Kathoey culture and it isn’t always clear whether or not such acceptance exists.

In Bangkok, ladyboys are wholly integrated into the workforce as entertainers in Cabaret Shows. Brittany and I visited the Calypso Cabaret at Asiatique and left feeling conflicted. While it seemed as if the performers were enjoying themselves, there was an air of exploitation undermining the show. And to greet the performers after exiting, it became clear that many were unhappy and felt ostracized amongst their fellow performers. I don’t think that we would return to this particular show, but we would consider visiting another show in Bangkok or Chiang Mai. Just make sure there’s an agreed-upon price before entering and that you know the cost of your drinks before the bill comes. Some tourists find themselves scammed or hanging to renegotiate after such shows.

Calypso Cabaret Bangkok @travelingintandem
Performers after the Calypso Cabaret show

WEALTH & THE INFLUENCE OF TOURISM

There is certainly a disparity of wealth in Thailand. Most publicly visible was the working class, or people putting in seriously long hours every day to make the city run. We often had conversations with some of these young working individuals, many whom were also pursuing higher education and English fluency in addition to their work. This, in addition to many other things, makes perseverance visible within the communities. You can appreciate many neighborhoods through their industry that literally spills onto the sidewalks and streets. It was incredibly inspiring to see this youth so intent on improving their futures.

The wealthy, of course, have their sanctuaries intermittently spread throughout the city. One of the most accessible windows into such a life is the famous Bangkok Skybar. Touching the sky with its 63rd-floor balcony, magnificent domed roof, and grand glass windows, we were invited into the elevators unaware of the mandatory drink purchase and concordant price tag. For me, it’s strange to stand amongst such wealth. There’s a certain type of entitlement I struggle to understand within this crowd. We snapped a few photos and skipped the drink before b-lining it to the elevator and having a good laugh on the way down as a completely sober 60-year-old woman hit all of the buttons on the way out of the elevator. Standing on the street again, there was no grandeur or balcony view, but a heartbeat we could understand.

Skybar Bangkok @travelingintandem
A look at the vastness of Bangkok from Skybar

Congruent in privilege and contrasting the majority of the city is Asiatique, a manufactured night market and entertainment venue catering to tourists. It’s physically gated from the surrounding neighborhood and doesn’t truly reflect the city or culture it is intended to represent. Though this is a place we would usually avoid, it was interesting to have the perspective and I can understand the appeal for some travelers. If you visit, pay attention to the demeanor of the vendors and employees there. It is a striking contrast to the joy you feel in the rest of the city.  

The red light district has its own identity and blends of visitors. In some instances, permission to partake in taboo, often illegal activities can draw some unsavory characters. While it is the world’s oldest profession, I can’t help but wonder what strings are attached for some women employed within the red light districts. Brittany had a particularly hard time taking in these areas, commenting on how hollow and distressed some of the women looked. I can’t well explain all we saw, but it is certainly a place that can provoke thought and emotion.

Buddha Bangkok @travelingintandem
The Buddha kept in Wat Arun’s Ordination Hall

STAYING HEALTHY ON THE ROAD

Traveling to another country always requires with a bit of forward-thinking regarding precautions. Maintaining good practice, Brittany and I have been fortunate enough to have all of the suggested vaccinations. We’re also stocked up on all of the necessary travel medications for stomach issues, malaria, altitude sickness, and general infections. Though Bangkok is not a city with high risk regarding malaria, this part of the world carries an array of other health concerns for non-adapted Westerners, so we chose to not take our chances.

As you plan your travels, do a little research and visit your nearest travel clinic. The staff there will be able to cover any preventative measures with you as well as provide any vaccination you require. We are fortunate to have access to the IU Travel Clinic back home and have visited Kelsey, an awesome RN, to discuss everything under the sun. I know it’s the least exciting part of travels and can be really expensive, but it provides happier days and health as you make your way forward.

Rain storm ponchos Bangkok, Thailand @travelingintandem
The day we elected to enjoy a long ferry ride it decided to pour rain. So we bought ponchos and acted a bit weird.

Can You Drink the Water?

Drinking water is always something to consider, and here in Bangkok, there are surely a variety of thoughts on the matter. The major concern is older, compromised sections of the city’s water system. Unfortunately, this can filter some less-than-savory stuff through your tap. We didn’t worry too much about showering, brushing our teeth, or washing clothes while in Bangkok. But as far as our drinking water goes, we always travel with Platypus GravityWorks filter.

In efforts to reduce our plastic consumption, we simply filter most cities’ tap water and fill our reusable Nalgenes. Thailand, however, has drinking water machines that took us by surprise. While they come branded all different ways, most will dispense 1.5L for 1B. We happily used this system when it was available, as we sweat through our shirts walking the city every day. But do be careful, there was some research done on these machines and not all are licensed, and some have been cited as dispensing waters unsafe for drinking.

Bangkok @travelingintandem
This is where we drank the tap water.

Use your best judgment, note if the battery is working for water filtration, and also check out the condition of the machine itself. We never had any issues, but we also think we drank tap water a few times in an attempt to not be rude at restaurants. So maybe we don’t always have the best judgment when it comes to these kinds of things.

What About Breathing the Air?

Air quality is a thing, especially as a city with endless traffic. As mesmerizing and exciting as it may be, the result is a serious amount of exhaust without much relief. Emission standards are obviously not a thing here, so the air along busier streets can be rough. Brittany had a particularly hard time with this, often experiencing chest pain in conjunction with smog-filled roadways.

After a few days, we realized there’s a reason why many people wear carbon filter surgical masks. You can get your hands on a filtered mask of your own at almost any convenience store. It may feel a little awkward at first, but your lungs will thank you in the end.  

Seafood vendor Chinatown Bangkok @travelingintandem
One of many beautiful displays of fresh seafood at a vendor in Chinatown

Gotta Get Those Vaccines

Vaccinations give me the willies, but we’ve endured a lot of shots in the name of staying healthy and possibly even alive. For this part of the world, we were advised to get Typhoid, Hepatitis, and Tetanus, which we already had from our trip to Nepal a few years ago. You’ll also come across recommendations for Japanese Encephalitis, Yellow Fever, and Rabies, less commonly known by people back home. Unfortunately, in The United States, these vaccinations carry a substantial price tag and aren’t always widely available. Depending on your healthcare, they have the potential to set you back upwards of $3,000 for per person. An alternative route led Brittany and me to a very endearing, unique, and happy experience at The Bangkok Travel Clinic.

After a bit of research, it became evident that Thailand leads the world in implementing many new and advanced versions of modern vaccinations. This is because research is focused in this area of the world where the population is most affected. Beyond an incredibly unique view of the Thai health systems, we were able to participate in and support these students while saving thousands of dollars ourselves.

Travel clinic Bangkok @travelingintandem
A glimpse of the fantastic staff at Bangkok’s Travel Clinic

We planned our visit to the clinic for our second day. The clinic is a training facility for future nurses and is extremely modern and clean. The professionalism by the students and the interactions of teachings were fantastic to observe. We had a brief interview with a doctor to confirm our vaccinations and otherwise were used as examples for practice by these students. Some travelers might feel more comfortable executing vaccinations through a more familiar system, but I wouldn’t trade this experience for any other. In total, the visit and vaccinations for Japanese Encephalitis, Rabies, and Yellow Fever set us back about $70 each. A week later we were able to visit a clinic in Chiang Mai and receive our second and final Rabies vax for another $21/person.

JUST EAT IT

Bangkok is one of the most interesting food meccas I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. The people take great pride in their bright, vivid flavors and their resourcefulness in using all parts of the ingredients. People’s livelihood is often supported by the seemingly simple operation of the many food carts seen throughout the city. There’s so much simple beauty in witnessing the attention to detail and ease with which vendors execute. Even if you’re one to be timid in the face of Southeast Asian cuisine, don’t worry. You’ll find plenty of options to suit your taste.

Victory Monument meat tick man Bangkok @travelingintandem
A fellow who runs a food cart off of the railroad track near Victory Monument.

Always intensely interested in the local flavors, I recommend visits to local markets. Bangkok has many of these gems. Ranging from small popup vendors along alleys to largely established hubs, they are all interesting and rich. Plan your visits early morning to early afternoon when you can see the commerce in full swing. Our one regret is never having access to a kitchen during our stay, as the ingredients are top notch, local, and low cost. It was almost torture having to settle for the delicious prepared foods.

Chinatown Pork Noodle Soup Dried, cured fish at a market in Bangkok
One of the many pork noodle soups we had in Chinatown

The larger markets to note are, Khlong Toei, Wang Lang, Chinatown, Chatuchak weekend market, or the number of nearby floating markets. Additionally, the Pak Khlong Flower Market sits just north of a massive distribution market. It was really interesting to see the volumes and quality of products passing under these roofs. This experience was also very special, as access to these sorts of networks is often not permitted to any passersby in other countries.  

To round out the experience, you have to be able to picture the dining areas that add local neighborhood charm. A little plastic stool is one of my favorite mental images of Bangkok food culture. Unless you’re treating yourself to an upscale dining experience, it’s common that you’ll be enjoying the simplicity of one of these small perches. It took a little getting used to, eating with my knees above my waist, but soon enough I was excited by the next prospect of cozying up on a little stool with a master making another specialty of the house.

CULINARY NEIGHBORHOODS

It’s amazing to experience the difference in identity that each neighborhood possesses. Having 50 districts further split into sub-districts can quickly make the neighborhoods in Bangkok overwhelming. To highlight the central, more traveled areas, here’s a list of neighborhoods.

  • We stayed in Yaowarat and Phahurat, the predominantly Indian and Chinese cultural district.

  • The Rattanakosin is the more tightly packed “Old Bangkok”, home to more traditional but some offerings catered to tourists.

  • Khao San Road is the backpacker district, a more westernized area with a spectrum of casual options and intermixed night venues.

  • East is Siam Square, home to the more modern commercial infrastructure and a mirrored upscaling of culinary offerings.

  • West, Thonburi, a quieter more local area home to my favorite Wang Lang market with one tourist hub, Wat Arun.

Perhaps it was for the best that we didn’t have our own kitchen. We ate out for every meal and had plenty of snacks in between. This would be detrimental to a budget in many places, but here, with only a little diligence, we were treated to the whole spectrum for around $8 each per day. That’s complete with morning coffees, occasional snacks from fruit vendors, something on a stick, and often a sweet treat at the end of the night.

Thipsamai Pad Thai Bangkok @travelingintandem
The curbside kitchen of Thipsamai Pad Thai

Mmmm, Noodles

Noodle soup is an abundant staple at many street vendors or restaurants, and it will cost you around $1. This was often our breakfast but can appear on any menu at any time. Vegetarian is not a common option, so pork or chicken will be in your bowl. There is almost always some sort of fish ball delights in there, too. It’s special that most all vendors have a choice of fresh noodle. My trick was to see what the locals were all having and mirror the popular choice.

Occasionally you’ll find that there is just one option and it is the specialty. This is what happened during our first lunch in Chinatown. We sat down at a bustling stall, Nay Lek Uan, and the woman said we could have noodle soup with pork or noodle soup with everything. Naturally, we both opted for everything and were surprised when our bowls showed up with crispy pork skin, intestines, stomach, liver, and tongue. But we ate it enthusiastically and it was honestly delicious. We’ve since learned that this soup is called Kuay Jab Nam Sai.

And More Noodles

Thipsamai Pad Thai, Bangkok @travelingintandem
A look at the delicious Pad Thai from Thipsamai

Of course, people think of Pad Thai when thinking of Thai food. It’s not just a westernized delicacy, it’s a local staple. Mild, sweet, and sometimes fishy, this dish is always comforting and satiating. Prolific with street vendors and their firey woks, there’s one place in town that always has a line truly worth the wait.

Thipsamai Pad Thai comes complete with a legendary technique. For the quality, ambiance, and hype, you’d think that their staple dish would be more than $3 a plate. Standing in line, sometimes for more than an hour, you’ll see the team work together to crank out hundreds of dishes per hour. With their famous dish wrapped in an omelet, one guy on the line steals the show. And when you take your seat, be sure to order an iced coconut drink. Mmmm.

All of The Other Delicious Things

Thai curries are the jam! Rich, spicy, basily, and utterly satisfying. These dishes aren’t as wildly available as the noodles but I would chalk that up to a much more intensive ingredient and process of preparation. If you’ve ever had the grand imagination of nourishment from mom’s chicken soup, I would surely say this is the Thai version. You’ll feel the goodness as it fills your belly…or is that the chili?

Dried, cured fish at a market in Bangkok @travelingintandem
Dried, cured fish at a market in Bangkok, Thailand

One other staple of Southern Thai food is Tom Yum. Simple yet explosive, this noodle soup is full of brothy lemongrass, peppery ginger and galangal, sour lime, and chili. Add some veggies and maybe chicken or shrimp and presto.

If all else fails, try out a stir fry. You’re going to appreciate the huge flames and technique, as it takes about 30 seconds for most of these dishes to come flying out of the wok and onto a plate in front of you. Almost anything that has been appreciated at the neighborhood market could be the specialty of the house. Spend a little time walking and watching the cooks work their magic. You’ll certainly get drawn into one that’s whipping up the dish you need. Our go-to stir fry was always fried basil with pork and chilis.

Last, but not least, try these street foods when looking for a snack:

PLASTIC BAGS!

Put it in a bag. Or wait. No bag, please! Get ready for the culture of plastic. We really had to work to deny plastic bags, styrofoam, and single-use cups. For those of you who have seen Portlandia, It didn’t take long for us to sing our own little plastic jingle. But instead of a bird, it was “put a bag on it.”

pineapple man Bangkok @travelingintandem
Our friend, the pineapple guy. Out of focus.

Literally, everything goes in a bag. Often that bag goes into another bag. Plastic cups with that tasty cold drink will go into a bag. That thing on a stick you’re going to eat right now, that goes in a bag, too. Putting it in a bag is a cultural reflex of sale.

Brittany and I got in the habit of happily offering our hands, our own bag, or a cup we already possessed. It would often take overcoming a confused look by the vendor and some awkward communication before we could finally reach an understanding. However, in some situations, people just couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t take a bag.

Soi Cowboy Red Light District in Bangkok @travelingintandem
A picture from Soi Cowboy, the largest Red Light District in Bangkok, Thailand.

Initially shocked by the prevalence of tiny plastic bags, we joked of the successes that would be had by running “the bag store”. It wasn’t too long until we found this unicorn. They make sense, but we’re hopeful that continued efforts will help reduce the city’s plastic consumption. It did hurt our hearts seeing the amounts of plastic garbage that would accumulate street side every night. But there does seem to be a bit of hope with a slowly growing message against rampant use of plastic disposables.

WHAT’S NEXT?

First of all, go to Bangkok. This city was fantastic. My only regret is not knowing more Thai. I can’t imagine the access to the city if you carry the native tongue. As this was our first stop in Thailand, I can already say we will be back. Warmth, diversity, food, and beauty are all there. And in a city of this stature, there will always be something new to explore.

From Bangkok, we headed north via an overnight train to Chiang Mai, the hub of Northern Thailand. There we were easily acquainted and were able to slow down a bit. Though the famous the Yee Peng Lantern Festival certainly kept things lively for our first few days.

Stick with us to catch up on current and past travels. Send us your thoughts, questions, or any strange requests. We’re always up for a new idea.

Steve

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