Travels with my Godmother: Our wonderful Old-School Bangkok Soujourn
This post will stray from my usual “square and practical” travel posts because looking for old-school Bangkok… happened about ten years ago. Because, let’s be fair, there is little opportunity to travel now. Being firmly stuck at home or at work, I find nothing better than a little reminiscing about past trips… with one of my favourite travel companions.
We travelled to Cambodia via a good long stop in Bangkok in 2009. Since then, South East Asia has become busier and more touristy, some places close and new ones open up. I am fully aware this post is obsolete by the time I hit “publish” – but from time to time I enjoy wallowing in memories. So this is more a sentimental journey, a journey into old-school Bangkok, a path we all need to travel on from time to time, and one that motivates me to continue travelling and dreaming of new places to visit. Also, I need a good excuse to edit my pictures from back then. Shocking – part of them has sat on a hard drive, patiently waiting to be shared on the ‘net. No, that’s wrong: I managed to put 40 pictures on Flickr between working my buttocks off.
I do live in hope, however, that many places mentioned here have been around for many years and arec considered Bangkok classics. Chances are they will still be there when we eventually return!
Table of Contents
Travels with whom????
I love travelling with my godmother. She is just a year younger than me. She also was the only person available qualified and willing to serve as my spiritual guardian on my baptism in 2001. And besides, she became my best friend two years earlier in the spiritual wilderness of an Oxford Hospital.
With me still working in the far north of England, and her having returned to the fatherland, our friendship, though close, could not flourish like in the days of the German Lunch Club at the hospital canteen, but what are holidays for but to go check if Angkor Wat was still the charming ruins in the jungle (nah), to shop for as much as we wanted and learn to carve vegetables the Thai way?
Booking websites and coordinating flights makes it easy to start your journey in different countries, so we just booked our flights individually and I reserved my favourite hotel. We have different interests and comfortable travelling levels, but we love the more unusual sights, we love local food, and we love browsing shops and steering a bit off the well-walked paths.
We mapped out a route depending on places we both wanted to see, starting and finishing in Bangkok (because of the reasonably priced flights there and the shopping, of course). We would start with a train ride to the Cambodian border (nah, hostel buses), visit Angkor Wat which was top of godmothers list, then Phnom Penh (also godmothers wish), bus down to Kep and Kampot (I at least wanted to see a place I had not been to and I hear there are some great abandoned villas in Kep), back to Bangkok where I wanted to carve vegetables. Or do a cookery class. Or Vipassana Meditation.
I had worked a lot. Now I had three weeks off, can hardly believe it, as I sauntered down the stairs of the train station, dressed in sensible black and beige, with just a small backpack and a much heavier one containing camera stuff, as it kept raining. A suitable farewell. It was cold, wet, dark – and I was leaving for somewhere very warm. I would be taking a train to London first, then a flight from London to Singapore in the morning, and rendez-vous with my godmother at the Atlanta hotel the next day. The rain continues in London where at least my ex boyfriend is in a good mood, reminiscing about his trip to Laos ca. 1991, being shown around by an official commie tour guide.
The next morning, the rain continued all the way to Heathrow. Everyone’s talking pictures of the Airbus A380 – which is still quite a novelty then! I almost keep forgetting that I need to change in Singapore. Ah, Singapore. Its clean airport. Now I began losing track of the time. It was already Sunday. Another two hour flight separated me from my holiday. I felt surprisingly good after 13 hours flight and no sleep but compulsive Tetris playing and learning Thai numbers. I guess travelling from Britain, the jet lag would catch up with me some time around midnight.
Meeting in Bangkok
Of course, our journey (and joyful meeting after nearly a year) began at the Atlanta Hotel. I had booked a suite to mark the occasion which was rather pointless – we would be out a lot anyway. . The Atlanta Hotel is anything but middle- of-the-road. Its ground floor comunal areas are quite special in a wacky retro 1950’s way with little desks, red leatherette armchairs and a guest library. No one trying to sell you taxi trips and tours, the Atlanta Hotel is a completely hassle-free zone.
Our suite was also quite retro in a less glamourous way, but a spot check proved it to be very clean – with old but comfy beds.
Matching with the dusky pink was a pink bath that looked a bit like a giant urinal. I spare you a picture of that. Anyway – this is no luxury hotel.
I still felt very good on no sleep, having already shed my travelling clothes and taken a few rounds in the swimming pool – I had almost forgotten the long flight. After taking a rest in one of the nice hammocks by the pool I fell asleep and not want ting to be burnt right at the start, I continued my slumber in my room. Next time I woke up, godmother had entered the room, her non-alcoholic welcome drink and a somewhat large backback in hand.
She was not tired at all, and we erre ready to celebrate our reunion!
First night in Bangkok? How about a Night Market?
We figured out it was much cheaper to take a metered taxi (called by the hotel) than taking the Skytrain and went to dinner at the now demolished Suan Lum night market near Lumpini Stadium. The market has relocated to a larger area near Ratchadaphisek Metro Station. Another famous (or at least photogenic) market I would love to try are one of the “Train markets” held in railway depots – Ratchada Train Market (Near Thailand Cultural Centre Metro) or Srinagarindra Train Market ( quite far out east,so here’s hope it might not be too overrun by fellow tourists).
I loved this market and hope any of the new ones are as good! There were not just a huge array of food stalls around a huge open air eating area, but also a stage with live Thai pop music and after dinner, we strolled across to the market area for a bit of window shopping although a t-shirt or two may have made it into our luggage…
A word or two on Thai Massage
We also might have gone to a Thai Massage at this point. I love them. Godmother was more interested in shopping for weird sweets and huge chunks of pomelo at Seven-Eleven, but in Nana Plaza you find all that.
You also find other attractions that you might not be so interested in, like bar girls and tons of Western tourists to stare at them, but you can get a half decent traditional massage. Just look out for shops advertising Thai Traditional Massage. They often have pictures of.. well, massages and acupuncture lines.
We went to one that made it quite clear it’s traditional by displaying a “no sex” sign at the Check-In. It was not bad, but not amazing – perhaps just being in a really touristy area meant mediocre massages. When we returned, I went to a small place near our apartment behind the Miracle Mall (Soi Sukhumvit 41 Alley) which was excellent, but stupidly I didn’t remember its name. I probably had the best massage in Nakhon Ratchasima in a random place we just walked into, and in Hua Hin, following a local recommendation well away from the centre. So my advice would be to stick to less touristy places, places with lots of Thai customers in towwns that aren’t prime toursit locations.
What to see in Bangkok if you’ve never been and have limited time
The jet lag never came and we woke up at 6.30 feeling rather fresh – the Thai Massage probably proved its worth! We were greeted by classical music in the hotel restaurant. Then tucked into a Thai breakfast – rice, egg, shrioms and a nice black coffee.
So we went into Rattanakosin, one of the oldest and most central parts of Bangkok. We went to a moderately touristy temple, the Wat Saket, first. After walking out of the Soi the Atlanta Hotel is in we encountered hoardes of Westerners on Sukhumvit Road – and the idea was to do a foreign culture backpacking trip, right? It was still early, and the taxi driver on Sukhumvit Road switched on the meter without a smidgen of a discussion. We did the nice walk up to the little hill, better known as the Golden Mount, through lush gardens, with loads of little distractions – small Buddha statues and shrines everywhere which must be prayed at.
But, honestly Wat Saket is a relatively peaceful place, much larger than the Golden Mount with its single stupa suggest. There are quite a few temple halls, some of them intricately painted, most very quiet and peaceful. The perfect introduction to Bangkok and south East Asia for godmother.
The actual Golden Mount with its terrace and the stupendous views over the historical centre of Bangkok is what most tourists come for – but the terrace, which is reminiscent in style to Tibetan monasteries, is also laid out to encourage walking meditation. The chedi in its centre can be entered and contains a smaller chedi with a relic of the Buddha, found in the late 19th Century.
The streets around Wat Saket were small, pretty streets with Chinese shop houses and traditional craftsman workshops, some of which appeared to have opened small cafés – so, we had drinks in a carpenters workshop – and why not? This also allowed us to inspect some custom doors more closely.
Temples and shrines of Central Rattanakosin
With more room for culture before lunch, we entered Wat Ratchanatdaram with its remarkable Lohart Prasart chedi, conveniently a 5-minute walk away. They are a lot more touristy – judged by the attempts at scamming we encountered here. Just as we were about to enter the perfectly accessible-looking Lohart Prasart, a man approached us telling us the temple was forbidden to enter because of the weekly “Buddha Day” and trying to divert us to God knows where. It took a second or two before the penny dropped and a polite “no thank you” had to be swiftly followed up with a more brusque downward swatting motion to be left alone and climb up the stairs in relative peace.
The centre of the Lohart Prasart is built in a rather unusual Burmese-inspired style and contains meditation cells and a relic of the Buddha in its centre.
And then on to the Giant Swing and Wat Suthat Thepwararam. If you wish to observe Thai Buddhist practice or just love watching people, the neighbouring Wat Ratchabophit is an excellent one. I am afraid this is where my temples and buddhas got a bit blurred. It’s hard to recommend one over the other – most of them are fairly similar in style and apart from Lohart Prasart, there are very few foreigners and they very much remain active places of worship rather than tourist attractions.
I really loved the peace and lack of cameras and foreign visitors despite being right in Bangkok’s old centre. As soon as we were inside a temple, there was just prayer and we were largely ignored or, at the very best, smiled at. It’s probably best to go there in modest attire. We may have overdone oit a bit, looking like Salvation Army recruits in our long sleeves and hats but hey, first day in Bangkok, 10+km clocked up walking in city traffic at the end of the day, better play it safe than messing up the holiday early on with sunstroke.
Also, there is an interesting small amulet market next to Lohart Prasart that we had to check out and spend our first cash. It’s apprantly more authentic than the one at Tha Pra Chan Pier but not that I’d know for sure. I really liked this one one, and of course, I know zilch about powerful amulets or shamanism.
If anything, I was attracted by some of the shiny metal and colourful tchoktches. And without wanting to be too dismissive of the religious significance of some of the amulets for sale, I may have purchased a small seated buddha for myself and a brass phallus of a friend with a phallus obsession. With these safely in my backpack, what could happen on our upcoming tour?
This kind of religious commerce continued through Bamrung Mueang Road with its religious paraphernalia wholesale shops. We walked further into Rattanakosin, never short of a good distraction and window shopping and on to the river.
To enjoy lunch at the Thai Royal Navy Club. It sounds grander than it actually is! It was a straight walk from Bamrung Mueang Road, leaving the areas main attraction, Wat Phra Khaew, to the left, also giving the backpacking mecca of Khao San Road a respectful wide berth. As someone who loves old school Bangkok, this place was right – a dining room out of the 1950’s, really good food, moderately busy – and an easy walk to Wat Po. Our only out-and-out touristy destination that day, and yeah, did we get to know it!
Wat Po is one of Bangkoks oldest temples which predates the Royal Palace and existed before Bangkok was established as the capital of Siam in the late 18th Century. King Rama I and its successors built the current complex on a formerly dilapidated temple site. Wat Po is also Bangkoks largest temple, occupying a huge site with multiple temple halls, shrines, pavilions, accommodation and religious schools. It is also the first of Thailands six highest-graded first-class royal temples, the other five being Wat Arun, Wat Suthat, Wat MAhathat Yuwaratransit, Wat Phra Pathom Chedi in Nakhon Pathom and Wat Phra Butthabat in Saraburi. And of course, the Wat Phra Khaew, or the Templle of the Emerald Buddha inside the Royal Palace, stsands above them all in “rank”.
It is here that you can admire the opulent 18th Century Thai style of multicoloured roofs with gilded finials, rich red gables with yet more gilded woodwork and gleaming white walls intersprersed with golden tiles.
Perfectly complemented by multicoloured tiled chedis.
The most famous structure of Wat Po is the Hall of the Reclining Buddha – a viharn housing a monumental statue of the buddha, representing the buddha in his last days of life. Although not the largest at 46m, it is one of the most impressive with all its gilt, its monumental size enhanced by the tight walls around it. It was here where we’d see most visitors, both Thai and foreign, whereas most other structures of Wat Po bar the Main Hall (ubosot) could be found.
Another popular destination for foreigners is the Massage Pavillion close to Sanam Chai Road on the opposite end of the Reclining Buddha Hall. Whether it’s any good I have no idea – it is certainly geared towards tourists. The famous massage school is actually off site near Tha Thien Pier – as far as I am concerned, it is the real deal. I’ve actually attended a five-day Thai Massage Course there and found it really good, with an approximately equal proportion of Thais to foreigners.
A taxi driver tried to charge us some insane price for a ride to Chinatown. Repeated requests to turn on the meter were ignored, so we opened both doors – while he was driving – and bolted out. The next taxi took us to Hualamphong Train Station without much discussion or meter tampering. We bought train tickets for our trip to the Cambodian border the next day – although not strictly necessary as it’s a commuter train but what do we white-faced tourists know.
As it was not yet dark and we still had some energy, we walked the 200m to Wat Traimit at the edge of Chinatown and admired the solid gold bling-y buddha statue. Yeah. Its gold. Not gold-plated, not shiny brass but five and a half tons of real gold so you’re not to go anywhere near it which, in terms of toursitic pleasure, was a bit of a fail but at least the wat had some cute cats and nearby Yaowarat Road led us straight into Chinatown .
We just let ourselves float around Chinatown. Past the gold shops and pharmacies of Yaowarat Road into its side streets, notably the Soi Wanit 1, also known as Sampeng Lane. It is a crazy busy market street, with stalls in the street, proper shops behind the stalls and some very colourful side streeets with food markets.
Overall we scoped out some fabric shops, gem shops and shops selling cute but useless stuff, planning to return at the end of our trip- depending on luggage space. We concluded our first full day in Bangkok by a very pretty unnamed shrine off Soi Wanit, eating fruit on a stick and watching a group of kids play some kind of football with a rattan ball ( Sepal Takraw) , then. as it gets dark and the shops shut for the day, we hop into a cab back to the Atlanta hotel.
Getting ready for our train to the Cambodian Border
After a quick dip in the hotel pool, we really couldn’t be bothered to leave the genteel confines of the hotel and walk up the soi only to face either the super touristy Nana area or get into another cab – so godmother suggested we eat dinner at the Atlanta Restaurant, given our 05.55 departure the next morning.
This was an excellent decision! The Atlanta has the largest, most mouthwatering vegetarian menu in Bangkok, and the dining room is pure old-school class in a budget-friendly way. While most diners enjoy some beer and wine, we go wild on the fruit juices (broccoli and tomato anyone?) and I have another tofu-tastic feast – “tofu riot” and tofy fried with chili salt and pepper, accompanied by the Thai classic Pad Thai.
In fact, other than staying at home, we could’t get more twee and wholesome here – we have abstained from alcohol so far, we’re nice, we tip generously and we get a kick from buying ribbons. By the time we finish dinner, it’s 23.00 and were tucked up in bed ten minutes later, the Bangkok night life leaving us pretty cold.
Of course we were a bit nuts the next morning to walk up the lane to Sukhumvit Road the next morning and hail a cab there. This was not a problem though, not even at 5am. Perhaps after just over 24 hours we looked enough no-nonsense/wizened backpacker with a low bullshit threshold?
But seriously, I always found travelling in Thailand very easy – on my first trip in 1996, up to my most recent one in 2013. We had a coffee in the station and settled for about 5 hours in third class… to get to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
I am not gonna lie to you, I am writing up an older trip here. Still one of my favourite trips, though! Therefore, I am not really in a position to give specific tips to ticket prices, transportation or restaurants. However, all the places mentioned in this post are real classics ( except RIP Suan Lum Market) and will hopefully be around for a few decades or centuries.
Of course, the Atlanta Hotel is still there, and hopefully will be there for many more years. I there again in 2011 and in 2013 and found that the hotel had barely changed apart from some gentle renovations of the rooms. A thorough recommendation, although it is not as cheap as it used to be, but then, with its super clean room, a good sized pool and exclusive use of its communal facilities (writing room, any one?) and the superb restaurant I believe it is excellent value for money.
If you have any specific questions about anything mentioned in this post, please ask and I will try to help! Last not least, Thailand and Bangkok are on my growing wish list for travel once the restrictions are lifted, so I fully expect to retrace my steps here and maybe write an update “Old School Bangkok” post!