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This is an installment in my March 2012 Asia Trip Series which includes: A Birthday Present To Myself: Business Class on the World’s Longest Flight for $2.50, Help Me Plan My Asia Trip Starting With Singapore, Flight Review: Singapore Airlines All Business Class Flight From Newark To Singapore, Hotel Review: Intercontinental Singapore, Video Trip Report: Singapore, Hotel Review: Le Meridien Bangkok Avantec Suite, Video Trip Report: Bangkok, Hotel Review: Le Meridien Angkor, Video Trip Report: Siem Reap, Hotel Review: Intercontinental Phnom Penh, Video Trip Report: Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, Hotel Review: W Hong Kong.
After two whirlwind days in Singapore, it was time for the next leg of my Asian trip: a weekend in Bangkok. And thanks to the suggestions of tons of TPG readers, I was well stocked with places to go, things to do, and all kinds of interesting things to eat while I was in the Thai capital.
As I mentioned before, I’d never been to Bangkok before, and I’d heard a lot of things about it, so I had a lot of expectations going in. I knew it would be big, chaotic and dirty, but I didn’t realize just how big, chaotic and dirty. However, despite the fact that it was about 100 degrees the entire time I was there, I had a fantastic time! Here’s what I got up to while I was there.
Being A Tourist
On the first day, we went to what is probably the most visited tourist attraction in the entire city: the Grand Palace. It’s not just one building, but rather an entire complex of buildings, gardens, courtyards and pavilions that was all cobbled together over 200 years or so as the royal family kept adding buildings. The entire complex was pretty stunning, just building after building of beautifully decorated temples, ornate frescoes, gold-plated roofs and amazing artwork. It was the seat of the royal family and the government (back when Thailand was Siam) since construction started in 1782, though now the royal family is largely ceremonial and they live in another palace.
To be honest, it was super crowded and it felt like it was going to downpour at any minute, so we flew through to see the main attractions of the compound including the huge throne hall that’s a mix of European and Thai architectural styles built by King Rama V in the 19th century, paid our respects in the temple of the Emerald Buddha (which is jade!), and then headed to the more low key Wat Pho temple adjacent to the palace grounds to see the temple of the enormous Reclining Buddha and a courtyard with a bodhi tree said to be propagated from the tree in India where Buddha achieved enlightenment.
It did end up raining so we headed to the high-end Siam Paragon complex to eat lunch and kill some time. I wanted to see The Hunger Games so we ended up booking seats at the Nokia Ultra Theatre which was a “business class” experience. For $25 each, we got lounge access and then nearly lie-flat reclining seats with duvets and pillows. It was a great way to watch a movie – especially The Hunger Games (which I really enjoyed even not having read the books). It will make going back to a regular theater like going from business class to coach. I guess that’s why I never go to the movies, and only watch movies on planes!
The weather was much nicer on our second day, so we took an hour long boat tour along the river and through the canals where locals live. I got to feed the huge river fish and bargain with a floating merchant who sold me two disgusting cans of beer (I mean, what was I thinking really?). After getting swindled on the high seas, I hit up some high-end gift shops at the Peninsula and got some cool things for my apartment back home.
Therein Lies The Rub
Of course, I couldn’t come to Thailand and not get a Thai massage. In fact, I got three types of massages in Bangkok!
The first was a fish pedicure, as you saw in my Sunday Reader Video. I got a 15-minute foot treatment, which was quite interesting. Basically you put your feet into these vats of water with tiny fish swimming around, and they eat the dead skin cells of your feet, like a natural exfoliant. It tickled like crazy in the beginning, but I got used to it and my feet were as smooth as can be after, though I’m not exactly dying to do it again. The best part was, it only cost $5. A word of warning–there have been a lot of stories of people getting various infections from this type of pedicure, so be sure you go to well maintained place that someone can vouch for. So far I’m still alive.
The next massage I experienced was a 90-minute combo foot and Thai back massage for 300 Baht (about $10) at an upscale massage shop around the corner from Le Meridien, Thai Prime. The foot portion of the massage was great, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was exploiting the Thai lady who worked on my feet, so I ended up tipping really well since I thought she deserved it. But does anyone else feel guilty getting massages for next to nothing? I know it’s the norm in Thailand, but I couldn’t completely get over the feeling that I was taking advantage of super cheap labor.
The Thai massage portion was a little comical. For those who have never had one, you put on lightweight pants and a button-down shirt and they stretch you while also massaging you. Well, yea, apparently this experience isn’t designed for people 6’7″ and 200+ pounds so I felt like a giant in capri pants. The massage “space” was a tiny mattress on the floor, which was probably 6’2″ long. Once again, providing for a comical situation. Then the masseuse who was about half my size and weight tried stretching me, which, as you imagine, was neither that effective nor all that relaxing. Some of the massage was okay, but in general the whole thing was just plain awkward. Call me a snob, but I much prefer a Western spa treatment on a nice big elevated table any day of the week, even if it is 10 times the cost!
Not Just Pad Thai
Breakfast was included in my room rate at Le Meridien, so I enjoyed the spread at the hotel’s Tempo restaurant every day, which was more than continental with lots of fresh fruit and hot items.
One day for lunch, we decided just to go to a restaurant called Mango Tree near the hotel, and I had the best Pad Thai I’ve ever eaten with a beautiful eggy waffle pastry on top. It was absolutely delicious, as was the whole snapper. For dinner the first night we went to a TPG reader recommendation called Eat Me (I just had to check it out, obviously) also near the hotel, and it was awesome! The menu is kind of like Thai fusion. I met the owner, who was extremely friendly and sent out all this great food including the biggest prawn I’ve ever seen, and a sticky date pudding dessert with vanilla ice cream that was just to die for–seriously one of the top 10 desserts of my life.
The dinner splurge of the trip was dinner at Sirocco on the 63rd floor rooftop of lebua at State Tower. This had to be one of the top dining experiences (though not for the food) of my life. The view was just unbelievable–breathtaking, spectacular, awe-inspiring, you name it. The outdoor dining area was also gorgeous, there was a band playing in an elevated pavilion, and the breeze up there cut through the muggy head. Also, it was incredibly expensive, especially for Thailand–the cheapest wine on the list was $100 and a dozen oysters also cost $100! That made the experience slightly ridiculous, but mostly it was very cool and memorable.
Bangkok ended up being a lot of what I expected. Hot, smelly, cheap and tons of fun. The city definitely has a big, edgy side to it, and the whole night scene with sex workers and aggressive street vendors isn’t for everyone. But I never felt unsafe and generally found the people to be great and extremely friendly. I will definitely return and would stay at Le Meridien again. While many of the luxury hotels are right on the river, I’d rather be close to the action and Le Meridien provided a nice balance of luxury and convenience.