Bangkok has – what I guess we’d call – a reputation.
Mention the city to almost anyone and images of saucy Khao San road and The Hangover 2-esque ‘big nights out’ come to mind.
While this experience of the sprawling city is perpetuated by the young and reckless tourists who flock there from all corners of the globe, I was happy to find that there’s actually SO much more to it.
During a far-too-short visit with my cousin, Nikola – who’s been living there for just more than a year now – I caught some serious feelings for Bangkok.
Getting to see the city from her and bestie, Kelly’s more settled perspective was really special, serving up all sorts of surprises I would have missed out on entirely, had I been left to my own devices.
One of the most exciting things I found during my four days in Bangkok was evidence of a vibrant creative community, using its diverse talents to add value and breathe new life into this ancient city.
As with Taipei, my time there was jam-packed with all sorts of experiences, so I’ve decided to focus on a few of our off-beat adventures in this post and then a few more tourist-y things (that everyone should do when they go) in the next one.
So, here are five Bangkok favourites to start off with:
Now, just to put this into context – there was a time in our lives when Nikola and I were pretty much joined at the hip.
Attending the same preschool, we’d spend the whole morning playing together, only to do more of the same in the afternoon – with the added fun of siblings, a box of dress-up and the backyard Wendy house at our disposal.
To be quite honest, I have NO idea how long this lasted – it could just have been one epic day, it could have been a week, a month or even a year – but in my childhood brain it was pretty substantial and important.
Anyway, during this time, there was also ample space for a good old TV show or two, of which Moomin was an all-time favourite.
So, it’s no surprise that Bangkok’s Moomin Cafe was right on top of our itinerary. Literally.
On my first morning in the city, we boarded the Skytrain and made a beeline for the Siam Center, where soft toy likenesses of our Moominvalley friends awaited our presence at their tables.
We hugged Moominamma and Moominpappa at the door and sat down with Snork Maiden and Little My (whom we knew as Moomei and MeiMei in Afrikaans) for a stack of pancakes and some frothy flat whites.
While these sorts of novelty cafes tend to skimp on the quality of their food, both the coffee and pancakes were really good… and so was the company. Also, the prices were pretty normal and there was no minimum charge.
As if the Moomin Cafe wasn’t enough of a blast from the past, Nikola had another bit of nostalgia up her sleeve – Mermaid Castle Siam.
As a little girl I was seriously obsessed with mermaids, hoping and praying that someday I’d actually become one. Nothing attests to this more clearly than that one holiday album on my parents’ shelf where every beach photo had 7(or so)-year-old me beaming at the camera in – what I had dubbed – my mermaid pose: reclining on my side, head propped on my hand and legs squeezed together in a tail shape.
Nikola obviously held similar sentiments (and so did most little girls – and maybe even many boys – at some point), which meant this mermaid place was a no-brainer.
Having a sort of cocktail-bar, beach-vibe in mind we searched high and low in Siam Square, but just couldn’t find it. After about 45 minutes of walking in circles and several aborted attempts at getting directions from locals, we were almost ready to give up. But then decided to ask one last person – a security guard – if he knew where a) we were and b) the mermaid cafe was. He did indeed and whipped out his phone to help us reroute.
Fortunately, it was just around the corner and we quickly strolled over there, however, what we found was no mere cafe/cocktail bar, but rather a magnificent three-storey shop, filled with everything and anything #mermaidlife-related.
We started browsing in an eyes-glazed-over frenzy, picking up adult-sized sequinned tails and sparkly shell tops, holding them against ourselves in awe and posing in front of the mermaid-mural walls. Right at the top, we discovered the cafe, but decided it was somewhat underwhelming (and even a little dark and grubby), so headed back down, retracing our steps past all our favourite items again.
Looking back, I can only imagine how idiosyncratic these over-excited 30-somethings must have seemed to the super suave teens navigating the store alongside us. Nonetheless, we both bought something small as a memento of our magical time in a mermaid castle… but mostly just to get the purple-and-pink shopping bag we so coveted.
Little did I know, this was just a minute prelude to the type of shopping Bangkok offers…
It was only when the Skytrain pulled up alongside the radial sprawl of the Chatuchak Market, that I really understood what Nikola had meant with ‘massive’. From that aerial perspective, it was just stalls as far as the eye could see and, even at the opening hour of 9am, people streaming in from all sides.
We joined the throng and in that festive atmosphere, I couldn’t help but let all my spending inhibitions go.
With more than 8 000 stalls, divided into 27 sections, you can pretty much find anything your heart desires here, which – for me – meant Thai pants, vintage dresses and all sorts of souvenirs for family and friends back home.
We decided to stick to the outer edge, so as not to risk losing each other in the chaos of the narrow alleyways inside and, even so, managed to spend a good four hours browsing.
Exhausted and parched, we finally found a cool little bar and sat down for a beer and a Bloody Mary, fishing purchases out of shopping bags to show each other as we chatted – just like we used to do with our Christmas presents as kids (sans the alcoholic beverages, of course).
After a last bit of stocking up on presents, we decided to head back home, escaping the heat and the crowds in the process, but not before indulging in one final treat: coconut ice cream with side of sticky rice (DAMN! am I craving that right now, or what?!).
Pak Khlong Talat
From one type of market to another, I was absolutely blown away by the grandeur of Pak Khlong Talat, Bangkok’s biggest fresh flower wholesaler.
Located in a huge shed on the banks of the Chao Phraya river, the market is definitely geared toward the Thai tradition of daily spirit house offerings.
While you do find the odd big bunch of blooms, Pak Khlong Talat is mostly filled with dainty marigold garlands and carefully constructed, minutely detailed banana leaf arrangements
My very favourite, however, was a little stall on the outskirts with gentle-hued flower crowns suspended on floating wooden sticks.
The market is open 24/7 and if – nay, when – I find myself in Bangkok again, I’d love to go check it out at midnight when fresh blossoms start arriving from all over the world.
So, as I mentioned earlier on, we decided to steer clear of the big tourist areas such as Khao San road, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t get a taste of Bangkok’s legendary nightlife.
On the Saturday evening of my stay, we braved a series of cloudbursts (which were actually quite thrilling) and headed to ChangChui, one of Bangkok’s most exciting new creative developments.
With a defunct airplane forming a focal point, a skull-shaped greenhouse and a collection of warehouses in various states of decorative dilapidation, it has the atmosphere of a post-apocalyptic theme park where idealistic vagabonds and nostalgic artists like to gather and reminisce about the past, while simultaneously dreaming about a brighter future.
With the whole design philosophy behind the space being ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, the buildings are all constructed from repurposed building materials and the various shops sell items that are hand-made, vintage and environmentally-friendly.
With plenty of fairy-lit food trucks and funky bars, you can literally spend hours falling down this rabbit hole of emerging creativity.
It was interesting to note that the crowd consisted mostly of young locals, which means it’s still something of a safely guarded secret.
However, I do believe ChangChui has all the makings of a cult classic and it won’t be long before it draws a steady flow of mindful travellers with a passion for supporting local art scenes wherever they go.
Of course, I did also work a bit of sightseeing into Bangkok itinerary… but more about that next week.