Questions About Visiting Bangkok

A friend is visiting from Japan. And like the countless friends and friends-of-friends and colleagues-of-friends (and so on) that visit each year, he asked for some suggestions of what to see, where to eat, and where to sleep. Having been asked that question countless times before, I sent the PDF lists I have.

It occurred to me that I should be using this website for that purpose. After all, it is much easier to keep the pages updated and much easier for people to check in instead of passing around a PDF that is likely to be out-of-date the minute it is received.

Walking Map of Central Rattanakosin

So this evening I took some time to transfer those lists to the website. This all-purpose page may be of interest to you or someone you know. It has links to a page showing all the must-see sights in Bangkok for a first-time visitor; many of the recommended restaurants; and many of the recommended hotels at different price points.

One of these days, I will create a page showing the “hidden gems” of Bangkok – the things you should do if you have already seen the main attractions or want a different perspective on life here.

So please feel free to visit these pages, provide your comments and feedback, and share them with friends, friends-of-friends, and so on.

Hidden Dangers: the Bangkok Gem Scam

Jenny Forster is a contributor at, another site where my writings appear.  She recently wrote an article about gem scams, a type of deceit all too commonly propagated against tourists in Bangkok.  Every guide book warns of the scam and locals caution their visitors to be aware, and yet thousands of people each year fall for this trap.


The end result is that you get taken for a very literal and unwanted ride.  The tuk-tuk driver who was supposedly going to give you a half-day tour of the city or drive you to a special temple “because (insert name of popular tourist destination you were headed for) is closed for a national holiday,” ends up taking you to a supposedly government-owned shop offering special prices (“today only!”) on gems, or suits, or gold.

Whether out of foolishness, guilt, or a sense of intimidation, you end up buying items whose true value is a fraction of what you pay.  Your avenues of recourse are dead-ends and your pleasant Thai holiday ends up leaving a bitter taste in your mouth.

Here’s a video that Jenny included in her article.  It isn’t originally by her, but it is a very handy summation of how the scam typically works.  If you ever plan on traveling to Thailand, you should watch this video and educate yourself.

Note that 99.999% of Thais are wonderful, kind, honest, and helpful people.  But in the touristy areas, there are people who will seek to take advantage of you.  By all means, come visit Thailand.  Just say “no” to anyone who offers you a deal that sounds too good to be true.


Settling in to Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, roughly one-tenth the size and population of Bangkok.  Located an hour’s flight north of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is nestled in a valley surrounded by low mountains.  Temperatures this time of year are similar to Bangkok’s, but a little less humid and ever so slightly cooler at night.  We lucked out that our visit coincided with a bit of a cool spell, with temperatures about 28 degrees (82 F) during the day and 24 degrees (74 C) at night.  The weather was overcast most days with light drizzle, so we were spared the harsh sun.


At the heart of Chiang Mai is the old city, delineated by a moat and the ruins of city walls shaped in an approximately 1.5 km square.  The eastern portion of the old city, near Tha Phae gate, is more of the touristy area.  Our hotel, the Tamarind Village, was a few blocks west of that.  The hotel is named after the 200-year old tamarind tree, pictured above, that shades one of the courtyards.


Set back from the main street by a long, bamboo-shaded driveway, Tamarind Village fits the cliche of an “urban oasis” and is surprisingly quiet and calm.  The buildings are laid out in a series of courtyards, each of which is very lush.  The rooms are somewhat rustic, with simple interiors, and the staff are extremely friendly and helpful.


There are only 43 rooms and, despite it being low season, the hotel was fully booked.  Many of the tourists were European with a large number of French families visiting.  The restaurant next to the pool serves a complimentary breakfast buffet each morning with both indoor and outdoor seating.  It was a nice place to relax but I can’t spend too long cooped up in one place so headed out to explore.


Outside our hotel and just down the block is a busy corner with a Wawee Coffee.  Wawee is a Chiang Mai based chain that offers very tasty coffee.  I made a few stops there over our vacation and enjoyed lingering and watching the people pass.  The customers were almost exclusively tourists, which left me feeling itchy, but they also provided several interesting people watching episodes.


Passionfruit meringue pie.  Oh, this was very good!

The intersection at which the Wawee Coffee sits is a microcosm of Chiang Mai or, at least, the touristy part of Chiang Mai.  Let’s talk about what you can see at this corner. 


This corner seemed to be a magnet for the lost and disoriented travelers.  As I sat there, I saw group after group stop at the corner and struggle with their Lonely Planet guidebook or maps, puzzling over the directions, and then head off down the street.  Sure enough, a few minutes later they would come back, evaluate their books or maps again, and head off in another direction. 

At this corner, a Thai man (in camo shorts) was speaking with lost tourists.  He speaks proficient English and asks the tourists where they are going.  He gives them directions and then suggests they take a tuk-tuk (the three wheel vehicle in the background), which of course is conveniently waiting.  It is conveniently overpriced, too.

Another thing you can see in this picture is a pair of foreigners on a rented motorbike.  So many tourists rent bicycles and motorbikes in Chiang Mai.  I have to wonder how many accidents there are.  As I drove about town, I watched as tourists rode either dangerously fast or dangerously unaware of traffic around them.  Thai drivers are aggressive and the streets in the old city are narrow.  Not much room for foolish and inexperienced tourists.


Two other common sights in Chiang Mai are shown in this picture.  First, the yellow (actually, usually red) pickup truck with covered seating in the back, which are called “song taews”.  The name means “two rows” and refers to the two benches in the back of the truck.  These are used something like taxis in that they don’t usually operate a fixed route.  You flag one down (it may or may not have a sign indicating where it is heading) and name your destination.  If the song taew is heading that general direction, you can hop on, otherwise the driver will wave you off.  Fares are negotiated but are usually inexpensive.  It is initially a little complicated but ends up being a pretty effective way to get about. 

The second common sight is the side-saddle female passengers on the motorbikes.  You see this throughout Thailand and I’m always startled by how effectively these ladies manage to balance themselves.


The final common sight are monks.  Chiang Mai is home to two monastic universities and scores of temples and you see a greater concentration of monks and novices here than anyplace else in Thailand.  A snapshot of Chiang Mai would be incomplete without some saffron robes in it!  More about monks in Chiang Mai in the next entry.


Returning Home

Late Sunday morning, Tawn and I returned home from two weeks in the United States.  While I still have a bit more to share about the trip, and will continue to blog about it in the coming days – including about some other restaurants we ate at! – I wanted to let you know that we were back in Bangkok so that you don’t get confused about what would otherwise seem to be a month-long vacation!

Here’s a short video I shot on the taxi ride in from the airport, where I discovered some helpful and slightly shocking tourist materials.


Well I’m Certainly Not Fashion Forward

This time of year, Bangkok is flooded with tourists from all around the globe.  We see Indians in saris and Saudis in dishdasha, Germans in Alpine hiking gear, and Australians in inappropriately skimpy shorts.  (Well, not just Australians!)  Watching the kaleidoscope of humanity and fashions pass by can make for an entertaining afternoon.  A few days ago, however, I had an “oh, my goodness” moment as I changed platforms at Siam Station.


A pair of Japanese men were descending the escalator behind me and out of the corner of my eye I thought one of the men was wearing pajama bottoms.  It turns out they were just very colorful drawstring pants.  While Tawn mentioned that drawstring pants are in fashion, I’m hard-pressed to think that this might be the combination that fashion prognosticators had in mind.

Regardless of what they thought, he’s certainly more modestly dressed than some of our guests are, and so long as he’s comfortable, that’s the important thing.


Jason and Daniel Visit – Part 1

This time of year, when the weather is nasty further north in the hemisphere and the weather is more bearable down here near the equator, Tawn and I find ourselves with an endless stream of visitors.  We were fortunate this week to have a pair of unexpected, but very welcome visitors: Jason and his husband Daniel.  Jason and I have known each other for a number of years through Xanga but this is the first time we’ve met in person.

The first day we met, I spent several hours playing tour guide, taking them through the city on a few different modes of transportation and then on to the tourist sites of the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  This is something like the “Seven Modes of Transport” tour I did with some recent guests, but with some refinements.  Here are some pictures we took along the way:


We began our multi-modal journey at the Art Deco style Hua Lamphong railway station, located on the edge of the old city.  The misters along the roof were going full-blast, trying to cool down what was a sunny and warm day.  Our journey through the city by rail was only twenty minutes long but it gave us a chance to view a different side of Bangkok life.


The train cars are not air conditioned and are older than any of the three of us.  Here, Jason and Daniel wait for the train to pull out of the station.


At one of the stops along the way, I noticed these shoes, sheets, clothes, and chilies that were being dried in the sun.  It reminds me of that long-lost Tennessee Williams play, “Chili on a Hot Tin Roof”.


Some of what you see along the train tracks verges on squalor and sadness.  This man was squatting barefoot on a wooden shack, a guitar at his side and a vacant expression in his eyes.


From the train we transferred to a canal taxi, racing through the polluted khlong to the end of the line, which is adjacent to the Golden Mount.  From there we squeezed into a tuk tuk, a three-wheeled taxi, and weaved through the traffic to Thammasat University, located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River.  A short walk down the street from the university was this hidden soi – an alley of antique shop houses that has been roofed in.  It is well-ventilated and almost looks like something out of the French Quarter in New Orleans, minus the picture of His Majesty the King.


After lunch we walked a bit further down the street to the Grand Palace.  Here are Daniel and Jason in front of a trio of buildings in Wat Phra Gaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  This is His Majesty’s personal temple and is the only temple in Thailand that does not have monks’ residences on site. 

The three structures in the background are, from left to right, a Sri Lankan style chedi (or stupa) that contains relics of the Buddha; a Lanna (Northern Thai/Laotian kingdom) style library that houses Buddhist scriptures written on palm leaves; and a Khmer (Cambodian) style hall that contains statues of the eight previous kings in the Chakri dynasty.  A rehabilitation of the last building was just completed in the previous few days and workers were taking down the last of the scaffolding.


The exterior of the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha is decorated with a row of garuda – a mythical half-man, half-bird that holds in its claws a naga – the multi-headed serpent that sheltered Prince Siddhartha from the elements as he meditated for forty days before gaining enlightenment and becoming the Buddha.  (Which means, “the enlightened one”.) 


I was trying to be artsy with this photo, taking a picture of the reflection of a wihan – a Buddha statue hall – in the mirrored mosaic tiles of the Chapel of the Emerald Buddha.  My attempts to focus on the reflection failed but I think the result is still interesting.


A common theme that we observed, which I hadn’t been aware of previously, is how much Chinese statuary there is on the grounds of the temple.  This is a fine example of a traditional Chinese gate, carved in miniature, with the Buddhist scripture library in the background.  Throughout the complex we saw warriors, pagodas, gates, lions, and other sculptures in the Chinese style.


Later in the afternoon we walked down the street to Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  This temple is dotted with dozens of chedis large and small, which contain relics of various major and minor members of the royal family stretching back more than 200 years.  I cropped this photo from a larger one as I thought it made for an interesting silhouette.

Sure enough, as is always the case, on the way there a half-dozen different people intercepted us and tried to tell us that the temple was closed.  (It is open every day until at least 6:00 pm – actually, I think it is staying open until 9:00 pm these days.)  This is a classic Bangkok scam.  Do not trust strangers who approach you.


Daniel and Jason in front of the Reclining Buddha, which is 46 meters long and 15 meters high.  In answer to a frequent question, the statue was built first and then the hall was built around it.


A popular activity is to donate 20 baht for a cup of small coins, and to drop them into a row of alms bowls, reciting a prayer or giving thanks for a specific blessing as you drop each coin.  This picture of Daniel and Jason turned out very nicely, I think.  Nice lighting and composition.


This temple is one that tourists tend to miss large portions of.  They see the giant reclining Buddha statue and then depart.  It is a very large temple, though, and has many areas well worth a look.  As we wandered around the quieter portions of the temple, we came across a gardener who was trimming some bushes.  His son was conked out nearby, taking a nap on the utility cart.  How I wish I could sleep so easily!


After a warm afternoon touring we decided to bypass the long queue for the river taxi and instead hire our own long-tail boat.  A little hard bargaining (and a willingness to walk away when my desired price wasn’t met) resulted in the dock manager coming back to me as we sat drinking our water and finally accepting my price.  What a nice way to catch a breeze and work our way downriver.

That evening Tawn joined as the four of us had dinner at Soul Food Mahanakorn.  Of course we were so caught up in conversation that we forgot to take a picture together! 

Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow…