Last year some 21.47 million people descended on Bangkok; officially the most-visited city in the world. And I was one of them.
I think my senses are still heightened from the experience. I remember my first, stiflingly hot evening like it was yesterday. On a chaotic street near the backpackers’ paradise of Khao San Road, my friendly guide, saw me admiring bundles of fresh jasmine for sale.
Unbeknownst to me, he bought me some.
When, moments later, he presented them to me, I found the act so unexpected and generous (indeed, Thai people are known for such qualities) that, in my jet-lagged state, I got quite emotional.
Then, when I inhaled the thick, perfumey scent, my eyes actually glassed over. I know, I know. Embarrassing, right?
Amid the blare of traffic, the swarms of people, the clusters of black wire hanging like crawling roots above me, I discovered a fleeting inner peace. This, of course, was swiftly interrupted by a stray moped, or colorful tuk tuk, or some such distraction.
For me, this moment epitomises the intense, meandering energy of the Thai capital, founded in 1782. A staggering metropolis of 8.2 million people, it has a vibrancy and unpredictability that provokes strong emotions. And emotion hangs heavy in the air here, since the death last year of the exalted King Bhumibol Adulyadej after a 70-year reign.
At times, the energy is maddening. For example, the dense sunsets: otherworldly, and somehow all the more gorgeous for the darkening of pollution.
Sites such as the opulent, centuries-old Grand Palace [pictured top], overwhelm with their beauty, but pulsate worryingly with throngs of frenzied tourists. I had a few panicky moments.
Then there were the cute go-go boys of Soi Pratuchai; part buzzy gay village, part red light district. They all brandished huge smiles but I often wondered what was going on under the surface.
The infamous Soi Cowboy is similarly taxing. One of Bangkok’s most popular tourist traps. I traversed this tacky strip of neon lights, neon drinks and cartoon sexuality fully expecting to hate it. Instead, I adored its vivacity. How can a street of barely 150m be so full of contradictions?
And what of my long-tail boat ride down the Chao Phraya River, which took in skyscrapers and slums? There’s actually been a huge decline in poverty in Thailand overall, from 67% of the population 1986 to 7.2% in 2015, according to the World Bank. But the sight of thousands of precarious bankside shanties not far from the touristy areas is a stark reminder that there’s still a long way to go. And of the fact that 80% of the 7.1 million still navigating poverty in Thailand live in rural areas.
Truth be told, I merely scratched the surface of Bangkok. Two days and nights isn’t nearly long enough to ‘get’ what’s going on. But it left an unforgettable impression. What follows are just a few more pointers on how to make the most of a short stay in one of the most exciting cities in the world…
What to see
I’m exasperated at the mere memory of it, but Bangkok is also the hottest city in the world – and most of the iconic sights are outdoors. Thus, my top piece of advice: get these activities out of the way first thing.
Take, for example, the aforementioned Grand Palace. This glittering, sprawling complex is the location of the Chapel Royal of the Emerald Buddha – the most revered temple in a land which houses 40,000.
No wonder, then, it’s the globe’s third most-visited castle, attracting 8 million people a year. And it’s so worth seeing. With its mosaic walls, ornate sculptures and iconic Buddha carved from a single block of jade, it’s like stepping inside a huge, holy jewellery box.
But oh, the crowds. It was almost unbearably packed by mid-morning, by which point the sun was already searing. The same goes for the riverside Wat Arun Temple. Besides, this 260ft pagoda actually looks at its most beautiful from across the river in the evening, when lit up like gold.
The next day, I had lesser spiritual experience at the air-conditioned Terminal 21 – the most mind-boggling shopping multiplex I’ve ever seen.
This cavernous, nine-storey mega mall is so world class, it’s even cherrypicked the best parts of the rest of the world and utilised them in its design. Each floor is dedicated to a different city. The first Tokyo, the second London, the third Istanbul, the fourth San Francisco and so on. You’ll find miniature versions of everything from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Eiffel Tower to the London Underground here.
It not only boasts 600 shops, including most of world’s blockbuster fashion brands, but also a supermarket, a food court, a pool, tennis and basketball courts, a spa and even an eight-screen cinema!
Where to drink
Second only to my jasmine-induced ecstasy, this was probably the highlight of my stint in Bangkok. Found on the 67th floor of the 247m State Tower, this stunning rooftop watering hole was made famous by The Hangover Part II.
Having been there, I now find its presence in this utterly rubbish sequel rather off-brand. This is a special, ceremonious place, just the right side of pretentious. I turned up in a scruffy t-shirt and although I didn’t feel judged per se, I wished I’d dressed for the occasion. If for no other reason than to honor the view, which was insane.
Meanwhile, the cocktails are excruciatingly overpriced, but the Hangovertini – comprised of green tea liquor, Martini Rosso, apple juice and rosemary honey – was actually really nice.
Where to stay
Bangkok is a place of bedlam and mayhem, so an oasis of calm to rest your head is a must. I was impressed with this four star high rise. It’s centrally-located in the Sukhumvit district of New Bangkok, and a five-minute walk from Terminal 21. (The Grand Palace is half an hour by taxi.)
There are hotels to suit every budget in Bangkok, but it’s worth paying extra for rooms as comfortable, clean, modern and secure as these. Plus the service is excellent, and there’s free wifi.
There’s also a glamorous rooftop pool, a spa and fitness center and no less than four international restaurants. Red Pepper for traditional Thai, Da Vinci for Italian, Mexicano for the obvious and Flavours for a mix of Asian and Western dishes.
I mostly dined on light Thai bites (and complimentary cocktails) in the suave Executive Lounge, the concrete jungle twinkling below. But I’d inevitably pop out to one of thousands of street vendors for mango and sticky rice plus a cheap foot massage before bedtime.