Twenty years since he did Bangkok by backpack, Tristan Rutherford returns for a challenge: seeking that classic city clamour – with a bit more glamour. He’s older, but in a city this exciting, will he prove to be any the wiser?
Aged 18, my four days in Bangkok were a busted flush. I scoured my Lonely Planet guidebook for the cheapest dorm on Khaosan Road. I ate banana pancakes with Kiwi gappers to assuage a bitter loneliness. On Hotmail I lied to friends about scoffing fried insects (when really I just missed my mum). In a rubbish bit of planning, I’d arrived mid rainy season. My fake Armani pants bled orange in the damp, forcing me to hop to the hostel showers wrapped (before Beckham made it cool) in a batik sarong. What a wasted opportunity. What a twit.
Now, in my forties, four nights in Bangkok without the wife and kids is a treat – my chance to make up for those youthful errors, to do it properly. So instead of hitching or walking, or anything stupid like that, I join commuters on the Skytrain into town. This raised route glides above canal shacks and skyscrapers – the 18th century meeting the 21st. And at Phrom Phong station, double doors still ping open onto a cacophony of all the senses. The smell: grilled squid, clove cigarettes and temple joss. The noise: the screech of street hawkers and moto-taxis. The sight: someone pouring a takeaway massaman curry into a plastic sandwich bag. The taste: a lime juice to wash down the noodles sticking to the roof of my mouth. Five minutes into the blender of modern Bangkok and I’m deafened, spun and completely hooked.
Like 20-odd years ago, my first night is in a hostel – but one of the new breed. The Oneday Pause hostel is Bangkok-meets-Brooklyn, an industrial-chic array of metal ceiling fans and polished cement floors. A family would love the cool linen and brick walls of a four-person dorm. My en-suite double pairs Parisian tiles with flea-market hangers – plus a private courtyard where I sip a sunset Singha. This is the way to backpack.
For dinner, I’m directed to EmQuarter Mall on Sukhumvit Road. Underneath its Uniqlo superstore is a basement food hall where 50-plus vendors turn out sashimi, summer rolls and mie goreng in tiny spotless kitchens. It’s an air-conditioned Asia-lite, with half-hour foot rubs available across the street. Bangkok has become a city dedicated to eating and shopping, with kaffir lime and discount massages sprinkled on top.
The next morning I ride the Skytrain to the Jim Thompson House: it’s a must-see I missed in my cooler-than-thou backpacker days. Thompson was an American serviceman in Asia after WWII – he founded the Thai Silk Company in 1948. His raised wooden homes showcase ’50s Bangkok like a period photoshoot for Architectural Digest, all rattan recliners with blood-orange antimacassars and yellowing portraits of tiger hunts and palace scenes.
The gardens are full of houseplants run wild: rubber plants and ficus have grown to unfathomable sizes and swish above a black pond that ripples with red carp. My toddler children would love the estate’s bamboo trails (but they’d wilt in the midday heat).
It would be my wife who’d complain about my next activity. Google Maps claims it’s a 30-minute cab ride to tonight’s hotel, but I know a way to get there in 10. Moto-taxi drivers prowl for pillion passengers on every street corner. My driver tucks my bag between his legs and we roar into a screaming torrent of traffic. As in a video game – with only one life – our motorbike brushes close to trucks and clatters over storm drains as if there’s a biblical flood behind us. I thought I was the amber gambler, but my driver shoots through red lights like a madcap Moses, a sea of cars slamming a second behind us like a klaxon curtain. During occasional traffic stops I glimpse further decadent ways to part with my baht: tailors that promise three-piece suits with two shirts – plus a free silk tie. With a final trigger squeeze, the moto-taxi skirts up a sidewalk to the Siam hotel, where a butler raises an indulgent eyebrow as he retrieves my dusty rucksack.
The Siam is a lavish establishment where you’ll be lulled into colonialist delusions as you pen postcards amid a mini-museum of Indochinoiserie. You can learn Muay Thai boxing in the gym, make pad Thai in the kitchen, or ensure the only thing that sweats is your lemongrass G&T. But its real USP is its private boat launch. Nine times a day the elegant wooden cruiser escorts guests down the Chao Phraya river for free. The city’s pumping artery cuts through a cross-section of Thai society. Beside temple wats that point skywards like golden rocketships, multicoloured shacks tumble hugger-mugger into the brown chop. Tugs strain to pull four-barge convoys, as sunset river cruisers and barbecue boats serve grilled meats to the sound of Céline Dion’s powerful vocals. I alight at the Jam Factory, a former warehouse turned shop and café, where the riverside terrace is buffeted by giant steel fans. Here, my frozen cappuccino is served with a jug of syrup. Bangkok can’t stomach hot drinks, and this alternative sweetener dissolves better in ice than grains of sugar.
A polluted sunset scalds the river a violent pink. From the jetty I ride a public ferry through the dusky fug, jumping ship at Si Phraya pier. The guide for my night stroll is Bangkok Days, a voyeuristic memoir by resident novelist Lawrence Osborne, chronicling his nocturnal stumbles around Asia’s crossroads city. On foot and under a cloak of darkness, I spy backstreet Mahjong joints, silk kimono depots, gold pawners, sacks of shaved squid, and costly bolts of silk so hefty it would take an army to steal them. Rising up are stupas, minarets and church spires. Plus the riverside Mandarin Oriental hotel where, according to a barman’s notes from the ’20s, ‘Mr Somerset Maugham likes his Martini served in a very chilled, long-stemmed glass ’.
The streets get naughtier in the darker east. Women catcall from massage joints (I run away), and strange buckets surround blackened shops: scallop dust, sea cucumbers and wriggling shapes you can’t identify. My night ends at a Thai music club that serves yadong (Thai moonshine) infused with herbs and honey.
My final day is reserved for the big sights. Khaosan Road runs the gamut of Thai architecture: blinging early-1800s temples from Rama IV and Europeanised grandeur from his son Rama V. Then French châteaux and Italianate mansions from Ramas VI and VII, who were educated at Oxford and Eton respectively. But I’m more interested in spotting backpackers. A holidaying couple sport ballooning pantaloons in DayGlo colours like a pair of Stabilo Boss marker pens. Their backpacks seem monumental: 60, 80, maybe 100 litres. They lug Calor gas stoves past stalls that sell tom yum soup with fishballs for a dollar a pop. Surely that was never me?
At the Grand Palace I meet my tour guide Oranee. Up to 20,000 Chinese tourists visit the palace each day, she says. The first gold leaf was applied to the now-glitzy palace in 1782, when Bangkok became Thailand’s capital – and the work didn’t stop until absolute monarchy was dissolved in 1932. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha houses the cherubic figure; he’s moulded from jade, and seated on a gold altar (to keep him cosy in winter, staff adorn him with a golden shawl). A fabulous fresco highlights Thailand’s folkloric history around the 2km perimeter. It reads like a tropical Game of Thrones, with leaping demons, blowpipe wars and monkey armies commanded by the naughty simian demigod Hanuman.
Fortunately, Oranee knows how to lose a crowd. We duck into Pak Khlong Talat wholesale flower market, Bangkok’s largest, where armfuls of hotel-bound orchids rest on slabs of ice like fish. At Ta Chang pier Oranee has reserved a longtail boat. These are powered by a cut-throat propeller on a giant pole attached to a car engine. Our pilot rips through the canals at jet-ski speeds. We peer through people’s windows while they do the dishes as we slap-slap-slap through the water. There are leaping catfish, canaries in cages, laundry hanging out to dry, palm trees, and basking monitor lizards the size of crocs. We slow down near Oranee’s old waterside primary school (she used to swim across the canal after class), then alight at an artists’ residence built on stilts, Baan Silapin, to see a contemporary puppet show. Three men operate a life-size Hanuman, the wicked monkey. The puppet kisses female audience members, then rifles through their handbags. Charming.
Tour groups cast envious glances as the longtail drops me off at Ratchawong pier for Chinatown. Ten minutes later I’m immersed in a fragrant world of gold emporia with digital price indexes, monks dressed in yellow, and street signs in Chinese. Truth be told, I’m only here for the food. My barbecue stall owner plies me with crab claws and sticky prawn satay; wagons push past me offering bags of papaya and jackfruit, followed by juice carts stocked with pressed tangerine and watermelon – all in all, I have a feast of a dinner for less than ten dollars.
A few blocks east, Hua Lamphong railway station is a terminal for memories. Eastern & Oriental Express trains still depart for Singapore, and a couple are snapping wedding portraits in the Italian-designed foyer. In the ’90s, I travelled third class on the night train from here to Chiang Mai, when for a few dollars more I could have bagged a luxury sleeper. If only I could have told my 18-year-old self that, of all the cities in the world, Bangkok sells a taste of the high life at the lowest price.
A quick hop on the Skytrain delivers me to my last hotel, the Cabochon, an eight-room colonial mansion, where you can phone down your $3 drink order from the rooftop pool. Whether you’re a backpacker or a banker, that’s a bargain too good to miss – in Bangkok, everyone can afford to upgrade. Something I’ll be sure to share with my kids when they get to their own gap year: don’t do as I did.
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Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing