Two Days in Bangkok: The Urban Metropolis

I arrived very late (or should I say early?) at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport due to a 5-hour snow delay at Tokyo-Narita. I’d been up for at least 40 hours since I don’t sleep well on planes and took a short nap before ordering room service for breakfast. I’m not a big fan of exploring a new country on an empty stomach.

It was about noon when I set out, and the first two events would say a lot about my visit to Thailand. First, as I was walking out of the hotel, I passed an older gentleman walking in with a girl young enough to be his great granddaughter. Throughout the trip people would look at me – a single, Western guy – and assume I was here for one thing. It might have helped my case I was younger than most of the “sexpats.”

The second incident occurred when I reached the street and tried to orient myself to the neighborhood. I had no recollection of how I arrived. I knew I wanted to walk to Lumphini Park, but wasn’t sure which direction it was. A Thai man approached me and soon was using all the tricks in his bag to get me to visit his brothel across the street. When it became clear I wasn’t interested in sex, he tried to get me in a tuk tuk to visit some gem stores. I told him I was just out for a walk, in the general direction of the park. “Oh, the park is closed today!” Really? The biggest park in central Bangkok just closes on a random Monday afternoon?

picture of Bangkok from a park

A different perspective of Bangkok.

Thai touts will be your friend as long as it takes to get you to buy something, until they suddenly realize you cannot be had and will leave you alone, as though they never met you in the first place. I finally headed in the right direction, guided by the elevated light rail and dodging sidewalk food stalls, before reaching the park, which was NOT closed.

No jungle gyms for kids. Actual gyms in the jungle for adults.

No jungle gyms for kids. Actual gyms in the jungle for adults.

I really enjoy visiting parks when I reach a new city. Parks offer a respite from the busy traffic as well as one of the few opportunities to really get a view of your surroundings. Lumphini Park isn’t on par with some of my favorites, like Regents Park in London or Hong Kong Park, but it was the only time I experienced true quiet in Bangkok. I also got to smell the tropical flowers in the air and saw this rather interesting water monitor meandering down the path.

I wasn't sure if I should be scared or not.

I wasn’t sure if I should be scared or not.

After exiting, I headed up Ratchadamri Road toward Siam Central, where the two elevated light rail lines meet. Almost there, I stopped in to see the Grand Hyatt Bangkok, an impressive edifice with an steep inclined driveway and a huge skylit lobby. Apparently the new Park Hyatt Bangkok is under construction right behind it, but I didn’t notice it.

It is even more impressive in person.

It is even more impressive in person.

After enjoying a snack at Erawan Bakery inside, I walked back out to find the real Erawan Shrine, which looks out of place among the nearby skyscrapers and shopping malls. The tall buildings, LED displays, elevated walkways, and merging light rail lines gave the impression of a scene out of Bladerunner!

Most buildings have a small shrine out front, but this one is the best!

Most buildings have a small shrine out front, but this one is the best!

I never rode the trains, but I really wanted to.

Sadly, I never rode the trains.

I eventually found myself at Siam Paragon, which calls itself “the pride of Bangkok.” What I liked about shopping in Bangkok is that unlike Hong Kong or Singapore, where the malls seem so often like one ultra luxury department store after another (really, how many Gucci or Louis Vuitton stores does one city need?) I could actually see myself buying stuff in Bangkok. The prices and products for sale were geared to a middle class market, and they were actually interesting rather than cheap, mass-produced garbage.

I also walked through Siam Center, which was a little more hip and had some cool art installations that reminded me of the K11 Design Mall in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district. That picture of a church skylight is actually an LED ceiling that changes between different simulated environments.

Coolest. Mall. Ever.

Coolest. Mall. Ever.

Siam Paragon is definitely the largest mall in the area, with a high-end movie theater at the top and the largest food marketplace I’ve ever seen on the ground floor. From west to east, it includes several fast food outlets, including some I’ve never even seen in the U.S., or at least my geographic area. There’s even a Swensen’s! I grew up near San Francisco and even I didn’t know Swensen’s still exists. It moves on to a food court very similar to those in Singapore. There are food stalls, quick-service restaurants with ringed-in seating, and then finally separate restaurants with doors and walls. Every kind of food and level of service was available.

Swensen's? In Bangkok?

Swensen’s? In Bangkok? Along with half a dozen other stores I rarely see in the U.S.

After dinner, I headed up to the movie theater to catch a showing of Gangster Squad. Bangkok’s movie theaters also have a reputation, including “4-D” films with 3-D images, moving seats, and machines that spritz different scents into the air to create a more immersive experience. I don’t care for all that (I don’t even watch HD films or Blu-ray at home), so I just settled for an average movie experience.

It was comparable to some of the better theaters in the U.S., although the number of theater options can be dizzying. I paid 220 baht for a “premium” seat instead of the usual 190 baht. This put me in the front row craning my neck and turned out to be a poor choice, so I moved back. In some theaters, however, paying extra is supposed to get you a better chair, almost like a first class airplane seat with a pillow and blanket.

One way to impress a date.

Does a fancy cinema make it any easier to impress a date?

There were the usual ads before the film, though fewer. What really distinguished watching a movie in Thailand was the five-minute tribute to the King, with hundreds of singing Thai people on screen as pictures of the King and his contributions to Thailand were reviewed in a photographic montage. I thought it seemed like a bit much but at the very least I got a taste of middle class life in a different country.

(While Siam Paragon is technically within walking distance of where I stayed at Le Meridien, there is not much to see in between. A taxi should cost between 60-80 baht, or less than $3 one-way, depending on traffic and is probably the better choice. I prefer walking because it helps me remember the street layout of a new city, but it is not for everyone.)

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  • Muerl

    Did you appreciate the fact that the Le Meridian was in the Red Light District? 😉

    • Scottrick

      If by “appreciate” you mean “take advantage of,” then no. But I didn’t mind it at all, and it really wasn’t noticeable. I’ll have a few more comments on that when I post Day 2.

      It’s not really a district, but I live in Seattle not far from a long chain of strip clubs, there’s a big one across the street from Pike Place Market, and there used to be one next door to the new Four Seasons. I’m used to it.

      • Muerl

        Actually as far as Red Light Districts go its very touristy. Also, its one of the few places with live music until late at night. Also the home of some of the best Japanese Food.

  • phil

    BKK is one on my least fav cities worldwide specifically because of the people who lie to you about things being closed. I spent three days there and had probably 12 different negative experiences with these guys, one of whom actually was impersonating a cop. Like roaches they’re everywhere, including inside sites, pretending to work there and get you to go to a shop. Cabbies were very similar, if you didn’t want to do their ‘one stop on the way’ then they would pretend they didn’t know where you wanted to go, or suddenly lost the ability to speak English. Since I’m in the travel biz I took great offense at them as they’re not just trying to rip off foreigners, but they’re hurting their own countrymen’s jobs. If you don’t know better, you’d think that places you wanted to go to were closed. The police are a joke there too, so they’re no help at all. All in all, I found BKK overrated and overrun. If the government would like to double their tourist trade, they should spend a couple of dollars to have tourist police toss these guys in jail. I won’t go back, and I know my experience is similar to many others. I’m sure if you’re in a tour it’s a different experience, but for people who enjoy walking a city and enjoying the sights and people, BKK is not for you

    • TJ

      I have a great time walking the streets of Bangkok and enjoying the sites and people. If you like doing this kind of stuff BFF is for you.

      • Scottrick

        Yeah, the tours seemed boring. I always try to wander around on my own, even if it means I sometimes wander into unsafe areas.

    • flyoff

      Bangkok is one of my favourite Cities. The first time I went I was targeted by the jewel shop brigade. Since then I have never been targeted. The people, food and culture are amazing. The more you look, the more you find. The Thai’s are creative people – one trip we went around the wholesale flower market where they were creating massive magnificant displays that I presume were destined for hotel lobbies.

  • สุภา วงค์เมือง

    I’ve found that wearing casual clothes and cheep ( well warn) vercro closure jogging shoes does the trick no one bothers me in bkk or hkt while walking around.

    next time, look at the persons eyes that are sizing you up, they usually start at the shoes.

  • LC

    Nice story. Thanks. I loved my stay at the Grand Hyatt. Luv Bangkok!

    • Scottrick

      I’m looking forward to staying there on my next trip.

  • vm

    I’ll be in BKK later this month and will be staying at Le Meriden. I also enjoy walking about and exploring new places, so your post is even more interesting to read. I also appreciate the tips. Looking forward to your future posts.

  • JR

    Nice trip review. I think that Lumpini Park, the Australian PM was jogging there one morning when he visited Thailand a few years ago.

  • RakSiam

    I always use the BTS. From Siam to Sala Daeng is a short ride (2 stops) and then a quick walk to the LM. Fare is 20 baht or so.

    I think Central World is actually bigger than Siam Paragon. CW is my favorite mall in Bangkok. Even more “middle class” than Paragon. I love all of the electronics stores in Thai malls.

    • freqflyercoll

      I was gonna say, the Siam Paragon and the theater might be roughly middle class by US standards, but I’m pretty sure that place is unaffordable for middle class Thai people. It’s clearly built for the wealthy there :)

      • Scottrick

        That’s probably fair. But I think it still helps bridge a gap. The disparity of wealth in some other major Asian cities is much larger.

  • James K.

    Thanks for this great report

  • PatMike

    I love Bangkok ! Have been ther 9 times. Got the gem scam “attempt” on visit 1. Was excited when I read about it later. Pretty elaborate and an experience. Glad I actually experienced it first hand at no loss.
    Aside from that, fantastic city !!! Absolute love it. Was just there in November and will be back in a few weeks. Now if you are LOOKING for sex-tourism, Bangkok is nothing compared to Pattaya !

  • PatMike

    Near the LeM is if you are a golfer. Entire multi-story shopping mall of golf shops…

  • Starwood Guide

    Thanks for the preview. I will be visiting Bangkok next month and staying at the same Le Meridien property. I’ll also be checking out the Royal Orchid Sheraton for a few nights.

  • mike

    Siam Paragon is absolutely the best. Swensen’s is only one of a few other great vibe places. I also enjoyed the mall’s made to order ice cream sticks and sea life park. All types of food possibilities are available for every palette.

    I stayed at the Mandarin Oriental. They have an excellent cigar shop as well as a fun little free river ferry to take you to some other night hotspots like Asiatique.

  • test01

    “Throughout the trip people would look at me – a single, Western guy – and assume I was here for one thing.” They actually confronted you, or you were just reading their minds?