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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.)