Things to do in Bangkok
Bangkok is a vibrant city that never sleeps. The city of angels, as it is known, holds innumerable surprises for the visitor. Here are some of the more well-known places that are worth a visit while you are here.
Patpong, a couple of small streets off Silom Road, has always had a seedy reputation with the go-go bars and the sex shows. Throw in a busy street market selling all kinds of fake brand name goods with a heavy mix of loud music and neon and you have Patpong. Silom Road is now the financial centre of the city and Patpong is nestled into a few small sois at the Lumphini end of Silom Road.
In the 1940’s a Thai Chinese family called Patpongpanich purchased an area of land that was only rice paddy with a small canal passing through and one solitary Teakwood house. The family constructed a road, which is now Patpong 1, and built some houses which they rented out. A short time later another road adjacent to the first was built and this also became populated. Slowly the area built up and it stayed that way until the 1960’s when the US soldiers on R & R came to the handful of bars and the rise to fame as a sex haven began. In the seventies, the main entertainment area was new Petchaburi road although Patpong was the main entertainment venue for the ever increasing number of expats. During the next decade, Patpong moved with the times and the sexual aspect of the shows grew bolder, adding to the flavor. In the mid-nineties, the family closed both roads to traffic and they it became what it is today, a walking street with a busy night market. There are those who say that Patpong lost its appeal because of the change while others saw it as an improvement.
Around this time other entertainment areas such as Soi Cowboy (Sukhumvit Soi 23) and Nana Plaza sprang up to accommodate the ever increasing number of visitors. Patpong is said to have become more family oriented in the past decade. The street market is more diversified, selling clothing, souvenirs and some newer hi tech gadgets. There are two other small streets, Patpong 3 & 4, that cater mainly for Japanese clients and are rumoured to be very expensive. Most of the expat population deserted Patpong years ago for alternative venues but for a tourist, it is worth a look, especially the night bazaar. The place to go for replica watches I am told but be prepared to bargain as the first price is always well inflated.
Sukhumvit Road is a busy main artery that runs through the city. It begins as a continuation of Ploenchit road and skytrain takes you right down to Bang Jak, finishing at Bearing. From Soi Nana until Asoke intersection, both sides of the Sukhumvit road are full of high end hotels, upmarket shopping malls, Indian tailors and tour companies. At night you will encounter the street vendors with their small stalls crammed into every space along both sides of the main road. The concentration of westerners is obvious to the eye so it is a busy tourist area.
This used to be a relatively short cluster of bars and restaurants near the main Sukhumvit Soi 4 intersection, however it has now blossomed into a long street lined with all kinds of entertainment venues. You can walk for at least three kilometres and still have shops either side of you. Nana Plaza is a small group of bars formed into a square on the left as you enter Soi Nana. I would go as far as to say that Nana Plaza (and its surrounds) has taken the top spot for night entertainment among foreigners. The girls are available and are very good at coaxing customers into their bars. If all you want is some female company while taking in the atmosphere, this will cost you a few “lady drinks”. It should be said that there is a fair mixture of “Ladyboys” and some are absolutely stunning! Of course there is lots more available, just negotiate for what you desire. Nana, like the other red light areas, has tried to become more “family” oriented (if that’s possible) so there are a lot more restaurants than before. Soi 3 (across the main intersection) has a definite Middle East feel to it. The narrow sub Sois are crammed with all kinds of textiles, with regular coffee shops and tour businesses. You might be forgiven for thinking you were in Cairo as all signs are in Arabic. The Grace Hotel, a favourite with Arab visitors, lies in this Soi. Bangkok-Ink has a Tattoo studio there also.
This venue was born in the seventies and its name, Soi Cowboy, was bestowed by Bernard Trink, a Bangkok Post columnist. An American airman, T.G. Edwards, purchased the first bar there in 1977 and he always wore a cowboy hat so Mr. Trink duly named the Soi Cowboy! This Soi is no more than 400 metres long and crammed with bars on both sides. The local expat community have a preference for Soi Cowboy, as opposed to Nana or Patpong, citing friendlier girls and less hassle as the reasons. I have many stories centered around this Soi but they had best be kept for another time! I used to pass by regularly and sometimes I liked to stop and have a beer at about 3pm and watch while the ice and beer deliveries come and go, closely followed by the staff who open up and then the working girls, gathered in groups eating Som Tam. I have to say that Soi Cowboy definitely has a friendly atmosphere and nothing is in your face, so to speak.
The area between Soi cowboy (Soi 23) and Soi Thonglor (Soi 55) is heavily populated with expats and a high concentration of Japanese residents. Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thonglor) is a Hi-So night entertainment area, popular with wealthy young Thais. Trendy bars, classy restaurants and clubs are liberally spread down both sides of the road, filled in with wedding studios and Hi end auto showrooms. Some venues such as The Witches Tavern offer excellent music and food along with a great atmosphere!
Further down a little is Ekamai (Soi 63) where you find the bus station to the Eastern seaboard. Pattaya and Rayong passengers would board the bus here. I remember 25 years ago, if you were anywhere along Sukhumvit road during the rush hour, you could forget going anywhere, at least for a few hours. I do recall one time, standing on an air conditioned bus, wedged in like sardines and not moving at all when I had the idea to get off and walk for a while. I set off on foot and after 100 metres, stopped at a roadside restaurant and drank a small bottle of Thai rum with coke. That took almost an hour and as I paid the bill, the bus crawled level and I hopped on. Didn’t even have to pay as the girl conductress remembered me. Sukhumvit road has changed dramatically over the years, the skytrain system has relieved the traffic congestion although the construction has relentlessly continued. Almost every square foot of land is now occupied with hi rise condos. Having said that, there are some really nice parks, one in particular is between Soi 24 & 26 that people like to frequent in the mornings and evenings. One of the nicest things about Bangkok is the randomness of the architecture. Standing in the middle of a concrete jungle, you are a few metres away from a beautiful temple set in a jewel of green fauna. The lack of planning has created a melting pot of buildings, quite often a corrugated shack will be sat next to a huge mansion and there is always a surprise in store for the explorer.
When I first arrived in Bangkok, every Sunday I would leave my guest house early in the morning. Armed with a map, I would randomly get on and off buses for at least two hours before deciding at some point to find my way home. It wasn’t long before I knew all the bus numbers and the routes they took. It could be quite confusing as a number 25 non A/C went on a totally different route than the number 25 with A/C. This was before the skytrain days, I actually travelled skytrain on the opening day, which was The King’s birthday, December 5th in 2001 if I’m not mistaken. The mass transit systems have definitely had a positive effect on traffic congestion, despite the number of cars on the road increasing steadily!
As you pass Ekamai on your left, the next Soi worthy of a mention is Soi 71, or Prakhanong as it is also known. The further out you go, the less western influence you see. I lived in a small apartment in this area in 1988 and you just didn’t see that many westerners! I ventured there the other day and was surprised to see so many western faces among the hustle and bustle of rush hour.
A few Sois further and you reach Soi Onnut (77) which has developed a lot within the past few years as the city has expanded. Definitely Thai and yet to be invaded by the likes of Burger King!
Lumphini Boxing Stadium
Lumphini is located on Rama IV road a few hundred metres past the MRT Lumphini station, on the same side of the road. This is one of two major Muay Thai arenas in Bangkok, the other being Rajadamnern Stadium in Rajadamnern road. Lumphini hosts championship bouts between the weights of mini flyweight (105lb) to Super welterweight (154lb). Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the fights begin at 6pm and tickets range from 200 to 2,000 baht. There is nothing quite like the atmosphere when a big fight is on. I have personally taken a dozen tourists there and they all enjoyed the experience immensely. Gambling (illegal in Thailand) is allowed at Lumphini and it resembles a busy Wall Street stock exchange with guys using lightning quick hand signals to each other as they take wagers. The most expensive seats (ringside) are usually taken by foreigners while the gamblers prefer to be at the rear. This is an amazing experience and one I would heartily recommend.
Joe Louis Puppet Theatre
Situated just before the Lumphini boxing stadium, on the same side of the road, the puppet theatre has an amazing history. Joe Louis was actually a nickname given to Sakorn Yang-keawsot due to a mispronounciation of his nickname (Leuw). He was a master of traditional Thai small puppets, creating the Joe Louis Puppet group in 1985. It is said that he revived Thai puppetry as it had lost so much of its popularity due to TV and other media. He also blended different types of puppets and changed the music to form his own style of puppetry. His shows continued after the Second World War and in 2001 he began to show nightly at the Suan lum night bazaar until he ran into financial difficulties and almost declared himself bankrupt in 2004. Fortunately the media brought this to the people’s attention and donations saved the troupe from closure. In total Joe Louis had nine children, all of whom took up puppetry and are still operating out of Suan Lum night bazaar. Joe Louis passed away in 2007 and his children are still operating at Suan Lum night bazaar. They still show nightly although you may want to confirm this with another source.
Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium
The first large Muay Thai venue, it was built about ten years prior to Lumphini stadium. Here they hold bouts up to middleweight (160lbs) and it is every bit as prestigious to the fighters as Lumphini. Contests are held on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and begin at 6:30. Tickets range from 500 – 2,000 baht ringside. As at Lumphini, one can wager on the outcome of a fight.
Khaosan road is very much the backpacker centre of Bangkok. Bangkok has always been a hub for travelers in South East Asia and Khaosan road provides just that. A relatively short street, filled with tour offices, exchange booths and stalls selling all kinds from clothing to souvenirs. Guest houses and internet cafes abound and there are some trendy pubs and bars dotted around. When I first came here, Khaosan was popular, especially for cheap flights and to stay a few days before moving off to the south or perhaps north to Chaing Mai. In recent years, Khaosan has become the chosen destination for Songkran, the annual water festival held in April, in the middle of the summer. The street is closed to vehicles and everyone gets covered in powder and armed with water guns of every size and description, proceed to drench each other in a fun filled atmosphere. It is the only time of the year that Thai people venture into this mini western environment. This event is always well policed and until this time has been a safe venue to play water.
Years ago, Songkran was wild. Pickup trucks cruised the streets, laden with big plastic barrels, revelers proceed to have water fights in the street. I’m sure if a tourist arrived on April 13th and was unaware of Songkran, he would think the entire country has gone mad!!
Due to the rise in accidents, this has been gradually restricted to certain zones, Khaosan road being one such zone.
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