I honestly probably shouldn’t love Bangkok as much as I do. My first trip there many years ago was also my first time visiting a so-called developing country. I still vividly remember walking out of the airport and being inundated by, everything. The smells, the wet air and the cacophony of people was all a lot to take. I got used to the beautiful frenzy of Bangkok though fairly quickly, learning to accept the no-rules traffic and the incredible mass of people who call it home. Later during that same trip I was swindled by a fake tourist-cop, not the first time someone has been cheated in Bangkok, but I was deeply shaken. I walked back to my hotel rom that evening in tears and vowed never to return. Thankfully, that feeling was fleeting and within a day or so I was back out enjoying lunch at streets stalls and visiting temples and palaces. Since that first trip I’ve been fortunate enough to return a few different times and, while planning a trip to Myanmar, I decided that spending time in Thailand was a good idea.
When I revisit cities I love, I think it’s also important to reconnect with them and remember why I fell in love in the first place. In Bangkok, this meant heading back to a few of my favorite tourist sights, in spite of the somewhat gloomy weather, I left the far too comfortable confines of the city’s newest luxury hotel, the 137 Pillars, ordered up an Uber and made a bee-line for the city’s most popular tourist attraction, the Grand Palace. The palace compound has been the official residence of the Thai Royal Family since the 18th century, and the collection of impossibly golden buildings and temples are a true sensory overload. I wanted to return though to also pay my respects for Thailand’s beloved King who had passed away the year before. Although the line to pay respects was many hours long, I felt that my presence there was appropriate enough to silently thank the King for everything he accomplished during his impressive reign.
Of course I can’t visit Bangkok without returning to what is my favorite spot in the city, the always amazing Wat Arun. Translated to mean the Temple of the Dawn, this colorful temple complex is an easily recognizable landmark along the banks of the mighty Chao Phraya River that meanders through Bangkok. I’ve had many a special moment there, but the first time I encountered the colorful statues guarding the entrance may have been the most meaningful. These demon sentries are the first feature any visitor to Wat Arun sees and offer a hint to the majesty that lies within. Wat Arun is easily accessible by river taxi, a fun way to experience local life in the city.
Aside from my favorite tourist sights, eating is my second favorite activity in Bangkok and on my last visit I decided to do something a little different. Rather than just self-guide my way around the city’s many food stalls, I took a low key walking tour with a local food writer for a proper crash course in Thai cuisine.
While I love Thai food, my knowledge of it was extremely limited and what ultimately sold me on the tour was the promise of learning that Thai food means a lot more than Pad Thai. That’s what I needed, that’s what I wanted desperately, to learn and experience as much as I could about what is one of the world’s great cuisines. Any good tour should have a natural progression, a story arc and that was certainly the case in Bangkok as we started out the evening with two of the city’s staples: green curry with rice noodles and Penang curry with pork. While not my first time eating these classics, they were amongst the best I’d ever enjoyed but, more importantly, learning about the dishes and why they’re so popular was the best part of the experience.
That theme of amazing food along with a crash course into Thai culture was exactly what I’d hoped for in the tour and that knowledge gradually increased from one stop to the next. What isn’t often said about food tours is that they can also be fun ways to explore new neighborhoods, and that was the case for me in Bangkok. It was my first time in the city’s Chinatown district, and I was instantly dazzled by the swarms of people and bright neon lights overhead. But the tour meandered around Bangkok, even taking a riverboat ride at one point. This exploration means that the tour isn’t just great for first time visitors, but even for repeat visitors like myself – anyone who wants to get to know the city as locals do.
Urban Love Affair
Intellectually, I know and understand that travel is about both relaxing and just having a lot of fun. And, in spite of my many foibles, that is nearly always the case for me. But I also find it impossible to do nothing when I travel, sit by a pool and ignore the complex culture just beyond the lobby of my hotel. The net effect is trips that, while enjoyable, are also exhausting. Often times it does take additional visits for me to appreciate the more nuanced aspects of a city or even country. Perhaps that’s why I love returning to my favorite cities so very much, for the all too rare opportunity to just be myself and only do those activities that I know I love. Paris, Cape Town, Edinburgh and Bangkok, these are all cities I could return to a hundred times and never be bored, not only thanks to the experiences they offer, but for my own love of these urban destinations. There’s a certain level of comfort and joy for me in revisiting these cities, a personality and travel quirk that I have come to love over the years. So no, I didn’t run myself ragged in Bangkok. I slept in, enjoyed brunches and spent too much money on new sports coats. But I also had an incredibly fun few days in the city, meandering around at my own pace and remembering everything that has endeared the city to me since that first frighteningly beautiful moment I stepped foot in the country.