We’d been quite fussy about choosing a place to stay in Bangkok as we wanted to end the trip on a high note. It would be the hottest time of the year and we had already spend a lot of time in Bangkok, so we knew we wouldn’t be playing the tourist and might be spending quite a bit of time in the apartment.
Our apartment at Belle Condominium (booked through Airbnb) smashed our budget but it was worth it, with a proper kitchen (even an oven and grill, almost unknown in a Thai kitchen), a TV in the bedroom as well as the living room, a washing machine, balcony, good wifi and a view over Bangkok. The crowning glory though was a pool set in gardens on he 5th floor of the complex. There was a gym too, although I never actually got round to using it despite my best intentions.
The location was good too, given that shopping rather than sightseeing was going to be our main activity. With a Villa Market in the same complex (expensive but full of western delicacies – think M&S Food), and Tops in the almost adjacent Central Grand Rama 9 shopping mall (not cheap but OK with a reasonable selection – sort of Waitrose), and across the main road, accessed via a subway, a large Tesco Lotus. And a Big C (cheapest of them all) one bus or metro stop up up the road.
Behind the modern buildings fronting the main Ratchadaphisek Road lay low-rise residential areas that felt a million miles away from concrete and glass high-rises. West of Ratchadaphisek many of the residents were engaged in tailoring, working alone or with one or two others in the front rooms of the small houses. East of the highway the houses were large detached villas, probably homes to senior managers and successful business owners. But the developers have big plans for the area, including what will be South East Asia’s tallest building. I suspect that both neighbourhoods will be swept away within a very few years.
Bangkok’s main shopping area lies around Siam Square, where a series of malls caters to every budget, from cheap and bustling MBK with cramped lanes of market stalls selling blatantly fake branded clothing, to the exclusive Paragon, where shops like Louis Vuitton keep aspiring customers at the door until an assistant is free to give them their undivided attention.
We had a choice of transport modes when we wanted to go to Siam Square. Cheapest was the 73 bus, which took us directly from Rama 9 to Central World and along Rama I past Paragon for MBK but took almost an hour and could be incredibly hot and crowded. Coolest and quickest was a combination of underground metro and the skytrain, changing at Sukhumvit/Asok – but it meant 2 separate tickets totalling ฿46 each, and queues for the ticket machines could be horrendous at rush hour. Most fun was one stop on the metro to Phetchaburi, then the Saen Saep canal ferry. The boats were often crowded and it was a bit of a scramble to board and alight, but it was quick and only cost ฿10 each. But when we were just too hot and tired to face any of those, a taxi would cover the journey door to door for just over ฿100, although with Bangkok’s notoriously appalling traffic it could take almost an hour to cover the 5km. It would actually be quicker to walk!
Given that we had been travelling for 30 months in mostly hot countries, our most pressing need was for clothes. Unfortunately Bangkok proved to be a challenging place in this respect. Clothes aimed at Thai women were either too small, too ‘young’, or made from nasty fabric – or all three.
Western brands were expensive – I went into Marks and Spencer at Rama 9 and was shocked to find items on sale at more than twice the UK price. There were plenty of fake ‘designer’ T-shirts etc in MBK, but I loathe logos and slogans on clothes and I won’t buy overpriced brand labels on principle. I’m not going to buy fake ones either, as I wouldn’t want people thinking that I was stupid enough to pay those kinds of prices. Nor did I want the kind of baggy elephant-print trousers that all young backpackers seem to wear in Thailand.
The answer lay with supermarkets – Tesco and Big C sold jeans and T-shrts in a decent range of sizes at appealing prices (although having to buy XL was depressing when normally I’m a UK 14/16). Sales at H&M and Uniqlo also proved fruitful for a couple of better quality items, and an Indian market stall for a couple of pretty embroidered tops.
A search for a leather handbag was similarly frustrating – almost everything in MBK was a fake Mulberry/Kors/Whatever, but the supermarkets only had cheap-looking faux leather and one of them actually fell apart in my hands. I’d actually given up hope when I came across a stall in Rama 9, where they sold leather bags designed and made in their own workshop. A soft, natural lambskin hobo bag cost me over £60, but will go with anything.
Our most expensive purchases were suitcases. We had realised that apart from at Indian railway stations (lots of steps to access platforms), wheeled suitcases (something we’ve never owned before) would have been much easier than backpacks. And besides, our business class flights home came with a luggage allowance of 3 x 32kg each, so it was a pity to take only our 15kg backpacks home. We plumped for a couple of Delseys which were on sale in reputable stores – hopefully they are genuine. Mr V also bought an Opsrey Farpoint, a 40 litre travelpack that’s within airline carry-on limits. Unfortunately the shop only had M/L one in stock, so I couldn’t buy one.
With an assortment of other small purchases (often from Daiso, the wonderful Japanese ‘pound shop’), shopping occupied the majority of our days in Bangkok, although we did have an enforced 3-day rest at Songkran, the Thai new year festival that involves the throwing of copious amounts of water. Unfortunately drunkenness is also common and things often get out of hand, so rather than heading for one of the popular gathering places as many foreign tourists do (perhaps unwisely given the recent Erawan bombing) we relaxed by our lovely pool instead.
As during previous stays, we mostly self-catered – we’re not great fans of Thai food even though eating out can be cheaper than cooking yourself. It was great to have an oven. When our friend Dave called in on his way back to Guangzhou I assumed we’d eat out, but an offer of steak pie, baked potato and baked beans was eagerly accepted – he didn’t have an oven either! We did make exceptions though; a nice Chinese to make up for our lack of adventurousness in China and Hong Kong, and, just before leaving, a final sushi blow-out – something we knew we wouldn’t be able to afford back in the UK.
I probably wouldn’t want to live in Bangkok – it’s too big, too hot, and the traffic is a nightmare. But I’m glad we had a chance to spend some time there and get to know it as a temporary home – most visitors just pass through in a couple of days, and it does deserve more.