VOLANTE Jenny Chang looks at the contrasts that Bangkok has to offer, from temples to nightlife
Photographed by the author
Jenny Chang is a writer for Lucire.
I could wax poetic about my love for Bangkok. OK, admittedly, it is one of the worst cities in the world in regards to heat and traffic. But, I have learned to look beyond its flaws and appreciate the fascinating and vibrant collision of exoticism, tradition and modernity that it does so well. As one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities, it is here in Bangkok that the inner mischievousness in us can engage and thrive in a no-holds-barred, high-rise playground.
I stay in Airbnbs when I am travelling, and I find it is the best way to live how the locals live. On my most recent trip to Bangkok, we decided to stay in a Thai home situated in a leafy neighbourhood—our little getaway from the concrete jungle. We were greeted by our housemaid who engaged with us in the warm and gracious Thai hospitality which I consider one of crowning jewels of this country. In the mornings we would go to the markets, and if we needed snacks we would go to the local grocery store. When you’re in a crowded city polluted with noise, it is utterly refreshing to return to a quiet home in suburbia.
When you first walk the buzzing streets of this capital, inhabited by over 11 million people, a flood of sensations hit you. The heat is probably the first. Bangkok is known for its thick, polluted air and sweltering humidity. It’s the kind of weather that makes you feel like you have to take two showers in one day to remove the newly formed layer of dirt and sweat off, particularly if you favour riding the motorbike like me; trust me when I say that your hair and skin will not be the same when you hop off.
You will notice shortly after that Bangkok is a place heavily congested with traffic. From 5 p.m. onwards, it goes from bad to nightmarish and can often come to complete gridlock. Arguably the best and easiest way to get around this expansive city is by their clean, efficient and comprehensive Skytrain and MRT, the underground train. The rest of the way can be traversed by foot, taxi or motorbike. I have found that with motorbikes, fast as they may be, the riders are often bad negotiators and driving a hard bargain with them is a good skill to develop—the same thing can also be said of tuk-tuks. For those who aren’t comfortable with haggling or do not want to weave dangerously within inches of buses and cars, a metered taxi is the popular and reliable option.
Once you adjust to the sauna-like temperatures and traffic pollution, the sheer chaoticity and electric night-life of Bangkok will both thrill and delight the city-lover. The atmosphere ripens with an “anything can happen” aura the darker it gets and it seems that it is this time of day that the city rises from its slumber and transforms into a person hopped up on drugs. Night owls will be pleased to know that Bangkok is a nocturnal city and offers naughty streets like Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza; trendy clubs on Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok’s main thoroughfare; and seductive rooftop bars playing deep house and buzzing with conversation from the melting pot of locals, tourists and expats that the city is home to.
My favourite rooftop bar is Zoom Sky Bar & Restaurant, a branch of the five-star Anantara Sathorn Bangkok Hotel. It is far less crowded and overhyped than its counterparts Vertigo and Sky Bar, made famous from being featured in The Hangover 2. Hit the button for the 38th floor and you are greeted with chic interiors and welcoming faces directing you up the stairs to the rooftop area. Needless to say, the Bangkok skyline from this high up is absolutely breathtaking: alluring, glittering lights as far as the eye can see, beckoning you to play amongst it for as long as the night lasts. While the food was decent, the lounge music was dreamy, the service was impeccable and the cocktails were delicious and heady—just how I like it.
Bangkok is known as the 24-hour street food capital of the world, and no matter what hour of the day you begin to get hungry, you can always find something to appease your senses. The best, most mouth-watering pad Thai can be found mingled in between exhaust fumes and sweat: the street stalls. Starting for as little as ฿60, the flavours of Bangkok range from sweet to spicy and make for an adventurous eater’s paradise. Don’t be fooled by appearances in Bangkok—the diverse street food there can rival even the most upscale restaurants and is what makes for a competitive and unmatched experience.
A visit to Bangkok is not complete without visiting one of its many immense and charming markets. The famous Chatuchak market is the largest in Thailand and quite literally a dizzying maze of 15,000 stalls. If you turn the right corners, you will find a large Spanish man making paella by the wok-load and dancing to music in between, welcoming all to join in his feast and festivity. Walk for another seven minutes and you will end up at my favourite market in Bangkok: JJ Green. A youth-oriented market selling everything kitsch and cool—vintage cameras, sneakers, Japonesque clothes—and home to some of the hippest eateries and bars in Bangkok, JJ Green is for those seeking a more relaxed atmosphere than its neighbour. It’s a popular haunt for young university students who want to kick back with friends and the lively bar scene means that this can go on well into the night.
What compels me the most about Bangkok are the stark contrasts that make this city so dynamic and multifaceted. Here, you can find village homes hundreds of years old a few blocks away from luxurious and air-conditioned megamalls; humble street stalls overlooked by towering five-star rooftop restaurants; river boats gliding gracefully alongside traffic-jammed roads; and raunchy ladyboy shows a short ride away from sacred and exquisite Buddhist temples (‘No clothes, no way!’ I overheard a guard saying while turning away bewildered, short-wearing tourists).
The most sobering contrast, however? The contagious energy of the Bangkok nightlife against the seedy underbelly of the sex-trafficking industry that is so rampant in this city. I simply couldn’t miss paying a visit to NightLight, an organization founded by a husband-and-wife duo from the US who provides rehabilitation and refuge for victims of sex trafficking. They visit bars and clubs, asking the women if they need any medical attention and giving them alternative job opportunities like baking cakes, printing T-shirts and making jewellery. In all that NightLight do, they remind women that there is another way out, that there is a safe place to go to if they need it; and this, to me, is by far the most inspiring detail in the vast and vivid tapestry that is Bangkok.
Whether this city delights or repels you, you cannot deny the intoxicating thrills that it has to offer everyone. Where else can you find the Kings of Siam reside with vivacious ladyboys, mouth-watering food both on the street and 38 floors up, buzzing open-air markets and gleaming megamalls, and a vibrant night-life that will be sure to satisfy even the most introverted of us? There is simply no time to rest in Bangkok. Because, as you know, idle hands are the devil’s tools, and this is Krung Thep: the City of Angels. •
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