Light on the wallet and easy on the eye, Thailand's capital never fails to mesmerise.
Beauty on a budget
Because the moment you step off the plane, you fall for it head first. The cab ride from the airport offers an irresistible vignette of impressions: golden-roofed temples dotted among glass towers, old villas and sparkling malls; a network of sois, tiny lanes that lead away from the main roads into tranquil residential pockets, streets jammed with silent cars (sounding your horn is considered rude), elevated railways humming with trains, and the mighty Chao Phya river calmly winding its way through all the chaos.
Bangkok has always been famous for its rich history and amazing cuisine, but a closer look reveals beauty in mundane details - passers-by stopping to wai before the spirit houses that stand guard in front of every building; small children selling fragrant jasmine and rose garlands on street corners; the occasional elephant trundling along the roads. Bangkok has grown busier and more congested since I last lived there four years ago, but on a recent visit, right in the middle of the riots and political upheaval, I was reminded of what I like best about the city - its buoyant nature, and the determination of its people to get on with life.
Bangkok is the queen of cheap cities, with accommodation to suit every budget. Backpackers swear by the five-dollars-a-night rooms on Khao San Road (try Sawadee Smile Inn, www.sawasdee-hotels.com ; 00 662 256 0890; double rooms from 600 Thai baht [Dh57] with breakfast). For a mid-range place to stay, check into Imperial Queen's Park Hotel (00 662 261 9000; double rooms from Bt3,144 [Dh400] including breakfast), a discreet, traditional-style hotel in Phrom Phong on Sukhumvit, Bangkok's main arterial road.Every morning, as early as 6am, its park-view restaurant fills up with people wanting to tuck into one of the best breakfast buffets in town. And because this is Bangkok, even the luxury hotels are affordable - the well-appointed rooms at the Banyan Tree (www.banyantree.com , 00 662 679 1200) cost from Bt4,430 [Dh525] for a double room per night, including breakfast).
The fastest way to get around is by the overhead rail network, also known as the Skytrain (ticket prices start at Bt15 [Dh1.8]). Or take the MRT, the equally efficient and cheap subway system which runs to every corner of the city. Hop on a train and enjoy the satisfaction of zipping over - or under - the traffic-locked roads in double-quick time.
Bangkok's cuisine is at its best on the streets. Pick a stall that catches your fancy, point at what you want, pull up a stool and enjoy what probably will be the tastiest food you've ever eaten. It is cheap (about Bt35 [Dh4.25] for a plate of rice, chicken and soup) and it's what the locals eat, so you can't go wrong. Nearly every shopping mall has a food court selling everything from tom yum kung (prawn soup) to masaman kai (chicken in coconut curry) andkhao niaow ma muang (fresh mango, coconut cream and sticky rice). The food is uniformly delicious and costs only a few baht more than street fare.
For authentic and inexpensive seafood, queue up outside Somboon (www.somboonseafood.com 00 662 746 6850) on Sukhumvit 103. An unpretentious restaurant whose only decorations are the fish tanks out front and photographs of famous patrons - including the former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, Somboon usually has crowds of people milling around for hours just to feast on the poo pad pong garee (curried fried crab, Bt250 [Dh30]) and pla nung manao (steamed fish in lemon sauce, Bt200 [Dh24]). If you're feeling adventurous, head to the night market in Patpong for a plate of deep-fried bugs (about Bt20, Dh2.4). Crispy grasshoppers, anyone?
The locals are helpful and polite, but also very shy: you'll rarely come across a Thai who'll go out of his way to begin a conversation. A good place to get started is at a karaoke bar: they love singing in public and, over Singha beer and kai ha dao (fried chicken), will gladly teach you the words to popular songs. Keep in mind, however, that Thai pop is an acquired taste.
Chatuchak market, the weekend bazaar in Mo Chit, should be the first stop on every serious shopper's itinerary. A trip to this market is not for the weak: it is spread out over a kilometre and comprises nearly 15,000 stalls, all grouped by what they sell (antiques, books, handicrafts, plants, fake designer goods and even exotic pets). Download a map from www.chatuchak.org, put on a hat and sturdy shoes, and remember to sling a big backpack on your shoulder to carry your innumerable purchases. Pantip Plaza in Prathu Nam is the best place to shop for IT products - itstocks everything from iPads to memory sticks at competitive rates. Shop around and compare prices before buying anything. If it's luxury labels you're after, stop at Siam Paragon. It's where the city's elite go for their retail therapy and over-priced cappuccinos.
Criticising the king. The Thais are famous for their mai pen rai (no problem) attitude, but do not have a sense of humour when it comes to king Bhumibhol Adulyadej. To get an idea of their undying loyalty, time your visit for the first week of December. The king's birthday, on the fifth of the month, is celebrated as Father's Day, and it feels like Christmas has come early. Temples fill up with people making offerings for his long life, the malls hang up enormous posters of his likeness, and the entire city is clad in yellow, the royal colour, from the skyscrapers to the street vendors to the socialites.
A tour of Rattanakosin, the oldest part of Bangkok and home to the exquisite Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Fight the temptation to hire a tuk tuk, because the area is best explored on foot. A word of warning: entrance fees to the temples are two-tiered, so tourists end up paying twice as much as the locals. Watch a traditional puppet show at the Joe Louis Theatre (00 662 252 9683) at the Suan Lum Night Bazaar. The puppeteers are master story tellers, enacting tales from the Ramakien through a combination of classical dance and ornate dolls with such skill and grace that it takes your breath away. At the end of each show, the performers bring the puppets into the audience for interactive sequences that are spontaneous and full of fun.