Bangkok is an amazing travel destination. There is so much to do and see in the city it’s impossible to fit everything into one short visit. For the first time visitor, the question is what you should make time for and what you can take a pass on. Until your next visit. The answer to that may depend on where your interests lay. For some it is historical sights. For others museums, galleries, and cultural attractions. Some like to follow the crowd. Others like to head off on their own. Their are attractions geared toward touri, and places you’ll be welcomed where you’ll primarily see locals. Unfortunately, no matter how good you are at scheduling your time, you miss a lot of what Bangkok has to offer. You can alleviate that problem to some degree by making the most out of every destination you choose.
This series of posts is intended to suggest a full mix of experiences for your Bangkok visit. With an emphasis on experiencing. And to do so by stacking experience onto experience. While some would suggest a visit to Bangkok without seeing the Grand Palace is a waste, I think your time would be better spent interacting with Bangkokians and getting a feel for what they do in their daily lives. What attracts me is the juxtaposition of the familiar with the exotic, and experiencing the unique twists the local population puts on things that make them their own. So while my #3 Top Bangkok Experience may, at first glance, look like it should be called Shopping, it really is the epitome of that popular Thai expression, Same Same But Different.
Contrary to popular belief, all gay guys are not into shopping. Nor is it a popular pastime for straight guys unless it involves a hardware store. Shopping to women, on the other hand, is as important as is the air they breath. But you are in Bangkok – which was recently voted the world’s second best city for tourist shopping and the third best city in terms of shopping value for money – so it’s time to get in touch with your feminine side and hit a mall. Just don’t get carried away with trying on expensive shoes that look great but cause your feet to cramp.
Shopping is a major part of the Bangkok experience because just like the aggressive ladyboys hanging around Nana, it’s impossible to avoid. Step outside of your hotel and there’s an 80% chance you’ll immediately be in the middle of a street market. Since you can shop almost as easily back home, you might think such a routine event should not be considered as a must-do experience while in Thailand’s capital city. But you’re undoubtedly gonna find you need some crap anyway. And even if you detest the idea of shopping, a handful of $3 T-shirts is always hard to pass up. Besides, this is Bangkok and even the mundane task of shopping has its own unique flair.
Bangkok is home to a never ending mass of major shopping malls, with several standing cheek to jowl and another half dozen all within a fifteen minute walk away. Take a short tuk tuk ride and you can easily add another six malls to that list. Some specialize in product – fashion, electronics, or tech goodies – others try to stand out from the crowd based on the exclusivity of brands carried, or lack thereof. I won’t go into which mall offers what here, you can read my series of posts, First Timers Guide To Shopping In Bangkok, for that info if needed. Though if you are a true shopper you probably already have a plan of attack that will include every major mall and market in town. For the casual shopper, the infamous Mah Boon Krong (MBK) Mall will do you proud. Or do you in. But a visit to MBK isn’t just about shopping (unless you have your boy du jour from the night before with you), it’s about experiencing Bangkok.
Unless you really suck at selecting hotels, you should have easy access to the BTS. Your best bet to getting to MBK is Bangkok’s Skytrain (which is the same thing as the BTS, if I just confused you – though being confused in Bangkok is part of the city’s experience too). You can take a tuk tuk or a taxi, but traffic around the mall is the epitome of Bangkok’s crush hour parking lot-like congestion from early in the morning until mall shopping hours are over for the day. Your station destination is National Stadium at the end of the Silom line. And there’s no need to hurry and rush through breakfast, you don’t want to get to MBK before ten; eleven is even better.
Plan on spending an hour or two, even if you are only going to be window shopping. The mall is huge. And you’ll get lost for at least a half hour if you wander far into the floor that features a million or two cell phone shops (unless you are with your boy – he’ll already have his favorite dealer and will make a beeline for that stall). In addition to the cheap T-shirts, there are a lot of cheap, tacky souvenirs available at MBK, at a price much lower than at the touristy street markets provided you are willing to barter. Though at MBK you only need to extend a modicum of effort at haggling to get a good price. On the other hand, if you hate the idea of playing how much will I pay, the larger shops and department stores all have fixed prices. So no worries.
MBK is a great people watching spot. It’s also the best place in town to learn the art of Asian crowd etiquette, which will come in handy later when you are walking down any sidewalk elsewhere in town. But do be careful and familiarize yourself with local customs before getting on an escalator. Because getting off can be dangerous to your health if you haven’t yet mastered the art. You can also experience your first paid entry fee at a public restroom at the mall, along with your first experience of walking through a security metal detector where the alarms go off and no one pays the least bit of attention to you.
Like those who have come before, at MBK you can have your first taste of being waited on by at least six clerks to make a $1.25 purchase, with not a single one of them having a clue about the merchandise you are buying. And don’t miss the opportunity of stepping out into the parking garage to watch the Thai phenomenon of everyone backing their car into a parking space, usually with the assistance of at least one parking lot attendant blowing a whistle, all miraculously accomplished if not with skill at least while committing a DWA (Driving While Asian) offense. And you thought your day was just about shopping.
On the off-chance you do decide to actually shop a bit, there’s plenty of bootleg movies to entice you (100 baht is the going rate, but show you aren’t a newbie and refuse to pay more than 80). Cheap clothing abounds (XXL is the size you’ll need if back home you wear Large), knock-of bags, accessories, and cologne fill the aisles (imagine your friends’ envy when you snag a quart size bottle of Cool Water for a mere $10), and MBK is the best place in town to buy a pair of sandals to go with the black dress socks you brought for home as well as one of the few places in town where the staff won’t giggle at your need for a pair of shoes larger than size 8.
And while you should avoid KFC and McDonalds – I know the idea of actually walking into a McDonalds instead of using the drive-thru sounds exotic, but it’s still American fast food – you’d be foolish to pass-up a walk-away crepe smothered in whipped creme and chocolate and filled with pineapple and ham. But don’t go crazy on the junk food. Lunch hour is approaching (so it’s around 2pm by now) and you’re gonna squeeze in yet another Bangkok experience into your shopping trip.
Everyone loves America, so the local hi-so wannabees flock to Sizzler, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Starbucks, McDonalds, and the Colonel’s. You’re gonna a resist that urge and head to the 6th floor to experience dining at a Thai food court. This is Thailand’s version of indoor fast food; it’s much the same as street cart food but presented in what you’ll think is a more sterilized atmosphere. Not unlike attending a traveling carnival back home, at a food court before you take your stomach on a ride you exchange some baht for a handful of tickets. Which in turn you’ll fork over for the tilt-a-whirl gastronomical treats we’re gonna call lunch. There are about 100 individual stalls at the food court, each offering their own slice of Thai cuisine. You won’t see much that is recognizable so don’t bother spending an hour checking out each and every stall. Just point at something that looks like it is no longer moving and then dig in.
Even if you totally pig out lunch at the food court shouldn’t set you back more than $6; show a bit of restraint and you can easily eat your fill for about $3. And then pat yourself on the back: Burger King would have run you closer to $10 even if you didn’t super-size your meal. After you’ve finished dining, whatever tickets you have left can be exchanged back into baht (if you can find the right booth to turn your unused tickets in at). If that whole process is too much for you, no worries. Your next stop will not cost you a dime so you’ll still come out ahead.
Head back out the way you entered the mall (I know, but pretend it will be that easy to orientate yourself) and then cross over the BTS walkway to the ramp leading into the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre. Yes, technically this is a museum, but you need some culture. And to walk off the lunch you just ate. The Bangkok Art & Culture Centre is one of the city’s best deals. With several floors filled with local art and interactive displays the centre is a favorite hangout for Bangkok’s artistically inclined youth. And admission is free. The exhibits change frequently, so you’ll never know what you are gonna find, but what you do experience here is almost always enjoyable.
And it’s not the staid, security guard heavy art museum of the western world either. In Bangkok people touch the art. I know. But give it a try. You’ll feel guilty, but petting a painting is a tactile joy. There’s shopping available at The Bangkok Art & Culture Centre too, with a few places selling supplies and a few more offering inexpensive cards and small works by the city’s talented youngsters. More recently, some local artists and craftsmen have begun setting up small tables around the rotunda to sell their wares directly to the public. And that’s the kind of souvenir you won’t find duplicated at Patpong’s Night Market. You can also enjoy an iced coffee, Thai style, at one of the small cafes within the centre – consider inviting one of the young artists to join you and you’ll easily make a new friend. And finally, for the cheap bastards among us, use of the public restrooms is free at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre. So you can save yourself 2 baht by marking your spot artistically before heading back to MBK where you’d pay for that privilege.
More shopping? You can. And probably will. But since there is art and then there is art, next you’re gonna experience a more popular form, even if that does mean having to wear a silly pair of neon colored over-sized glasses. While in Bangkok, you need to go see a movie. And with eight screens available for your viewing pleasure on the 7th floor of the mall, MBK is a good place to do that. You may think something as pedestrian as watching a movie is not worthy of your holiday time while visiting Bangkok, but like with many common amusements, Thais make the theater experience their own. Plus you can catch the latest Hollywood blockbuster for a fraction of the cost it’d run you back home, and there’s a good chance you can see one of Tinseltown’s latest offerings weeks before it is released back in the States too. Or you can catch a local production. But there’s a good chance it’ll be a comedy and trust me, that’s not an experience you want to go through.
MBK’s SF Cinema City’s theatres are more spacious, the screens are larger, the seats are more comfortable, and the moviegoers less vocal than what you’ll find back home. And they are air-conditioned to a point of freezing. Plus, when you buy your ticket you can select your seats, and (hopefully) grab some that do not have others sitting directly in front of you. Though even then Thais tend to be height impaired so blockage is not usually a problem unless you have the great misfortune of sitting behind a middle-aged Thai-Chinese woman with a beehive hairdo from the ‘60s.
Usually, though show times will come into play, you’ll have a choice of formats for Hollywood’s hottest flicks. You’ll be able to choose between an English version, one subtitled in Thai, and the 3D version, which usually costs an extra buck if you think it’s worth it. You’re gonna be attending a late afternoon/early evening showing, so the crowds will be sparse and your ticket will run between $3 and $4. If you are with your boy du jour, that cost will rise dramatically at the snack bar because he will have to participate in whatever rip-off promotion they are holding that offers some cheap movie tie-in souvenir. No problemo. Your breeder brethren get stuck shelling out the same for Happy Meals at McDonalds weekly. Besides, a happy bar boy is a horny bar boy. Know what I mean?
He’ll also be happy if before the movie starts you follow the audience’s lead when the film homage to the King plays and stand up in respectful silence. It’s a small thing, but that brief clip of the King’s greatest hits always produces a WTF? moment among first time moviegoers in Thailand. At least among those who are with a local companion or who have been forewarned and are not instead instructed on proper etiquette toward the royals by an angry mob of theater patrons. Your boy du jour will also be pleased if you demonstrate you are movie going savvy by getting up and heading toward the exit during the final few minutes of the movie. Because in Bangkok, that’s how they roll.
Now it’s time for dinner and another night on the town. Ignore your boy du jour’s wistful stares at the American chain restaurants you’ll pass on your way to the escalators, there are better places to dine in town, some of which will be covered in future entries to The Top Ten Bangkok Experiences series of posts. Today’s experience costs, not counting what you dropped shopping but with transportation, admissions, lunch, a snack, and your souvenir Same Same But Different T-shirt will have run you about $15 per person. Which ain’t bad for a day’s entertainment in the Big Mango. Your night on the town, as always, will set you back quite a bit more.
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