For touri, Bangkok’s Skytrain is a real boon. Cheap and convenient, it’s a great way to get around the city and a great way to avoid the city’s notorious traffic. Some stations seem to be geared toward the local population, there is little of interest to the average touri anywhere near the stop. Others favor touri, leading them directly to one of the city’s must-do destinations, often which involves shopping. None are as useful for touri who want to visit some of Bangkok’s top cultural sites as the Saphan Taksin station. Which by Thai logic must be why the government plans on closing it.
You’d have to wonder how even Thai logic would lead to closing the BTS station that connects to the Sathorn Pier and the riverboat service on the Chao Phraya. But there is a good reason. That line now extends over the river, but the station has only a single train track. As more and more people use the extension, which will stretch even further beyond the river in years to come, having to stop trains as others head through from the opposite direction just doesn’t make sense anymore. Why the builders didn’t consider this eventuality when they constructed Saphan Taksin doesn’t make much sense either.
That the station will be closed down at some point in the near future is a given. Whether it will be rebuilt at or near its present location, or whether the temporary work around they’ve devised will become permanent is yet to be seen. The current plan is to build a series of elevated moving sidewalks to take passengers from the pier to the Surasak station, the next BTS station on the Silom line. Considering it took an additional four years to add the Skytrain’s airport link after Suvarnabhumi became the city’s main airport, I’d guess there will be a long period of time between the date they close down Saphan Taksin and they open up the ‘walkalators’ to Surasak. So enjoy Saphan Taksin’s easy transfer to the boats while you can.
Most touri use Saphan Taksin to get to the riverboats. It is the less expensive option for getting to Wat Pho and the Grand Palace as well as the other top cultural sites along the river. Most guide books point this out. Few bother to explain how to get from the station to the pier, or how to avoid over-paying for your ride. Bewildered touri roaming the station is a common sight. So is seeing them stop at the official Tourist Information Center, at which they are told about the special Tourist Boat service and not about the regular express boats that cost as little as 14 baht. Those who make it past the center and find their way riverside again have ample opportunity for booking a ride on the Tourist Boat, with little signage available to explain the cheaper use of the express boats. But I’m sure that whatever they do about getting future visitors from Surasak to the pier they will insure a steady stream of sheep for the Tourist Boat operation.
If you are looking for directions for using the skytrain to take the express boats, there is a link below. This post isn’t about getting you away from Saphan Taksin, but rather what you can find there if you use it as a destination station. Few do, and that’s a shame. This area of town is called Bang Rak, and even the most generous of guide books suggests there is little of interest to tourists here. They’re wrong. There’s shopping galore, every type of food imaginable – some of the local favorite food places are located here to boot – one of the city’s more unusual wats, a tie-in with Hollywood, an elegant taste of Bangkok in its glory days, and an opportunity to do the street scene like a local instead of a visitor. Depending on how much you like to walk, you can easily spend an entire day here exploring; there’s lots to see and do in the immediate area. And since eating is always one of my favorite activities in Bangkok, let’s start there.
Directly below the station is a conglomeration of street food carts, though during peak dining hours the area takes on more of an open-air restaurant look. If you want to try some real Thai food, the stuff the locals actually eat on a daily basis, this is a great place to do so. In fact, the entire area is a haven for food cart aficionados. If you head up Charoen Krung Road (that’d be taking a left when you leave the station) just past the Robinson department store there is a small soi filled with even more street-side dining options with even a greater selection than offered at the foot of the station. And late at night directly across the street several vendors set up shop offering what at best I’d call soup. I’ve never wanted to know exactly what all the goodies floating in the broth are, sometimes ignorance can be a blessing, but it’s a gourmet delight for a mere 15 baht that’ll have you wanting to wait nightly for a late dinner.
For the less adventurous, every American fast food joint known to man is available at the Robinson department store complex. There’s also a Tops market in the basement with a small food court, and a newer food court on the top floor too. However, if you are going skyward for food and drinks, the real experience is heading down the block to the Lebua State Tower’s rooftop Sky Bar at the Dome.
Even before Hangover II filmed some of their key scenes at the Sky Bar, it was one of the top touri destinations for enjoying the sunset. Perched on the 63rd floor, the Sky Bar is one of the world’s highest open air bars offering one of the city’s best panoramic views. There is a dress code, and you’ll pay dearly for the experience, but its well worth the view. Just don’t make the mistake of eating at the adjoining Sirocco restaurant. It also is pricey, and the chef seems to think the view makes up for the lack of taste in what is offered on the menu. Besides, you are in one of the historical areas of the city – you should be filling your belly with some of the food that made Bangkok famous.
And one of the more famous shops is Boonsap Thai Desserts, located on the corner of Charoen Krung and Si Wiang Roads. A neighborhood fixture since WWII, Boonsap is now run by the 3rd generation of the original owner’s family, and is one of the best places in the city for mango sticky rice. If you can ignore all the other goodies on the menu. And if you didn’t already pig out at the fried banana stall across the street. It too is considered the #1 choice for it’s specialty and is easy to spot by the long line of people waiting patiently for their turn to be served (and hoping they don’t run out before getting to the front of the line.)
Prachak Pet Yang is another legendary Bang Rak eatery famous for its roast duck, though I enjoy it more as a dim sum restaurant. But don’t worry if you hit the wrong Chinese restaurant (there are several in the immediate area) they are all equally as good. Or skip the confusion and try the menu at the mouth-watering Volcanic Fried Mussel and Oyster just across the street from Robinson – it too is a favorite that locals from all over town flock to.
And you haven’t even made it to Silom Road yet. But with that full of a tummy, it’s time to take a break so step back into the days of opulent travel and check out the venerable Mandarin Oriental Hotel. For 130 years the Oriental has been the most luxurious hotel in Bangkok and still routinely makes the list of top hotels in the world. The hotel’s riverside pool area is a great place to kick back, have a drink, live like the rich, and plan on where you’ll eat next. Or better yet, treat yourself and check in for a night or two. You’ll set a new standard for what you think hotel service should be, and a new standard for where you should lay your head at night – at prices that are dirt cheap compared to the same level of hotel in other parts of the world.
Not that you have to cough up the big bucks to stay in Bang Rak. Lebua too is luxurious living, but you can get a room there for just a bit over $100 a night. Same with the equally opulent Shangri-La. And for under $100 I consider the Centre Point Silom one of the city’s best hotel deals. The Elegance Suites, a smaller hotel two short blocks off of Charoen Krung isn’t a bad choice either, and will have a far less detrimental affect to your pocketbook. You really can’t beat the neighborhood for location – it’s convenient for getting around town thanks to both the Saphan Taksin BTS station and Sathorn Pier. And you’ll get a much nicer room at a better price than staying in Patpong, which is a 25 baht BTS ride or 80 Baht taxi ride away.
Shopping-wise Bang Rak is for bling. Just to the far side of Robinson – a shopping destination of its own – small gem and jewelry shops start popping up. Many are owned and operated by Afghani merchants, so you better be good at bartering if you want to land a great deal. You will find trinket-level jewelry for both men and women as well as gems fit for a queen, with a few decent jade shops thrown in all between the BTS station and Silom Road. Further along and closer to the Oriental the area’s silver shops start up.
Primarily wholesale outfits, most will sell to touri too and while you won’t get quite as good of a deal as you would buying silver in Khaosan, the work you’ll find along Charoen Krung is usually of a higher quality. Down the soi leading to the Oriental you’ll find lots of little shops hoping to cash in on the touri trade from the hotel and offering more traditional souvenir type merchandise at grossly over inflated prices.
For night market aficionados, at dusk the Bang Rak market starts up. Located down the small soi adjacent to Robinson this is a smaller night market geared more toward locals, partially outdoors and partial inside what looks to be an old parking garage. You won’t find fake Rolexes, or much in the way of traditional souvenirs here, but there are great deals on clothes – upstart designers have stalls at the market, some truly Thai decor items, and a handful of tattoo artists – who are interesting to watch at work even if you don’t plan on picking up some ink yourself. And in case you haven’t eaten enough yet, there’s a food court buried away in the back too.
Bang Rak is also home to Bangkok’s newest touri-centric shopping extravaganza, Asiatique. It too is primarily a night market, though more upscale. It is supposed to be the replacement for Suan Lum with many of the vendors who once sold there now holding court at Asiatique. It too is located on Charoen Krung Road, but to the right of the BTS station. Almost at Rama III, it’s a bit of a walk though, so you are better off catching the free shuttle boat at Saphan Taksin.
And while I’m on alternate forms of transpo, the soi running along the BTS station is also home to Silom’s only fleet of red songthaew, a transpo option more familiar in Chiang Mai. If there’s more than three of you and you know where you’re going, this can be a good way to get there. But be ready to barter over the price.
Time for some culture? There is a small Chinese temple just outside of the BTS station worth a few minutes of your time, more because it is there than because of what it is. Of far more interest is Wat Yannawa, within an easy walk if you head right at Charoen Krung Road. Originally built during the Ayutthaya period, it is now known as the Boat Wat because it’s wiharn is built in the shape of a Chinese junk.
If on the other hand you’ve seen enough wats already, you could change religions and check out the Haroon Mosque, located to the far side of the Oriental Hotel and just behind the Royal Custom House. The small mosque, one of the busiest in the city, is known for its intricately carved Arabic script panels. Or you can stick to what might be more familiar and check out the Assumption Cathedral, a French built old Catholic church. It’s soaring interior and stained glass windows provide a nice counterpoint to the local wats as well as a historical reference to Christianity in the Kingdom since it was originally built in the early 1800s.
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