Top Ten lists for Bangkok touri are popular among travel industry websites. They provide a quick overview of touri-related activities, hopefully convince a customer the site knows of what it speaks, and then quickly moves on to helping them book a hotel for their stay. Along with a dozen official tours that cost five times what visiting that particular attraction on your own would run you. No problemo. Packaged tours are for tourists. They are popular among those who feel a need to be shepherded through life. Even if it is for only a week.
And tourists are great for the local economy. I recently ran across a packaged tour for a 4 to 6 hour excursion through Bangkok on a tuk tuk for the unbelievable low price of just $41 per person. There’s no way an independent traveller is gonna generate that kind of profit. Nor would he spend 6 hours on the itinerary listed; it duplicated the same tuk tuk tour you get for 25 baht by falling for the Grand Palace Is Closed Scam, just without mentioning a stop at a jewelry store, tailor, or discount travel booth. Though I guess that would make up for the additional 4 hours.
Package tours aside, the problem with Top Ten lists – in addition to all listing Jim Thompson’s House of Silk for Sale as a Must-Do in Bangkok – is that they insist you spend your limited vacation time touring the places that every other visitor to the city will also be visiting. Which is cool if you are a pickpocket or get your jollies from rubbing yourself against strangers. If you are a traveller, as opposed to a touri, not so much. Even those who demand travel ‘off the beaten path’ succumb to the same flash-mob style of touring with the added joy of the several hundred fellow touri sharing their travel experience also carrying a copy of Lonely Planet. What’s a poor traveller to do?
The problem isn’t so much with the lists themselves (other than the aforementioned Jim Thompson’s House of Silk for Sale) but rather with the parameters of defining the ten things a first time visitor to Bangkok during a limited stay should experience. That alone means many of the same sites will appear on everyone’s list. How can you not suggest The Grand Palace as a Must-Do for a first time visitor. Oh. Right. I didn’t. And won’t. But Wat Pho made my list, as it does everyone else’s. You could instead list some wat no one has ever heard of, that would certainly qualify as being off the beaten path. But compared to the Reclining Buddha and the best place in town to experience a traditional Thai massage? Sometimes touring with the crowd is just something you can not avoid. Even if the idea makes you want to skip the whole thing and just visit the Top Ten Bars in Bangkok instead.
Some try to get away from the ordinary and add at least a few places that are bit different, a bit edgy, to their list. But that just means Khaosan Road shows up on half of the Bangkok Top Ten lists. And while Ko Kret certainly qualifies as being off the beaten path, I don’t know that it qualifies as one of the city’s top ten experiences. Chatuchak is without a doubt an experience unto itself, but there are better ways of spending a large portion of your weekend days when you have only one weekend in town. And while the River Kwai and Damnoen Saduak make many lists and entice many touri to take that tour, neither is in Bangkok, both require a full day devoted to an attraction worth only a quarter of a day of your travel time. But then as the person with his feet on the ground, which of the 100 places that make top ten lists you’ll visit, ultimately, are up to you. Even if that means a visit to Jim Thompson’s House of Silk for Sale despite how many times I’ve trashed that destination.
The trick, in my humble opinion – which admittedly while being an opinion does not qualify as being humble – is in attitude. You can hop on a tour bus (or $41 tuk tuk) with everyone else who rushed through breakfast for an early morning start of their day, or you can strike out on your own. You can walk through Wat Pho with your nose buried in your favorite guide book, or you can stumble through the expansive courtyards clueless to what is what but enjoying every minute of discovery. You can play tourist at any site you visit, and snap the same photo everyone else is taking – provided the bastards get out of your way – or your visit can be governed by accident, ruled by fate, open to possibility, and free of any agenda save curiosity.
Off the beaten path is an enviable traveller’s goal. Off the Top Ten lists ain’t bad either. Either suggests some hidden gem that few know about, a perfect travel experience tucked away in some secluded and rarely visited corner of town. The seventh entry to my Top Ten Bangkok Experiences list almost qualifies. It seldom makes anyone’s Top Ten list; guidebook often give it but a brief mention, providing its location, the origins of its name, and, possibly, a few fleeting anecdotes. But located in the center of Bangkok’s bustling business district where Silom Road meets Rama IV hardly qualifies as a secluded spot. Nonetheless, spending a large part of a day a Lumphini Park should be on everyone’s list of Must-Dos in Bangkok. And it is the perfect spot to let fate dictate your experience.
Created in the 1920s by King Rama VI, Lumphini Park covers 142 acres of prime downtown real estate offering a rare breath of Mother Nature amidst the district’s stifling concrete and high-rise buildings. Named after Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha in Nepal, at the time of its creation Lumphini stood on the outskirts of the city. Now the city surrounds the park. It is not a place that touri flock to, locals however make good use of the open space, and while generally it is not very busy, on weekends the park can become quite crowded.
For most visitors the best and easiest entrance to the park is the southwestern gate near the Rama VI statue, just off Rama IV Road at the foot of the far reaches of the Sala Daeng BTS station. On your way down Silom, stop and pick up a picnic lunch, and then just at the gates of the park stop and pick up a picnic lunch for the critters who make Lumphini their home too. Today is about kicking back, not about rushing from one site to the next. Nor is it about taking a structured tour – so leave your damn guidebook and map back at the hotel.
You’ve already spent most of your holiday going, going, going. Now it is time to depressurize. No worries, we’ll get your blood pumping again before the day is over. If you are a cardio queen, you can join the mass of joggers who usee the park for their early morning workout. Or if you are an early bird, show up at 6 a.m and join in with the Tai Chi aficionados near the western bridge (which other than the early hours is a great experience – even if you haven’t a clue there are plenty of practitioners who will gladly show you a few moves, ‘cuz everyone likes to start their day off with a good laugh.) But do that tomorrow, today take a break.
Start by renting a plastic mat and choosing a shady spot to spend an hour feeding the fish, turtles, and monitor lizards (oh yeah, your first sighing of one of the park’s mini-dragons will undoubtedly get your blood pressure pumping, so who needed an hour of jogging anyway?) Locals consider this merit making, just in case your day requires purpose. (They also consider killing a monitor lizard merit making too, but we’re leaving bloody sport for the end of the day.)
When you feel yourself nodding off, you’ve reached the right level of consciousness. Now go take a stroll. You’ll be happily surprised by the things you find in Lumphini. And finding them on your own is half the fun. In addition to the two man-made lakes and connecting waterways, there is a senior citizen’s center (not that I’m calling you old) that offers various activities including ballroom dancing classes on weekends; Bangkok’s first public library (you can check out a book after paying a 10 baht membership fee and a 40 baht book deposit); tennis courts (but seriously, don’t); and, even a swimming pool (you have to be a member to use it, but that only costs 40 baht though you also need to submit a passport photo and a doctor’s note stating you are free of illness).
You can also rent a paddle boat for 30 baht, which may sound a bit childish – especially since the boats are in the shape of a swan – but if you are visiting the park with your boy du jour, he’ll love it (plus you can make him paddle while you sit back and enjoy the ride. Kinda like you did last night in your hotel room). And on Sunday evenings during the winter month’s free concerts are held at the park too.
Spending your time communing with locals ain’t a bad way to kill a few hours too. There are lots of Bangkokians with far too much time on their hands who will willing engage you in conversation (or as much conversation as their limited English allows) along with a few more enterprising souls who offer massage (no, not that kind) not to mention a vaguely worrisome vendor of snake blood who calls the park his business’ home. The point is, your Lumphini experience can be what you make of it. And it can be yours alone.
Of course if you are into hot male muscle, then you’ll be once again be sharing an experience with many others. The open air gym at Lumphini is quite famous in its own right (there are 3, but you’ll know which one you want as soon as you see it). Popular among the muscle studs who work at Tawan, as well as many who one day will, the gym is filled with eye candy daily.
And if looking isn’t enough (um, for a 20 baht fee you can have access to the equipment too – but that’s not what I’m talking about) a smile is all it takes to start negotiations. The guys know what’s what and when they catch you drooling will put on a show to entice you to make a move. Most are not gay, but do posses that Thai fluidity of sexuality and love of baht . . . beside Rama VI, whose statue adorns the park’s entrance is considered to have been gay himself, so . . .Huh. Guess we got your blood pumping a bit earlier than planned.
When I take visitors to Lumphini, especially to spend the day there, I seldom tell them where we are going in advance. A park just doesn’t compete with all the other attractions Bangkok has to offer. And while after the visit, unlike after visiting MBK, none has ever clamored to make a return trip before having to get back on the plane, months later when talking about their holiday it is the time they spent at Lumphini Park that gets brought up again and again. So don’t be too quick to cross this one off your list. Besides, you day isn’t over yet. And many of you will want to cross part 2 off your list. You fools.
You spent the better part of your day kicking back, now it’s time to spend it kicking some ass. Or at least watching some extremely hot young Thai men trying their best to do so. Muay Thai, or Thai kick boxing, is the national sport and reeks with culture. More importantly, it reeks with hot sweating superbly conditioned and near naked bodies. And a night spent at the Lumpini Boxing Stadium will be one of the highlights of your holiday. Especially if you take the muscle stud you picked up in the park along for the evening.
Long time visitors to Bangkok mourn the good old days, when sleeze was what the city was all about. It still appears that way to many newbies, but with golden arches and Prada outlets spring up all over, it just ain’t the same. Until you walk into the Lumpini Boxing Stadium. Now this is what Bangkok is all about.
Located just down Rama IV from Lumphini Park, the stadium is run by Royal Thai Army on behalf of the Thai Government. And like governments everywhere, when money doesn’t need to be spent, they don’t. Stadium might be a stretch, the place is more the size of one of Patpong’s larger bars. Its dark and gritty warehouse-style interior is illuminated only by a few bare, hanging fluorescent bulbs. And most of the ‘seats’ are standing-room-only concrete steps. Ringside, where the pricey seats are, there are folding chairs – but for the full experience you do not want to sit there. Those seats are for tourists. And you are a traveller. Not to mention ringside views will run you 2,000 baht while spending your night with some of Bangkok’s finest will only cost 1,000. (And if you feel the need to be in a fighting mood, Thais are only charged 300 baht, which has to be the leading ‘farang price’ rip-off in the country.) Whatever you pay, you get lots of bang for your buck.
Starting at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays and at 4:30 and again at 8:30 on Saturdays, most 10 fight bills last about four hours. That may sound like a lot of time to spend watching guys beat on each other, but there’s lots of pageantry too. And with beer running only 100 baht for a large Chang, you – and the crowd – will quickly get caught up in the excitement. For the rest of the fight fans that means gambling. Which is part of the spectacle and why you should be standing in the cheaper seats. Just don’t try to make a few bucks off betting on your own. The losing opponent in the ring will probably not wind up quite as bloody as you would.
You can consider this Bangkok Experience as a day devoted to cardio – avoiding it for most of the day and then ramping you pulse up to near heart attack levels. And all for the price of a song. Today’s experience, including lunch (yours and Lumphini Park’s finest), transportation, booze, and entrance fees will run you about $60 per person. Unless you did pick up one of the muscle studs at the park’s gym.
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