Bangkok: Buddhas and Bars

Over the course of two trips and seven weeks total in Thailand, I’ve been to Bangkok several times already. So while it made the most sense to fly into the city as a launching point for Laos, I didn’t have a long list of things to see or do there. I ended up doing a lot of serious wandering, and ultimately seeing a lot of buddhas – and experiencing some Thai and expat bars.

One thing that I find neat about Bangkok is that as well touristed as the city is, it is very easy to let yourself get lost “off the beaten path.” Walk just a few minutes in any direction from a popular area like Khao San road, and you’ll find yourself passing by markets, food venders, shops devoted to buddha statues or car parts, and not an English word or farang (Westerner) in sight. It’s a fun way to throw yourself into the “foreign” at the beginning of a trip.


Each morning, I took wandering walks over to two of the temples I enjoyed the most in past visits. I ignored countless tuk-tuk drivers’ calls of “Where you going, miss? I take you to see Big Buddha, Lucky Buddha!!” and just kept on walking. The tuk-tuk scams are notorious in Bangkok – they tell you they will take you around to see everything worth seeing in the city for a ridiculously low price, and after seeing one or two of them you end up in the silk shop on the other side of town that pays them commission. My friend Priya and I ended up on one of these in 2007, even with her knowledge of Thai. It’s probably one of the tamest of “scams,” since we did get to see a the “Standing Buddha,” but at this point I know to ignore these drivers (and their claims that nearby temples are closed) if I have other plans in mind.

The scammy tuk-tuk Priya and I took in 2007.

Wat Pho

I went to Wat Pho, the temple of the reclining Buddha, mainly to get a traditional Thai massage. This may sound odd, but massage and religion are related here and the temple is said to have originated this form of massage. The first Thai massage I ever got was at Wat Pho for just half an hour, and I remember feeling amazing right afterward. The one I got this time was an hour long, and good (though “accupressure” can be a little uncomfortable) but not quite as impressive as my first time. Maybe I just knew what to expect.

Reclining Buddha

Before getting the massage, I wandered around Wat Pho, somehow not finding the famous, enormous reclining Buddha until after stepping into every other nook and temple in the complex. It was fun hearing Thai tour guides giving tours in everything from English to Italian to German. At one point, what looked like a field trip of temple boys (who look like miniature monks) filed through the temple grounds in single file, from shortest to tallest. Since the smallest ones were around 8, this was particularly adorable.


Wat Saket (Golden Mount)

The Golden Mount is definitely one of my favorite temples in Bangkok. I saved a French couple from the tuk-tuk touts and led them here. The climb up to the temple takes you past lush greenery and mini “waterfalls” in the middle of the city. Gongs and bells sounded by visitors add to the atmosphere. At the top, you can admire the golden chedi, enjoy the city view (not that it’s the prettiest) and most of all, take advantage of the cool, breezy respite from the Bangkok heat.

Up on the Golden Mount


On to the Bars…

My friend Priya has been living in Bangkok for a few years now and is well-versed in expat life here. She has also gotten to know some of the local Thai scene as well. I was lucky to have her and Phon, her Thai partner, taking me around to some of their favorite places – all of which would be relatively inaccessible to most visitors.

First off, a few things I learned about bars catering to Thais:

  • They almost always have live music performances; this is considered the norm rather than a special event.
  • Every establishment has football (soccer) playing on TV in the background, even if it has nothing to do with the bar’s theme or music.
  • Bars are carefully decorated with amazing attention to detail.
  • What Americans would consider “table service,” shared bottles and mixers, is a typical way to order drinks at Thai bars.
  • Thais are obsessed with Johnny Walker Red Label. That, or they’re just on the receiving end of a ridiculously extensive marketing campaign.

The first night, we started at Soul Food, a restaurant run by an expat that tries to emulate Thai street food with a twist. They also serve cocktails that use typical Thai ingredients like basil and lemongrass – reminding me of my favorite mixology spots in SF. We moved on to Iron Fairies, another expat-heavy place with a whimsical atmosphere and tons of attention to detail. Some unexpected highlights: the bathroom, located in a nook under the stairs and featuring a black & white tv showing old films and a free-standing bathtub (just for show); the magician that came in and gave us a free sleight-of-hand performance; the Thai guy on the spiral staircase singing such classics as “Fly Me to the Moon.”

"Fairy dust" cookies at Iron Fairies (image from CNNGO)

Finally, we moved on to Chill Chill (“chiu-chiu” in Thai parlance), a Thai-only bar where Phon was performing as a percussionist. His band did an acoustic set of various hits, mostly American, and the following band decided to make the set partly rain-themed since it was pouring outside and the imminent floods (that have so far been evaded) were on everyone’s mind. Songs included CCR’s “Who’ll stop the rain?” and “Have you ever seen the rain?” as well as “Country Roads,” all of which had me second guessing the fact that I was in Thailand.

Night two was more exclusively Thai. We had dinner at a simple Thai place (plastic stools, just a step up from street food) and had soups and stir fries that were as good or better than the pricier restaurant the night before. Then we went to see another performance by Phon at a new place called Farm, which true to the farm theme had haystacks, a barnlike ceiling and rabbits in a cage outside. Kitschy and cute.  After Phon performed with his friend (“Lemon Tree,” “Across the Universe,”) we moved on to a Thai dessert stand with an assortment of mystery (to me) fruits, noodles and jellies for the taking. You pick three, cover them with coconut water and crushed ice, mixed up the mess and enjoy. Finally, we ended up at another bar run by Phon’s friends, where we shared whiskey drinks and talked until we were exhausted. So exhausted that I may have left my camera there. In any case, it didn’t come with me to Chiang Mai – but that’s a topic for another post, and the reason I can’t share too many new pictures at this point!


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