As you may know if you follow me on Instagram, I spent last week in Thailand, as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
I was there to attend the first TBEX Asia travel blogging conference, and also for a post-conference tour to check out some food and cultural sights in less well-known parts of the country.
Thailand has always been near the top of my travel bucket list, so I was REALLY excited to see the country – even more because Thailand is making a concerted effort in 2015 to show travellers that there’s more to the country than established tourist hot spots like Phuket and Ko Samui.
First though, I was thrown headfirst into Bangkok – a city of contrasts – tall, shiny skyscrapers and more shopping malls than you’ve ever seen in your life, shoved up against 200 year old wooden homes and tail boats floating on the river. It’s a city with heat like I’ve never known before – the air is heavy and scented with a mixture of spice, traffic and humidity. The language barrier stops you short – it’s funny how much difference not being able to read an alphabet makes, as you can’t learn the names of stations or streets or shops very easily.
Jet lag is also a very real thing when you fly so far East – I found it impossible to get to sleep before 4am most nights, and having a full schedule with 7am starts most days meant the trip was tiring – if I was travelling for leisure, I’d definitely allow more time to allow your body to adjust to the difference, as it’s surprisingly brutal.
We stayed at the Siam@Siam hotel, a design hotel that’s perfect for the young, international traveller – there are concrete walls and rough wooden tables and it’s a fab mixture of comfort and style. My favourite things were the on-site spa where you can get a fabulous massage for under 20 quid, and the rooftop pool, which offers spectacular views over the city skyline, especially at night. Rooms here cost from around 3,000 to 6,000 baht (£60-£120), depending on the size and class.
Bangkok traffic makes driving through London look like a stroll in the park – it takes FOREVER to get anywhere by car, so we mostly relied on the very efficient public transportation system, which is blissfully air-conditioned and amazingly polite – the commuters stand in neat lines on the train platform waiting for the doors of the next train to open. Of course, we also tried the famous Tuk Tuks, which are a lot of fun!
If you don’t want to travel by public transport and are in a hurry, though, Bangkok has a thriving community of motororcycle taxis – look for the guys in orange vests outside major hotels and train stations. A 20-minute ride across the city that would take 90 minutes in a car costs around 100 baht (£2) – and for an extra 50 baht, the driver will throw in a helmet, if he has one (it’s by no means guaranteed).
I suspect you can spot a tourist on the back of these bikes from a mile off – we’re the ones wearing helmets and clinging on for dear life while the locals let their hair flow in the breeze and use their hands to keep a check on their smartphones.
Still, it’s a life experience. You’ll spend at least 50% of the journey driving on the wrong side of the road, or squishing your knees REALLY tightly around a strange man’s waist as you squeeze through tiny gaps between vehicles on the roads. And if you’re lucky your driver won’t stop to look at your map on your iPhone then have to ask a random stranger to explain it to him, because his eyes aren’t good enough to see a phone screen. Worrying when you’ve just been whizzing the wrong way down a four lane highway squeezing in between large trucks and very solid looking walls.
My other abiding memory of Bangkok is street food. On our second evening in the city we headed to the gritty streets of Chinatown where the streets are jammed with carts selling every sort of street food imaginable. There are stalls selling freshly squeezed lime, orange and pomegranate juice alongside grills with fresh meats, woks piled high with noodles and everywhere the scent of spice mixed with exhaust fumes.
What’s great about the street food is it’s theatrical, but not sketchy – most of the stalls are pretty clean and you can see the cooks are preparing things fresh, because the cooking is happening right in front of you. My very favourite thing was the curry stands where you can pick up small plastic bags – one filled with your chosen curry, and one packed with sticky rice – for around 50 baht, or £1. It’s cheap, fresh and delicious.
Do also try the famous Thai Look-Chup, a candy dessert made from soy bean mixed with sugar, and coated in brightly coloured gelatin.
And Bangkok is friendly – granted, we probably avoided some of the more questionable parts of the city, but I found people were very friendly and interested in us as visitors. And everywhere we went we were offered food. “You can diet when you’re dead,” is a phrase I heard more than once. Which was lucky, as I was about to head out on a three day food tour…
Disclosure: I was invited to Thailand as a hosted guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. If you’d like to, you can see more photos from my trip over on Facebook.