Bangkok Expat Guide – Part One – Food

Eating a Duck
Where to Find Food in Bangkok?

Welcome to the first post in my new series aimed at helping expats to enjoy their time in the fun, exciting, yet confusing mega-city of Bangkok.  Over the next few months, I intend to cover a wide variety of topics, providing good, useful information about matters such as: how to find accommodation (including good but cheaper accommodation options); how banking works in Thailand and the best ways to get money into the country; work options for foreigners in Bangkok (including information on work permits and visas); where to get furniture for your home; and hobbies and clubs for expats to keep active and healthy.

In today’s post I will tackle that most important topic of shopping for food.  At first glance, you may wonder why this is worthy of a post given that Western style supermarkets are scattered everywhere in Bangkok, so it is very easy to get supermarket items.  In addition, there is an abundance of cheap restaurants within walking distance of everyone’s home, so it isn’t even necessary to focus too much on groceries.  Well, all of the above is true, but I have also noticed that a lot of foreigners in Bangkok complain that if they try to live a fully Westernized life in Bangkok it can end up costing them more than if they lived that same lifestyle back home.  Also, eating out every day isn’t really that healthy.  Thai restaurants and street carts, for example, use a lot of sugar, salt and cooking oil.  It might look healthy but it isn’t.

The Supermarkets

As mentioned above, there are a lot of supermarkets in Bangkok.  The oldest is Villa, which opened up just in time for the start of the Vietnam war, which was when Bangkok had its first explosion in growth in its expat population.  In those days Villa only had the one supermarket (which is still there on Sukhumvit Soi 33/1).  This area at the time (and still today) was the main residential area for Western and Japanese expatriates.

The supermarket itself originally specialised in being one of the very few places that had a significant selection of food and products imported from Western countries (originally, primarily the US).  Today, a lot has changed in Thailand and a lot of Villa’s products are now manufactured in Thailand, but there are still plenty of imported items as well.  In addition, the butcher offers a selection of meats from different countries such as the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

In the 2000s, Villa expanded beyond its single store and now has supermarkets scattered all over Bangkok as well as a few stores in major expat locations around Thailand such as Pattaya and Chang Mai.  Notwithstanding that some of Villa’s newer supermarkets are larger and flashier than the original store, I still prefer the original (partly for nostalgic reasons).  Villa today is very much considered to be the cream of supermarkets in Bangkok.  It maintains a reputation as a place for upper class Thais to shop, and this is quite obvious when you look at the newer stores.  They do have some hard to find items that other supermarkets in Bangkok tend not to carry, but they also tend to be quite pricey.

Villa Supermarket
Villa Supermarket in Soi Thong Lor – trendy with a good product selection, but pricey

Another staple that has been around since 1972, is Foodland.  Although many Western countries have a grocery chain by the same name, the Thai group does not have any affiliation with them.   The original store opened up on Ploenchit Road (approximately where Wave Place is today) and targeted a mixed market of expatriates and Thai middle/upper class customers.  Unlike Villa, Foodland concentrated more on local and regional grocery products and less on imports.  As a result, most expats in the 70s through to 90s still concentrated more on Villa rather than Foodland.

Today, Foodland is still very similar to when it first started although it has now expanded to 10 stores in Bangkok plus one in Pattaya.  Its offering is mainly Thai and regional groceries rather than Western imports, and it tends to focus on cheaper brand products.  As a result it is considered primarily a middle class supermarket, whilst Villa is considered to be more an upper class supermarket destination for Bangkok Thais.  Notwithstanding that, Foodland does have a lot of useful everyday items and a nice deli section for cold cuts and cheeses.  Foodland also offers Took la Dee (Cheap and Good) which is a budget priced foodhall, offering very good food for the price.

Fuji supermarket has been around since at least the early 1980s and is located further down Soi 33/1 (not far from Villa).  Unlike most other supermarkets, Fuji has always concentrated its product range on the Japanese and this is most likely still the best place to find imported Japanese grocery items (also check out Isetan in Central World on Ploenchit Road).  Notwithstanding its focus on Japanese items, many Westerners shop here as well because they do stock Western items that I have struggled to find elsewhere in Bangkok, such as certain brands of American drinks and snacks.

Big C is the first of the newer style of the hyper-markets that hit Bangkok.  The first Big C opened in 1993 on the northern outskirts of Bangkok.  The hypermarket chain is owned by the Central Group and Groupe Casino and their target market is middle class Thais.  As a result, most Big Cs are scattered in the suburban areas around Bangkok and other large Thai cities.

Big C is the most common supermarket you will find in Bangkok, given it has approximately 23 stores located around the capital.  In terms of product range, Big C offers groceries, dry foods, clothing, home decor and consumer electrical items.  Big Cs tend to be integrated into large suburban shopping centres, although there are now also “Mini Big Cs”, often located on major side-streets, which are small supermarkets (or large convenience stores) offering a limited range of regular items.

As with foodland, the grocery offerings at Big C are largely Thailand based or regional, and I find the selection is not that great (notwithstanding the size of the store), although pricing is very competitive for a modern Thai supermarket.

Tesco-Lotus is a joint venture between the UK Tesco supermarket chain and the CP Group in Thailand (CP or Charoen Phokpand is one of Thailand’s biggest companies, owning brands such as 7-Eleven in Thailand and the owner is Thailand’s richest man).  Tesco-Lotus first opened in 1998 and is Big C’s biggest competitor in the hyper-market category, but their product offerings seem to concentrate a bit more on groceries and less on the other items such as clothing and electrical.  Apart from that, the two supermarkets are very similar in terms of the types of products and most of Tesco-Lotus’s range is made in Thailand (and sourced from the CP Group).

As with Big C, Tesco Lotus also offers a small supermarket/large convenience store format, known as Tesco-Lotus Express.  However, I find these to be very similar to a 7-Eleven, with the only difference being that it is slightly larger in size and a few extra products (but not a lot).

Makro is the third hyper-market in Thailand.  It is part of the international Makro brand of cash-and-carry or warehouse club style of supermarket.  It first opened in Thailand in 1988 and the stores tend to be located on the outskirts of Bangkok and outskirts (along major highways) of the other large cities around Thailand.  As a result, you are less likely to see a Makro within the Bangkok metro area.  If you like to get discounts by buying in bulk, then Makro would be the place to go.

Tops (also known as Central Food Retail) is part of the Central Group and tends to provide a more upper-class supermarket chain compared to Big C, and is Central’s attempt to compete against Villa.  You will usually find Tops located in the basement level of any Central Department Store (in Central World it is on the top floor next to the cinema).  There are also some outlets of Tops that are stand-alone.  As with Villa, Tops tends to have a fair selection of more exclusive items including more imported brands than Big C.  However, as with Villa, pricing tends to be reasonably high.

Home Fresh Mart and Gourmet Market are the grocery stores owned by the Mall Group (Central Group’s main competitor) and which are located within the Siam Paragon and Emporium shopping centres.  These supermarkets compete directly with Tops and Villa, aimed at upper class Thais and expats.  The format and selection is very similar to Tops and the newer Villa stores, and tend to be a mix of high end local/regional products and imported Western products.  Once again, pricing tends to be quite high.

Siam Paragon
Siam Paragon – Has a great supermarket in the basement

MaxValu is a Japanese grocery chain with approximately 68 stores scattered around the main suburban areas of Thailand.  This chain was formerly called Jusco.  In terms of size, these are fairly small supermarkets, but being Japanese owned, they tend to have some useful and harder to find items that you won’t get elsewhere.  Pricing is around the mid level for Bangkok based supermarkets.

7-Eleven and Family Mart – These are not supermarkets but convenience stores.  As such, they work well for simple items like a quick snack or soft-drink or beer.  However, when living in Bangkok, you are better off buying such items in bulk (eg a case of bottled water) from supermarkets rather than one-offs at a convenience store (even though snacks, water, soft drinks etc tend to be cheaper than in the West).

Other Supermarkets – If you look around, you will find smaller, independent supermarkets in odd places around Bangkok.  For example, at the mouth of Soi Aree there is a Co-Op type supermarket that sells mainly local products but at cheap prices.  If you find any of these, they are worth checking out because you never know what hard-to-find items they may stock.

US Embassy Commissary (Emporium)

On the grounds of the US Embassy there is a non-profit Commissary that sells US imported grocery items (and various other items as well).  However, access tends to be restricted to US citizens or those who can otherwise provide a suitable reason for being allowed to enter the embassy grounds.

Bangkok Supermarket Shopping Strategy

Unless you want to have a food budget that is bigger than what you would spend back in the West, it is important to learn to make certain compromises when shopping for groceries in Bangkok.  The first thing you need to do is to find the Thai brand equivalent of the products that you regularly purchase.  All grocery items that are imported from outside South-East Asia tend to be 1 1/2 to 2 times more expensive than they would be in the West.  This is due to a combination of high import tax and transport costs.  As a result, staples such as meat stocks, tomato paste, pasta, sugar, salt, flour, baking soda etc should all be local brands, and you should focus on getting these from the cheaper supermarkets such as Foodland.

For me personally, it is only the gourmet items, such as special cheeses, crackers, wines, pickles, olives etc that I will purchase from the high end supermarkets.  I will never carry out my general grocery shopping in the high end places, simply because it becomes too expensive.  Instead, make sure you go in with a specific list of what you need that you can’t get at the other groceries, and stick to that list.  Try to avoid impulse purchases, as these supermarkets are really good at tempting you.

For fresh produce, such as fruit and vegetables, avoid the supermarkets entirely, and in particular, avoid the high end supermarkets.  All you are doing is paying too much for old produce.  My experience tends to be that by the time such produce hits the supermarket shelves, it tends to already be getting past its prime.  Instead, for fresh fruit and vegetables, go to one of the traditional food markets scattered around Bangkok’s suburbs.  These often tend to be hidden a bit, but there tends to be one nearby to where you live as this is where most Thais will purchase their fresh produce.  If you live in the expat ghetto around Sukhumvit or Silom, then head down to Rama IV road and go to Khlong Toey market.  This is Bangkok’s biggest fresh food market and you will get great prices on fresh produce (usually delivered from the farms that morning).

Traditional Thai market
A traditional Thai market place – this is the best place to get fresh produce.

For meat, this is where you can easily blow your budget.  I tend to have a strong taste for Australian and New Zealand beef (and occasionally a bit of marbled Kobe beef).  However, these are really expensive in Bangkok, and sometimes the butcher may even sell something that has started to go off.  Thai beef (and pork) isn’t bad, and if you are cooking something like curry or tacos you wouldn’t know the difference anyway.  I am still a bit reluctant to buy beef from traditional Thai wet markets, even though I know that that is where a lot of the meat I eat at restaurants came from.  I therefore tend to buy most of my meat and pork from the butcher at the cheaper supermarkets such as Foodland.  I only buy the imported steaks occasionally.

Conclusion

If you adjust your shopping habits, it is possible to continue eating meals similar to what you would eat back in the West, without really paying any more for it.  It does however require making certain compromises on brands (eg finding local brands to replace those that you relied upon in the West), and you will need to visit more than one supermarket, as well as have to set foot in a traditional Thai food market for your fresh produce.  Then again, you didn’t decide to relocate to Thailand just so you could live a 100% Western existence did you?  Traditional market shopping is just part of the adventure of living somewhere exotic.

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The Truth About Taxis in Bangkok

Bangkok Taxis
Bangkok Taxis

Taxis are everywhere in Bangkok and can be a cheap and comfortable way to get around town.  However, everyone struggles to find a taxi willing to do the right thing and get them from point A to point B, using the meter.  Tourists often think this is a practice that is targeted solely at them, but actually, everyone in Bangkok has difficulties when trying to catch a taxi.

Some Information About Taxis

There are approximately 140,000 official licensed taxis in Bangkok.  These licensed taxis tend to be brightly coloured sedans (and sometimes micro-SUVs) with prominent “Taxi Meter” signs on the roof, and a red light in the front window (passenger side) that reads “ว่าง” (pronounced “wang”) which means “free”.  The writing in Thai on the sides of each taxi indicates which company the taxi belongs to, or which taxi cooperative the driver belongs to.  Some taxis are owned outright by its driver (in which case, the driver joins an independent taxi cooperative) while other taxis (the majority) are owned by one of several large taxi companies and the drivers lease the cars in shifts.

Whether the driver of a taxi owns or leases a car, life as a taxi driver in Bangkok is actually pretty harsh and the money they make is pretty small.  Given the costs of owning or leasing a cab versus the cheap fares, the taxi driver’s profit is very small and most taxi drivers earn anywhere between minimum wage and up to 15,000 baht per month.  Keep in mind that most taxi drivers are from poorer families in the North East region of Thailand and they have come to Bangkok to make money due to a lack of opportunities or financial hardship at home.  Therefore in addition to their costs of living in Bangkok, they normally also need to save as much as possible each month to send back home.

As the sign on the roof declares, all taxis in Bangkok are required to have “meters” (or “metres” for the non-Americans like me).  Taxi meters became compulsory in the early 1990s, and prior to then you had to negotiate the fare with the taxi driver before getting into the cab.  Now the taxi driver must switch on the meter when you get in, although you will still find occasions when a driver refuses to do so (I will discuss this issue later).  Since taxi meters were introduced, the fares have only increased twice over the years, and not by very much.  They certainly have not kept up with inflation in Thailand.

Current taxi fares are as follows:

  1. Flag fall – when you first enter the taxi – is 35 baht, and this covers the first 1 km.
  2. From 1 – 10kms, the rate is 5.5 baht per km.
  3. From 10 – 20kms, the rate increases to 6.5 baht per km (the increase as the distance increases is to help compensate the taxi driver for the journey back if he can’t get a return fare)
  4. From 20 – 40kms, the rate increases to 7.5 baht per km, and keeps going up until the 80km + mark, where it maxes out at 10.5 baht per km. (however, even at 40km, you will be outside of Bangkok, and taxis will rarely if ever agree to use the meter for trips outside Bangkok and instead such trips need to be negotiated at a flat rate).
  5. When the taxi is stuck in a traffic jam (ie when the taxi moves slower than 6km/h) the meter will charge 2 baht per minute.

To give you an idea of how little the rates have increased, the flag fall has not changed at all (it has always been 35 baht), but previously you would get up to 2km for that fare, now only 1km.  However, after flagfall, the rate has only increased by 0.5 baht per km, and the traffic jam rate has also only increased by 0.5 baht per km.

As a guide to how much a typical Bangkok fare will cost you, a run of about 15km from Lard Prao Road to Chitlom Road, going through Rama IX, and encountering little traffic will cost you about 123 baht.  This is considered to be quite a lengthy trip within the Bangkok metro area.  Prior to the rate increase, this same fare would have cost you 106 baht.

Tips and Tricks for Bangkok Taxis

So what are the main issues with taxis and how can they be resolved:

1. Taxis do not want to go to your destination.  This is the biggest problem experienced by everyone in Bangkok.  There are two main reasons why you will get a taxi driver who is unwilling to go to your destination.  The biggest reason is that the taxi driver is nearing the end of his shift and your destination puts him at the wrong end of town.  As I highlighted above, most taxi drivers work for a taxi company and do not own their own cars.  Instead, they lease them on shifts for different periods of the day (usually an 8 hour shift, that costs the driver about 600 baht).  Prior to the end of their shift, the driver must return his or her car to the company lot, with the LP gas tank refilled (another 300 baht).  If the driver returns the car late, he or she is charged a penalty which often means the loss of that days profits.

The second reason why a taxi may not want to go to your destination is that the way to get there is heavily congested, or it is far away and the driver is unlikely to get a return fare back to his sector of Bangkok.

So what is the solution?  This issue is significant enough that the government actually passed a law prohibiting taxi drivers from refusing a fare.  You therefore could report the driver.  However, given the issues I have already highlighted, I consider this to be a bit unfair and the driver may experience genuine hardship if he takes you to your destination.  Even though you have reported the driver, it still doesn’t get you to your destination, and if you act hostile and pick a fight with a driver, then the only destination that you may end up at is a hospital emergency room.  Accordingly, the best practice is to just wave that taxi on, and stop another one.  A good tip here when you have an unpopular destination is to focus on stopping the yellow and green taxis as these are privately owned.  The driver is likely to have less hardship in getting you to your destination and you also tend to get better service.

Taxis and skytrain
Look at all the multi-coloured taxies.  Green and yellow is privately owned and pink are corporate leases.  If the little red light in the passenger window is shining, then the taxi is available.

2. Taxis refuse to use their meter.  As mentioned, use of the meter is law.  However, many tourists in particular are likely to regularly come across drivers who refuse to use the meter and instead refuse to go unless an inflated fare is agreed to.  The reason why tourists regularly experience this is because there is a “taxi mafia” or illegal collective of taxi drivers who park their cars outside major tourist attractions and hotels.  All of the drivers in the collective band together and will refuse to use the meter.

Although this practice is most prevalent in tourist areas (because tourists are the easiest victims, and Thais and expatriates are much less likely to put up with such a practice), there are times when locals get hit with it as well.  For instance, if there is a severe downpour, massive traffic jam or at closing time at a major night entertainment area, taxis may insist on pre-agreed fares.  In the first two examples, it is because the taxi knows it will be stuck in traffic and the driver wants to ensure he doesn’t incur a loss.  In the latter example, taxi drivers are being opportunistic when passengers are at a disadvantage (ie BTS is closed so there are few transport options to get home).

What should you do?  First, avoid the taxis lined up in front of major tourist attractions like the Grand Palace and Wat Po.  The taxis parked out front of major hotels are usually in the same boat, although I have found that taxis parked down side streets in residential areas and lesser known hotels are less predatory.  The best is to wave down a taxi that is driving past, or that has just dropped off passengers.  These are usually not part of the taxi mafia.  Sometimes, you may need to walk a little bit to get away from the attraction or hotel.  For instance, when Patpong closes at night, all the taxis stopped on the Patpong side of Silom Road are mafia (and they often make trouble for other taxis driving past, if they stop for passengers).  Accordingly, cross over to the other side of Silom, or walk further down Silom away from the mafia area.

When you get into a cab, the first thing the taxi driver should do once he understands your destination is to turn the meter on (you will know because it will start off by displaying 35 baht, ie the initial rate for the first 1 km).  If he refuses to turn on the meter, then ask the driver about the meter and if he refuses to turn it on, then ask him to stop and get out.

3. Taxi doesn’t know how to get to your destination.  This happens to everyone at some stage.  It happens more to tourists because of a lack of any Thai language skills and poor pronunciation of the destination.  It also happens to everyone else because there is no real street knowledge test required before a taxi license is issued.  Given that most taxi drivers do not come from Bangkok, you will eventually get newer drivers that have no idea how to get around to even the more common destinations.  This problem is compounded when the Thai concept of “face” results in the taxi driver refusing to admit that he or she doesn’t know how to get to your destination.

You can reduce the chances of this happening by doing some or all of the following:

(a) have your destination written in Thai, such as a business card or internet print-out.  If it shows a basic map with main streets in Thai, this will improve chances.  However, showing your tourist map to the driver may not help as many drivers have difficulty in reading maps.

(b) identify the major landmark(s) near your destination.  Sometimes it is easier to just tell the taxi driver initially to head to that landmark instead, and from there, you can either walk or direct the driver to the exact destination.

(c) (this is more for expats) learn at least basic Thai skills such as turn left, right, straight, close, far etc and learn how to properly pronounce your destination.

(d) have a Thai person you can call up on your phone who can explain to the taxi driver how to get to your destination.

Sometimes, you may think that the taxi driver is intentionally taking you the long way to your destination so as to rack up the fare.  I don’t think I have ever, in my 32 year history with Bangkok, ever had this happen to me intentionally.  Taxi drivers make more profit on short fares (2 to 3km).  Even though rates increase beyond the 10km mark, they don’t increase by that much to make it worthwhile for the driver.  His interest is therefore to get you to your destination as quickly as possible so that he can get another fare as soon as possible.  If he seems to be taking the long way, it is because he is lost or trying to avoid a traffic jam.

4. Catching a taxi at the airport.  The two airport terminals in Bangkok regulate taxis and charge them a 50 baht fee, which gets passed on to the passenger.  As part of the regulation, and for quality control, a taxi booth is set up so that passengers state their destination, which then gets recorded at the booth together with the plate number of the taxi.  If there is a problem the passenger can call back to the airport and the taxi details are available to be provided to police etc if necessary.

However, there will also be touts hanging around near the taxi booth, trying to sell fixed rate fares.  Sometimes they are selling fares for licensed taxis, but quite often the fares are for an unlicensed vehicle.  This can be quite risky for a number of reasons, and the fare will always be more expensive than if you had gone through the taxi booth.

For those that want to save on the 50 baht fee (and also avoid waiting in line at the taxi booth), you can simply go upstairs to the departures drop off area and catch a taxi just as it drops off passengers.  Make sure the taxi is happy to use the meter though (they usually will be as it means they get an immediate return fare to Bangkok).

5. Expressways and Tollways.  When you give a destination to your driver, he or she may ask you if you are okay with using an expressway or motorway.  Most of these cost money and you will be expected to pay for these in addition to your fare.  Quite often you will be asked to pay for it directly at the tolling booth.  Toll charges tend to be around 20 to 50 baht depending on which road and distance.

6. Arguments with Taxi Drivers.  Avoid this at all times.  There are plenty of really nice taxi drivers.  However, there are also a sufficient number who are on edge, use drugs, are desperate people etc.  Accordingly, there are plenty of reports of people being beaten or even killed by taxi drivers.  In most cases, the incident occurred because the passenger decided to get into an argument with the taxi driver.  Trust me, it isn’t worth it.  Be polite, avoid any arguments, and don’t make the driver lose face.  Due to the possibility of dangerous passengers, most taxi drivers will also have a weapon within easy reach (often a knife or iron rod, but sometimes a handgun).

7. Single Women Late at Night.  Most women in Bangkok are reluctant to catch a taxi alone late at night.  As mentioned, most taxi drivers are nice enough, but there have been cases of rapes and indecent assaults.  If you are concerned about this, there is a specific service called “Lady Taxi” that provides female drivers and cars are equipped with GPS.  To book a taxi through this service, call 081 266 6360.

8. Booking a Taxi.  People don’t often use a booking service for taxis in Bangkok because it is easy enough to find a taxi at any time of the day or night within the main areas of Bangkok.  However, if you must book, then some of the more popular taxi numbers you can call are: 1661 and 1681 (you often see these phone numbers on the sides of cabs).  Note that you pay a small surcharge for pre-booking a taxi.

9. Mobile Phone App.  A useful app for your phone when catching a taxi in Bangkok  is the Department of Land Transport’s “Check-In Taxi” app.  This is available for both iPhone and Android users.  It lets you scan the taxi license number (either the vehicle’s plate or on the inside of your door).  You can then rate your experience with the taxi (either good or bad).  If you do decide to use the app though, I would recommend that either you are not obvious to the driver that you are using it, or else highlight that you are giving him a good review.

10. Proper procedure for flagging down a taxi.  Don’t use your thumb like a hitch-hiker and don’t whistle like in New York.  Instead, simply stand by the road, make eye contact with the vehicle and hold your hand out, palm down, and wave it up and down gently… almost like hailing a bus in the West, except Thais usually have their palm down rather than palm facing the vehicle.  Although, even if you do have your palm facing the vehicle, the taxi will still understand what you want.  Be aware that there are certain areas where taxis are not supposed to stop, such as at or just before intersections (eg where there are sidewalk barriers) and at bus stops.  Taxis may still stop there or may pull over nearby, so you may need to walk to them.

Conclusion

I have tried to cover off on quite a lot to help you understand the hows and whys with respect to taxis in Bangkok.  Taxis are plentiful and cheap, but there are issues with them as well.  As a result, my preference these days is to live, work and play close to the BTS and MRT lines, and that way I only resort to taxis when I am going somewhere off the grid, or if I am out and about after midnight (which is when the BTS and MRT close).  However, with a little bit of knowledge, using taxis really doesn’t need to be that dramatic either.  I would estimate that about 9 out of 10 of my taxi rides have been pleasurable.  For the 1 out of 10, it’s usually been a driver who has no idea where my destination is, or wants to negotiate a fare.

A Noob’s Travel Diary of Thailand (Part One)

Day 1 – Sunday, December 22, 16:00 hours – touch-down… hooray!  Finally, after 24 painful hours flying halfway across the world and feeling like cattle, I am here, in paradise.  The airport looks much better than I expected… much more modern than the little airport in my home town back in Norway.  However, I am surprised that notwithstanding all the jet-ways at this huge airport, our plane stops in the middle of no-where and I have to walk down a flight of stairs, cutting through the thick blanket of heat and humidity and the strange smells of spicy jet fuel, diesel exhaust and stale cigarette smoke.  As we enter the airport, I see that the building is actually still unfinished, with bare concrete and no ceiling panels.  Beautiful on the outside but unfinished in the middle!

At immigration, I wait patiently in line.  I am amazed at how many people have arrived at the same time as me.  In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw so many people in one place.  There are many immigration counters, and most have officers in them, but still this is a slow crawl.  Even more interesting is there is an immigration officer here who takes her job a little too seriously.  A couple of Russian guys try to cut in at the front of the line and she just about chops their heads off.  When it is finally my turn at the immigration counter, I smile at the officer and this is my first chance to practice my Thai skills that I got from my guidebook.  I proudly say “Sawatdii Khrap”, but I must have mispronounced it because the immigration officer just grunted at me and almost threw my passport back at me.

Getting transport seems really convenient.  Just after customs, there are a lot of kiosks where you can book transport and hotels.  However, I can’t find the place for normal taxis and it is really confusing as to whether I turn left or right after the customs area as I see people with name cards at both ends.  Given Thailand is supposed to be cheap, I ask how much for a limousine and the response is 6,000 baht.  That is more than a taxi in Norway, so seems too expensive for me.  Instead I wander around a bit and finally notice a kiosk for taxi but there are many people already in line waiting to book a taxi.  As I am waiting, a nice Thai man wearing some kind of uniform who speaks good English tells me he has a taxi ready to go now, and that I can just skip the queue and pay the driver directly.  Maybe not fair for the others already in line, but I decide its my lucky day and I am tired from a long flight after all.  I follow him and he leads me into a taxi.

The taxi is an older Nissan but it has the taxi sign and looks legitimate.  There is even a photo of the driver and his name and details on the passenger side.  However, I guess I should have been on alert when I noticed the driver didn’t look like the guy in the photo.  Anyway, my worries were all gone as I gave my hotel name and the driver said “no problem” and we were flying along a massive road.  After about 20 minutes drive, the taxi pulls over to the side of the road and the taxi driver turns to me and says “you pay now, okay?”  I asked him why and he mumbled something that I didn’t understand, and just repeated the question.  Anyway, I handed him 1,000 baht, expecting change and instead he just turned back and started driving.  I tried asking him about change a couple of times, but he just ignored me.  At least he got me to my hotel.

The hotel itself is fantastic.  Its the Landmark on Sukhumvit Road.  I am not yet fully up to speed on Bangkok geography, but this seems to be a very central location and there are tourists everywhere around here (I am seeing almost as many foreigners as Thai people on the street here).  I guess I like this because I kind of feel like there is safety in numbers and Asia is a strange place to me.  Even better though is the hotel is quite luxurious, with all sorts of facilities and yet it only costs me a quarter of what a similar hotel would cost in Norway.

After such a long trip, I press the “do not disturb” button, have a luxurious shower and then order some room service.  As exciting as everything looks outside my window, I am just too tired and I think it is better for me to take it easy this first night and have an early night.  It is about 19.00 hours now.

Day 2 – I am glad I included the breakfast option when I booked my hotel.  I have never seen such a fantastic display of food before.  Norway is famous for its “smorgasbords” but really, breakfast here is something else entirely, and the extra cost for the breakfast option was so low I don’t know how they make money.

After freshening up, I decide to start the day’s exploration.  I take my back-pack, hiking shoes, and some of the hotel’s free water and then step outside, ready to hike around the city on foot.  However, just out the front door are several taxi men sitting in these half-motorbike style taxis called “Tuk Tuk”s.  One taxi man says he can drive me around town on tour.  Half day for only 300 baht, so I agree.

The ride on the tuk tuk is a real adventure and I highly recommend it to everyone who comes to Bangkok.  The vehicle is open to the environment so I can experience everything full on.  Also, when the traffic opens, the vehicle likes to move very quickly through the streets, and sometimes going over bridges and bumps, I think we actually launched up in the air, with no wheels touching the road.  I definitely need to hang on as there are no seat belts and no doors, but I still manage to take some very interesting photos.

The tour itself was not really what I had hoped for.  The taxi man never mentioned to me that he would not stop at the different destinations so I would explore them.  Instead, he first drove me straight up the main street from Landmark.  Eventually he pointed to a shopping centre and grunted “MBK”, then he waved to some tuk tuk friends, then he pointed to a sports stadium and said “National Stadium” and indicated it was where they watch football.  After that, we drove through many small side streets and small bridges over smelly black canals.  He then points to some old buildings and says “China Town”.  However, he was speeding so much then that I couldn’t take a clear photo.

Next on the tour was Democracy Monument, which was a big traffic circle with lots of traffic.  I noticed that traffic circles in Thailand operate differently to Norway.  Cars seem to have right of way to enter the circle but have to wait patiently to exit the circle.  I am not sure if this is the official rule, but this is what I observed when we were stuck in the circle.  The monument itself was difficult to appreciate from inside the tuk tuk.

After that, we saw the Big Swing, the Grand Palace, the reclining Buddha, the Gold Buddha and the main train station.  In most cases, we went past too quickly for me to see much, and sometimes all I could see was a big white wall, and maybe some gold roofs poking out above.  Anyway, at least now I now which ones I want to go back and explore later.

However, after the train station, the ride gets interesting.   First, the taxi man asks me if I want massage.  I say no.  Then he asks if I want woman.  I say not interested.  He then says he needs to stop quickly at his friend’s shop then he will take me back to my hotel.  So we drive to this large new building with big roman columns outside and some expensive cars, including a Lamborghini, parked in the front.  I see many other tuk tuks parked there too.  We stop at the front entrance and two Thai girls dressed in traditional Thai silk outfits greet me and show me in the door like I am some famous person.  Okay, now I have no idea what is going on, and I think maybe they have made a mistake and think I am somebody else.  I decide to just play along and see what happens.

Inside, it is like a mix between a museum and luxury shopping centre.  The ladies take me on a tour and give me free drinks.  First I see where jewellers make designs for jewellery.  Then I see the precious stone section, where they grade, cut and polish different gem stones.  Finally they show me the show-room, which is large and has many different sections for different types of gems, from ruby to sapphire.  They try to get me to buy, using a lot of pressure, and when I tell them I will think about it and come back another day, they tell me that the special price is for today only, as it is a special government holiday discount.  They also show me some reports about how I can make money, buying the gems in Thailand, and then mailing them back to Norway for resale at a big profit.

Finally, I buy one silver necklace with a small sapphire pendant for my girlfriend back home.  It was one of the cheapest options they had, at only 6,000 baht, but they assure me the stone is worth three times that much back in Norway, so it is a good investment.

When I finally step outside the front doors, I realise I had been in the gem store for almost two hours.  The tuk tuk driver is waiting for me and quickly shoots through many side streets before he gets me back to my hotel.  The side streets are so confusing I could never remember the way he took.  I pay him the 300 baht plus 100 baht tip and he seems very happy.

By now it is mid afternoon and I have not yet even had lunch.  My guidebook told me there is a good Thai food-hall just across from the Landmark hotel in Foodland Supermarket.  I cross the bridge over the scary road and enter Foodland.  I find the food hall, which is called “Took La Dee” and notice they have not just Thai food but very cheap Western food too.  I am still a little scared of spicy, so I get the pizza instead for only 100 baht, plus beer for only 60 baht.  I cannot believe these places can make money selling so cheap, and the pizza is actually really good.  Back in Norway, the pizza and beer would cost almost ten times more.

My next plan is to get ready for the evening and check-out the night spots near my hotel.  My guidebook tells me there is something called “Nana Plaza” just around the corner from the hotel, which is one of the biggest red light plazas in the world.  I don’t know what this means, but I look forward to checking it out.

To be continued…

Disclaimer

This travel diary is a work of fiction.  It is told from the perspective of a first time traveller to Thailand and is intended to provide a list of do’s and don’ts and highlight the consequences of various actions that tourists might be conned into.  Although there are many scams in Thailand, sometimes it is interesting to actually go along with the scam for a while just to see what happens, and this diary is intended to highlight that (I think it is more interesting to describe the consequence of the scam rather than simply to warn you about it).  Besides, falling for some scams are almost a right of passage for Thailand travellers.

Bangkok’s Victory Monument

Victory Monument
Victory Monument

In the midst of Bangkok’s steamy traffic stands a tall needle-pointed concrete obelisk of European design that raises more questions than get answered.  Thailand’s Victory Monument, or Anu Saowari Chai Samoraphum (or just Anu Saowari for short) is situated in one of the busiest and most important traffic circles in Bangkok.  However, very few people actually know what victory the monument is actually dedicated to.

History

The Victory Monument was designed by Italian sculptor Corrado Feroci and erected under his direction in 1941.  Corrado has a very interesting and long history with Thailand, and since his invitation to come to the Kingdom in 1923 to teach Western sculpture, he became responsible for the design of several significant bridges, monuments and buildings around Bangkok.  During the Japanese occupation of Thailand in 1944, Corrado even became a Thai citizen and adopted a Thai name (Silpa Bhirasri).

Traffic circle
The intersection prior to commencement of construction (source of photo unknown)

The purpose for the erection of the Victory Monument was in celebration during World War II of Thailand’s victory over France during the Franco-Thai war of 1940-1941.  In essence, this war arose because Thailand had been forced to cede parts of French Indochina (essentially certain areas around Thailand’s borders  with Laos and Cambodia) to the French in 1893 and 1904.  Prior to World War II, Thailand had been in negotiations with France to try to rectify the issue.  The French showed some willingness to rectify certain borders but did not appear willing to fully return the ceded areas.  As a result, when France was occupied by the Germans in 1940, Thailand realised it was a good opportunity to retake possession of their land, given that France no longer had an ability to direct nor support its military assets overseas.

The war itself consisted of approximately 60,000 Thai soldiers and whilst France had a force of 50,000 (with 12,000 being French and the remainder were recruited/conscripted from French colonies).  Thailand had significantly more firepower including more armour and planes and the result was an easy win for Thailand with few casualties to either side, when taking into account the numbers of soldiers on either side.

Interestingly, post World War II, France boycotted Thailand’s entry into the United Nations until Thailand agreed to return possession of the land in French Indochina.

The Monument

The monument itself is very reminiscent of many Western military monuments.  It features a large single spire or obelisk that points to the sky, and at its base there are five outcrops, and on each stands a larger than life scale statue of a soldier.  Each of the soldiers represents one arm of the Thai defence forces and many have a bayonet pointed up to the sky, presumably in a show of victory or triumph.  The defence forces represented are army, navy, air force, marines and police.

Victory Monument
Victory Monument – sorry about the gray image but it was during the raining season.

The monument stands at the intersection of Phayathai Road and Ratchawithi Road, and as such, it has been a main hub since its construction, for traffic heading from the old Dusit part of Bangkok heading north to the airport, east to the suburbs or south to the universities and Rajadamri/Ploenchit shopping areas.  In more modern times, this intersection also has significance because the skytrain (BTS) runs past it (they actually had to circle the skytrain line around the intersection) and it marks the main access to enter one of several different elevated expressways that can quickly get commuters to other corners of Bangkok.  Finally, the Victory Monument traffic circle also represents the hub for Bangkok’s public buses, with most routes accessing this intersection.

Skytrain
The Skytrain track has to circle around the monument here… you get a good view while on the skytrain

As a result, this traffic circle is the busiest in Bangkok and represents perhaps the most congested traffic in the city.

Getting There and What to Do

Most tourists visiting Bangkok will at some stage pass the Victory Monument.  The easiest way to get there is to jump on the skytrain (BTS) and head for the Victory Monument station.  From the BTS station and the large pedestrian platforms just off the station, there are plenty of good photo opportunities of the monument.

In addition, this part of Bangkok is quite interesting to explore.  This area is a major shopping hub for Bangkok Thais and actually does not get a lot of tourists going beyond the BTS station.  As a result, you could find some good deals on more unusual items in the shops.  There are also some real hidden gems in the form of good and interesting restaurants.  I will cover that in more detail in a later blog.

Elevated walkways
This is an interesting area to explore. You can cross most parts of the intersection fairly easily via elevated walkways that connect into shopping centres

Conclusion

This monument is a mystery to most (including most Thais).  Ask locals what the monument is for, and see what interesting answers you get.  Architecturally, this monument is very un-Thai, but its reason for being and place in Thai history is actually very fascinating.  I have only given a light touch on the historic side but trust me when I say it is worthy of further research.  In addition to the monument, this part of Bangkok is a bit off the beaten path by most tourists in that tourists do pass through but don’t really get down on the ground and explore the surrounding area.  There are many interesting things here.  This is definitely worth a visit for someone who wants to spend half a day exploring.

Tips That You Didn’t Know for Getting the Most Out of Bangkok – Part Five

Sunrise Tacos
Sunrise Tacos… fairly cheap meals in Bangkok… as long as you go easy on the drinks

There’s been a little gap between my tips recently as I focused more on the usual travel guide type material.  In this issue of my Bangkok Tips I look at where to find cheap Western food.

As most of you who spend any time in Bangkok know, the Western luxuries in Bangkok can cost more than they would back in the West.  This is because of a combination of high import taxes and also the “luxury image” factor.  For Thai people, showing off that they lead a regular Western “luxury” lifestyle is a big part of gaining face in front of their peers and they are willing to pay for the privilege.  As a result, in many Western restaurants, you can expect to pay a minimum of 300 baht for a meal and a drink.  In some places, that minimum price edges closer to 1,000 baht and there are a few steak places where a steak meal is closer to 3,000 baht.

McDonalds
One of the cheaper places in the world to buy a big mac

However, it is possible to enjoy Western style cooking without paying the luxury prices.  The following is my personal list of places that I go to when trying to save a bit of coin:

  1. Saraburi Steak – This is a Thai chain of steak houses that uses locally sourced beef.  The beef isn’t as nice as imported Aussie or New Zealand meat, but its still not bad.  Given that you can have a steak dinner for 100 baht, it works out to be an outstanding deal.  You will find Saraburi Steak restaurants scattered around the suburbs near major highways, such as one on Raminthra Road, a bit north of the intersection with Lard Prao Road.  In addition, some food courts will have a small Saraburi Steak outlet, such as the orange coloured foodcourt in MBK.
  2. 13 Coins Restaurant – This is very similar to Saraburi Steak and does quite a nice fillet mignon for around 200 baht.
  3. Black Canyon – This is perhaps a more modern version of 13 Coins and at present is more popular (and is everywhere).  Pricing is very similar and there are quite a few Western dishes as well as Thai and fusion food.  Sandwiches are between 90 and 130 baht whilst a steak will be around the 200 baht mark.   They also do good coffees that are much cheaper than Starbucks.
  4. S&P – Similar in many ways to Black Canyon, except they have a slightly different menu, their own bakery, and a greater range of desserts.  They offer sandwiches, pastas, soups and various other Western items in addition to really good Thai food.  My favourite item on the menu is the mixed sausage plate that comes with sauerkraut.  Pricing for most Western dishes is around the 100 baht mark.
  5. Took Lae Dee – Most of you will think of Thai food when you hear this name, and yes, it is famous for offering cheap Thai food in a food hall setting.  However, they also offer solid Western food at cheap prices (under 100 baht).  Located within Foodland Supermarket on Sukhumvit near Soi 5.  Incidentally, the name means “Cheap and Good”.
  6. Chester’s Grill – The last time I set foot in a Chesters Grill, the menu was still exclusively in Thai.  However, don’t let this put you off as the staff are usually very friendly and they have pictures of everything anyway.  I quite like the food, and it is cheap for what you get.  Although this may look like a McDonalds clone, the menu is quite broad and includes steaks and spaghetti in addition to fast food favourites such as grilled chicken and burgers.
  7. The Main Fast Food Franchises – Yes, I know its junk food, but once in a while you feel like some comfort food, and this tends to be reasonably cheap in Thailand.  In particular, McDonalds and KFC offer good value with cheap meals at around the 100-130 baht per person mark (full meal including drink and fries).  You can also go to Pizza Hut, which has a full menu including pasta and various other items.  In addition, there is the Pizza Hut clone, Pizza Company (interesting story here that I will talk about in a later article) which I think is better than Pizza Hut, but pricing is very similar.  For the Pizza places, keep an eye out for their promotions as these tend to be really good deals.  A meal for one will be around the 200 baht mark.  If you share a pizza with a friend you could get away for as little as 150 each.
  8. Au Bon Pain – This is a deli sandwich type place, but they do have some warm foods on the menu as well (such as soup served in bread).  Pricing is around the 100 to 200 baht range.
  9. 7-Eleven – If you really are short on funds and want a light Western meal, then this is the cheapest option I can think of.  7-Eleven offers various types of hot dogs, hamburgers, microwave pizzas, and best of all, their famous grilled cheese sandwiches.  Pricing is in the 20 to 40 baht range.
  10. Dairy Queen – The mostly do ice creams and shakes, but the more elaborate outlets also offer cheap hot dogs, including with some decent fillings such as chilli dogs.  Pricing is similar to 7-Eleven (around 20 to 50 baht depending on what fillings you went for).
Toasted sandwich
Thailand’s 7-Elevens have the best toasted sandwiches around… with a big choice of fillings and very cheap prices.

The above isn’t a comprehensive list, but the places I have listed are pretty easy to find for the average tourist.  In addition, there are some specific restaurants (not chains) scattered around town that have reasonable prices, although as soon as they become popular, then pricing soars (and quality often drops as well).

If you have a bit more time up your sleeve, another thing to do is to keep an eye out for special promotions.   Some of the big hotels often do lunchtime buffet specials that can be good deals considering quality of the food (and in comparison to their a la carte menu).  However, these are still considerably more expensive than the options I have listed above.  As an example, the Novotel in Siam Square often does weekday lunchtime buffets for 600 baht++ (++ means you need to add 7.5% VAT and 10% service charge; this is a common theme in a lot of restaurants).

You can also get free food if you keep an eye out for birthdays and anniversaries at bars in the Patpong 2, Nana and Cowboy areas.  Balloons and a pig on the spit are often a good indicator.  You will of course need to purchase a couple of beers in consideration though.  The best source of information on events in such areas is http://www.stickmanweekly.com.

Conclusion

It is definitely possible to eat Western food at reasonable prices in Bangkok.  I guess the real question is how little do you want to spend.  In this article I have concentrated on what I consider to be the truly cheapest options available.  There are still plenty of other alternatives that offer relatively cheap meals (say 200 to 400 baht range), such as a lot of the Pubs, eg the Robin Hood and the Penalty Spot.  Also some of the local Western food chains such as Sunrise Tacos offer awesome meals in that price range.  Although it is possible to eat Western food very cheaply at the above places, the one thing to keep a careful eye on are the drinks prices.  Most of the chains like S&P, Black Canyon, Pizza Hut, Pizza Company etc offer very attractive drinks such as fruit smoothies that cost almost the same price as your main meal.  Therefore if you really want to save money, avoid these (get the smoothies from street vendors instead) and stick to water or basic soft drinks or local tea.  Of course, when in Thailand, you should try the Thai food as well.

Suan Pakkard (Cabbage Patch) Palace – A Hidden Slice of Paradise

Suan Pakkard Palace
Suan Pakkard Palace – The Lacquer Pavilion

Most of the palaces and major temples of Bangkok are located within Ratanakosin Island or nearby Dusit district in the old part of town.  However, there is a real gem of a palace hidden away in the urban sprawl of Bangkok that is not far off the beaten track but still off the radar for most tourists.

Suan Pakkard Palace (Suan Pakkard means a cabbage field or cabbage patch), sometimes also spelled Suan Pakkad (without the R), is a royal residence on Sri Ayuthaya Road in the heart of Bangkok.  Although the residence is in regular use by the royal family, most of the grounds consist of old Thai houses displaying museum pieces, and set out in one of the more attractive tropical gardens in Bangkok.  If you like either traditional Thai architecture, Thai history, or tropical gardens, then this is the place for you.

Thai house
One of the traditional Thai style houses.  Notice the office buildings in the background.

History

Suan Pakkard Palace was the residence of Their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess Chumbhot.  They had amassed a great collection of Thai artifacts and antiquities and decided to put them on display for the public, by opening parts of their house to the public in 1952.

Since then, the collection has grown, with their heirs, and others adding to the collection.  In addition, the location of the house has gone from being considered on the far outskirts of the city where it was once surrounded by fields, to now being in the middle of an urban jungle, with skyscrapers and skytrains surrounding the property.

Lacquer pavilion
Lacquer pavilion – notice the skytrain line running in the background. The surrounding area was once just open fields.

Things to see

When you first arrive at the palace, you start off at the main administration building, which is a recently constructed concrete and glass structure but built in a fusion of modern and traditional Thai styles.  Behind the main office are a series of galleries that display early artifacts from early human habitation of Thailand, in the Ban Chang area.  Many of these items are dated around 2,000 to 3,000 BC.  In addition, there is a show-room (the Marsi gallery) that has the current month’s art exhibit, showcasing Thai artists.

After the guided tour around the main building, you will be guided down to the lush tropical garden and shown traditional Thai houses and the boats (including a royal barge) that the royal family used to use on the canals around Bangkok.  The centrepiece of architecture here is the lacquer pavilion, which is a small but elegantly decorated building that acts as a Buddhist library, storing the tripitaka (or Buddhist scripture).  This building was originally two separate buildings that date back to the 17th century.  The buildings were located in Ayuthaya province in a very dilapitated state, and were moved piece by piece back to Bangkok and painstakingly restored.  The walls are covered in a combination of black lacquer and gold leaf, displaying stories about the life of the Buddha as well as scenes from the Ramakien.  You will note once you are inside that there is effectively an inner chamber and  an outer chamber.  As I mentioned, this single building was originally two separate structures.

Traditional Thai house
Traditional Thai house

After the lacquer pavilion, you will be lead through the garden and up to the second wooden house.  This is the first of a series of several inter-connected traditional Thai houses.  The houses themselves were sourced from around the Central Plains region and reconstructed on the palace grounds.  The different houses contain different showcases, based on theme, including antique statues, furniture, niello-ware, silk, weapons, paintings, Thai masks and even gifts from European royalty.

The final display is a more modern building near the north gate of the palace, which has a display of Thai music instruments.  For those that are interested in music, this is an interesting section because it highlights that the Thais had their own musical notation (set at different frequencies to Western notes) and examples of Thai music are played.  Also, this final building is air-conditioned.

After your guided tour, you are free to wander the grounds yourself.  This is possibly the best part, as the photo opportunities are endless, and the tropical garden is worth exploring carefully, as there are some very interesting hidden nooks.  Keep in mind that some of the houses on the grounds (near the entrance) are private residences that are still in use.

grass bridge
Bridge over the pond… entirely covered in grass

How to Get There and Cost

Suan Pakkard is located on Sri Ayuthaya Road, 200m east of the intersection with Phayathai Road.  It is just north of the skytrain link that heads to the airport.  Accordingly, the easiest way to get to the palace is to take a skytrain to the Phayathai BTS station.  Exit from the northern exit and head down the east stairway (in front of the Florida hotel), then walk east along Phayathai Road for 200m.  Once you see the Deja Hospital, you are almost there.  The palace is next door.  You will recognise it by its lush gardens and old Thai style roofs.

The cost of entry is 100 baht, which includes a replica traditional Thai hand fan and a guided tour.  However, keep note that opening hours are from 9:00am to 4:00pm.  I have arrived at 3.30pm once and received a very abridged tour, which isn’t bad if you are in a rush.

House river landing
Some of the houses are built beside the pond, in order to showcase Thai riverine life

Conclusion

The collections housed in the old houses are quite interesting, but on a hot day, it can be a bit of a chore as a lot of rooms only have fans rather than airconditioning.  The architecture and gardens themselves are really beautiful, and it is actually this part of the palace where I tend to spend the majority of my time exploring.  These grounds are not large like many of the other Bangkok palaces, but even so, there is a lot of attention to detail here and plenty of little hidden surprises.

Garden statues
Unusual garden statues

Lumphini Park – The Lungs of Bangkok

Lumphini Park
Lumphini Park

Covered in chalky concrete, oil-polluted streets and glistening steel and glass towers, Thailand’s capital is not renowned for having many green spaces within its CBD.  However, as with many other great cities around the world, Bangkok does have its own central park and, as with some of those other cities, Bangkok’s park offers a very welcome escape from the everyday toil of big city life.

Lumphini Park (sometimes also spelled “Lumpini”) is 58 hectares of green space located in what has today become the very centre of Bangkok.  It effectively sits in between the twin CBDs of Sathorn/Silom and Ploenchit/Sukhumvit.  As such, the park sits on some of the most valuable land in Bangkok.  Fortunately, the Thais are proud of their park and make good use of it, with activities ranging from gentle strolls, to aerobics, cycling, paddle boats, gyms, badminton, all the way up to takraw (a type of volleyball where you cannot use your hands) and political protests.

Lumphini Park
Lumphini Park

History

Lumphini Park started out life as Sanam Sala Daeng, or Sala Daeng Field, back in the early 1900s, when it was royal land located on what was then the eastern outskirts of the city.  King Rama VI had some of the land developed to become an exhibition centre to show-case Thai culture, including Thai handicrafts and orchids.  By the early 1920s, the King decreed the land to become the first public park in Bangkok and it was renamed to Lumphini Park, in honour of the Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal.  In honour of its founder, there is a large statue of King Rama VI at the south-west entrance to the park.

Layout and Activities

Lumphini Park is roughly a rectangular shape, with a large brick and spear tipped wrought iron fence surrounding it.  It’s main entrance is at the south-west, just after the Rama VI statue.  There aren’t too many other entrances into the park, but in addition to the main entrances, the others are approximately as follows: west (at the midpoint of the western fence); north (a small gate that is fairly close to the north-west corner); east (fairly close to the northern corner); the south-east corner; and the south (over a concrete bridge at about the mid point of the southern fence).

Lumphini Park
Lumphini Park

In addition, the main car-park is along the western side (entry off Ratchadamri Road).  There used to also be public parking on the south-west corner but the area around the statue has been renovated and the car park removed.

Inside the park, the main geographic feature is a lake with an island in the middle, and various canals leading off the lake and snaking around the park.  In addition, there are jogging and cycling paths snaking around the park, including the main boundary path.  If you are walking on the paths (particularly the boundary path) keep in mind that the larger part of the path has actually been marked off for cycling, so be wary of getting in the way of cyclists and look before you walk across a path.

Lumphini Park
Lumphini Park

In addition to cycling, the park offers up quite a lot of activities:

  1. Free gyms – There are three outdoor gym areas that offer basic (but sufficient) facilities for free.
  2. Fitness clubs – There are also paid gym facilities.  The plushest is an airconditioned fitness club located at the southern boundary (near the southern entrance).
  3. Paddleboats and row boats can be hired from two locations on the main lake.  Hire fees are about 40 baht per half hour, but you need to provide a deposit of an extra half hour (ie pay 80 baht, and you receive 40 baht deposit if you get your boat back within half an hour).  I quite enjoy the paddleboats because you get a different viewpoint and closer to the wildlife.
  4. Lumphini Park Library – yes, there is a public library at the park.  However, this is unlikely to be of much interest to westerners as most of the books are in Thai.
  5. Playgrounds – There are some good playground facilities scattered around.  The best is at the north/central point of the park, just east of the main lake.
  6. Wildlife – The park is a great place for bird and wildlife watching.  In addition to interesting bird species, there are also turtles, snakes, eels, cat-fish, carp, and large monitor lizards.
  7. Sports – Big free aerobics groups set up a bit east of the main entrance each morning and evening.  In addition, there are plenty of Thai-Chinese practicing Tai-Chi, who would be happy to teach you.  You can join in on a friendly game of takraw just near the large playground in the centre of the park; or bring your own gear for badminton, cycling or rollerblading (however, please follow the park rules and hours for cycling and rollerblading).
  8. Kite flying – In March, the wind picks up in Bangkok and Lumphini becomes a great place for kite flying the open fields around the south-west corner become full of novice kite flyers (and kite sellers).  If you are lucky, you may even witness Thai style kite fighting.
  9. Botanical gardens – The park is surrounded in beautiful tropical gardens

In terms of food and picnics, Lumphini offers everything you need.  There are small Thai style restaurants set up in a few areas inside the park where you can dine on authentic Thai food.  In addition, you can hire a mat and purchase some food from the mobile vendors and make your own picnic.  There are also a few small kiosks (south-west and north-east corners are the ones I can recall) that sell water, soft drinks, energy drinks and snacks.  However, these places tend to be a little over-priced compared to 7-Eleven.

Lumphini Park
Skyline around Lumphini Park

Location, Price and Opening Hours

Lumphini Park is located at the intersection between Ratchadamri Road and Rama IV Road.  It is also bordered by Sarasin Road to the north and Withayu (Wireless) Road to the east.

Entry is free and the park opens between 4.30am and 9.00pm.  With the exception of the cool season (November to February), I would avoid visiting the park in the middle of the day.  It can get quite hot and sunstroke is a risk for those not used to the humid tropical heat of Thailand.

Lumphini Park
One of the many unique statues within the park

How to Get There

Lumphini Park is central and easy to get to.  In fact, many people will be staying at hotels or apartments within walking distance.  The easiest method is to get the subway (MRT) to Silom station and then exit into the park, which puts you at the main entrance.  You can also get off from the MRT at the Lumphini station, but be very careful because you can easily take the wrong exit and then end up with a long walk before you find an entrance into the park (hint, take the north-west MRT exit, cross Withayu (Wireless) Road and you should be at the south-east park entrance.

Monitor lizard
Monitor lizard. Some of these grow to 2m long, but do not attack humans.

If you are taking the sky train, you do not need to transfer to the MRT.  Instead, take the sky train to Sala Daeng station, and then take the elevated walkway north (follow the signs for the MRT or Dusit Thani).  You will soon see the intersection between Silom and Rama IV roads and across it the main entrance to the park.  If you don’t want to risk walking across Rama IV road (it is a bit scary at times), you can simply walk down into the MRT station, but instead of going through the electronic gates, follow the walkway to your right until you see the MRT exit up into Lumphini park.

Conclusion

Lumphini remains my favourite public park in Bangkok, and I continue to spend a lot of time there, getting a bit of exercise and just enjoying a temporary retreat from big city life.  In more recent times, some of the more hard-core cyclists detract a little from the overall ambiance, but other than that, the main park hasn’t changed a whole lot over the years.  I highly recommend it as a temporary retreat for everyone, especially in the evening.

Lumphini Park
Lumphini Park