Even after a dozen visits, I still love to spend a day or two in Bangkok between flights.
Bangkok is a vibrant metropolis with golden temples, soaring skyscrapers, royal palaces, and floating wooden boats selling flowers and vegetables, but it also has 10 million inhabitants, traffic gridlock, diesel exhaust, concrete and shopping malls.
Here’s my idea of a perfect, short visit, whether it’s for the first or the fifteenth time.
To get a sense of the city’s past, present and future and to avoid traffic congestion and exhaust fumes, book a hotel on the bustling banks of Chao Phraya River (River of Kings). Travel by public (inexpensive) river taxis or hire longtail boats along this historic waterway to visit the Grand Palace and temples along the river.
There are several grand, world-renowned luxury hotels perched on the edge of the river. Once in your life, stay at the legendary 1887 Mandarin Oriental, which happens to be at the center of everything. Enjoy the quiet tropical gardens, riverside terrace, superb spa and the authors library, rich with literary history; Joseph Conrad, Noël Coward, Graham Greene, and James Michener all stayed at the Oriental.
I always wake up at dawn, thanks to jet lag, and settle on the terrace at the Terrace Cafe along the river. As the sun rises, commuter ferries, wooden boats and barges ply the river.
Bangkok was once nicknamed the Venice of the East, so I hire a longtail boat at the Oriental Pier, right next to the hotel, and meander through the network of khlongs, or canals, that fan out from the Chao Phraya River. The canals are filled with wooden homes built on stilts with open porches, vendors selling vegetables and flowers from wooden boats, and children fishing in the river. I look carefully for the intricately carved “spirit houses” (don’t mistake them for bird feeders), where the family places incense, food and flowers as an offering to guardian spirits.
At the end of the canal tour, the driver drops me off near the Grand Palace, which is always bustling with local people making offerings, prayers and special dedications. Then I walk to What Pho, the temple of the reclining Buddha to make offerings in the alms bowls.
To save myself from heat exhaustion, I return to the hotel, swim in the pool, enjoy a massage at the spa. Sometimes I forgo the sightseeing and book a half-day at the world-renowned Oriental Hotel cooking course. The day before my class the Royal Princess came for a private class from the master chef.
Best Hands-On Cooking Course
I learned some new culinary skills to take home, from the master Thai chef Narain Kiattiyotcharoen. Starting with the basics of Asia’s mouthwatering spices and herbs, we moved on to grinding, chopping, and frying techniques–and, of course, taste testing along the way.
“Tasting is believing” was Chef Narain’s mantra, and we tasted, chopped, smelled and sampled every ingredient and dish before, during and after preparation. We learned about the exotic flavors of lemongrass, coconut, mango, curry, and spicy red and green chilies.
My favorites were the Gaeng Khua Supparoat Goong (Red Curry of Prawns and Pineapple) and Yam Wun Sen (Jelly Noodle Salad with fresh prawns and chicken). The Moo Hong (Southern Style Braised Pork), and Khanom Gluay (Steamed Banana Pudding) topped off the lesson. The courses are open to anyone, not just guests of the hotel, and are followed by a multi-course lunch of your handiwork, so you better pay attention! You’ll enjoy the feast with the chef.
There is something for everyone in Bangkok, and as far as I’m concerned, foodies have it the best. The city is brimming with a variety of cheap eats with exotic flavors.
After packing my bag for an early flight the next day, I hopped on the wooden boat and zipped across the river to the tranquil Riverside Terrace to watch the river life float by and indulge, one last time, in the dizzying variety of Thai food. Don’t miss the mango sticky rice!