Thursday, February 27, 2014

Bangkok: Through my perspective

I have been to Thailand on numerous occasions, and Bangkok tops the list, not because it is the capital but as the city which I have only passed over on transit, or stayed only for a night without really getting to know the place. While I can say I have been to Bangkok at least three times, I have not really 'seen' or discovered the treasures guarded by the metropolis city which graces the top positions on the Asia list for many things.

Bangkok is known to many as this extremely busy and heavily populated city in the midst of rapid modernization, yet at the same time maintaining the bits and pieces of yesteryear with the sprawling streets of stalls lining the borders and within the city.
It is quite an interesting sight, really, to see the mix of aggressive development skirted by the memories of the humble lifestyle of the locals, creating a rather sharp contrast between the high rise skyscrapers versus the modest abodes of street traders painted on a large canvas for all to see and especially tourists who marvel at the alluring characteristics in this crowded city.

For one to truly appreciate a place, rather than just purely physical admiration, it is vital to take note of the history and background of the place to be able to understand the state in which it is today.

Starting from its early beginnings, Bangkok was made the capital, taking over from Thonburi and Rattanakosin which were the original capitals under the rule of the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the 15th century. Its strategic location which was right in the middle of the heart of Siam (then Thailand) made it the best location for development and modernization between the 1960s to the 1980s period where the economy boomed rapidly. What started as a small trading capital continued to grow in its area and today, it is one of the busiest cities in the world.

However, the rapid economy growth and modernization lacked synchronization with the urbanization which was neglected in the process and hence, the city became a picture of unkempt appearance with the haphazard-like landscape. The irregularity of the buildings and structures placed beside each other makes it seem like a disorganized puzzle, in need of proper planning and organization to put them back in the right places. It is not going to be an easy task, with the locals being used to the way it has been and also the political struggles are posing a huge problem to the country's government since the 20th century which is still ongoing until today.
It may sound like it is less attractive than what it was supposed to be, what with the disheveled style and the chaotic environment, but it is just a mere illusion for it really depends on how you look at it.
While Bangkok may seem disorderly, it actually holds within it that unique and rustic charm which defines her own identity among the other cities in the world, and is the main attractive factor which lures travelers from all over the world to fly in to personally see and experience for themselves what the city has to offer.

The fast-booming city has indeed grown in its population, making it one of the most populous cities in the country, with at least (or more than) 14 million people living within this metropolis city and at the same time, welcoming millions of visitors every year. It is no doubt, an extremely dense and crowded city, especially if you were to travel during the peak holiday seasons, as this is also one of the most popular tourist destinations where you will find yourself wrestling through the crowds at each of the tourist spot. Traffic condition can be bad on the road, as I have talked about it in my earlier post, and while the public transportation system (BTS) can be a convenient way to get around, there will also be crowds as we are talking about millions of people using the system.
These are reasons why Bangkok also tops the list of one of the cities with the worst traffic congestion in the world, alongside New York, India, Manila, and Jakarta.

Having said that, that does not deter the enthusiastic travelers from exploring the city and looking out for that warm touch of the local lifestyle which is like a magnetic force in pulling people towards them. The Thais are still very much continuing their trading lifestyle; oblivious to the many changes taking place in the city in times of the heavy development, evident in the many stalls set up along the streets and the locals themselves are still indulging in their own local industries.
It is not uncommon to stumble upon stalls or street vendors with rather modest looking owners sitting there on a stool, looking blankly until someone walks near their stall or looks at their items on sale.
It is then that they will start with a beam or a smile and a warm greeting with that eagerness to assist you. That is the trademark of Thailand; their hospitality.

Snapshots of the local scenes on the streets

Food stalls can be found by the streets too; as the Thais love their street food and it is not hard to spot the locals buying their food from the stalls themselves.

The Thai hospitality is one that is much talked about and ranks high on the list of the best hospitality in the world. It is no surprise at all, as the Thais are friendly people, not to mention courteous too. There are no shortage of smiles or greetings when in Thailand, as the Thais show you how they welcome you to their country. Generally, their customer service is notable too, as the Thais show you through their actions (and their beautiful smiles) how they prioritize their customers with utmost importance. Be it by the roadside stalls or even in the malls, the Thais are always ready to assist you.
(Of course, there are still very few exceptions, but just exercise caution and you will find that their service and hospitality is still good; satisfactory to the least).
It is this warm trait which upholds the dignified and much talked about status of the Thai society, and it is amazing, even respectful that such attributes are not lost in the fast-paced evolution today.

Coupled with the warm Thai hospitality, and with the trading business still running in parallel with the economic development, it is no wonder that Bangkok is also known as the shopping capital in Asia; and there are some who even termed it a Shopping paradise. From cheap fashion finds to high street brands and luxury designer labels, there is something to suit everyone and there is no end to the multi storey malls dotting the cityscape. People just love to shop in Bangkok, and there are many who would just be in Bangkok purely for shopping purposes. The fact that Bangkok does not rely on imported goods alone and has her own manufacturing producing the mass of fashion items, from clothes to bags and accessories, is enough to justify for the reasonably good prices and unique stuffs which can be found here. Furthermore, the fashion retail industry is booming to the extent that they are now one of the major exporters of their local fashion products to other countries; especially neighboring countries. There is no end to what you can find in Bangkok, as the number of shops and shopping malls within the city can keep you occupied throughout your trip, if you purely travel for the purpose of shopping. Even if you are not keen on hunting for clothing or fashion items, there are many souvenirs and even handicraft items which are worth your attention while traipsing the malls and streets, and you can usually walk away with a good bargain. Totally not into shopping? Then just scour these shopping places for a glimpse into the local culture; for this is where most of the locals hang around and you could experience the local lifestyle through observing the way they interact with each other and foreigners, and also the way they dress themselves. It is still a very interesting sightseeing journey, in all.

Major shopping malls are making their presence in the modern society; and air-conditioned corridors lined with spotless glass paneled windows belonging to contemporary designed shops are trending among the younger generation. It is the price of development, but it has not totally taken over the local culture of street shopping as it is obvious that the locals still enjoy their streets lined with cheap and affordable finds. The mixed economy in the midst of the growth of the country has also seen the division of the economic status in the society; thus creating the gap which is waiting to be filled.

Economy aside, I have also observed that the Thais are a religion-centric community; and I would say there is a huge population of devout Buddhists in this society. It is common to see small shrines along the road and the locals would be standing with full awe of the deities, silently and focused on their prayers, while being oblivious to the passersby. Bangkok is well known for the beautiful Buddhist temples which are so commonly found, especially in the capital, that the temples have become the eminent icons of the city.
It is indeed an impressive culture, to see that the concept of religion remains unshaken by the rapid paradigm shifts with the emergence of science and technology in today's modern world.

Besides religion, I am sure it is general knowledge that the Thais adore their King, and they regard their monarch with great importance. The abolition of the absolute monarchy definitely has seen its effects in the rising of political struggles throughout the 20th to 21st century, and recently, these have made their appearances to international news; portraying a picture of political instability in the country, or specifically in the capital city of Bangkok where protesters are seen to be protesting against the government. Rumors and reporting of such chaos will cause a slowdown in the country's economy; especially in the tourism sector, on which Thailand is heavily dependent on, as the tourists are turned away in anxiety over the risks while traveling to the country in such a doubtful period.

Despite the headlines and the anxiety over the tumultuous condition in the city, the beauty and the charms of Bangkok are still intact, quietly waiting for their admirers to soon make their moves towards the city and revel in the many exotic attractions the city has to offer.

Bangkok, in short is truly an exotic destination, and while there are many attractions to cover, do take your time and do not rush or you might miss the true inner beauty lying within waiting for you to discover. While the weather can be rather hot and humid, due to its geographical location near to the Equator, it can also be rather unpredictable at times with rainfalls making its way into the climate particularly towards the end of the year. It is common of a tropical weather, and should not be a deterring factor to truly enjoy the travel experience as all one would need is a hat, umbrella, and perhaps a rain poncho, to get you through the tropical weather. It is not all bad too(trust me, I grew up in this climate), as it is summer all year long, where you can leave your thick clothing at home and just put on lightweight cotton shirts and pants; even shorts and sandals which are typically what the locals would wear. (Though, do take note and be mindful of the religious places which would require you to cover up when entering). That would make it easy to pack, and leave ample space for souvenirs. As Bangkok is a developed city, there is no worry should you forget anything at home for you can always get anything anywhere. One just need to have enough spare cash and coins in case of need when traveling in Bangkok.
Like most cities in the world, there is no safe proof way to guard against crimes and caution is always to be exercised wherever it is. Follow the safety guidelines and always be alert wherever you are.

With all that in mind, all you need is a passport in hand, and you're ready to take that trip to enjoy Bangkok.

The picture of modernization coupled with the toss of the urbanization is indeed a unique combination and to me, it is an alluring factor which forms the identity of Bangkok.
The city is just like an exotic flower, with many petals to uncover and relish in its beauty, and is awaiting for her visitors to see and admire.

Bangkok awaits to welcome her visitors~

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bangkok Travelogue: Som Tam Nua

Who would have known that tucked behind an alley somewhere in Bangkok is a famous restaurant, known for their Som Tam (Papaya salad)?
Located on Soi 5 (soi is street or alley in Thai) in Siam Square, is this place called Som Tam Nua,  famed for their legendary papaya salad which have attracted many from the country and also tourists worldwide to make it a must to stop by this place when in Bangkok.

I was fortunate enough to be staying in Siam Square, and the restaurant was just right down my alley.

There was already a queue waiting outside the restaurant, and typically I don't like to queue for my food (yeah, I just don't), but as I have heard of the fame of this restaurant and also I was traveling with a group of friends, I just joined in the crowd.
At this time, I was really curious and excited to try for myself the credibility of this place as there must be something really good (or cheap!) when people are willing to wait for their food.
Sometimes, it could also be due to the commercialization and some places could be overrated, but either way, I am willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

I guessed we were really lucky again, as we only had to wait for about 30 minutes and with friends to chat with, the time passed by really quickly and soon we already found our place inside the restaurant.
(They had this really good service where you are presented with the menus to have a glance at what they have, and while waiting, customers are also served with a small glass of fruit punch).

Sweet chili sauce, and a super spicy sauce

 A closer shot of the super spicy chili sauce

Deep Fried Chicken

The famous Som Tam (papaya salad) which seems to be the signature dish in the restaurant.
Now, I am not a papaya fan and I don't really fancy the papaya salad, but I find this raw papaya slices with the slightly spicy sauce of a combination an extremely appetizing dish.
I can understand why they gain their reputation

It seemed that almost everyone had more than enough helpings, and there was just something irresistible about the dish.
I also liked that it was not overly sized to proportion, and how it suited the standard serving of a salad which makes it even more attractive as many get a few, but enough to taste the glory of the dish which made the restaurant famous, and the reason for the restaurant's name.

I am not sure what the following is called, but I know it was an extremely spicy pork soup.
(Yes, the restaurant is non-halal)

While the Som Tam was indeed the famed attraction of a dish here, I was delighted and surprised with this other enticing dish which tempted and lured at my taste buds, leaving that taste which still tickled my memory to this very day.

When we ordered a steamed fish, we expected to see a fish which came with the usual metal platter where a candle is lighted beneath the fish platter. I have never expected to see this....

These were awesome; and they used thread fin fillets which was lightly steamed to perfection and I just loved how it turned out in its taste.
I cannot remember the exact name of this dish, but I know I am ordering this again on my next visit!

I can see the reason behind the fame, reputation and the crowd at this restaurant, as I have tasted for myself and I am bookmarking the place for my next visit, which is coming very soon!~

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Travel Tips: Getting around Bangkok

Bangkok is hailed as one of the top cities in Asia for her traffic condition, and anyone who has been to Bangkok can definitely vouch for that. The city is known for the notorious traffic condition; particularly during the peak hours where one could be stuck in a bumper to bumper and even a standstill traffic for hours to get from one destination to another.

The traffic congestion can be a headache for most motorists, and sometimes taxi drivers are even known to refuse rides to potential customers during those peak hours.
If you are planning a trip to Bangkok, do make arrangements to avoid the traffic peak hours. While you may not be planning to take a taxi, the trains can be quite crowded during those hours and it may not be such a good idea to be lugging your luggage around to beat the crowd to squeeze yourself into the train, and your luggage(s).

Getting around Bangkok is not such a complicated thing, with the well-established public transportation system such as the BTS and the abundance of colorful taxis around.
Beware of the Tuk-tuks too; which are small three-wheeled type of trishaws with eager drivers who have no fear of approaching you directly to get you into their vehicle. Do bargain and make sure you have settled on a price before getting on.
However, I would still advise to either go for the licensed taxi or better still, the train.

The BTS is indeed a handy travel companion, but having traveled to many countries, the BTS can be a rather tricky thing especially if you are not a local, or do not know Thai.
If you have been to Bangkok, you would have noticed that most of the station names are in the local Thai language. Of course it makes sense that they are in the local language, but the thing is, it is not friendly to travelers who are foreign to the country, and the places within the city.
Also, I have noticed that the famous landmarks or tourist destinations are not included in the station names.
For instance, some of the names of the landmarks are mentioned beside the station names or the station was just built at the landmarks in cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taipei.

Therefore, if you are a first timer to Thailand and without a guide, please do your research on the places you want to visit and jot them down in your notepad.

1. Print out a copy of the BTS route map, and study the map.

2. Plan your trip according to No.1, and identify the stations linked to your destinations.
Take note that some of the locations could be reached by more than one stations; but do check out travel books/blogs/sites on the recommended stations to get off as the travelers have real-time experience on getting around the city.

3. Carry enough spare cash and coins with you, as you would need them to purchase your tickets at the stations.

I was fortunate enough to be on a trip with a friend who knows Bangkok city; or at least the few top attractions at the back of her hand and we had not much problem getting around the city with her guiding us around. With a guide, I did my own observations and made my mental notes for future references and the above were what I have noticed during my travel.

Don't worry too much though, as there is always the bright side to it.
For one, you never have to worry about starving if you have missed/skipped a meal, for there are always food joints available at the train station.


Scenes of Bangkok's road and traffic; and this is on a Saturday morning, though near Chatuchak market

Monday, February 24, 2014

Bangkok Travelogue: Things to eat at Chatuchak

(Continued from the previous post...)

With more than tens of thousands of stalls available in this market, food and drinks are definitely not excluded from the list of the stalls to seduce the roving eyes and rumbling tummies of the street hunters. It is not difficult to find a food or fruit, or drinks stall squeezed in between the stalls selling clothes or crafts, and I could safely say that there is at least one food stall within every few 100-200 meters of walking, perhaps in less than 5 minutes; yes, that was the trend in the market where it is not easy to starve or thirst to death, even under the extremely hot sun.

Normally I would not be doing food and drinks post here, but I will be making slight changes to my posting and will be lumping them under my travels.
Therefore you will be able to find the list of things to eat and to look out for at this largest market in Thailand.

Coconut juice is easily available at almost every corner in Bangkok, and at an extremely good price (between 20-30THB), you can get a whole coconut to yourself.
It is the best drink to quench thirst in the hot weather, and to cool down the heat.

Fruits, freshly cut fruits are also just the most common items ever here as you can find a stall selling it within a turn of your head (literally!)
I loved the colors from the different types of fruits on display at the stall; and how they brightly shine in the pictures!~

The common scenes of the street stalls selling noodles and rice.

Besides coconut, the other common fruit you can find around here is mango.
Oh yes, the Thais love their mangoes (or I would say Thais are just big fans of fruits, and it is such a good habit they have)

Things you should try at Chatuchak:

Coconut ice-cream

You would probably find many stalls selling this after walking for a while, but there is this particular stall located near to an exit which had many people queueing in front of the stall.
They sell coconut juice as well, and for those who just ordered the coconut ice-cream, you will be given a small cup of coconut juice on the house as well.

They are no Baskin Robbins or Haagen Daaz, nor any of those famous ice-cream chains but you are still free to choose the toppings to go with your ice-cream.
Freshly made from coconut flesh, the ice cream is a refreshing treat and the aromatic coconut flavor will keep you hooked after your first try.

Mango Sticky Rice
Many mango lovers will stick to this dessert as their favorite must-have when visiting Thailand, and there is no way this is not available at the world's largest weekend market.

Tab Thim Krob (Water chestnut/red rubies in coconut milk dessert)
This is Thai's most loved desserts and is a must have for those who have never tried it.
I did not see that many stalls selling this dessert, and I only spotted this stall.

Another that my friends stumbled upon was this Roast Pork on a skewer stall

Mango Salad
This was probably a version of the Malaysian rojak; only instead of the usual shrimp paste used in our country, the one used here is the tamarind paste which lent a sourish taste to the half-ripe mangoes.

There are also many other stalls nestled within a food court-like environment where the food stalls are grouped together; and the strong aroma of cooking, frying and clanking sounds of the woks and pans can be smelt and heard from the outside.

One will never be short of food and drinks supply when in Bangkok, and if you have ever been there, you will know what I mean.
Enjoy food scouting in Chatuchak!~

Getting to Chatuchak:
Take the BTS (sky train) and get off at Mochit station (that's where we got off) and take a 5-minute walk. There is a pedestrian bridge and go through a park, and you will spot the stalls!
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