A crash course in the underbelly of Bangkok01 August, 2013 by Chad
Last week, I took a short trip down to Bangkok for some business, my first time visiting Thailand. Despite lasting barely 2 days, it proved to be a frantic, eye-opening experience and a suitable crash course in the workings of the underside of the country. While the sensitive nature of the trip means that a lot of details will have to be passed over, here’s a short summary of some of the happenings.
Visiting Thailand was something I wasn’t particularly looking forward to. Guessing having experienced poverty first hand and worked my way out of it, the same fascination in visiting lesser developed countries to shop and the “illusion” of feeling richer is something alien to me. The parallels to Indonesia that others had drawn for me did not help, after the previous year’s trip there. At the risk of sounding self-righteous, would say I hate seeing people living in poverty in other countries, especially when you know the minimal cost of living there.
Given the rushed nature of the trip, there wasn’t much time to pack at all, or the need to anyway. At the last minute, decided to ditch the usual camera and settle for just my phone’s in-built lens. A decision that turned out to be wise, since there were hardly any chances to take any pictures. Please bear with poor pictures this time.
I’d be taking this trip together with my Managing Director and we’d be meeting up with a client over at Suvarnabhumi Airport. We headed there via an afternoon flight on Tiger Airways. The seats turned out to be a little more spacious than expected of a budget airline (they was more leg room than on a Jetstar flight) and it certainly helped that there was a spare seat beside me.
Apart from the boss, myself and another young upwardly mobile looking Japanese man, the rest of the flight was filled with Chinese tourists. With the exception of a couple of elderly Chinese men who felt the need to shout loudly at each other for the entire flight, it was an otherwise uneventful journey. One thing about budget airlines though is that their pilots tend to be a lot better at take-offs and landings, so despite the fact that many of the tourists only boarded the plane at the take-off timing, we arrived at Bangkok on time.
There was a long queue at customs. It seems Thailand is especially popular with the Chinese tourists, with the other half of the queue being made up of holidaying Japanese who arrived on an ANA flight soon after. The customs officers were really efficient though so the queue moved quickly.
After clearing customs, we met up with our Japanese client and took a train over to our hotel. The train connecting the airport to the city was nearly identical to Singapore’s MRT system, except newer. It took 45 baht and about half an hour to get to the city center. Along the way, we passed by lots of open land and low rise buildings, not unlike those you’d see on your way from Narita to Tokyo.
We’d be staying at the Berkeley Hotel Pratunam, which was evidently a 5 star hotel. It was built only recently so was still pretty spanking new. It took us a long time to get to our rooms after a Chinese family squeezed in front of us at the last moment when it was our turn in line. The boss messed up a little with the bookings so one of the three rooms we reserved was in a separate tower building. Any changes to the bookings would incur a large charge so we stuck with the booking.
Rooms at Berkeley were pretty affordable at just $70 a night through Agoda. The amenities were kind of lacking though, and we pretty much on par with that of your typical business hotel in Japan. The rooms were a lot more spacious though. It was a pity that the rooms had two smaller beds instead of one large one though and even for rooms with only one bed, they were apparently the same size too. The space might prove useful for those travelling in large groups or families, which I suspect make up their usual customers.
The location of the hotel was pretty good. It shared a building with Palladium World Shopping Mall and was just a couple of streets away from the shopping streets of Bangkok. We’d have trouble directing any drivers to the hotel though, since nobody seemed to know about the hotel yet. After a brief break, we headed out to the shopping streets in search of dinner.
Must say that I was rather impressed by the assortment of malls here. If one were to stick to just this long shopping stretch, Thailand would look like one of the most metropolitan cities ever. The shops here seemingly took a cue from Singapore’s Orchard Road, a straight stretch of illumination and towering malls on either side. What is not portrayed in the picture below is the sheer scale of this streets. The sheer amount of space and the size of the malls easily put those in Singapore to shame. It was a pity that I didn’t get any time to look through them. Something have to look to in subsequent trips.
We found dinner at a touristy Thai restaurant in the basement of one building. As with most of the restaurants around the area, it would be packed with tourists. The food wasn’t too bad. Not a fan of Thai food since I’m neither good with spicy nor sour food, but it turned out to be better than expected. It didn’t come cheap though. Didn’t pay attention to the final price but did remember seeing the cost of individual dishes go for between 200-400 baht.
After dinner we hopped on board a cab down a couple of streets to what I would learn later was Soi Thaniya. Owing to the popularity with Japanese tourists the small street at Thaniya had been converted into a sort of mini-Kabukicho, filled to the brim with hostess clubs and karaoke parlours. Wasn’t quite sure what to expect but after turning a corner, we entered a dilapidated looking building and upon exiting the elevator there, we came face to face with dozens of hostesses in one of the invite-only karaoke clubs.
To keep things short, it was indeed an enjoyable experience. Felt a little out of place, since I don’t drink, but the hostess here turned out to be really sweet and nice. It was a pity that didn’t get her contact though. Would be great to have some company for subsequent trips. My awareness and anxiety tend to go into overdrive when travelling alone, and it can get especially stressful in a country as stimulating as Thailand.
The club closed at 12 but the night didn’t end there. While the clubs at Thaniya had closed by now, the seedier Go Go bars at Nana Plaza continued on well past midnight. Unlike their Japanese counterparts, the night time entertainment here are quite devoid of any premise or fantasy.
The following morning we head over to a massage parlour back at Thaniya. As luck would have had it, I was assigned to a young masseuse. But while she was cute, she lacked any real strength to give a good massage. A 2 hour massage cost only 380 baht, or approximately SGD$15. As it was apparently customary, I tipped the young girl another 100 baht. It was somewhat sad though to see someone get so delighted over $4.
We headed to an adjacent ramen shop after for lunch which seemed to be really popular with Japanese salarymen working in Thailand. The owner of the shop was a Japanese guy who looked exactly like Yamada Takayuki. Each bowl here cost about 200 something baht, or about SGD$10, making it far too pricey for the locals. I could see the ramen being really popular since it was really rich and was filled with some of the fattiest and most savoury slices of pork ever. Sadly, ramen is probably the food I’m worst at, but the rest seemed to really enjoy it.
After lunch, we returned to our hotel to freshen up before making the trip over to the local office. The main reason I was here this time, other than to get familiarized with the country and to entertain our client was of course to hold a meeting here this afternoon. The office was located in a remote part of the city which required a drive across the highway about half an hour south of the city center.
The meeting went buy quickly and smoothly. We had intended to have dinner after with the staffs there but they were busy so that would had to wait. Heading back in the direction of the city took far longer this time since people had started to knock off work. We arrived back at the hotel just in time for dinner, so after dropping off our stuff, we returned to the shopping streets in search of something to eat.
We found a promising yakiniku restaurant at the top floor of the Isetan building and decided to have our dinner there. It turned out to be a great decision, since they served some of the best yakiniku I’ve had in years. The cuts here were fantastic, matching expensive restaurants you could find in Japan for about the same cost. Had lots of karubi (beef ribs) and salted tongue (a personal fave). Individual plates went at about 200 baht with the entire meal working out to be about 3500 baht, or about SGD$140 for three, including plenty of drinks.
By the time dinner ended, many of the malls had already closed or were starting to. The rest headed for more night time activities, while I opted to return to the hotel to catch up on the sleep missed yesterday. We’d wake up really early the following morning to meet our check-in timing at 6.50 am at the airport, catch some breakfast and then make our way back to our respective countries. The flight back wasn’t too bad. The plane was pretty empty so we each got 3 seats to ourselves, allowing for further shut-eye. The plane was kind of filthy though, as my area was littered with leftover crumbs from a previous flight.
It turned out to be quite an eventful trip, surreal in many aspects. Thailand didn’t turn out to be as bad as expected. From my brief experience there, I might concur that the best parts of Thailand might even outshine their Singaporean equivalents and the people there are quite accommodating especially toward the Japanese, who are known to have deep pockets. Yet I still can’t see myself quite being comfortable in a country filled with such polarities. But at least business-wise, I managed to make some significant progress. I’ll be expected to make more trips to Bangkok in the near future, so maybe we’ll get to look at it from a more typical tourist perspective then.Planning your holiday? We recommend visiting Agoda for a full list of hotels with early bird specials.