From Budget Traveler to Luxury Travel in Bangkok – I’ve been ruined forever…
For the purposes of disclosure I will state now that I have always been somewhat of a budget traveler. That term may immediately conjure images of an overweight, middle aged man in high-vis swimming shorts and the unforgivable notion that wearing socks and sandals together is acceptable. Well, that’s not me, I just like no frills, sort of a backpacker-with-a-mortgage type holidays.
I’ve always been a bit proud of my backpacking adventures and independent holidays, almost shunning the entire concept of being cocooned in a luxurious resort believing it will sanitize my experience of the country I am visiting.
After performing my two-week celebrity chef tour of Thailand – turns out that is a load of bollocks.
Luxury if you can afford it is a wonderful thing and something I want a lot more of – that sentence will probably make my wife happier to hear than any other words I have ever spoken to her.
My guest chef the tour was simple enough; host and cook a two night event at the Sheraton Grande in Bangkok, then fly to Phuket and do a one-night only exclusive event at Paresa a boutique resort in the Kamala hills.
Check out my Thai street food recipes with videos from Bangkok.
I arrive at Heathrow and in total hypocrite fashion try to get upgraded, yes, yes, budget traveler but in 40 years I’ve never turned left. I usually go with the standard repertoire of just married, honeymoon, just proposed, having a baby, etc. Travelling solo eliminated much of my usual blagging tactics so I took a much more honest approach (I am a secret agent touring Thailand, shh…). Once again I was politely informed it is fully booked.
So I was very surprised when I boarded the pane to see a very grand sweep arms gesturing left. I really tried hard to keep cool, but I’ve got a rubbish poker face and just grinned like a slightly simple eeed-jit. I loved it. I’m converted. Fuck budget, I want luxury.
And so my transformation from budget traveler to luxury five star began and off I went to travel Bangkok.
For the rest of the trip I am officially a VIP; Thai airways business class was a pleasure to spend 12 hours in. Great food, very comfy bed, too many G&T’s, I love it, I love it, I love it.
The cliché to any travel article is the descriptive prose of the plane doors opening and being hit by a wave of heat and humidity. Which is true.
However, after travelling to many countries and revisiting quite a few of them I’ve come to realise that each country has it’s own unique smell and heat; an atmospheric fingerprint if you will.
As soon as the plane doors opened and I tasted the hot, humid, air that entered the cabin my smell receptors sent a shockwave of memories from a Thailand I visited 12 years ago straight back to me. I breathed deep, enjoying the nostalgic smell and humidity unique to Bangkok. I grabbed my bags and disembarked the plane.
Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit
First stop – the Sheraton Grande in Sukhumvit Bangkok.
The Sheraton Grande stands as a beacon of classic opulence amongst a skyline of new, shiny hotels. There is a feeling of established luxury with the Sheraton that I really like and to be fair can’t fault. The room was very nice, the lobby is grand, the three, no four, different restaurants are very good but their real secret weapon is the staff who were always impeccably polite and genuine.
The entire reason of my stay was for a two-night guest chef event (read more about that here) starting with a casual five course set meze in their chilled, live music venue ‘Barsu’. This was cooked on an open kitchen to order and was a brilliant, lively evening we had a lot of fun.
The next night was the big event, held in their award winning restaurant Rossinis which is looked after by Executive Chef Gaetano. Besides being a thoroughly decent chap, Gaetano’s experience and talent was an honour to witness (plus there is always something special about the flamboyancy of an Italian chef). We had around 52 guests and created a fabulous 8 course wine and food tasting menu.
What to do in Bangkok
Bangkok is electric with people from every walk of life imaginable but I like that it maintains a mix of holiday makers, locals, business travellers, a wonderful mix, which gives a different vibe opposed to Phuket which is an outright holiday destination.
Travelling around Bangkok is a mixed bag; the metro system is brilliant, modern, cool, efficient, highly recommended. Taxi’s and tuk tuks have the usual connotations of negotiating and actually taking you to your destination without detouring at a ‘shop’ you are obliged to spend some money in. To be fair, I’ve never had that problem but I find it’s all about confidence. I never shy from grabbing a tuk tuk (it’s actually my preferred method of travel) but before I jump in I give my destination sternly, agree the price and don’t leave room for any ambiguiety of what I want. Equally with the taxi’s if they don’t turn the meter on I’ll get out before we start the journey.
If you are feeling brave the motorbike taxi’s are great and I have to confess I quite enjoy them. They weave through the traffic defying death at regular interviews and is the perfect hangover cure. But take them at your own risk (I always ask to wear a helmet which they carry).
A couple of nights I wander up and down Sukhumvit Road, stopping at the odd bar to watch the world go by and swing past some of the infamous go-go bar streets to see what all the noise is about.
But a city is a city and can be exhausting. The equation for most large cities is the same; city equals tourists, tourists equal money, money equal hustlers, hookers and hawkers. And Bangkok is no exception, but the magic happens away from the front line of local sales people and that’s where losing yourself during the day in such a vibrant city gives you the chance to see another side.
Thai Street food
Street food around the world is great. Full stop.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel to South America, India, South East Asia, China, etc. and I can safely say some of the best food I’ve had has been for less than a £1 and eaten by the side of a street.
Lassi Royale in India, dumplings in China, empanadas in Argentina, Sheeps head soup in Bolivia, and even a little roasted guinea pig in Peru.
Thailand is blessed with amazing produce, a cuisine that is respected by locals and foreigners alike and eating cheap streetfood isn’t a tourist gimmick.
The key is if other people are eating from it that usually means it’s all being cooked fresh; especially is other locals are eating it – which is their daily regular trade you know it will be good.
I avoid buffet’s like the plague but if it’s being cooked to order go for it. Outdoor food courts are just starting to appear in London but in Asia they have been the standard for decades and are great place for foodies to sample a banquet of dishes in one go.
We ended up at a little food market in Bangkok called Bangrak Bazaar.
This was a great spot (there are many all over Thailand), we had another extremely hot papaya salad, sticky rice, cold rice noodles with lots of herbs and a dressing, a large salt crusted barbecued fish, a couple of bottles of Chang beer and good conversation with the Chinese couple next to us for less than £10.
Here’s my video recipe for an easy and delicious (and authentic) wok fried rice noodles that I learnt from a streetfood vendor.
Travel Bangkok on a bike – the only way to see a city…
I’ve never been one for organised tours; they always feel a little voyeuristic and I always feel a little uncomfortable; I much prefer to explore on my own and be accessible to the city.
This is where hiring a couple of pushbikes is a great idea. I’ve done this in countless cities and villages around the round and can safely say it has always been an unexpected highlight of any trip – and Bangkok was no exception. It also gives you the chance to get away from the front line of local sales people whose job it is to make you part with your cash (by your own will of course).
So an old friend and I hired a couple of push bikes, grabbed a map and decided to head ‘with the sun on our backs in ‘that’ direction’.
During our bike ride we got lost (the majority of time we spent lost) and spent most of it riding around little backstreets and stumbling into local markets and generally immersed ourselves in the local area away from the obvious tourist spots.
We got hungry and stopped at one of the ubiquitous street food stalls, pointed at a dish then pointed at ourselves (as if to say – ‘that for me please’) held out a hand of money and they picked the right amount and then dived into a bowl of what I think was a papaya salad. I stuck a gob full of food in my mouth to discover it was hot.
Not spicy, but hot, lava hot.
A hotness I would liken to being given a glowing red poker as a lollipop. My mouth instinctively dropped open, tears immediately filled my eyes, my nose started running and I jumped around a little miming the notion of breathing fire and waving my hands in front of my open mouth.
The locals stared, deadpan, then started laughing. We started laughing.
And for a few moments we were just a bunch of people having a laugh at each other (well, at me). They mimed a recommendation, I agreed with a little ‘you sure?’ trepidation and we tucked in to the second course which was delicious. And this is something that I have come to realise; no matter where you are in the world, a smile breaks a million barriers and everyone has a sense of humour. What you may lack in spoken communication can be compensated with slapstick comedy – not for everyone but works for me.
Equally during our bike ride we stumbled down a few alleys that lead straight into the heart of a small cluster of family homes with kids playing and people going about their daily lives. We quickly received a stern and immediate protest that this area is off limits to tourists. But this is the key, there was no suspicion or paranoia. We respectfully put our hands up to say ‘I’m sorry’ in the universal dance of shrugging your shoulders, bowing your head and gently waving your hands and turned around.
No offence made and none taken.
We eventually made it back to our destination, dropped off the bikes which came to no more than £10 for a whole day and relaxed with a much needed cold beer and a table full of street food. Success.
Travel around Bangkok and eventually you’ll stumble into Chatuchak weekend market, open on Saturdays and Sundays.
A sprawling market broken down into shopping zones that will satisfy even the most hardiest of shoppers. Bargains galore, a few rip offs, plenty of food stalls and literally something for everyone. If like me you have an appalling sense of direction I recommend you getting a map. Seriously, this isn’t North Wield car boot sale, this is the mother of all markets.
It’s massive, it has everything, go enjoy. But a couple of points; pretty much every market in Thailand sells the same stuff; the only difference is the price. The equation is quite simple; the more tourists, the higher the price. It was during our bike ride that we got lost and found ourselves riding through a crammed local market where everything I had seen at Chatuchak market was about half the price.
Talking of price; I know there is this thing of ‘barter, must barter’ and this comes from a guy who has been known to stalk the ‘reduced’ people in Tescos to try getting a better deal so I’m no slouch in the bartering department. But.
There is a danger of bartering too much for bartering sake. I’ve seen hipster backpackers bartering hard with local street vendors over what works out to be 25p difference. I find the best strategy is when you spot an item you want, invariably it will be on a lot of stalls. Just ask around how much they cost and eventually you’ll get an idea of who is selling it cheaper then have a bit of friendly bartering. But don’t get serious; it’s meant to be fun. By shopping around you avoid being totally fleeced by paying triple the going rate but equally remember where you come from, your wealth compared to others. Barter, have fun, but don’t get caught up over 20p.
Oh, and if you do make it to Chatuchak weekend market check out the Paella man – he’s an institution. He was there twelves years ago when I went and still there now!
Travel Bangkok Final Thoughts
Bangkok is a hub of industry and trade; with five star hotels springing up on every street corner whilst contradictory to all that wealth the streets are paved with the rich and poor alike, the local and farang. It is a buzzing city and one that I always miss. I think a 3-4 days to Travel Bangkok is enough unless you really love cities; there are a ton of other outings to do from floating markets, flower markets, temples, foot massage (oh my God get a foot massage). But you’re in Thailand and the north which takes you into the countryside has many a beautiful spot and things to do whilst the south will let you find yourself on paradise beach laced with palm trees hugging soft white sand that melts into warm crystal clear water before deepening into the turquoise deep blue