Asia

Bangkok Past & Present

I first came to Bangkok, Thailand in 1982, and I’m back here now in 2020. Although a lot has changed in my life over the intervening years my love for Thailand and its wonderful people has remained constant.

Writing this post has been a real “walk down memory lane” for me and I hope you enjoy reading it, as much as I did writing it. I also truly hope this post inspires you to visit Bangkok soon.

Bangkok the capital of Thailand (the ‘Land of Smiles) is known as the “City of Angels”.

As a city, Bangkok, which sits astride the Chaophrya River, is a town planners’ nightmare with privately constructed estates and development blocks springing up all over the place. Bangkok is therefore a cornucopia of surprises for any foreigner visitor, brave enough to venture out alone into its side streets, dead end cul de sacs and alleyways.

Bangkok Past

I first came to Bangkok, Thailand in 1982, having joined Voluntary Service Overseas. I flew into Bangkok with five other fellow volunteers. We were installed in the Star Hotel, where most volunteers stayed at the time for Bt 200 a night.

On our first evening, as travellers often tend to do, we ended up in a seedy after-hours bar near Patpong and ordered 3 beers without asking the price. When the bill arrived, the price was Bt. 300 per bottle, which for a volunteer was equivalent to more than 3 days wages.

We asked the establishment to call a policeman. As it turned out there was a policeman sitting in the bar drinking, who when consulted told us that if we did not confirm the price before ordering, then the price was Bt. 300.

It was a valuable lesson learned on day one, which saved me money thereafter. “Always confirm the price before ordering anything in Thailand.”

On day 2 the VSO group were sent off to Hua Hin about 3 hours south of Bangkok on the coast to begin 2 months Thailand basic language.

Hua Hin Beach Thailand
Hua Hin Beach, Thailand

Thereafter armed with rudimentary Thai language ability I was sent for two years to an agriculture college in the northeast of the country to promote fish culture and to support development in what was then a developing country.

In 1982 the tarmac road northwards from Bangkok ended at Khon Kaen, where a dusty red laterite road ran on all the way to the border with Laos PDR at Nong Khai.

Back then, only the most intrepid travellers would have ventured out into the conurbation of Bangkok armed only with a map for sight-seeing. There were stories in seedy back-packer hotels of people doing just that, who urban legend has it, were never seen again.

Bangkok Present

I recently returned to Bangkok, nearly 4 decades later, I won’t say wiser, but certainly more experienced, and older than when I was last in the City of Angels to check out how things had changed in the interim.

When the last national census was conducted in 2010, Bangkok had 8.3 million residents. However with multitudes of people from poorer areas of Thailand like the northeast, north and south of the country drawn to the city for work opportunities, the population of Bangkok and its 605 square mile city limit area is now estimated to be at least double at 16 million.

With the explosion of its population, rapid progression for a developing country to newly industrialized country and now developed nation status Thailand’s middle and upper class households have gained increasing affluence and purchasing power.

Where once the edge of Bangkok and rice fields could be reached within a comfortable 15 minute car drive today traffic jams abound and the same journey can take an hour or more depending on the time of day.

For my long awaited return visit to Bangkok I’d chosen to stay at the Chatrium Riverside Hotel on the Chao Phraya river on the recommendation of a friend who was a teacher at the adjacent Shrewsbury International School. I’d paid a bit extra and had a great room with a river view.

View from the Chatrium Riverside Hotel
View from the Chatrium Riverside Hotel

The Chatrium Riverside has its own ferry boat which takes guests free of charge up river to the Thaksin river ferry stop with a connection to the Bangkok Mass Transit System or BTS sky train as it is more commonly known.

Chatrium Riverside Hotel

I love to walk but it is undoubtedly one of the best ways to move around the city, when going longer distances.

Property prices and prices in bars and restaurants along the BTS route are reportedly 10% higher than anywhere else in Bangkok because of the convenience of BTS commuting.

Bangkok Lockdown

Little did I know that shortly after my return arrival in Bangkok and getting comfortably settled into my river side hotel location that the wheels were about to abruptly fall off my holiday wagon.

Perhaps I should have realised at the airport when I was given a free face mask to wear that things weren’t quite the same in Bangkok, as they were in Mandalay City, Myanmar that I’d flown in from 2 days before.

The hotel staff fortunately forewarned me that a nationwide COVID-19 lock down with a very strict curfew from 21.00 hours each evening until 05.00 hours each morning was going to come into effect in 48 hours’ time.

This was a life-saver because 200 m from the hotel was a 24 hour a day 7-11 shop that sold wine, spirits etc. so I was able to stock up for a siege and it was just as well I did.

Quicker than you can say, “Knife”, all places where people congregate like theatres, football stadia, swimming pools, shopping malls, etc. were all closed and a complete ban on alcohol sales came into effect until 31 May 2020.

The icing on the cake was when my airline company emailed me to inform me that all flights from Bangkok, Thailand were cancelled until further notice.  

I was basically trapped in the hotel, in Bangkok, with no way of escaping.

It was a very attractive prison though and I had a generous stock of wine, beer, some spirits, and mixers and 4 star dining available. I was able to negotiate a long-term discounted half board rate month by month until further notice. 

My grey cloud’s silver lining, was that people were allowed to go out to exercise in Bangkok wearing mandatory face masks and take away food could be purchased from restaurants.

I decided therefore to make the most of a bad situation by taking a regular discovery walk each day up to a maximum of 10 km from the Chatrium Riverside as my daily exercise.

My first Bangkok Walk

I dived into Google Maps and on the advice of Google downloaded MapMyWalk onto my mobile phone. Suitable masked and armed, with sun block, my mobile phone charged and to hand I was ready for a test run or should I say walk.

Suitable prepared a leisurely sight-seeing walk in Bangkok could not be easier.

However on reading up about Bangkok on Wikipedia, I realised the city has so much to offer that I’d have to be selective in what I wanted to see.

Bangkok is full of culture, temples, museums, restaurants, street foods, tailors and dress makers, florists, some of which, but not all were still open for people practicing social distancing and wearing face masks.

I’d learned from when I was a VSO volunteer between 1982-84 that the universal common denominator in Thailand was their love of food and social eating.

Thais when eating a meal frequently discuss meals past and future. Eating in Thailand takes on near religious proportions. It is also a very social activity with Thai people seldom eating alone.

Meals are usually shared main dishes in the centre of the table with the diners sit around and reaching into the middle to take small amounts from the main dishes using a central shared spoon for each dish, and putting the main dish item onto their individual plates of rice.

The most common thing said when Thais meet after, “Hello” or ‘sawat di’ is, “Have you eaten rice or not?” or ‘kin chao reu yang’?   

I suppose it is no wonder then that Bangkok has many eateries in the Michelin Street Food Guide and I found one such eatery called Mr Joe’s Crispy Pork, which was only 600 m from the Chatrium Riverside Hotel.

Mr Joe’s Crispy Pork: See Michelin Guide here

The Michel Street Food Guide review said, “There aren’t many places that do ‘Guay Jub’ as good as Mr. Joe does. Guay Jub is a popular type of spiral rice noodle soup in Thailand.

Tucked away in Jan Road, Mr. Joe is known for its rich broth with sprinkled pepper, with wide and thick rice noodles, and usually topped with an egg and slices of tender crispy pork.

Mr Joes Crispy Pork Restaurant Bangkok
Mr Joes, restaurant Bangkok

It’s crunchy, it’s filling and it really does hit all the right spots. The pork skin is crispy and surrounds rich layers of soft pork. Enjoy this dish as an entrée or mixed into a pepper broth and rice noodle soup known as Guay Jub.”

I pressed ‘start’ on my MapMyWork at the hotel lobby and I walked down toward the main road away from the Chaophrya River, passing the 7-11 (life-saver) on the way and paused at the traffic lights on Charoenkrung Road. The lights seemed to take forever to change, but it was only 90 seconds and then I continued down the Chan Road to Mr Joe’s. Between Soi 42 and Soi 44 (a soi is a side road) the sign in front of the restaurant said “Kuayjup MR. JO” with the phone number 02-213 3007.

I pressed “Pause” on MapMyWalk on arrival. There was an orderly queue of people along the pavement waiting to buy take away food, many of whom seemed to be Grab motorcycle food delivery boys/gents.

I handed my written order for Crispy Pork noodles on a piece of paper with my name on it and waited for my order to pass its way along a production line of people cutting up crispy pork, ladling soup stock and noodles into plastic takeaway bags and sealing the bags with elastic bands.

It probably took 10 minutes from placing the order to receiving it. So pressing “Resume” on MapMyWalk I returned back to my riverside hotel.

Unlike the UK the hotel staff only too happy for me to bring in food purchased from outside the hotel and provided me with a bowl, fork and spoon to eat my Mr Joe’s crispy pork noodles, sat looking across the Chaophrya River.

Crispy Pork Noodle bar Bangkok
‘Guay Jub’

Mr Joe’s crispy pork noodles were as the Michelin Street Food Guide predicted absolutely wonderful. The pork crackling was the best that I have ever had anywhere in the world.

The dish came with a packet of dried chilli pepper, that should have had a health warning and which westerners would probably best be advised to avoid, unless they are vindaloo veterans.

My husband always used to rank meals out on marks out of 10. Mr Joe’s crispy pork noodles would get 10 out of 10 from me. I will be sure to go back again before I escape COVID-19 and leave Bangkok for my onward journey.

On my next Bangkok discovery exercise walk I visited a specialist Durian shop and the river warehouses that have been converted from empty real estate into Asiatique. So more about that next time!

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