It began with the intention to do a one-night trip to catch the Thailand Eye exhibition at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre, but turned out to be full fledged four-day adventure in the Land of Smiles. I was initially worried that the solo trip would turn out boring and wondered if I had enough places to fill my days there. But by the end of the trip I wished that I had two more weeks. A lot of people associate Bangkok with shopping and food, sometimes with the more negative aspects like unbearable traffic jams. While Bangkok is a bit of all that, there is a lot of art in this slightly wacky (and amazingly fun) city if you took the time to explore the sois (small streets) and the thanons (main roads).
Here’s a Google Map for easy reference (art places in red, temples in yellow, shopping in green, hotels in blue, massage places in orange and airports in black)
Before your trip
If you are planning an art trip, it is best to be updated about what is happening when you are there. Thankfully research can be done easily online now. Some useful sites to visit include Bangkok Art Map and Rama IX Art Museum (check out their amazing update of information on 2016 exhibitions here). General sites such as Bangkok 101 and Bangkok.com also provide some coverage on art events in addition to useful travel information. You can also check the individual gallery websites for more information on their artists and exhibitions.
I hardly need to mention that there must be at least 15 daily flights from Singapore to Bangkok across the different airlines. Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Jetstar Asia, Air Asia, Tigerair and Scoot are the more commonly known ones. Take your pick among the flights – you can be there in the early morning or late at night. Do note where your flight lands at: either the older Don Mueang International Airport or the newer Suvarnabhumi International Airport. From the latter, it takes about an hour to get to the city by taxi (you need to pay for tolls along the way in addition to the metered fare). However, buffer more time for the way back to the airport at the end of your trip – I met with a traffic jam and took almost 2 hours to reach the airport. Alternatively, the Airport Rail Link also connects Suvarnabhumi Airport to the MRT system or BTS Skytrains. You can be in the city within 30 minutes.
Another note on planning your trip: try to avoid Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays if you can. Many galleries and museums are closed on one of these days. If possible, drop the galleries a note to let them know you’re heading their way, as it is a good way to check if they’re closed for installation works or other events (which may not necessarily be reflected in their webpages).
Main areas in Bangkok
An excellent resource to invest in is Nancy Chandler’s Bangkok Map. It is full of tips and recommendations that you will not find anywhere else. If you still need a physical map in the age of Google Map, this is one well worth the money. But to get us started, here are a few main areas in the city where you will likely spend most of your time:
Siam is a major shopping area with MBK Mall, Siam Paragon and Central World all within walking distance of each other. You can easily spend more than 3 days here if you just want to shop. Further down from Central World, a new sheltered bridge now links to Platinum Mall. Some art places in this area include: the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre (BACC) (when you are in BACC, remember to visit Sea Junction – this is a resource centre for all things Southeast Asia. They have events too, so check their website before you drop by), Chulalongkorn University Art Centre, Jim Thompson House and Art Centre and Wat Borommaniwat.
Further east from Siam, a long road with its adjoining sois make up the Sukhumvit area, alive with many restaurants, tailors, shopping malls and nightlife. Newer malls which have popped up here recently include Em Quartier and Central Embassy. While you are in this area, drop by the cosy Dasa Books. They have one of the best selections of English language second-hand books in Bangkok. Art places in this area include: 100 Tonson Gallery and RMA Institute. Venture further down and you can visit Toot Yung Art Centre and Bangkok University Gallery.
This is west of the Siam area and you probably have to hop onto a taxi or tuk tuk to get there. When you are in the area, you must visit the Grand Palace if you have never been there before. In the grounds of the palace, spend some time along the walls of the Wat Phra Kaew where you can admire the mural paintings of Ramakien, the Thai version of the Hindu epic poem Ramayana. After you leave the palace, you can visit Wat Pho, which houses a world-famous reclining Buddha. Other art places in this area include: National Museum, National Gallery, the Queen’s Gallery and Art Centre Silpakorn University.
Silom, south of Siam, is the financial centre and also home to the nightlife of Patpong. Here (and in adjacent Sathorn) you will also find smaller malls and hotels, as well as many galleries: H Art Gallery, Kathmandu Photo Gallery, Bangkok Art Galleria, Number 1 Gallery, Whitespace Gallery and Bangkok City City Gallery. Other places worth visiting include: Eat Me Restaurant, Neilson Hays Library and the Reading Room.
I must confess that I am not familiar with Ari and would not have ventured here if not for the visit to Numthong Gallery. But this is one place I would love to explore and write a review of. When Mr Numthong was very kindly driving me to the BTS station after the gallery visit, he pointed out all the places serving good food and drinks and I was determined then that I must go back one day and spend more time in the area.
Further up north from Ari, you will reach the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market. If you have time, remember to drop by Museum of Contemporary Art Bangkok which is even further up, and only accessible by taxi. Also worth checking out is Yenakart Villa, some distance from the Silom area – get there by taxi.
There’s no “getting around” it. Bangkok’s traffic jams are notorious. If you are meeting someone in the city area, remember to factor in lots of buffer time, for yourself and for the person you are meeting. Sometimes meetings get called off when both parties are still stuck in jams an hour past the appointment time.
The overhead BTS and the underground MRT, although sometimes crowded, are probably better bets if you are travelling within the inner city area. They offer comfortable, air-conditioned rides that are mostly without hitches. Unfortunately the coverage of these transport systems is not extensive and you may still need to be on the road for more inaccessible places.
If you do take the taxis, some drivers may quote you a price based on distance instead of using the meter. This can be many times more than the actual price you would pay by the meter, but it’s always negotiable (before you actually start the journey, after which it would be plain bad manners to haggle over prices).
You will do well with just English as it is widely understood, especially in touristy areas. Venture further out or head to a local joint and you might get puzzled looks. If all else fails, get the hotel concierge to write out the address or phrase for you in Thai or keep a book of useful Thai phrases with you.
Where to stay
It really depends on what your itinerary looks like. Hotels are sprinkled all over the city – pick any area and you can find a range of accommodation from hostels to luxury hotels. For this trip, I stayed at The Heritage Hotel just beside Chong Nonsi BTS Station (in the Silom/Sathorn area). It’s a no-frills hotel that I booked because it was at a discounted price and the hotel is just beside the station. If you are just starting to explore the Bangkok art scene, the Siam area might be good – BACC, the Jim Thompson House and major malls are all within walking distance. My top choice in this area is Novotel Siam Square as it is just beside the Siam BTS station, which is an interchange station. It is also opposite one of my favourite massage joints (more on that later). Another option is the Pathumwan Princess Hotel, just above the MBK mall. I have also heard good reviews of Mercure Bangkok Siam and Hansar, though I have not personally stayed there (another reason for me to go back).
(Just a side note: if backpacking sounds exciting to you, head to Khao San, made famous by the book The Beach. Plenty of guesthouses, budget hotels, bars and clubs line this road for the endless stream of backpackers who pass by.)
Cash or credit card?
Both are generally accepted in most places, although you definitely need cash for street food and taxis. Some loose change for BTS or foodcourt coupons would be handy too.
What to do in Bangkok?
Temples (wat in Thai)
Unfortunately I did not have time to visit wats this time, but there are many fascinating temples in Bangkok alone. For starters, you can visit Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew, both in the Rattanakosin area (see above). Nearer to Siam area, you can also visit Wat Borommaniwat (famous for its Western style murals). If you have time, do not miss the giant swing and awe-inspiring murals at Wat Suthat and head to the Chao Phraya river to catch a stunning view of Wat Arun at sunset.
Again, many options here depending on what you like. The Chatuchak Weekend Market is massive and sells every conceivable item, even animals. Be careful of your personal belongings here, as pickpocketing is common. For a more comfortable shopping experience, there are many big malls in the Siam and the Sukhumvit areas (links can be found above). For cheaper clothing items, check out Platinum Fashion Mall, a short distance from Central World. Many fashion blogshops stock up on their goods here before selling them online. Bargaining is possible in both Chatuchak and Platinum.
Let’s not deny it. Within this part of the world, Bangkok has one of the most vibrant, and perhaps the seediest, nightlife. But there are also many other places you can spend your time after dinner: go for a nice massage (see below), take a cruise along the Chao Phraya river, visit the night shopping area Asiatique, or support local designers at the pop-up Artbox Bangkok. If you can’t get enough of shopping, you can also continue at the night markets. Within the Siam Area, there are many fashion, food and souvenir stores along the streets on most nights (except Monday). Of course, you will also find many good bars all over Bangkok (we promise to bring you reviews when we visit them in future), so there is definitely no lack of activities to fill your night.
My Achilles Heel. I am doing an art trip this time, but I could just as easily do a massage trip and write a blog series on massage joints. Most massage places in Bangkok offer good massages but there are chains which add that extra touch of luxury at affordable prices (always appreciated after a long day of walking). Healthland is one of the most popular chains, even among locals. Their venues are huge and they offer many different packages depending on your preferences. For a more targetted massage, try their Therapeutic Massage, where the therapist would talk to you about which areas to focus on. This is an oil-free, fully clothed massage.
But having been to Healthland more times than I can remember, I made the painful decision to not visit Heathland this time and venture instead to other pastures. On my first day, I visited Asia Herb Association, which is very popular with the Japanese (their website comes with a Japanese version). Before you start the massage, you will be asked to fill in a form indicating your preferences (e.g. strength, places to focus on and even how many times you wish to take a shower) on an iPad. Although my massage room was clean, the massage bed did not come with a face hole (potential stiff neck after two hours). Nonetheless, the service was professional and good. Definitely worth a visit.
On the second day, I visited Let’s Relax Spa, another chain that is popular in Bangkok. Their MBK outlet, decorated in my favourite light wood colours, is conveniently located on the 5th floor of the mall, just across from BACC (if you need a massage after the exhibitions). The massage tends to be softer (which is the kind I prefer) and, true to its name, relaxing. I was expecting some kind of head and scalp massage (my favourite) while I was doing a body wrap, but my masseur left me alone in the room for what must have been at least 15 minutes. Still, it was an enjoyable experience, made perfect by two additional things: heated massage bed (it feels amazing lying on it getting an aromatherapy massage) and mango with sticky rice after your massage. Heavenly.
On my last night, I went back to my old haunt: Lek Massage opposite Novotel Siam Square. I must have been here at least ten times or more. Very good leg massages at affordable prices, by those middle aged motherly masseurs who definitely know what they are doing. Lots of people come here (both locals and tourists) at around 9 or 10pm, and as far as I can tell, there is no reservation system, so plan your visit wisely.
I would not be doing the city any justice if I conclude that that’s all there is to Bangkok, but this should be enough for an introductory art trip. We will (hopefully) bring you more detailed reviews of all the places above and explore new areas in future instalments of Bangkok Boogie.
But meanwhile, this Bangkok Boogie has just started as I bring you the actual artworks in the posts to follow. Stay tuned!
[Disclaimer: I am well aware that there is a conspicuous absence of food recommendations and reviews. Unfortunately, when I am on solo-travel, I tend not to eat much (too distracted by art and shopping). My advice on food in Bangkok: most food courts in shopping malls serve good food and you won’t go wrong. Chains like MK Restaurants and BBQ Plaza are nice places to eat at as well. Finally, I’ve recommended quite a few friends to Ban Khun Mae in Siam Square and they have enjoyed it. If you are adventurous and have a strong tummy, some street food can beat everything I have just mentioned in terms of price and taste.]