Bangkok for Beginners
As fate (in the form of an invitation from the Tourism Authority of Thailand) would have it, this June I got the chance to see Bangkok for myself. Brought in to participate in Thailand’s first-ever LGBT Travel Symposium followed by a FAM trip—an itinerary designed for writers to familiarize them with a destination—for Canadians, I was excited for the opportunity to explore. What I discovered was a place full of revelations. I enjoyed appetizers served in delicate lotus petals, marvelled at the intricate mosaics and metalwork on temple walls, and fed hunks of bread to catfish from the side of a canal boat. Wonders were everywhere in Bangkok, in the art and the architecture, on my plate and on my palate.
A capital city
Built in 1782 in the Old City District, the Grand Palace is like a sampler platter of Thai architecture, history, religion, and government. Composed of numerous ornate temples (wats) and pagodas watched over by guardian statues, the grounds are simply dazzling. If you can, go with a guide. There is a story in every element, and the Grand Palace is nothing but details.
Any guide will tell you to get there early to avoid the crowds and to wear clothes that cover your legs and shoulders, but here’s a pro tip: Stop at a flower market on the way to buy fresh lotus flowers for a shrine. With a little practice, you can leave an exquisitely folded offering.
Because of its numerous khlongs (canals), Bangkok has been labelled the “Venice of the East”. However you might feel about that comparison, there’s no doubt that some of the best views of the city are from the water. In addition to the larger charters (I can recommend a sunset sail!), consider hiring a brightly coloured teak boat to ferry you through some of the smaller canals.
Everywhere you look, from the streetside spirit houses to the prows of canal boats, there are intricate garlands of flowers. Everything from the style to the colour to the type of flower used bears significance. Some are offerings, others gifts. Some garlands are mean to provide good luck or protection, and some lend their perfume to the air. All are utterly gorgeous, and I recommend learning as much as you can about this practice.
Even looking beyond pad thai, most travellers will have some familiarity with regional dishes. Emphasizing fish and seafood prepared with rice or noodles in a coconut or curry base, and punched up with lemongrass, ginger, or mango, there’s not much to object to in Thai cooking. Though some dishes trend spicy, especially in the capital city, restaurants are happy to prepare milder versions of their plates. For simple dishes with basic ingredients, open air markets or street stalls are a great bet.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are countless high-end restaurants in Bangkok and beyond—many of them located inside the city’s fancy hotels. These destinations, like the Michelin-starred Nahm, are on the forefront of inspired and experimental eats.
By the time you visit the rooftop swimming pool and golf putting green, you might overlook the exquisite restaurant at 137 Pillars —this would be a mistake. Using deceptively simple ingredients prepared in surprising ways, the kitchen staff at Nimitr put on a lively, joyous meal.
The host facility for the LGBT+ Travel Symposium, the SO Sofitel is a hip, upbeat, and explicitly LGBT+-friendly design hotel. Even if you room elsewhere, set aside a Saturday afternoon to visit their outstanding buffet in the Red Oven, and then pop up to The Water Club on the 10th floor for their rooftop pool party.
I know that my first-time experience of Bangkok wasn’t typical — I met people and visited places I never would have known to seek out — but the experience showed me something radically different from the city I expected. Huge, colourful, and alive, Bangkok feels both ancient and modern at once. It may be a stop on the tourist trail, but long after the backpackers have caught their outbound flights, the city still entices you to explore.