Alternate title: Baht out of Hell (*Baht is the currency in Thailand)
Backstory: We endured 15 fuzzy and bussy days (busy and too many buses) in China with just one shining light at the end of the bokchoy-filled and smog-choked tunnel. THAILAND! We watched the barometer scream skywards from a biting -10C to a molten 44C in Bangkok. Thailand was like a hot date. Immediately seductive with all the stuff and smells that turn us on.
I’m already censoring myself here. Even though my parents heard the full un-cut version of our Bangkokian experience, complete with the infamous (and mandatory) ping pong show. If you’re thinking of the rec room game in its traditional sense, god bless your innocence. We have been forever changed by Bangkok’s version of ping pong. Google it, this isn’t the time or place to share such things. But, I will say this: these women had ‘skill sets’ that included blowing out candles, blowing whistles, drawing with a crayon and even smoking two cigarettes at once. If you still haven’t googled ‘ping pong + Bangkok’ then you’ll be politely nodding along and that’s okay too.
We instantly filled our growling and empty gut on the cheap. After China, we felt like we’d been nutritionally punished, only finding solace in bathtub vodka and weird Lays potato chip flavours (garlic scallops with butter! Sweet basil! Finger lickin’ pork!). We felt bathed in a sense of calm—we could even buy wine at the local 7-eleven! (And, century old duck eggs. Or, bird’s nest drinks sweetened with bird saliva or ready-to-microwave hot dogs in a bun. How about a green tea-flavoured KitKat?
We took to the streets, Anthony Bourdain Style. Tuktuks ripped through the streets and vendors set up shop in any available square with grilled octopus skewers, neatly sliced and salted mango and charcoal ice cream spun into waffle cones).
Trivial Pursuit trivia: Thailand used to be Siam. It’s the only southeast Asian country not colonized by a western country. “Thai” means freedom…and, Thailand, freedom land.
Bangkok makes travel easy. It’s almost like cheating. You can exchange money everywhere—at the upholstery shop, a hotel or at the tiny corner shop that sells beer for 70 cents. You can barter and hop in a tuktuk for the price of two beers.
Quick fact: Thailand’s most popular beer is called ‘Chang’ which means elephant.
Our hotel in the Silom area of Bangkok was a quasi South Beach night club. Music pulsed deep and low, the elevators played a 24-hour video reel of skinny, sultry Swedes licking their lips and spinning cards in bicycle spokes. The Bangkok Pullman G was washed white with serious design wins. Hides, faux trophy animal heads, Edison bulbs, exposed brick, floating stairs, fooz ball and the best smell, throughout. Like still warm and just-stirred vanilla pudding.
Friends who had been to Thailand had already outlined an itinerary for us that included Thai whiskey, boxing, ping pong, a girly-boy show and the fish spa. (Thanks Sara and Neil!)
Here is your Bangkok shortlist, courtesy of them, and us.
First: *Google Bangkok + ping pong
Fish Spa: Because we like to fish for compliments
It can’t be compared to any other sensation, though Kim nailed it when she said it was like being electroshocked hundreds of times. This is what you do: roll up your capris and stick your unsuspecting bare legs and feet into a large aquarium. Seemingly thousands (though maybe just 100) of tiny fish (finger-length) pounce. They are the estheticians of the marine world, happily pecking and nibbling away at your dead skin cells. Really. As we sat facing each other, Kim and I composed a list of all our friends and family who would NEVER dare such a thing. I had to do a lot of self talk. It’s creepy, crawly and the most bizarre sensation you can buy for $10. While you can opt for a 30 minute nibble, rest assured, 15 minutes is just fine and many opt out well before that. After: it feels somehow, remarkably like a really close shave.
The Lady Boy Show
Kim and I were expecting a bit of a dive bar, ultraviolet lights and some dirty trash talk from the performers at Cabaret. The ticket price was $25US each and included a drink. We had seen an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s (yes, he is our handsome, sage travel bible) where he went to such a show and it was definitely not this one. We couldn’t believe the crowd—all ages, all walks. The theatre at Asiatique was fancy with little bistro tables between the seats. Set in a neon-lit retail wonderland for travellers wanting knock-off Rolexes and True Religion jeans, the Cabaret show is twice a day. We thought it would be like a drag show—the usual Beyonce, Cher, Tina, Lady Gaga routines. Well, there were a few of those, but, this Cabaret show is right out of Vegas with choreography, feathers, ball gowns and a cast of probably 80.
Behind the scenes: I could barely show my face after the standing ovation. Jet lag, sleep deprivation and some questionable Air China spaghetti Bolognese all caught up with me before the first number. The worst part? I couldn’t find my way out of that fancy theatre. I couldn’t find the part in the big velvet curtain. Then, when I did, the door to the theatre was locked. So, I barfed once in front of the curtain, again in front of the door, then on my favourite Converse high tops and one more time for good measure before I was able to get out of the theatre.
Insert: Scowl of theatre staff scrubbing on hands and knees when I re-entered to Lady Gaga belting out “The hills are alive…with the Sound of Music.” I returned just in time to see ‘Julie Andrews’ accept her award from ‘Lady Gaga.’
Infinity Pool—any will do, but, especially this one:
To infinity and beyond!!!! This was our own addition to the Bangkok must list. You have to at 44 degrees! The Novotel Platinum Pratunam Cloud 9 pool was just the balm we needed and their happy hour is actually happy HOURS. From 12-5 you can buy 2 for 1 beers (and get free snacks like puffy shrimp chips and skinned peanuts) float, nap and let Bangkok buzz and honk nine floors below. ($20USpp if you’re not an esteemed guest of the hotel)
After sampling red, green and yellow curry (the red was the equivalent of eating a bonfire), visiting a few Buddhas (it’s a rite of passage here), a good fill of pad Thai (pre-requisite), we packed up for Phuket (1.5 hour flight from Bangkok).
Ah, the metallic Andaman sea. This is what we’d fawned over so long. Our research had consisted of two very important sources: watching the Swede series 30 Degrees in February and Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach. Obviously we didn’t draw all our Thai conclusions on this, but, the footage of Patong and the Phi Phi Islands provided the vision board we needed prior to departure.
Quakes were quaking all around us. Japan. Indonesia. Myanmar. That Ewan MacGregor tsunami movie based on actual events of the 2004 Boxing Day horror was already stitched deeply into our minds.
Waves on the beach were coming in like angry linebackers but we still couldn’t imagine a wall of water with the power to kill over 8000, on this beach of smiles, Swedes and colourful beach blankets.
Observation: Phuket was once the desired hot spot for sun-starved Swedes. Now it is the new Russia with restaurants and bars offering menus in Thai, Russian and English. Here, beaches are full of children—I’ve never seen so many under the age of 5. And, they stay all day—in the full sun, maybe with a smear of sunscreen, and stay until the sun sets.
Our heels were soon well-polished on the 2km stretch of honey sanded Karon beach. The setting sun turned the sky cream soda and we decided to take part in the magic of lighting a lantern. At dusk, vendors walked the shore, carrying tissue paper lanterns to be lit and set high in the sky, to the seas. It’s the kind of stuff romance and wishes are made of. You must do this.
What you shouldn’t do: pay attention to the vendors toting a tiny loris about. The mini primates often have their teeth removed by handlers as they have a toxic bite that can cause anaphylactic shock and death. They are nocturnal and sloth-like—not intended for being paraded about on the beach for photo ops.
What you should do: Order Penang curry and a Chang at Red Chopsticks. Order an Aussie burger stacked with 200g of Aussie beef, pickled beets, bacon and a fried egg at Two Chefs.
Be prepared: We were late to the Phuket party. My sister went 15 years ago and talked about two dollar beach huts and banana pancakes for a song. Now? As one guide book suggested, “Phuket is being loved to death.” Every other business is a bar, restaurant, Jeep rental, cheap massages or a dive shop. It’s a surreal, fabricated sun destination where you basically see zero locals, save for the beach vendors and wait staff. But the banana smoothies are really something to postcard home about.
It’s inundated with tourists. It’s not backpackers. It’s the roller bag set. Cruise ships are parking here.
When we did the paradise math, it went something like this:
1.5 hours Toronto to Montreal
13 hours Montreal to Beijing
4.5 hours Beijing to Bangkok (*don’t eat the breakfast spag bol that they serve in-flight)
1.5 hours Bangkok to Phuket
It’s a lot for a place that is showing its wrinkles. It’s been found. It’s tired.
Disclosure: We didn’t bother with any excursions, opting to just flake out and take in the beachy vibe and eats because China’s itinerary whipped us. The 12 hour time change was like a swift and long-lasting sucker punch. We chatted with other who had signed up for “elephant experiences” and island trips that ended up being gong shows—mostly sitting in traffic and spending more hours going to and fro, instead of in the actual destination.
It’s cheap, but not cheap enough to justify the flight time or expense.
Here’s a suggestion: order some pad Thai, some crispy spring rolls and watch 30 Degrees in February instead.
Or, get out of Phuket. Go north. But be sure to fit in Bangkok and some ping pong.