In October 2016, a highly respected and, in a wonderful rarity, highly loved king passed away after more than 70 years on the throne. King Bhumibol Adulyadej was one of the longest reigning monarchs in history and brought a sense of security and connection to the people of Thailand. Although he was actually born in Massachusetts, King Bhumibol helped unify a highly polarized Thailand. He was handed the throne by default after his older brother passed away in 1946. He then began his reign as one of the few monarchs in the 20th century who cared deeply for the welfare of his people despite whatever political conflicts or military dictatorships would wash through Thailand over the coming decades. It is no wonder that his death brought such sadness and a sense of loss that spread across the country. The future of Thailand was anything but certain.
When I visited Thailand one week after the King’s passing, the somberness of Bangkok hit me in the face. Huge black and white billboards of the King’s portrait hung all over the city. The citizens, as they went about their lives, dressed in black, white or gray. Many of the gogo bars in “Soi Cowboy” were either closed or much quieter than usual. A few people, both young and old, fought to hold back tears when I asked about the king. The love that the people had for this man was very overt.
When my friend and I descended onto the city, we were aware of the King’s passing and the 30 day mourning period that the government put in place. Although tourists were not expected to do so, my friend and I wore black and gray clothes to pay our respects. Travel websites advised us that we may not get to see as much of the country because many of the tourist attractions were closed indefinitely. But for the sake of the kind people here, we accepted that, and decided to enjoy Thailand for what it had to offer.
Bangkok is known as the street food capital of the world. I have tried street food in several different countries, but I have to say the number of street food vendors all over this city meant we never had to look at Tripadvisor and spend precious time figuring out restaurants.
Food is so abundant in this city of 8 million people, that I usually did not have to walk more than a few hundred steps before I had some options.
The spicy shrimp soup, chicken coconut soup and lemongrass sausages were awesome. The Thai iced coffee was some of the best, and strongest, coffee I have ever had. Fresh mangos, watermelon and dragon fruit were everywhere. I even tried durian, the stinky, gooey fruit from SouthEast Asia, that looks like something out of the “Hunger Games”. Surprisingly, I actually liked it and will probably try it again next time I visit.
If you are looking to do a foodie tour in Thailand, Bangkok is definitely a place to add to your itinerary. Although we did not visit the city of Chiang Mai, this city is also known as a terrific stop on the tourist trail to try some excellent food from the Northern part of the country.
We stayed at an Airbnb right off Sukhumvit road in the heart of of Bangkok. Traffic on this road, as with the rest of the city, is horrendous. If you don’t mind walking, it might actually be more enjoyable than being stuck in a car. Bangkok streets are full of people, shops and restaurants open until the early morning hours. There is also a pretty decent elevated train system, and taxis are not expensive.
Branching off of Sukhumvit road is “Soi Cowboy”. This area is notorious for all of the gogo bars and clubs.
Around 10:30 or 11pm, maybe with the help of Sangsom, the local whiskey, people tend to take a break from the mourning and turn the partying up. I guess in this way, Bangkok really is becoming a Westernized city. Older people go home, younger people need some relief and the 30-day mourning period was semi-officially “on hold” for the night.
Many tourists flock to this area for less than wholesome reasons, but if you are kind of turned off by that debauchery it is actually still worth strolling through. If you enjoy people watching, you might even end up with a few memorable photos and definitely some good laughs.
From Bangkok you can take an hour and a half flight down to Phuket. Probably the most well-known part of Thailand for tourists, Phuket is a place where you can snorkel, enjoy great seafood at fancy restaurants, hangout at pop-up bars near the beach, and ride motor bikes on winding roads.
A boat trip to the stunning Phi Phi islands is a must, and while you are there, get to know some of the local guides. These guys can give you great advice for adventures in Phuket. While you are on the boat speeding through the Andaman Sea, you will be awestruck by the beautiful rock formations and crystal blue water. You won’t want to put your camera down.
Unfortunately, Phuket has the same reputation that plagues many tourist traps around the world. The food is not as great as in the rest of the country, and the accommodations and taxis are overpriced. It is possible to get great food, but you will need to go to the fancy restaurants meant for honeymooners. My travel buddy and I paid about $50 to $60 for dinner and a couple of drinks.
If you are thinking of a trip to Thailand, I would absolutely recommend spending some time in Bangkok and Northern Thailand for the terrific food. Don’t be afraid of the revelry either. For better or worse, this is part of Thai culture now and you will find plenty to do that is both enjoyable and entertaining.
One thing I will never forget about Thailand is the resiliency and friendliness of the Thai people. I have met people from around the world that I found to be friendly and accommodating, but Thai people seem to be very open to having conversations with you as though you are a friend or coworker they spend time with every day. This, more than anything else, made me feel welcome and at home.
Update: There are reports that street food vendors will no longer be allowed to operate in Bangkok starting in 2018. This is quite a development considering Bangkok was recently recognized as the best street food city by Time Magazine. It is difficult to know if these city ordinances will actually be enforced or, like many other laws in Thailand, conveniently worked around. If you are interested in the street food culture in Bangkok, however, I would recommend planning a trip sometime before 2018 just to be safe.