The DC Bucketlisters Take On Bangkok
The words of Andy Williams ring true for many people during this magical season, myself included. December is one of my favorite months of the year for a myriad of reasons. For one, my family celebrates a handful of birthdays this month. My mom, my oldest nephew, and most recently, my newborn baby nephew (welcome to the world Naaman Tyde!) all celebrate their birthdays in December. Secondly, much to my delight, December brings markedly cooler weather. I can’t think of anything cozier than cuddling up next to the fireplace with a good book and a mug of hot chocolate (or maybe a glass of red). Even here in Phu Sang the mornings can be quite chilly in December, providing a rare opportunity to wear one of two jackets I brought to Thailand and exponentially increasing the joy I find in sipping my hot coffee. And of course, by December the holiday season is in full swing. From festive holiday parties, to cookie decorating, to gift exchanges with family and friends - December is a time of year when everything (and everyone) seems a little more cheery and hopeful. This year was no exception. Even though it was both of our first times being away for the holidays, David and I found ourselves feeling like Christmas came early (and not just because of the 12 hour time difference) when two of our beloved friends, Jess and Nenner, came to Thailand.
To say we were over the moon excited to see our friends would be an understatement; we were positively elated. Nenner and Jess are two of the most wonderful people who could ever make your acquaintance and we are lucky to call them close friends. They are both extraordinarily easy going, uniquely hilarious, and with the recent launch of their mouth-watering @dcbucketlister foodstagram (foodie instagram...did I just invent a new word??), they were more than willing to go the extra mile with us in search of the best food in town. Basically, they are our ideal travel companions. Not to mention, they are in the beginning stages of a blossoming relationship and it is incredibly sweet to witness. We were marvelously happy to spend two and half days with them in our new home of Thailand.
The DC Bucketlisters arrived in Chiang Rai on Thursday morning and wasted no time getting to know this charming city. Per our recommendation, they visited the stunningly intricate White Temple, dabbled in some Northern Thailand khao soi, and acquainted themselves with Chiang Rai’s hipster coffee scene. On Thursday afternoon, Dave and I caught a van from the Phayao bus station to Chiang Rai. We arrived around 4:30 PM and headed to our favorite coffee shop for an afternoon pick me up. In the evening we met Jess and Nenner at the Ann Guest House, our crash pad for the night, and spent the next couple of hours in an excited frenzy (I believe the phrase “holy sh*t, we’re in Thailand!” was uttered no less than 5 times) whilst catching up on life. Thailand was the last stop on a whirlwind tour of Asia for Jess and Nenner. Their trip sounded like a dream. From Tokyo to Phuket, they left no stone or Michelin star restaurant unturned (for a more detailed account of their delicious journey through Asia, visit the @dcbucketlister instagram page, where they’ll be sharing an Asia takeover with their food highlights from the trip). David and I shared our stories about teaching in Phu Sang, our fortuitous introduction to the Piggy Gang, and settling into life in Northern Thailand. All the talk of our various travels and Asian food adventures worked up an appetite, so we headed to the night bazaar to show our pals the culinary wonders that awaited in Chiang Rai.
We began the tour of the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar with a lap around the food court to break down it’s main attractions: the hot pot baskets, assorted fried food, various versions of pad thai, and wide range of fresh fruit juices and smoothies. We ended up getting a little bit of everything which amounted to a pretty impressive feast including: fried pork, spicy pork with fried rice, white flaky fish, sweet and crispy boiled eggs (sounds weird but was insanely good), shrimp pad thai wrapped in an omelette, and a meat/seafood combo hot pot. We sipped on various Singha corporation beer, as is customary in Thailand. Pro tip - if you want to impress a local (or just not sound like an idiot farang) be sure to pronounce Singha like “sing”, without pronouncing the “ha” at the end. My go-to Singha beer is the U beer which comes in a trendy, yellow can and tastes a little like honey. After our feast of epic proportions we were feeling like we could use a walk, so we took our friends to the Chiang Rai Clock Tower for the nightly light show.
No matter how many times you see it, the Chiang Rai Clock Tower doesn’t get any less impressive. This golden, breathtakingly intricate structure stands tall in the center of a traffic roundabout on an ever busy street. The ancient aesthetic of the tower is made even more apparent by the stark juxtaposition of the bustling, modern city surrounding it. Passersby gather around the tower with cameras and phones in hand ready to snap a picture or a video, as the first flash of colorful light illuminates the tower for the nightly light show at 7, 8, and 9PM. For the next few minutes, visitors are entertained by a synchronous light and music show that culminates in the unfurling of a flower from deep within the tower’s structure (a slightly more poetic version of a cuckoo clock, if you will). I imagine the novelty of the Chiang Rai Clock Tower eventually wears off for locals, but if you are a first time visitor, I’d recommend stopping by.
After leaving the tower, we meandered our way back to the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar for some late night shopping (and further eating). Dave was on a quest to find a new belt, as he was finding his pants a bit too loose as of late (is it just me or does there seem to be some Universal law that allows men to exist on a diet of rice, noodles, and rolled ice cream and still manage to lose weight?). The rest of us were on a quest to find dessert. We strolled through the bazaar, stopping for the infamous rolled ice cream and some delicious mango and sticky rice. Dave and I had fun pointing out some of the quirks we’ve noticed at the bazaar over the past two months, like the Thai band who strictly sings Italian songs, the plethora of durian flavored treats (dried durian, durian paste, durian ice cream), and the seemingly unlimited inventory that all of the vendors seem to have (where do they get all of this stuff!?). We wandered for a while, eventually stopping in a store selling graphic tees for 100 baht a piece. Perhaps it was the beer or the absurd designs on many of the tshirts, but I swear we were having more fun in that store than some people have on their entire vacations. A half an hour later, having failed miserably at bartering, our pockets were 400 baht lighter but we left the shop with tomorrow’s uniform in tow.
Winding down from our shopping high, we headed to Jet Yod Road for a drink. We stuck to our tried and true establishments of Norn Nung Len, followed by Peace House. Dave and Nenner decided to be adventurous and ordered a terrible drink of rice whiskey and coke at the latter (do yourself a favor and never try this combo). After this interesting nightcap, we headed back to the Ann Guest House to get some sleep before an early wake up call the next morning to visit an elephant sanctuary!
At 8:00 AM on Friday morning, we were dressed to impress in our matching graphic tees with elephants on them (what can I say...we really committed). We stopped by a nearby cafe for some coffee and butter cake, then walked back to the Ann Guest House to meet the Elephant Valley tour group for a half day visit to their elephant sanctuary near Chiang Rai. We joined a lively tour group of five including a Colombian couple, a Canadian man, a Finnish woman, and a British man. The tour began with our guide, Kwang (surprisingly pronounced like “Gwang”), explaining the mission of the Elephant Valley Project. The Elephant Valley Project has a 400 acre farm near Chiang Rai and a 4,000 acre farm in Cambodia. Essentially, the organization rescues captive elephants and rehabilitates them to become “wild animals” again. When elephants are domesticated by people, they lose a lot of their natural instincts and abilities, like how to find their own food source. The sanctuary guides at Elephant Valley train the elephants to rebuild their natural instincts so they can survive on their own without depending on human interaction (which has unfortunately become their habit due to years of captivity, for the monetary gain and pleasure of humans). At this sanctuary, there is very limited touching (only during feeding) and no riding allowed, as one of the sanctuary’s goals is to teach the elephants personal space and boundaries. However, visitors are given the opportunity to feed the elephants and take as many pictures at they please.
We hung out at the sanctuary from 9AM - 1PM, during which we observed these magnificent creatures in the jungle and fed them bananas. After our visit with the elephants, we enjoyed a Northern Thai style lunch with our spirited tour group (this was a part of the half-day package at the sanctuary). We munched on sticky rice, chicken, and vegetables over light hearted conversation about traveling and what brought each of us to Thailand. It was pretty cool chatting with our new friends, all from totally different walks of life, if only for a few short hours. Depending on your priorities, a visit to the Elephant Valley sanctuary in Chiang Rai may or may not be worthwhile to you. As I mentioned above, this organization’s mission is to rehabilitate the elephants, therefore, there is minimal interaction (like the bathing or riding that is advertised at other elephant parks) allowed between tourists and the elephants. However, if you are interested in observing the elephants living freely, as nature intended them to, I think it is worth the trip. They are such intelligent creatures and have so much wisdom to share, it was a beautiful sight to watch them simply be. After lunch, we headed to the Chiang Rai International Airport to catch a one hour flight and begin the next leg of our journey in Bangkok!
Bangkok is a sprawling city full of energy, busy people, and never ending traffic. The city is so large in fact that it actually has TWO AIRPORTS. We arrived at BKK in the early evening and took the metro from the airport to the city’s center. We all had carry on sized luggage (Nenner and Jess, you da real MVPs for pulling that one off!), so we decided to walk the 20 minutes from the metro to our accommodations at the Prince Palace hotel. Dave and I LOVED this place. Something about being in a hotel around the holidays (and the huge Christmas tree in the lobby…) made us feel like we were a little closer to home, during a time we are usually surrounded by family. The Prince Palace hotel had spacious rooms equipped with American style bathrooms, a pool, a restaurant, extremely helpful concierge staff, and a free breakfast. Plus, the rooms were super reasonably priced, especially given that Bangkok is much more expensive than Northern Thailand. Upon check in, the hotel gave us two rooms down the hall from each other on the 22nd floor. We dropped off our bags, showered, and squeezed four wide in a tuk-tuk to one of the most fun, albeit touristy, places in Bangkok - Khao San Road.
Khao San Road is basically the Bourbon Street of Thailand. It’s a long street lined with food stalls, restaurants, and bars all playing hip hop and pop music at competing volumes. Eager street vendors approach you at every turn offering buckets of mixed drinks, balloons filled with laughing gas (nitrous oxide), and fried insects on sticks. There’s a whole lot of energy happening on Khao San Road which can either be invigorating or overwhelming depending on your expectations for the evening. We were looking forward to a night of drinks and dancing, so Khao San Road fit the bill. However, if you’re looking to experience a classy night out in Bangkok, such as grabbing a cocktail at one of the city’s infamous rooftop bars, I would not recommend Khao San Road.
We wandered down Khao San Road for a bit in search of our next meal (aren’t we always!?). The DC Bucketlisters were quite impressed with their first foray into Roti. They opted for a banana, nutella, peanut butter one and were generous enough to share it with us. Next up on our agenda was to try some of the mysterious durian fruit. When Dave and I first arrived to Thailand we saw loads of places advertising durian, a fruit that we had never encountered before. We saw signs in the airports and on buses prohibiting durian snacks. Our coworkers described the fruit in a wide array of terms: creamy, sweet, delicious, smelly, and disgusting; which only increased our intrigue. Jess and Nenner came across durian in their Asia travels as well and were equally curious to try it. So when the opportunity presented itself at one of the food stalls on Khao San Road, we went for it. The aftermath of which was a little bit...odd.
Post-durian adventure, we stopped for a bucket of Jack and Coke at one of the bars along the road. A few minutes later, a merchant approached us selling colorful bracelets with even more colorful phrases stitched on them. All I can say about the next five minutes is that a classic game of “odds” ensued, resulting in Jess losing the bet, and having to buy one of said colorful bracelets. While I cannot divulge what was inscribed on the bracelet, I will give kudos where kudos is due, and confirm that Jess held up her end of the bargain and proudly rocked her new jewelry the rest of the night.
With the new bracelet in tow, we continued our food crawl along Khao San Road, stopping for some pad thai and scorpion on a stick. We passed the scorpion around as if performing a rite of passage. Afterwards, we headed to yet another bar towards the end of the road, where things got...well, interesting. The bar was a lot bigger than it looked from the outside and even had a sand covered dance floor with a DJ spinning American pop music, like the Chainsmokers. A group of Japanese tourists were breaking it down in the middle of the dance floor. Another woman began epically breakdancing nearby. The vibe was high and after a few drinks, an Old Fashioned for me and a Singha beer tower for the rest of the crew, we decided to join in the dance floor mayhem. For the next hour we lived the phrase “dance like nobody’s watching” and jumped around like a couple of crazy kids at an EDM rave, laughing at our own ridiculousness.
After our epic dance episode, we departed Khao San Road and walked to a casual rooftop bar, called At-Mosphere Rooftop Cafe. This bar had a cool industrial vibe and seemed to be frequented by locals, as opposed to the swarms of tourists that visit the fancier rooftop bars in Bangkok. Honestly, it reminded me of the kind of rooftop bar you would find in Pittsburgh, understated and homey. Dave and Nenner ordered mojitos and marveled at their deliciousness. Jess and I opted for non-alcoholic drinks and enjoyed those too. When we left At-Mosphere, we hitched a tuk-tuk back to the Prince Palace hotel and crashed for the evening, making tentative plans for Saturday morning to check out one of the floating markets.
By 11AM on Saturday, we had finally pulled ourselves out of bed, grabbed coffee, and were en route to a local market, known as Taling Chan. Several tuk-tuk drivers tried to convince us to go to other larger, more well known markets, but we had our minds made up about this one in particular. Taling Chan is a small, “floating” market, frequented by locals and it was one of my favorites. Perhaps it was the time of day or the fact that it is probably one of at least fifty different markets in Bangkok, but it was far less crowded than the other markets we’ve been to. Taling Chan sold the standard market fare - food, jewelry, clothes, soap, and also had a nice selection of garden plants. If you are looking for more of a low key market experience in Bangkok, I’d highly recommend this one!
We were all pretty hungry after our previous night’s adventure, so we decided that we’d munch “family style”, meaning we’d each buy little snacks to share as we meandered our way through the market. The first snack we nibbled on was four slices of delectably grilled banana drizzled in honey, an utterly delicious 10 baht spent! Next, we split a small bowl of pork dumplings, a typical item at Thai markets and great comfort food! After that, we tried a flaky, coconut filled empanada that was the perfect combination of sweet and salty. Finally, we introduced Jess and Nenner to the tiny, perfectly fried eggs that seem to be a speciality in Thailand. We wandered our way through the market for a bit more until we stumbled upon the main event - a long, floating eatery where patrons are invited to take off their shoes and enjoy freshly cooked food by chefs, prepared in nearby boats and stalls. Despite having full stomachs, we did what all good vacationers do and geared up for our next meal. We slipped off our shoes, sat cross legged at a nearby table, and shared fried pork, tom yam, and spicy papaya salad. Afterwards, we walked around a bit more, Jess bought a scarf, and we called a Grab to shuttle us back to the Prince Palace hotel for some pool time.
For the next two hours we relaxed (and digested) at the Prince Palace pool, which had a great view of the city and a nicely stocked bar/restaurant. We sipped on fruity drinks and enjoyed the sport of people watching. Afterwards, we cleaned up and headed to the street to find a tuk-tuk. Dave had his heart set on introducing the DC Bucketlisters to Khao Gaeng Jake Puey. However, much to our dismay, when we arrived at the location where the food stall should have been, we learned that it was closed for the next two days. We were all a bit disappointed, but settled for exploring Chinatown instead. Chinatown is a neighborhood pulsing with energy (similar to NYC’s Times Square). It’s packed full of people, street vendors, and traffic. You’ll find a market selling Chinese inspired trinkets and exotic food around every street corner. One Chinese food trend that I can definitely get on board with is THE BUNS! In the words of the sage poet, Busta Rhymes, I don’t want none unless you got buns, hun. You can basically find anything your heart desires (from pork, to chicken, to sweet fillings) stuffed inside a warm, doughy bun. My personal go-to is a fluffy, white cream bun filled with a sweet, yellow custard. After treating ourselves to a variety of these beloved buns and checking out a few markets, we’d had our fair share of overwhelm in Chinatown, and decided to head back to home base.
We stopped at the nearby 7 (Thai slang for 7-11) to buy some beer and snacks (wow...we really do enjoy eating) and headed back to the hotel for some quality chill time. Sprawling out across the double beds (that we pushed together, forming a massive king sized one) we watched one too many episodes of the critically acclaimed YouTube series, Hot Ones (critically acclaimed if Nenner is the critic in question, that is). If you’ve never seen Hot Ones, do yourself a favor and watch the DJ Khaled episode. A few episodes later, we pivoted into a riveting discussion on why all fake banana flavored snacks taste the same... the answer to which remains unknown. When we grew tired of pondering such deep questions, we decided to get ready for the evening and head to Asiatique, a premier shopping center and eatery in Bangkok.
The best way I can describe Asiatique is that if Bangkok was Washington D.C, then Asiatique would be Georgetown. A huge outdoor shopping center divided into 6 warehouse districts, Asiatique houses upscale clothing stores, a variety of dining options, an impressive Chang ferris wheel, and a waterfront area with boats ferrying visitors across the city. While there is a definite “constructed” feel to Asiatique, as opposed to the authentic vibe felt at the local Thai markets, it was a nice change of pace for the evening. We didn’t do any shopping, but we did snag a pretty delicious dinner around 10PM at a busy Indian restaurant. Afterwards, Jess and Nenner had one final food fantasy of penang curry, which they hoped to turn into a reality before their early flight home the next morning. They wandered from stall to stall in search of the dish, until finally spotting it’s picture on one of the menus. Unfortunately, they didn’t love the food that was served. We left Asiatique feeling like it was worth a visit at least once, but probably not a must-see if you’re only in Bangkok for a short time.
The last stop of our evening was the incredibly chic Sky Bar at the Lebua Hotel in downtown Bangkok. Sky Bar is perhaps the most well known rooftop bar in all of Bangkok, offering panoramic views of the city and pricey craft cocktails. Many people may also recognize this bar from it’s cameo in The Hangover 2 movie. Having been there once before, Dave and I were eager for the DC Bucketlisters to experience this one of a kind atmosphere. From the minute you enter the he Lebua hotel you feel like an honored guest. Poshly dressed women in sleek Thai garb greet you at the elevators, usher you in, and send you to... the 52nd floor. The infamous Sky Bar is actually on the 64th floor! You might be wondering...what is on the 52nd floor then? Well actually, it’s another bar called Breeze. Quite a smooth move on Lebua’s part if you ask me. Unknowing guests will likely buy a drink at the first bar before realizing that Sky Bar is actually several levels above them. This ain’t our first rodeo though, so we quickly made our way to the top of Lebua. You can too, by following Dave’s handy tips below!
Dave’s Super Sweet Guide to Getting the Best Views at the Lebua Hotel:
This is what happens when you go: There are no less than 3 super nice and well dressed Thai ladies greeting you every step of the way and guiding you from the lobby to the elevator to the 57th floor. They bring you the menu, with 700 baht (minimum) drinks. If you are at Sky Bar (64th flloor), they’ll tell you that you have to buy a drink.
What you should do: When you get to the elevator, in the lobby of the Lebua Hotel, make it clear that you want to go to the Sirocco rooftop restaurant on the 63rd floor. The greeters will probably still usher you through the elevators to Breeze on the 52nd floor or to Sky Bar on the 64th floor (Sky Bar has awesome views!). When they hand you a menu and mention the drink minimum (1 drink per person), say that you’d like to go to the restaurant instead - which in my opinion, has the best view. In this area, you’ll have direct access to the jazz band and a full bar (a bigger one actually). Also, you can freely move around to see the views from different angles without being guided. You’ll recognize this area from The Hangover 2! Overall, there is more of a spread out, relaxed vibe, where you can just hang out and it feels less forced.
The two words to best describe Sky Bar might be stunning and grand (and if we threw in a third one it would probably be expensive, but hey who’s counting). The multi-level outside terrace provides spectacular views of Bangkok’s high rises and busy city life. There are several bars and many sharply dressed servers, who are more than happy to serve you a drink or take your photo (they even have little flashlights to create the perfect lighting). A live jazz band adds a soothing soundtrack to the scene before you. The cocktails are creative and delicious, albeit expensive even for American prices (700 baht or more). Patrons flock to Sky Bar to see and be seen. Many come wearing beautiful dresses and handsome suits, seeking the perfect photo opportunity. We were not those people. We came casually dressed and in the end, decided against ordering any drinks (David and I did get drinks our first time around and can confirm they were quite good!). Regardless, the views and the atmosphere justify a visit on their own merit.
Somewhere around midnight, Dave bartered our way to a 100 baht tuk-tuk ride back to the Prince Palace. As is custom in Bangkok, traffic was gridlocked even at this late hour. We decided to get out of the tuk-tuk part way through and walk the last 15 minutes back to the hotel, stopping by 7 for some water and coffee. Jess and Nenner were on a mission to stay awake until their early morning flight at 5AM to Beijing and then onward to America. Upon stepping into our room, we flopped onto the hotel beds and laughed about the weekend’s happenings (in between viewings of Hot Ones videos, obviously). Around 2AM, we said our goodbyes as our sweet friends rolled their carry on bags out the door and caught a taxi to the airport.
With two visits under our belt, Dave and I feel like we’ve gotten to know Bangkok enough to cross it off our Asia travel bucket list. While we see the appeal for travelers looking to experience a fast paced city with interesting culture, great food, and an exciting nightlife, we both feel a bit overwhelmed by such a massive, energetic place. Despite our lack of affinity for Bangkok, we had a fabulous time hanging with our pals and were so grateful they decided to conclude their Asian adventure in Thailand. Living abroad can be an incredible experience (and most days it is!), but as with many great opportunities in life, it comes with its own unique set of challenges. During a time when we were beginning to feel a bit homesick, as we enviously viewed our family’s epic holiday gatherings from afar, it was a blessing to be able to reconnect with two of our dear friends. We felt reinvigorated by their presence and left Bangkok on Sunday morning with high spirits, happy stomachs, and fantastic memories.