A journal dedicated to different encounters in Bangkok.
by SeenThat on February 26, 2009
Few cities seem to be better positioned for earning the title of capital of the Multipolar Global Village than Bangkok. The cosmopolitan population, the myriad of visitors and the lack of imperial connotations, make it an ideal candidate. Beyond that, it's a shopping paradise which will keep troublemakers busy for eons. Under the circumstances, knowing your way among the city coffee shops is imperative. Here are the nine best coffees I found in Bangkok.#9: 7-Eleven Branches"What! What’s wrong with SeenThat!" are many readers thinking while reading the unlikely winner of the ninth place. However, I can defend my choice. It is a fact that 7-Eleven’s offer of coffee includes unthinkable things like "3-in-1" and flavored soluble coffee. Yet, they are everywhere and open at all times. When arriving at Bangkok well after midnight my choice becomes obvious.#8: McDonald’s at Buddy Boutique Hotel"What! What’s doubly wrong with SeenThat!" By now I am quickly losing readers.Yet, the coffee served here is better than the one served at 7-Eleven, the place is open at all times, it occupies a central location on Khaosan Road and more important of all it is within Buddy Boutique Hotel, next to a gorgeous tiny lake featuring fish and an exquisite setup and styled after a classical Chinese garden. Few things compare to sitting there at the early hours, sipping a coffee and contemplating the unexpected beauty. #7: The Lottery Esplanade Coffee Stall"That’s it! I’ll never read again anything written by SeenThat!" the few readers that made it up to here are probably abandoning me by now. Loitering in the Lottery Esplanade at the small hours may seem an unsophisticated way of wasting time; doubly so if spending it sipping a traditional Thai coffee. However, I must admit that a coffee mixed with ground tamarind and condensed milk diluted with palm oil – all of them sharing the limited space of a tiny glass – is an intriguing experience and a must for every aspiring Marco Polo. And it tastes not bad at all.#6: 3'OrIf some readers made it here, probably this is the moment when they begin breathing again.The 3'Or coffee shop of the Thammasat University symbolizes the probable future of coffee in Thailand. A Thai coffee shop with Thai attendants and catering for a mainly Thai population, but serving Western style coffee is a good sign that the elixir is becoming popular in the kingdom. No less important, their cappuccinos are good, despite the garlic bread offered with it.#5: McCafe at Amarin Plaza"Stop that! This is disgusting!" they say again.Yet, located at the Amarin Plaza, McCafe occupies a premium location in Bangkok, most of the city’s shopping centers are at walking distance and the place offers good views of Sukhumvit Road and the Skytrain above it. The coffee served by McCafe is no less good – though it is less expensive – than the one served in the adjacent branch of Starbucks. Did I mention they draw "M"’s on the froth?#4: Starbucks Khaosan RoadStarbucks Khaosan Road is actually located at the end of Sunset Road, an alley opened amidst the buildings on Khaosan Road for the benefit of the travelers crowding the area. It occupies three rooms at the entrance level of a beautiful two-storey Victorian house; the location more than justifies the visit. The first room accessed from the entrance is where the counter is located; it is named Starbucks's: The Grand Bar. Behind it is the Victorian: The Seating Room, which is the largest. At its left is the very small Memphis: The Living Room. The Victorian environment has an obvious Egyptian touch; while there, I could easily imagine myself being at some gathering of an outdated British geographical society during the late nineteenth century.As always, Starbucks provides a good coffee; here it is combined with an awesome setup and comfortable couches. What else can the eternal traveler ask for?#3: Segafredo Zanetti Espresso CaféSegafredo’s entry to Thailand was relatively recent, their main shop in Bangkok is located on Sukhumvit Road and thus is very accessible. I have met them in my hometown, their home country, a few European cities, the US and finally in Thailand; actually I have visited them in many of the cities printed on their smart outer glass-wall of their branch in Bangkok. By far, Segafredo is my favorite Italian coffee. Besides the superb coffee served there and their adherance to traditional Italian methods and products, their branches are always super-stylish and a real treat for the visitor.#2: The Queen's Gallery CafeI find it difficult to find surprises in Bangkok; the place feels like home. Yet, in my last visit, I noticed the Queen's Gallery Cafe.The building occupies a corner in front of the Mahakan Fort and near the Golden Mount, Wat Ratchanatdaram, the Democracy Monument and is on the way from the Grand Palace to the Throne Hall. The neat, simple and functional setup is rather alien to the Thai culture; especially since the coffee options are almost purely Western and prepared with an excellent coffee machine. The coffees offered include espresso, Americano and cappuccino; all of them are served with care, and a glass of water with ice. The last is a nice touch I have not seen in other coffee shops in Bangkok. An excellent coffee at a classy spot: right next to the top of the list without any doubts.#1: The Authors' LoungeConsistently considered among the world's best hotels, the Oriental includes a not less famous spot: the Author's Lounge. Its name honors the large list of authors who visited it: Joseph Conrad, Noel Coward, Graham Greene, Frederick Forsythe, V. S. Naipul, John le Carré, Barbara Cartland, Pico Iyer, Mario Vargas Llosa and James A. Michener among others. Somerset Maugham, wrote there "The Gentleman in the Parlor."The oldest part of The Oriental was opened in 1887, on the Chao Phraya riverside, as the first luxury hotel in Siam. Known as the Authors' Wing, on its ground floor is the lounge of the same name. The lounge features white-washed rattan furniture with hand-painted upholstery and Siamese umbrellas, as well as bamboo and palm trees within a typical colonial structure. It is divided into three parts: a covered patio, an inner sitting room and an office styled room attached to the last.I arrived there for their famous Afternoon Tea and combined it with an Einspaenner coffee. The last is a type of Austrian coffee and awarded the establishment the first place in this list. Not only for the awesome location and the first-class quality, but mainly for their showing true leadership by departing from the almost unavoidable Italian coffee menu and offering coffees from the not less good, though less famous, Austrian type.
by SeenThat on February 25, 2009
Despite the heavy competition from Singapore, Bangkok is the main entry gate to Southeast Asia; as such is the most natural place for arranging visas to the neighbor countries. Over time, I learned the best ways of getting those. Here are a few tips.CambodiaThere is little doubt Cambodia offers the most comfortable visa issuing process in the area (except – of course – for those countries like Thailand that offer visa on arrival). A one month visa costs a flat twenty dollars fee; despite the visa being issued also at the entry points, I strongly recommend doing it directly at the embassy in Bangkok. On the border, the immigration office play games with the exchange system (they would accept the twenty dollars fee only in Thai baht and use an outrageous exchange rate). If searching for more justifications, then I’ll mention the fact that the embassy is on 185 Ratchadamri Road, midway between two major shopping areas of Bangkok and that if applying in the morning it returns the passport in the afternoon. This is the fastest way of getting such a visa. That means the time in between can be spent in some of the best shopping malls in the world.Hence, the best approach is to reach directly the Cambodian Embassy. Getting there from the lottery building on Ratchadamnoen Road - the wide avenue south of Khaosan Road - is easy, take bus 511 (air conditioned) or bus 2. Leave the bus as soon as the boxy World Plaza complex appears at the right side, where the two Skytrain lines meet.There, one of the train lines turns south to Ratchadamri Road; follow it southwards on the left side of the road for some five to ten minutes and the low building of the Cambodian Embassy will appear at the left. Another option is turning left from the junction into Ploen Chit Road, climbing into the Skytrain's Ploen Chit Station and travelling with it southwards one station.VietnamVietnam offers rather expensive visas, which discriminate between country of origin (of the traveler) and also by country of issue (of the visa). The best strategy to get the Vietnamese visa is to start early and get it while in Bangkok. Due to the magic powers of the traveling agents in Khaosan Road, this visa is one of those which is less expensive to arrange through them than in the relevant embassy (at 83/1 Wireless Road); thus, leave them the passport and go for a couple of days to the beaches in Pattaya while it gets ready.Other option is to issue the visa in Phnom Penh. There the situation is different: getting it through the travel agencies is more expensive than directly at the embassy; both are more expensive than the Khaosan Road agents.LaosLaos visa policies are unpredictable. As of the last couple of years, the visas issues by this country have risen dramatically in price, which depend on the traveler’s country of origin. Some travel agencies operating on Khaosan Road offer better prices than the embassy, because they make mass-issuing (they collect a lot of passports and go to the embassy with all of them at once).However, I performed once the procedure through the embassy (at 502/1-3, Soi Sahakampramoon Pracha Uthit Road, Wangthonglang) and found it simple and straightforward. The only difficult was the awkward location, which is very far away from Bangkok’s center.ChinaChina adopted a differential set of prices for its visas, discriminating between country of origin (of the traveler) and also by the country of issue (of the visa). This results in a very complex reality. My experience is that in Thailand, their Chiang Mai consulate is slightly cheaper than the embassy in Bangkok (at 57, Rachadapisake Road, Huay Kwang). However, both are more expensive than the visas issued in Laos; there, the consulate in Luang Prabang is less expensive than the embassy in Vientiane. Thus, if planning to travel overland from Thailand to China through Laos while entering China by its backdoor in Xishuangbanna, then delaying the visa until reaching Laos is recommended. Otherwise the differences in prices are too small to demand action; buy it from wherever to take the flight into the Middle Kingdom.The following comment usefulness depends on the way the reader plans his trips. If much serendipity is kept there, and the path of the trip is almost random, then I do recommend issuing a short thirty or sixty day’s visa. Simply, China for first timers is unpredictable. You may be swept away by Xian or willing to get away from the awful food as fast as possible. Hence, enter, take a few looks and then decide. If you want to stay more, then a wonderful option for extending the visa exists. I do not mean entering the nearest PSB police station and applying for the extension, but exiting the country to Hong Kong or Macau. Those being special zones, work under a separate system of visas. Thus, whenever crossing from mainland China to one of them an exit stamp is applied to the passport; once on the other side there are plenty of travel agencies specializing in the issue of new visas to China – cheaper and faster than everywhere else.MyanmarMyanmar is a complicated country for visas, since there exist two completely different types. The embassy (at 132, Sathorn Nua Road) should be reached only for getting visas allowing the visiting of the interior parts of the country (Yangoon and Mandalay for example).If wishing to visit one of the border towns along the Thai border while renewing the Thai visa in the process, then the process is simple: reach the border pass with your passport and crispy notes of five and ten dollars (fees change unexpectedly there). These visas are good only for the town next to the border cross and usually are good only for the same day, though sometimes they are offered for longer (up to two weeks, though the idea of staying in such villages for a whole fortnight is scary).Singapore and MalaysiaThese two countries offer visa on arrival to most travelers that have enjoyed that in Thailand. Thus bothering with the embassies is not necessary. With the clear exception of somebody like me that cannot enter Malaysia. If some Malaysian immigrations officer reads this entry and is ready to make an exception for me, I invite him to contact me. I’ll be thrilled to visit Malaysia.Crispy, CrispyAn annoying characteristic of some immigration authorities (Cambodian and Burmese are notorious for that) is their exclusive acceptance of brand new (or nearly so) dollar notes. Folded, marked or otherwise slightly damaged notes would not be accepted. It is recommended also to pay with the exact amount; big denomination notes are not easily accepted. Paying with Thai baht is not a good alternative since the exchange rate applied by the immigration authorities are simply outrageous.
A Little House of HorrorsStatistically it was almost unavoidable. Following a few years without dental problems, an accident forced me to visit a foreign dentist in a foreign land.The accident was related to a journal I wrote for IgoUgo, namely the Dining on Wheels one. That journal was in the category of the fast ones: I conceived the idea and a couple of hours later most of the journal was done. It was an easy one. To celebrate the successful event, I bought a guava at a street stall. In Thailand those are served unripe, cut in chunks and with a little bag of sugar and chili to dip the greenish chunks.As always while in Khaosan Road, my eyes darted from one attraction to another; I wasn’t really paying attention to my healthy snack until a seed hit a filled tooth and the filling decided to search for a better future in the company of the seed.The filling was small but strategically located on the corner of the tooth. I could feel the sharp edge; leaving it unattended was unthinkable.Knowing well the area, I approached a dental clinic on the western end of Rambuttri Road. Since it there for a few years while catering for tourists, I assumed it would be safe. Once there, I learned I would need to wait until the next morning. Disappointed (I have learned to enjoy the round-the-clock nature of Bangkok), I left.Next day, at the hour stated by the sign, I opened the glass door and greeted in Thai the only person inside. Later she was to help the doctor."Come back in an hour," she told me.I left only after making sure she wrote me down at the top of the list for the day.An hour later, a respectable Thai lady received me. The diploma behind her stated she had studied in the US."What happened?" she asked.After hearing the story, she repeated the under the circumstances unavoidable Thai joke:"Farang eat farang!" she happily said in mixed up Thai and English. "Guava" in Thai is "farang," which is also the word used as a nickname for Western tourists.Then she quoted a price close to fifty dollars. Knowing the market, I knew it was roughly five times the regular price for a Thai."OK, just do a good job please," I said smiling.Following the usual preparations, she picked up the drill and said "Open your mouth!""You forgot the anesthetic injection," I said still unworried."We don’t use it here for such little jobs," she said and brought the drill closer to my now tightly closed mouth.Images of Steve Martin as a sadist dentist in "A Little House of Horrors" filled my mind. "The horror! The horror!" said Mr Kurtz."Don’t panic!" I thought and pushed away the worrying images. "Think Thai!" was the next thought. She was overcharging me, but was unaware I knew that. I had a suitable leverage for the negotiation."I’ll pay extra for the injection," I said and closed my mouth quickly.My tone told her I knew she had asked for too much. If she would ask for more she would lose face and look greedy instead of genuinely interested on the well-being of a foreign visitor."No problem, I give you an injection," she surrendered with a sigh.In the next few minutes she performed a very professional job. "Is it too high?" she finally asked. Minutes later I was out and an hour after that forgot about the whole incident.A Month LaterOne month later – still in Bangkok – the new filling abandoned me for no good reason."No problem, the place is clean. It was too high," she quickly summarized upon my return to the dental clinic."I won’t charge you, it was my fault," she said."Thank you," I answered, knowing her statement was not true."I won’t charge for the job, but you’ll pay for the injection," she added narrowing her eyes.Without knowing how much would she asked for, I had the feeling I could quote the exact amount. "OK," I answered.This time she worked on that single tooth for over ninety minutes. After placing the new filling, she began shaping it while taking the parallel one as a model. It seemed to me that she was working on a microscopic scale, shaping every thousandth of a millimeter of the new filling. It was obvious she was attempting godly perfection."Wash your mouth," she finally said and walked out the room."How much is it?" I said once at the reception room."Three-hundred baht." That was about ten dollars and very probably the real price for such a job in Thailand. In a kind of awkward way she was silently accepting me as part of the Thai universe. No more overcharge for me. I paid gladly.And the tooth? A few months later, I am convinced this is the finest dental work I ever had.
Occupying a large chunk of the Chao Phraya riverfront, Thammasat University has the best promenade along the Chao Phraya River. Beyond being tastefully designed and providing an awesome place for enjoying a coffee, it offers an almost unparalleled view of the river. Passenger and freight boats, Thonburi and bridges, all them compete for the traveler’s attention. As expected, small groups of students chat while ignoring the beauty surrounding them.The buildings adjoining the small yard next to the promenade are worth a look as well, since they feature an eclectic mix untypical of Bangkok. A beautiful white arch frames the river. A spiky brown dome seems to have been imported from somewhere in Medieval Europe. A humble but worthy place to look for is the partial reconstruction of Bangkok’s original wall; the very low structure is next to the cafeterias and the promenade.Where is Thammasat University?Thammasat University is along the Chao Phraya riverside, and between Khaosan Road and the Grand Palace. The best way of reaching it is by foot from Khaosan, simply walking westwards toward the bridge, and then turning to the left. The university blocks the road after a minute or so. Suddenly, Khaosan Road international features seem far away; the place is very Thai in its look and ambience.Where is my coffee?The university features two students’ cafeterias just next to the promenade. Those aren’t right on the waterfront, but taking the coffee and snacks – or meal – to there and enjoying the sight of the passing boats is no problem. A wide arrange of stalls serves everything from Thai meals to imitations of western fast food; however the only coffee available is of the soluble type, or the Thai coffee if arriving early in the morning. As often happens in Thailand, Western-style coffee gets tricky once the traveler gets away from the main commercial centers. Sometimes the problem in off-side locations is the shortcuts in the preparation, others an awkward serving. However, in Thammasat University I found a different problem: the good coffee was exiled out of the cafeterias and was placed on a small structure right at the northern entrance (the one nearest to Khaosan Road).3’OrThe 3’Or coffee shop is tiny and divided equally between the preparation area and the serving one; the last features only one table. However, just outside – and away from the university gate – are a few stone tables and benches serving the few clients. Despite the river not being visible from this angle, the passing clientele of hurried students provides the perfect place for enjoying the coffee.A decent cappuccino matches in quality those in Khaosan Road shiny coffee shops and is sold at about half price, 25 baht.Unavoidable SnacksBasic pastries, cookies and sweets are sold within the coffee shop; all of them are within small commercial packages.The only item which was clearly prepared on the spot was garlic bread. Unlikely, these are a very popular Thai snack during the early morning. It is sold by street stalls placed all over the city. Probably its exotic shape and taste – both ingredients are foreign to Thai cuisine, as well as the hot toasts texture – are the main cause for its popularity. However, what may cause me extreme delight in an Italian restaurant seemed a bit out of place in a coffee shop and I skipped it.I visited the place several times. In one of those I sat on one of the benches while looking into the shop. Avoiding the main entrance, two students entered the yard; one of them sat on the bench next to mine – putting a heavy stack of notebooks on the table – while the other entered to order their coffee. A few years ago I would have been surprised by the event, but by now a significant number of locals favor Western style coffee.Shortly after, she left the shop with a small tray; two cups of steaming coffee and two garlic bread slices were on it. She gave one pair to her friend, sat among us, and turned towards me smiling."Want to try?" She said handing me half a slice.
by SeenThat on February 19, 2009
Don’t SpeakDuring my last visit to Bangkok, I saw a stupa-like building under construction next to the Grand Palace."They are expanding the Grand Palace beyond its walls," was my first and foolish thought. Luckily, I kept it for myself, and checked out the facts. Certain events seldom occur and may thus caught travelers unprepared.But I am jumping ahead.UnderstatementTo say that Sanam Luang is unprepossessing would be the understatement of the new and young millennium. Few would realize that the almost empty park next to the Grand Palace is one of the most important sites in Royal Bangkok.No less surprising is the fact that in 1977 the Thai Fine Arts Department has listed Sanam Luang as a historical site.Where Was I?It is impossible to imagine a visit to Bangkok without passing through Ratchadamnoen Avenue or one of the many attractions along it, which are the true heart and soul of the city. The street name means "Royal Passage," hinting thus that the avenue links between the Grand and Dusit palaces. Nowadays, the avenue is the centre of government administration in Bangkok, and hosts even the United Nations office in Thailand, on Ratchadamnoen Nok. Since its construction, many defining events in the Thai society took part along it.Despite the Western style of parts of it, Ratchadamnoen is intrinsically Thai; few Westerners would recognize it as a single conceptual unit since it is technically divided into three parts, namely Ratchadamnoen Nok (outer), Ratchadamnoen Klang (middle), and Ratchadamnoen Nai (inner).Ratchadamnoen Nok Avenue was constructed first from August 1899 onwards. In 1901, King Rama V proclaimed the construction of Ratchadamnoen Klang Avenue and Ratchadamnoen Nai Avenue; the three segments were named "Thanon Ratchadamnoen."Ratchadamnoen Nai starts from the Grand Palace and lies along Sanam Luang. Few places manage to transfer its visitors to another, magical world as the Rattanakosin Grand Palace does. While crossing the park leading there, spires and stupas densely rising above the wall surrounding the complex in an impossible kaleidoscope of colors and shapes act as an irresistible magnet for visitors. A view from another world, where spirits are believed to live within talismans, statues and little, colored houses. Ratchadamnoen Klang starts from Sanam Luang and reaches the Golden Mount. Ratchadamnoen Nok connects the Golden Mount with the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall and the Dusit area. Consequently, Ratchadamnoen Avenue is a symbol of the transition from the old Siamese absolute monarchy area of the Royal Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha to the new Thai area of the Dusit Palace and the constitutional monarchy. The symbol has also architectural representation; the Grand Palace is traditional Thai in style, while the parts near the Dusit Palace were built in European style. But, why would such a big park – void of significant structures and with very few trees – occupy such an important location? Sanam LuangThe original name of the site was Thung Phra Mane, meaning Royal Cremation Ground; it has been used as such since the reign of King Rama I. In 1855, King Rama IV changed the name to Thong Sanam Luang, which is shortened to Sanam Luang.The first cremation in the site was of the Prince of the Palace to the Front, King Rama I's brother; King Rama II followed this with the parallel prince of his period. Later, during the reign of King Rama III, while Thailand was in war with Vietnam over Cambodia, the King decided to show the world that Thailand was so fertile that even the area in front of the Grand Palace was cultivated; despite that, the area continued to serve as the grounds of royal funerals.King Rama IV performed the Royal Ploughing Ceremony and the Ceremony of Calling the Rain in Sanam Luang and his successor enlarged it pulling down all the buildings which were used for the ceremonies of former kings, he also stopped the cultivation of the area. During his reign and somewhat afterwards, the area was used for kite flying, as a race-track, and a golf-course. Bangkok’s Centennial Celebration and the king’s fiftieth birthday were celebrated there.His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the present king, uses Sanam Luang every March 11, for the Ploughing Ceremony and the Ceremony of Calling the Rain. Moreover this was the site of the Bi-Centennial Celebration of Bangkok in 1982, as well as the place for the celebration of the king's grand birthday and the cremation for Queen Rambhai Barni of King Rama VII, in 1986.Sanam Luang, 2008Sanam Luang is a peaceful place. Young couples and families tour it at all hours, some of them flying kites, other feeding doves. The large open space offers splendid views of the Grand Palace; the last fact caused me to ignore the unusual lack of trees. Attractive statues and monuments (like the City Pillar) surround it and provide many points of interest for the avid traveler. Thus, the grand bluish stupa that appeared next to the palace was a big surprise. Checking out what was going on was not difficult; the Thai media is usually a good and accurate source of information.What I witnessed were the preparations for the cremation of the king’s sister, HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana Krom Luang Naradhiwas Rajanagarindra.
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