Bangkok is a city for aimlessly walking, but not along it's main thoroughfares. If you want a pleasant walk then stick to the tiny soi's or sidestreets where the traffic and pollution are less. The major shopping streets in Bangkok can be an ordeal - and nowhere is this better demonstrated then the Silom Road which starts at the famous Oriental Hotel in the west and finishes half a mile later near Lumpini Park and the infamous Patpong district. This is the Bangkok that people imagine - wall-to-wall traffic, miniature buddhist shrines, speeding tuk-tuk's, chic department stores, sizzling wok's and the sex industry at the very end. A visit to the Silom Road bring's you into contact into all forms of Thai life and will leave you battered, confused, disgusted and maybe grinning from ear to ear.
This is the true Bangkok experience.
The Silom Road is the main drag of southwestern Bangkok. You can start at either end from Lumpini Park or from the water at the Oriental Hotel. I would start from the Oriental Hotel. This is one of the most famous hotels in the world and charges up to 7,000 baht a night for a room. It was one of my ambitions while visiting Bangkok to visit this monument and it is easy to reach from the Chao Phraya River as it has it's own waterbus stop. The roads of Bangkok are generally so congested that I found it was easier and fresher to travel by waterbus, and one stops at the Oriental every ten minutes.
The original Oriental Hotel was built in 1876 in Colonial fashion. Now that original hotel is one of four wing's and backs onto landscaped gardens leading down to the river. I managed to walk through the Oriental on my way to the Silom Road before the conceirge's shooed me out, and it is exquisitely beautiful with wicker furniture in the bar/lounge and numerous galleries and boutiques catering to the more wealthy traveller. The Oriental in it's heyday looked after Carl Faberge, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward. And despite nowadays being more equipped for the business traveller there is still a whiff of the colonial east in it's parlours, ballrooms and cocktail lounges.
But the modern Orient hits you when you step outside. The heat and humidity of Bangkok are like a physical blow, this mixed with the exhaust from a thousand motor cars/bikes tuk-tuk's etc makes a heady brew. The Silom Road starts from outside the Oriental Hotel and is wall-to-wall traffic stretching away to the east. This is tourist country but they like the inhabitants have to struggle along dodging stalls, beggars, motorbikes, broken pavements etc in almost crippling humidity. The road is very workaday and contains dozens of banks, hotels, hawkers, and shopping malls with Thai proffessionals scurrying around. All this would be bearable if not for the traffic - it was bumper to bumper, six lanes wide. And above us was an overpass with the longest traffic jam I have ever seen. The exhaust hung in the air like a cloud and I saw tourists scurry past with cloth over their mouth's.
To escape this most people head for the department stores or shopping malls with their air-conditioning. The best on Silom is 'Central' opposite the Uma Devi Temple. This is on three levels and contains a number of clothing outfits, bookshops and handicraft emporium's. You can forget bartering in these swish shops as the carvings, batik and patterned fabrics all have fixed prices. I picked up sarong's for some friends at home for about 500 baht (£3.60) and the bookshop was good with a number of foreign language paperbacks. And if you can't yet face the humidity outside there is a good food court with fragrant Thai dishes not to mention Chinese, Indian and Malay.
Once you push east the going gets tougher and I found myself paralelling the Silom Road as much as possible in the less polluted soi's either side. But at one point I was caught between a stinking canal and a huge waft of exhaust and was nearly sick in the street. I kept thinking how do Thai's cope this every day of their lives? But Lumpini park was not far away and I crossed the Rama IV Road and entered this verdant park.
Oh my god! Fresh air!
I laid down on the grass to recover. The park is worth a look as it is one of the few green spaces in the Thai capital. Joggers pound the lawns and families spread out picnic's and the traffic noise can be barely heard in the distance. It is built around two lakes with little sailboats for hire. But the best thing about it is the sense of space and quiet, you do not feel assaulted by the traffic and exhaust as in the rest of Bangkok.
I did leave though to visit 'Robinsons' department store at the corner or Silom and Rama IV.This is the Bangkok branch of the Singapore colonial department store and was very posh. Beautiful glasswork was available and wealthy Thai's in designer clothes moved around the store.One woman was very imperious - she was dripping in jewels and was ordering shop assistants around with a wave of her hand.
But next door to 'Robinsons' is the infamous Patpong - the Sex Industry district. During the day things were very quiet with only a handful of bars open and most sleeping off the debaucheries of the night before. The few bars that were open mainly consisted of middle-aged European men with beer-bellies slumped over the counter watching football games on the overhead television. Surely they could find something better to do in Bangkok?
I came back to the Patpong at night with two Irish girls (I figured I wouldn't get too hassled if I went back with women, I figured wrong) and it is like a Sex Industry Disneyland. They have a night-market lining the middle of the Soi with counterfeit watches and carved elephants. But the whole four alley's/Soi's pulsate with the neon of the surrounding bars called 'Love Nest' and 'Pussy Galore'. If you are a man wandering through (even if you are with women) you will be harassed by teenage Thai girls every twenty feet. After a while you get extremely tired of saying "No thank you! Not interested! I'm with somebody!"
What did that Abba song say:- "One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble..."
How very true.....