Soi-searching in Bangkok
Bangkok. A wild city flashing with expensive bars, stagnant taxi rides and a labyrinthine of sois. I moved here recently and have been struggling to get my Chiang Mai friends to come down for a visit ever since.
Not everybody shares the same interests but one thing’s for sure, Bangkok has something that interests everyone. As an ex-Chiang Mai resident, and a town crier for all things cheap and easy, discovering an affordable Bangkok has become my latest project. Seeking out the cheap stuff, escaping the hi-so fanfare and still having money left over at the end of the month was not an easy task, but it was my duty — to myself. Luckily for me, one of my favourite things to do involves slipping down back-sois, eating from questionable roadside trollies and tackling the biggest city in Thailand from the ground level up. And in Bangkok, there’s a lot of looking up.
Call this your cheap guide to Bangkok: weird sights, budget food, bargain buzz. You may visit all, some or none of these place. At the very least I hope you are inspired to come down to the Big Mango and perhaps do some soi-searching of your own while your here.
Onnut is my new haunt, and as such I know most about it. Most Bangkokians call this ‘out of Bangkok’ as it sits just past the imaginary city line, otherwise known as the Phra Khanong Canal. This means two things — food, drinks and rent are all cheaper (as are hotels). We’re basically in the countryside…if concrete carparks count as fields.
Along the one kilometre stretch of Sukhumvit between Phra Khanong and Onnut BTS stations alone, sits some of my most favourite city destinations. As a self-confessed soi-reconnoitre, one network of soggy back sois I can’t recommend more is a place I like to call ‘hidden Burma’. Wedged in between Sukhumvit Soi 71 and the canal you can find a web of wet markets and Burmese grocery stores. An English (or Burmese) tongue works better than a Thai one here, as you barter over curry samosas, Burmese stir-fried khao soy, and tuck into an authentic tea leaf salad at Mo.Na. You know it’s authentic because of the pay-per-leaf betal carts and waves of Burmese goods overflowing onto the pathways in true Southeast Asian style.
Another must-visit soi in the area is Sukhumvit Soi 77/1 — a small one-way soi that leads to a Big C carpark, filled with old-Bangkok style shophouses juxtaposed with modern, millennial cafes. Apart from the street snacks and the cheap massages, I also like to frequent the Refill Station (FB: refillstationbkk) to top-up my empty shampoo bottles with environmentally friendly detergents, soaps, shower gels and shampoo for a fraction of the price.
Onnut is also a great place for those who enjoy a drink. My favourite night out begins with a few cheaper than Chiang Mai-drinks at the recently relocated Cheap Charlie’s (FB: CheapCharlieBar), a 35-year-old bar known for its super-cheap drinks, followed by a whirlwind izakaya meal, washed down with a very generous 90 minute alcohol buffet at Shakariki 432 (Century Mall Onnut Branch — shakariki432.com) before heading to W District (w-district.com) — a market place of international food and cheap drinks and also home to TCDC Commons. This is a sit down affair so if you want something a bit more lively, slip around the back and visit Goja (goja.gallery) for some art and underground Japanese music on Thursdays and Sundays. There’s rumour of a bar in the same area that stays open till 6am too (FB: Marumba)…but half the fun is in finding it.
Mid-city and busy, this is as central as you can get before prices start to sky-rocket in The Big Mango. Terminal 21 is home to both cheap, good quality food and slightly over-priced independent clothing shops that sometimes offer something cheap. I’ve already stocked up on some shirts, electronics a new wallet and it’s also home to my go-to cupcake vendor (lovebakeshop.com). If your feet can’t take it any more, endure a short stroll to 100 Pi Sayam Samakhorn Alley where you can find one of the cheapest massages in Bangkok at May Massage. I don’t know about you, but I’d sacrifice the fancy oils for a 100 baht foot massage!
One of the joys of Bangkok (yes, they really do exist, you northern cynics!) is the vast amount of international cuisine. Asoke is known for some great Middle Eastern restaurants, however they are often well over budget for most self-respecting scrimpers. So forget the gaudy gold embossed restaurants and grab one of the two flimsy tables at Rawabina (FB: Rawabina Lebanese Food) and tuck into some of the cheapest falafel East of Persia instead.
Drinking can be a risky move in this area, as we enter the world of ++, one thing Chiang Mai is lucky not to have too much of…yet. I like to make the most of the situation and grab a few pints during happy hour along with some fellow dishevelled white collar workers. Scruffy Murphy’s on Sukhumvit Soi 23 offers 99 baht pints and a free barbeque every Thursday, which is a real saver. After a few pints however, you’ll no doubt be in search of something a bit more exciting. I suggest the Bangkok Comedy Club just down the road (comedyclubbangkok.com).
For those who wish to pitch up their tents near the banks of the river, you may be more interested in staying in the local area while also escaping Bangkok altogether. Slip into a world of turmeric and saris and get lost in Phahurat, Bangkok’s Little India. As you know, this city is far less organised when compared to other regional capitals, but that just adds to the charm for this locale as a mismatch of colourful barfi (Indian fudge), roadside curries and the finest saris sprawls out from either side of Chakkraphet Road.
I like to enjoy a curry at the Wes Anderson-style curry house, Tony’s Restaurant (FB: Tony’s Restaurant), where the chef shows off his roti making skills as the strong aroma of bubbling curries does a good job at covering up the pungent wafts from nearby canals. This place has some of the cheapest, but best tasting Indian food in the city. Expect a queue — after becoming a backdrop in the recent hit movie App War, the number of visitors in oversized glasses and hip Polaroid cameras has reached saturation.
Once full, walk off your rice belly in a maze of fabric and haberdashery markets down the back-sois before escaping to the air-conditioned Old Siam Shopping Plaza (FB: Old Siam Shopping Plaza) and peruse some of the higher quality fabrics available in Bangkok. This place is also famous for having some of the rarest and most delicious Thai sweets that are really something special.
If fabrics are not your thing, sneak out and get lost in Mega Plaza instead. Here you’ll find floors upon floors of video games, toys, collectables, bb guns and anime bookshops. A nerd’s paradise but well worth a look around, even if it’s not your thing! End the day by posting a selfie at the King Rama I statue on the banks of the Chao Phraya.