Back in Bangkok
I’ll never forget my first (tentative) footsteps on the streets of Bangkok. It was 2012 – almost three years ago now – and my very first time in Southeast Asia. Having arrived early on a Monday morning, Ross and I walked straight off the plane and into a tourist scam, not that we particularly cared at the time. Whizzing around town in a tuk tuk bound not for the cultural landmark we were hoping for but a dodgy downtown tailoring shop instead (luckily, we slipped away after ordering just one collared shirt) – that’s when I started to fall in love with Asia. I didn’t know it then, but our five-week jaunt along the Banana Pancake Trail (beginning and ending on the streets of Bangkok) would wind up setting the course for the next few years of our lives, ultimately inspiring our decision to come back to Thailand.
A different side of the central business district
Even though our first encounter with Bangkok wasn’t all Mai Tais and orchids, when we found out Ross had to travel down for two university exams, we were both excited at the prospect of spending a working week in the capital. This time around, our priorities were very different. For five days’ worth of travel, we only had a handful of things planned to distract us from study and work. We also had a few errands to run, including a trip to the Myanmar Embassy. So, we bypassed downtown and instead chose an Airbnb apartment in less-touristic Si Lom. We swapped ticketed attractions for aimless morning walks, western restaurants for street food, and air-conditioned malls for night markets. We also indulged in a few sightseeing activities we missed out on last time: chinking glasses at a rooftop bar, and zigzagging along the Chao Phraya river. Here are some of my favourite things to do in Bangkok’s Si Lom district (and beyond).
Find breakfast on Si Lom Road
Squeezing through Si Lom’s streets in search of an easy breakfast each morning was one of the highlights of our trip. Clogged with traffic and smoke haze by afternoon, we had no idea just how vibrant and inviting Si Lom Road was in the early hours.
As a general rule, the streets around MRT (underground rail) and BTS (sky train) stations are the best places to find street food. The footpaths here are nesting grounds for dozens – possibly even hundreds – of stalls that cater to office workers; intercepting them on their route from train carriage to high-in-the-sky cubicle, luring them off course with sweet-smelling fruit, potent coffee and little lunch boxes filled with fried eggs and rice. We happened upon an excellent iced coffee stall underneath the Sala Daeng BTS Station, and even found a few places selling simple omelettes for under 20 baht (finally, something that is cheaper in Bangkok than Chiang Mai!). After the rush hour has passed, the stalls disappear and the streets resume their frantic pace.
Stumble on the Mariamman Temple flower markets
We had no idea Mariamman Temple even existed before we accidentally stumbled across it while trying to locate a cafe on Pan Road. Also known as Wat Khaek (literally ‘Indian Temple’), Mariamman is a stunning example of a Dravidian-style Hindu temple, located right in the heart of Bangkok. Flower stalls line the streets surrounding the temple, touting colourful garlands, lotus blossoms and green bananas.
Ride the MRT/BTS
Simple as it may seem, we really enjoyed being able to navigate our own way around Bangkok without depending on taxis or tuk tuks. (It’s a good strategy for avoiding Si Lom’s notoriously slow streets, too). Instead of running a loop like other undergrounds, the MRT runs a two-way course through Si Lom to the western edge of Luphini Park, and north to Phetchaburi and Chatuchak in the opposite direction. Tickets are cheap (the most we paid was 28 baht to ride the BTS to Central Pier), and the MRT machines dispense reusable plastic tokens instead of paper tickets (we really got a kick out of that). If you’re using public transport in this area (which, to save time and money, you should be), make sure you stop at the MRT/BTS transfer connection at Si Lom – the overhead bridge that connects the two stations is a great vantage point for admiring Bangkok’s architecture.
Cruise the Chao Phraya river
Si Lom is a couple of kilometres from the Chao Phraya river’s eastern bank, but it’s easy enough to reach the waterfront using the BTS. One afternoon we decided to spend a few hours in Bangkok’s backpacker heartland and take a boat trip on the Chao Phraya. The tourist boat (called The Chao Phraya Express) leaves from the same dock at Central Pier as the regular local ferries. We splashed out on tourist ticket (at twice the cost of a local fare (40 baht per person), it buys you a seat, some leg room and guided commentary) on our way to stop 13, Phra Athit. On the way back, we took the local ferry instead.
Walk down Phra Athit Road
Next to nearby Khao San Road, Phra Athit has a reputation for being Bangkok’s second most ‘bohemian’ strip. It’s also the first road you come to after alighting the ferry; if you’re ravenously hungry and sun-hardened after the boat trip like we were, it’s the easier of the two to stop in at for lunch. Shuttered colonial houses, brick courtyards, trendy cafes and juice bars are all a dime a dozen on Phra Athit. We found an anonymous Chinese restaurant for a simple lunch of noodles and ginger iced tea before strolling down both sides of Phra Athit’s shaded footpath.
Munch on something crispy at Roti Mataba
Roti Mataba is one of Phra Athit Road’s most popular eateries. We found a table here and ordered an after-lunch snack on our way back to the ferry terminal. In all honesty, the egg, banana and chocolate roti we ordered wasn’t the best we’ve ever had, but I really liked this little shop’s fit-out. The kitchen is visible from the street; the industrious woman in charge of kneading and pan-frying the roti dough is hidden behind a grease-stained sheet of perspex. Roti Mataba reminded me of our favourite churros bar in Barcelona, which has an almost-identical layout.
Empty your wallet at a swish cafe
There’s a lot of money in Si Lom, as evidenced by the crowds swarming around Rocket Coffeebar S. 12 (so called because of its location on Soi Sathorn 12). One branch of the Swedish/American franchise, S. 12 is Rocket’s original and most iconic location. It’s a highly polished affair: white tiles, blonde timber tables and freshly pressed staff aprons in robin’s egg blue are a sharp contrast to the gritty street stalls outside. It was lunchtime when we arrived at the cafe, so I opted for an open chicken sandwich. Ross, as has become his habit, defaulted to the cheapest item on the menu: coconut muesli with fresh fruit. We probably should have tried a coffee since it’s reportedly one of the best in Thailand, but we just couldn’t justify the price tag. Rocket charge a 40 baht service fee plus tax – something to consider when you’re deciding what to order.
Eat upstairs at Shell Potchana Noodles
We ate at a handful of restaurants in central Si Lom that all followed the same simple formula: long, narrow eating hall downstairs (metal tables always taken); claustrophobic dining room upstairs (accessible by very narrow staircase); super-efficient staff; and above all, delicious food. There’s nothing particular that makes Shell Potchana Noodles stand out from the crowd, other than the fact that the fried chicken with chilli sauce was sublime, and the friendly owner handed me a business card on our way out so that we could find the hole-in-the-wall eatery again.
Grab dinner to go from On the Road Burger
The fact that you have to eat out of a plastic bag whilst standing on a humid Bangkok street corner as hundreds of Thai kids squeeze past you on their way home from school doesn’t detract from the near-perfect taste of these burgers one iota. This is not the first time I’ve experienced the ethos of Thai cuisine (salty, sweet, sour, spicy) translated so perfectly into a western dish that it puts the original version to shame. This particular incarnation of a Thai hamburger came stacked with spicy sauce-smothered chicken thigh, sour mayo and sweet pineapple.
Watch the sunset at Moon Bar
Sunset in a bar over Bangkok – you have to try it once, right? We arrived at Banyan Tree Hotel – walking distance from our accommodation in Si Lom – an hour and a half before scheduled sun down on a quiet Monday evening. Even then, we got the very last balcony table at Moon Bar. This place fills up fast. We weren’t even half way through our Asahis (one of the cheaper drinks on the overpriced menu – can you tell we were trying to do Bangkok on a budget?) when the entire terrace suddenly filled up with camera-wielding tourists. Sixty-one stories below in the lobby, I’m sure they were turning disappointed sunset-seekers away.
We did a bunch of other things in Bangkok even further afield from Silom, including a visit one rainy night to the (mini) Rot Fai Market. Have you ever spent time in Bangkok’s Si Lom district? What did you like/dislike about the area?