Shane McCauley’s Guide to Bangkok, Thailand
Words and Photos by Shane McCauley
Whenever I get through the Bangkok airport and into a taxi to go into the city, I get a rush of excitement in me that gives me goosebumps. It’s everything about the place–the warmth, the smells (both the good and bad), the music, the people–all of it. It has almost become a tradition for Sean Agnew (R5 Productions) and I to take an annual trip to this city. Both as a starting point to further explore South East Asia, and as a place to revisit again and again, always finding new reasons to love it there.
WHERE TO STAY:
Lately we have been staying at the Aloft Bangkok hotel in the Sukhumvit neighborhood. It is a brand new, well-crafted boutique hotel, and although a chain, it has all the amenities of a five star hotel. One of the many great things about Bangkok is that you can stay at world class hotels for a lot less than what it costs in most Western cities. (Prices at the Aloft run around $65 a night.) There is a pool with a bar and a state of the art gym. There is also a decent cafe downstairs although the breakfast buffet is sub standard compared to some others I have had in other high end South East Asian hotels. It’s across the street from the Bed Supperclub, a popular Bangkok nightclub, that’s very futuristic where everything from floor to ceiling is white and the building itself is a long circular tube.
The Grand Millennium
Another of the better-known posh Bangkok hotels is The Grand Millennium. It runs around $75 a night. The rooms are huge and clean and they have an EXCEPTIONAL breakfast buffet with American, English, Japanese and Indian breakfast options. It’s quite glorious.
The Dream Bangkok is another chain hotel. (They recently opened up a location in NYC near the Meatpacking District.) It’s really nice, and they have all the same things that Aloft has, but there is something a bit neon seedy about it that reminds me of a brothel, but that might just be the neighborhood.
Unlike the other hotels, which are located in the Sukhumvit, Wild Orchid is on the other side of Bangkok in the Khaosan Road/Soi Rambuttri area. This area is a very different vibe than Sukhumvit. Khaosan Road is the notorious backpackers area of Bangkok. Accommodations are way cheaper over here, but nowhere near as nice. Wild Orchid is one of the nicer ones of this bunch. The set up is sort of backpacker guesthouse style. There are modest rooms with a bar and restaurant downstairs that is set up to be comfortable and social. The rooms run around $10-15 dollars a night.
SUKHUMVIT VS KHAOSAN ROAD:
While there are other areas to stay in Bangkok, these two are the two most common. There are pros and cons to both. Sukhumvit has nice hotels, but there is not much to actually do other than get cheap massages or cheap dental and health care. Khaosan is cheap, but the places are generally not very nice. The accommodations are budget and the throngs of dirty hippy backpacker kids can be a bit annoying.
If you are vegan or vegetarian, Khaosan has some great spots. Our favorite is Ethos, in an alley right next to the end of Khaosan. They have both Western and Thai food as well as Indian. They also make breakfast and fresh juices as well as their own kombucha. There are three other vegetarian places right next to Ethos that are all strictly Thai. May Kaidee’s is really good also and they also offer vegatarian Thai cooking classes.
There are a lot of cheap bars on Khao San as well as good street food. It’s good to come hang out over here even if you are staying in Sukhumvit. The taxi ride is only about $3-4 USD, but the problem is that it can take forever if the traffic is bad (and it usually is).
Many of the people who stay in Sukhumvit are there for two reasons–medical tourism or sex tourism. Sukhumvit is home of the Soi Cowboy and all the sketchy brothels, “massage” parlors and strip clubs. There are also tons of dental clinics and Bumrungrad International Hospital in Sukhumvit.
Once I got a piece of cotton stuck in my ear the day before leaving for Asia. At first, I tried to ignore the problem, hoping that it would come out on its own. After trying several alternative methods of getting it out I went to Bumrungrad to find out if they could take it out. I went into the emergency room and told them my problem. I put my name into see a specialist to look at my ear. The wait was only an hour and half. I put my name in and went and got lunch. When I came back they saw me right away and my bill was only about $29 USD. In the States that same situation would have been at least five hours and $1000 USD. The hospitals are all clean and state of the art. There is even a McDonalds and a Starbucks in the lobby for your convenience.
I honestly try and wait till I am in Bangkok to get any dental work done. The medical and dental facilities here are world class. Getting your teeth taken care of in Thailand is nothing but a great idea. Cleanings are about $15 USD. Cavity fillings are about $15-20 USD a piece. The dental offices are every bit as clean and professional as ones in Europe or the States.
WHERE TO DRINK AND PARTY:
The first night I ever spent in Bangkok was on tour with a DJ. We played a show in a club area called the RCA that is mostly frequented by wealthy Thais and ex-pats. The particular club where we played is no longer there, but there are still plenty of dance clubs on the RCA to check out. I was badly jetlagged on this particular club date, so I asked for a Red Bull to try and snap out of my exhaustion, and I went on to have two or three more. Red Bull originates in Thailand and it comes in small glass bottles. What I didn’t know was that the Red Bull in Thailand is approximately 2-3 times stronger than the ones we get in America. Needless to say, this kept me wired long after everyone else went to sleep that night.
Not quite sure what to do with myself, I went out for a walk at around 4am and discovered another Bangkok novelty–the pop-up street bar. Not only is it legal to drink on the street in Bangkok, its legal to set up a card table and some chairs with a handful of bottles and have a street bar. At this hour, the bars were full of ladyboys and weird old chubby white dudes hanging out with teenage Thai girls.
On my last trip I discovered another cluster of good bars near Soi 55 in Sukhumvit. My particular favorite was one called Iron Fairies. It was a speakeasy type place similar to those popular in NYC nowadays. This one had a colonial Thai charm to it though with boxes of peanuts on the bar and the shells on the floor. Great classic cocktails and music.
Shane McCauley is a photographer, filmmaker and former photo assistant to Annie Leibowitz. He lives in New York City and spends his time documenting music scenes around the world. He recently released a book called 128 Beats per Minute: Diplo’s Visual Guide to Music, Culture and Everything In Between on Universe/Rizzoli which chronicles the DJ and producer Diplo’s travels around the world. Buy it at Amazon.