Explore Bangkok Like a Local, But Don’t Fall for the Gem Scam (Like We Did)!!
So what do I mean when I say “explore Bangkok like a local,” exactly? Have you ever visited a city often enough to where you felt unrushed and able to spend time discovering the little gems that would never show up on a tourist map? New York, Washington D.C., Austin, Madrid, Seville, Rome, Barcelona…. these are all cities that I have been fortunate enough to live or work in or visit often enough to knock out all of the tourist “must-sees” and feel like I have time to stroll around and just enjoy the city on its own merit.
I can not say that I’ve spent enough time in Bangkok, by any stretch of the imagination, to warrant feeling like a local. I feel that I sacrificed seeing some of the tourist highlights (somewhat unintentionally) in lieu of spending a day or two wandering around, enjoying Bangkok, completely unplanned and untethered. There is a slight lingering regret about not seeing Jim Thompson’s House or The Grand Palace (see my previous post), but I like that I’ve left something for myself to look forward to on my next visit to Bangkok. (Bangkok, to me, seems like a New York or a Rome; it is a city that I know I will visit often.) And I’m certainly glad that I was able to see the city, if even for a moment, through the lens of a local.
Finding Green Places
One of my favorite things to do in a new city is to find the green spaces where the locals go to enjoy a break from the concrete jungle. Using the little tourist map that our hotel gave us, I pointed to the nearest green rectangle (which happened to be about three blocks from where we were staying), and we headed straight there. It was called Saranrom Park. We enjoyed this park so much, in fact, that we went back the following day as well (it was also a nice escape from the stifling heat and humidity). Bangkok is riddled with these well-manicured, lush parks. If you look at a map of the city, they are everywhere! It would be neat to devote a whole day solely to park-visits in Bangkok.
One of the neat things about Thailand, I noticed, was that people like to do their exercising outside, in parks and historic sites. This particular park housed a full-service, open-air weight room! These guys come out to pump iron in the urban jungle- how cool! (I didn’t see any women using the machines). I also like to see where people in an urban community go to jog, as this is one of my favorite go-to work outs on the road and at home.
These are scenes from my family playing on the outdoor gym equipment in Sukhothai (see post here).
Back to Saranrom Park
The highlight of the park, without question, was the foot massaging rock garden, or foot reflexology path. I’ve personally never seen one of these before, so I was extremely delighted when some local Thai men eagerly explained the proper technique to us. They seemed to thoroughly enjoy teaching us about this uniquely Thai park feature.
The smaller, pointier, and more spread apart the rocks, the more intense the pressure! The large flat rocks are the most soothing.
No pain, no gain. After a good thirty minute (somewhat painful) walk around the foot reflexology path, your feet feel stretched and battered… and relaxed!!
Model Traditional Thai Teak Houses
Saranrom Park also featured models of traditional Thai teak houses, a la Jim Thompson’s House (I guess seeing a model is a good runner up to seeing the original).
I love these images of a young Thai girl’s violin lesson from the old, wise master. You can’t get a much better class room than this!
There was a pig shrine near the park. Random, yes. Funny, yes.
Scenes From the City
Leaving the park behind, we wandered the streets of Ko Ratanakosin and beyond, taking in snippets of the local livelihood.
The Grand Palace- Three Failed Attempts
We definitely tried to tour The Grand Palace… on three separate occasions. The first two times, we were too late (last ticket sold at 3:30 PM). On the third attempt, we knew we needed to get there early. However, while en route, we encountered a very nice Thai man who was eager to practice his English on us and tell us about his city. It was the King’s birthday, you see. It was actually the week-long celebration (not his actual birthday), and the palace would be closed for ceremonies until 2 PM. He suggested that we take a tuk-tuk tour around the city. During the week-long celebration, he explained, the government subsidized these tuk-tuk tours, which only cost about $1.50 USD (to go to three temples and a couple of markets). It was a government promotion or special.
This was the start of the infamous Gem Scam (which I am only just now realizing! How duped I feel!!!).
Well, didn’t we feel special to be in on this insider secret?! What we didn’t realize was that we would be carted around to about four different jewelry and clothing outlets and hounded to buy these Thai products before we would ever see a single temple. And what did I just read in the guidebook (only a month later)?
“BEWARE !!! – Tuk Tuk drivers in Bangkok may offer a free or very cheap city tour or tell you a site is closed. In return, they will take you to a tailor or jewelers where they receive huge commissions on your purchases. Unless you have a free afternoon to spare, don’t go.” OOPS!! We didn’t buy anything, which might explain why our tuk-tuk driver abandoned us at one of the temples he brought us to after the failed shopping spree….
Non-Tourist Temple. Lucky Buddha Temple. SCAM Temple!!!
Before we realized we were being sort-of swindled (only after the fact), we did feel very special because we went to some temples that were not necessarily on the tourist map. In fact, we encountered one Thai man at the Lucky Buddha Temple who said he lived in California. He said he was in Thailand for a month visiting family and refreshing his U.S. visa. He did not understand how we knew about this place where only locals come. “Tourists don’t know about this place!” he exclaimed. Oh, we were proud!! Then he carried on about how he went shopping for his wife at one of the nearby jewelry outlets and spend about $7,000 USD on all of these precious stones that would cost tens, if not hundreds of thousands back in the States. All of these claims seemed to legitimize our special little tour.
What we did not realize, and what I am only now fully understanding, is that everyone was in on the SCAM. From the friendly man we encountered in front of The Grand Palace, to the tuk-tuk driver, to the Thai American (was he really American?) at the (newly built) Lucky Buddha Temple (also called Standing Buddha Temple).
Read about the elaborate “Gem Scam” here. If anyone approaches you near a popular tourist destination and tries to tell you that it is closed- IGNORE THEM! Unless you want a free ride around town and you actually do want to go shopping.
The joke was on them AND on us. We didn’t buy anything, so no one got a commission, but we did loose a few hours of our day. Then again, it depends on your outlook. We got to see the pretty Marble Temple and have a free joy-ride around town!
Our tuk-tuk driver brought us to Wat Benchamabophit or the Marble Temple. Yes, tourists know about this place. This is also where our driver abandoned us, leaving us to fend for ourselves (we just hired another tuk-tuk to bring us back to our hotel).
At many temples in Thailand, you will find people selling all sorts of live “lucky” turtles, snakes, fish, eels, frogs, snails, etc. for you to purchase and release in the nearby river or lake. This will bring you luck, fortune, merit…. I wonder if Thailand has a PETA?
Before we left the Marble Temple, we enjoyed a little sticky banana rice pastry thingy (three for $1.00) and some cold coconut water (for $1.00 USD, this is one of my favorite treats in Thailand, and essential to replenish all of those lost electrolytes from sweating profusely!)
Bangkok is a City
Cities often have lots of trash. It’s gross, but it’s real. It reminds me of NYC trash day.
My absolute favorite thing about traveling is eating local foods. Bangkok is famous for having the best, cheapest street food.
Instead of sitting down at a formal restaurant for dinner, find a street cart that seems popular with the locals. That’s a good indicator of high-quality street food.
Tasty and Cheap!
This pho-like noodle soup cost under $1.00 USD. It was beyond delicious!!!!
We weren’t sure what this mystery meat was. It tasted a bit like liver, but it was good! Alan pointed to it, simply to ask what it was. So she put it in our bowl. Don’t expect Thai people to speak or understand English!
We had fun taking our time to get to know a small area of Bangkok, enjoying Saranrom Park, walking along the river “alleyways” behind peoples’ homes and shops, and even making the best out of the gem scam situation (albeit not knowing we were being scammed at the time).
Sometimes it’s nice to just explore a city at your own pace, with no planned activity or tourist destinations in mind. The real Bangkok unfolds, as you get a glimpse of its normal, local activity. I didn’t make it to all of the tourist highlights, but I’ve simply left myself a few things to see when I return!
Thanks for stopping by!
Suggested Hotel: Feung Nakorn Balcony. (About $60 USD for a double room). Features free ensuite wi-fi (somewhat rare in Bangkok) and centrally located in the historic district of Ko Ratanakosin (walking distance to Wat Pho, The Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Arun, Khao San Road, and Saranrom Park). They also make really delicious green curry and pad thai!