Bangkok is a vibrant city packed with friendly people, decadent selection of street food and an array of shopping options. Aside from the usual Platinum Mall, Erawan Temple and Chaktuchak Market that frequent visitors are already familiar with, I was keen to scratch a little below the surface and see a slice of life in the city.
As it happens, one of my closest friends from University days has been transferred to work in Bangkok as part of his company’s rotation. Bryan has a penchant for food and travel, and having lived in Bangkok for over a year, I figured he would be the best person to show me around the Land of Smiles.
In the morning of the day I arrived in Bangkok, I met up with Bryan at his residence and immediately got a quick rundown of what a typical day for him is like and his favourite spots. Dressed in t-shirt, light shorts and sandals, we meandered through narrow sois (side roads) towards the first destination on his checklist, Sam Yan Market.
Sam Yan Market
Six years ago when Bryan and I were in our first year of university, we cooked a lot. With a budget pan and our trusty rice cooker, our attempts started with the typical Preggo tomato pastas, but evolved over time into slightly more elaborate home-cooked fares.
As an expat living alone now, Bryan tells me that the biggest challenge is having to do most things by himself. While he can afford to eat out every meal, he chooses to put on the apron every so often in his modestly-sized kitchenette when he craves the taste of home – and fortunately, he has Sam Yan Market a walking distance from his place.
Sam Yan Market, which is located near Chulalongkorn University, is both a marketplace and a food court frequently patronised by students from the university.
When we reached around 9:30am, Sam Yan Market was not overly packed that we’d have to be jostling with fellow shoppers, and not sparse enough to feel desolated. The sights and scents that of Sam Yan Market reminded me of Singapore’s wet market – seemingly unending rows of stalls, each selling a variety of food ranging from cooked food to fresh produce like vegetables and flowers, as well as dried goods like dehydrated seafood.
I trailed behind Bryan as he beelined across the market and checked off his grocery list, which included fruits, long beans, Thai garlic and dried shitake mushrooms, all the while low-key impressed while he conversed with the shopkeepers in fluent Thai.
In about an hour, we were ready to leave the market. The total damage: ~THB$320 (S$14).
Sam Yan Market is a good place to start because it’s clean, has a large selection of local food, and is rather central in terms of location.
Location: 6 9 ซอย จุฬาฯ Wang Mai, Pathum Wan District, Bangkok 10330, Thailand
Sam Yan is worth visiting as it’s always interesting to visit a local market when we are travelling, as it tells us the stories that go behind the local delicacies we eat, especially so in a street food nation like Bangkok. In a way, it gives us an unmoderated peek into one of the building blocks of its culture. Doesn’t hurt that the market is right beside a university too, so there is that inject of youthful vibes!
Soon, we left the market and headed towards one of Bryan’s recommended food places in MBK, just about a 20 – 30 minute stroll from Sam Yan Market. To get there, we cut directly across the Chulalongkorn University. Despite the burgeoning Bangkok heat, I rather enjoyed the short trek across the campus, which showcases an architecture that has hints of traditional Thai motifs within its modern aesthetics.
Mont Nom Sod
The Mont Nom Sod that we visited is located on the second storey of MBK, and it is one of the three outlets in Bangkok. Known among the locals for its delicious and classic confectionary, Mont Nom Sod is recommended by Bryan (and now me), if one is looking for an affordable yet satisfying light bite.
Mont Nom Sod’s signature is their toasted bread layered from a decadent selection of sweet spread. At THB$25 (S$1.10), this thick toast is usually paired with fresh milk (THB$32 or S$1.40), and is a reminiscent of the Singapore Kaya Toast with a sweet Thai twist.
Not long after, I sat myself at a table by the corner, Bryan returned with his tray of drinks and toasts generously topped with what he said are the crowd-pleasing spreads – chocolate, kaya and pandan. I stuck my forks into a slice coated with chocolate, and popped it in my mouth.
Crispy on the surface and fluffily soft on the inside, the texture of the toast compliments the sweet warm chocolate spread. I then took a bite of the Pandan toast, followed by another, washing it all down with what they called Pink Milk (similar to Singapore’s Bandung, but less sweet).
We had seconds, then thirds, and it did not take long for the two of us to polish the plates clean and slurp up the last drops of our rose-coloured milk.
Without picturesque shop interiors or fancily plated food, Mont Nom Sod is not somewhere one would choose to visit for the sake the ‘gram. It, however, will surely satiate your cravings with its no-frills selection of toast and offerings.
Location: MBK Center Phayathai Rd, Khwaeng Wang Mai, Khet Pathum Wan, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10330, Thailand
The day before I arrived in Bangkok, I had asked Bryan for his recommendation on places I could get a decent haircut as my hair was getting a bit unruly. I also thought it would be a fun experience to get a haircut under the hands of a professional in a foreign country.
My brief was straightforward – somewhere clean, where the barber could understand a little bit of English, and where I would not walk out with a disaster for a haircut. I was even willing to pay a little premium, if I had to. And that was the beginning of why we were on a 30-minute BTS (Bangkok’s Mass Transit System) ride, towards one of Tew’s Barber Shop outlets in Ekamai.
Tew's Barber Shop
First opened in Siam Square back in the 90s, Tew’s Barber Shop has stood the test of time, and grown so popular among the discerning gentlemen in Bangkok, that reservations for an appointment had to be made at least a day in advance.
Pro tip: Do make an appointment at least 2 days before if you intend to get a haircut in the Siam Square outlet. No problem if you are not able to speak Thai, as you can still make your booking via their Facebook Messenger Chat in English.
As our reservation was rather last minute, we were only able to secure an off-peak afternoon appointment in the Ekamai outlet, instead of the one nearer to us in Siam. Nevertheless, I was not disappointed – situated right along the sidewalk of the main street, the interior of the Ekamai outlet is decked in old-school décor with a nice mix of hipster-ness and cosiness.
Ushered into a private booth, I opted for the 1-hour men’s haircut package that started from THB$600 (S$26). The package includes shampoo and conditioning, as well as the haircut and finishing. According to Bryan, Tew’s Barber Shop is also well-known among his fellow expats, especially Caucasian colleagues who rave about their Hot Shave, which costs about THB$400 (S$17.50).
The barber was friendly and professional, and recommended a side-cut pompadour when I came up blank on his question about my preferred cut. In that hour, he took deliberate yet gentle cuts, pruning stray strands and cautiously fixing my sideburns with sharp razors. Although the shampoo and conditioning experience was rather average, he did put in quite some care finishing the cut and styling my hair to perfection.
Overall, I walked out of the barber a lot more dapper than I had been when I entered and thought it was a great cut worth the pennies spent. If you are looking for a new pampering routine on your next Bangkok trip in addition to the standard Thai massages, getting a gentlemen’s groom in Tew’s is something that you can consider.
Even though Tew’s Barber Shop might not be the cheapest cut you can find in Bangkok, it is comparatively cheaper than what you’d have to pay for in Singapore (the same set of service, at an equally reputable barber, could have otherwise cost about S$40 in Singapore). Their proficiency in English also makes conversing your hairstyle expectations easier.
What’s more, its good location in Ekamai and especially in Siam Square means that the gents can have a proper place to kick back for a proper groom while their partners are out shopping.
Location: 423/4 Siam Square Soi 9 (Siam Square Outlet) and 33/32 Sukhumvit Soi 63(Ekamai Outlet)
The last place Bryan brought me to for the day is a little out of the way, but became one of my newfound favourite place in Bangkok for cheap yet traditional Thai food. To get there, we took a combination of BTS and Taxi towards our final destination, Mit Ko Yuan.
Mit Ko Yuan
Tucked in the old town area of Phra Nakhon, Mit Ko Yuan is a hole-in-a-wall alcove not yet tainted by the booming tourism in Bangkok, and retains much of its rustic local charms, affordable prices and quality of food. Bryan described their dishes accurately as Tze-char-esque – simple, not at all luxurious but incredibly delicious and affordable – sounds about perfect to me.
When we arrived, we were showed to the back area of the diner, which was almost full with locals, some of whom were deep in conversation, while others were glued to what seemed like a local drama series playing on an analogue TV mounted in the corner near the ceiling. There were no other foreigners in sight, which is a great sign when one is looking for authentic local food.
When a middle-aged lady came over to take our orders, Bryan ordered for us four of his favourite dishes - Kaeng Som Cha Om Goong (Thai Sour Curry with Acacia Pennata omelette), Pad Woon Sen (Stir-fried glass noodles with eggs and seafood), Hoi Lai Prik Pow (Stir-fried clams with chili) and Stir-fried vegetables, all of which cost between THB$70-100 (S$3 to S$4.40) on average.
While waiting for the food, we spotted a cute furry cat, supposedly belonging to the owner of the diner, walking gingerly across the floor, receiving generous fawning from whichever diners it decides to grace its presence with. I craned my neck to get a peek constantly but was not one of the lucky chosen ones that day.
The food arrived piping hot rather quickly in succession, and I’d have to admit that this could very well be one of the best places I have eaten at in Bangkok so far. For what looks like simple home-styled cooking, the dishes were packed distinct flavours – the vegetables were fresh, crisp and refreshing; the seafood was fresh and savoury; the curry was a great balance of sour and sweet; and the glass noodles dish was simply fragrant and chewy.
I gushed about it incessantly to Bryan and wanted to know how he discovered such a gem. He explained that it was first introduced to him by his fellow expat colleagues during his first months in the city and it has since been one of his go-to stop when showing close friends and family around Bangkok.
He also admits that he secretly wishes this place could stay off the tourists’ radar for as long as possible.
I can kind of understand why.
Although this diner may not be the easiest to get to, nor is it a fancy restaurant by any measure, its true-to-goodness authentic taste, wide selection of home-styled cooking, affordable price and unabashedly local atmosphere makes this one best places to experience the Thai food culture.
Location: 186 Dinso Rd, Khwaeng Sao Chingcha, Khet Phra Nakhon, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10200, Thailand
By the time we were done at Mit Ko Yuan, our stomachs were filled and our taste buds satisfied. The sky was starting to turn dark and I felt that I had sufficiently imposed on my host for the day. In a whim of the moment, Bryan and I decided to go all touristy and hailed an ostentatious tuk-tuk back to his apartment for a drink, before parting ways.
On my ride back to my own hotel, I soaked in the vibrant lights of the Bangkok night - from cars driving around with headlights on, and from business advertisements lit with colourful fluorescent. The city at night is something I had become familiar from many past trips with friends and family, but today was a little different.
Today, I had set out to experience a different side of Bangkok through the lens of my expatriate friend, and while doing this for just a day is nothing to brag about, I’m blessed to have the chance to see, eat and explore things and places I would not have without Bryan.
Still, maybe tomorrow, I will head to Chaktuchak.
About the writer
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, Ben Wong.
About Ben: Like most millennials, Ben enjoys travelling off the beaten track to uncover new and unique experiences - and most definitely not because he wants to brag about it to his friends later on. Definitely not.
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Best Time to Visit
With a consistent tropical climate, Bangkok is generally great to visit all-year round. Avoid the wet monsoon season by visiting in the November – February period, or visit during April to experience Songkran, the most popular festival and celebration in Thailand.
While the public bus network is rather confusing for non-Thai speakers, Bangkok is well-connected by rail. Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) and Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) are the main modes of rail transport, and can get you to most tourist destinations cheaply and efficiently. Grab is a stress-free option for getting around, without having to worry about miscommunication or taxi drivers trying to fleece you.
For a quintessential local experience, hop onto a tuktuk, though be sure to bargain the fare beforehand!
Bangkok’s local currency is the Thai Baht (฿). While some shops and cafes are moving toward contactless payment, keeping some cash on hand is useful for paying for transportation and food/drinks at the local street stalls.
While Bangkok has two airports, my personal preference is for Suvarnabhumi Airport (instead of Don Mueang), which boasts a superior connection to the city via the Airport Rail Link. For just 45 baht (~S$2), be whisked away in comfort from the airport to the heart of Bangkok in just 30-40 minutes. There are more than 20 direct flights daily from Changi Airport to Bangkok. Book your holiday now!