At first sight, Bangkok is an incomprehensible, sprawling metropolis of some 8 million, a chaotic capital of dust, humidity and tuk-tuk traffic made for daredevils. However, once you look beyond the obvious distractions, Bangkok has a uniquely astonishing beauty and grace – as well as an incredible foodie culture.
In the early morning, see the wet and humid mist lift from the Chao Phraya River; revealing the golden spiralling towers of the Grand Palace and the many other temples glistening across the horizon.
Look closer and you’ll see the little details that present life here with a deep spiritual significance: the shopkeepers who put lit incense sticks and food oblations in front of their shops’ little statue of Buddha; the craftsmen working on the roadsides carving little intricate figurines of spiritual icons; diligent vendors in the markets with their families behind them learning the business; the immensely agile street cooks preparing intoxicating Pad Thai and monks carefully preparing the temples, like Wat Arun, for the day ahead.
Bangkok was always destined to be even grander and more exuberant than the older capital it replaced, the Ancient UNESCO city of Ayutthaya. Since its creation, the city has seen major development and has had to build upon its ageing khlongs (canals), but it’s clear the river still sets the pace of this enchanting city.
A tour on a hired long-tail boat splashing through the water is often the fastest and cheapest way to move around. Navigating along the river has more of an air of authenticity about it too, waving at the locals as they pass by, always with broad smiles on their faces (and a boat full of ingredients!).
Read more: 9 Hidden Gems You’ll Only Find In Thailand
While the temples and palaces alone are enough to fill a week, for me, Bangkok was all about getting a real feel for the city’s past and its extraordinary foodie world.
Taking a journey through Thon Buri and its narrow canals, you witness an impervious maze of sounds and sights. I spent half a day alone walking through one of the markets, the huge Chatuchak Weekend Market, where you can buy literally anything. I tried crispy fried chicken feet, chilli-infused crunchy calamari, Som Tom Salad (known as ‘hot smash’ because of its flavours) and Mango Lassi – if you have a sweet tooth then you’ll love this fruit and honey yoghurt smoothie.
But venturing slightly out of the city to the floating market at Damnoen Saduak, just two hours south of the city, is where I saw the real joy and zeal of Thais buying and selling their freshly-grown and cooked wares from their curious boats.
You get a real sense that the market is a deeply peaceful and spiritual texture of life, permeating everyone who takes part, something I’ve never seen in any other country I’ve visited. I could try to describe the sheer vibrancy and smells of the food but you should definitely witness this for yourself; words do not do it justice.
After spending just minutes in the market, I realised that Thai cooking has to be sweet, salty, sour and spicy, from one of the many cooks who liked to have a chat – if one of these flavours is ever missing, then the cook simply throws it out. It’s not worthy to be eaten.
Thai food is characterised by the use of coconut milk, chillies, nam plah (fish sauce) and lemongrass – embodying all of the necessary characteristics. It’s then that I realised the great amount of care that each cook takes over their dishes, it’s not just a natural culinary skill to them – it’s their integrity.
As I made my way through the street stalls and floating kitchens, you realise just how much you can treat your taste buds for so little Baht. Cheap, fresh, local food, like flavoursome chicken satay (skewered meat), is just an arm’s width away. I learnt to choose the busiest stalls, as the food there is likely to be freshly cooked, and it’s here that I had the best Pad Thai I’ve ever had the pleasure of devouring. It was so delicious that I had to have seconds and the best part, the cook let me have it for free! Incredible.
That’s not to say that food is all there is on offer here, you can also buy local handicrafts, ornaments, clothes, fabrics and spices or visit the many Buddhist temples in the area, such as the iconic Phra Pathom Chedi, featuring the world’s tallest stupa. If you want a closer look, you can hire a boat, moor up and observe the temple. Be sure to take off your shoes and if you want to do it like the locals, you’re welcome to light an incense stick as a sign of respect.
Upon leaving Thailand, this floating market has always been my most treasured travel memory and its flavours are what I’ve been trying to re-create ever since.
If you’ve been tempted to travel to Thailand, check out the Destination2 Thailand holiday deals.
Pin for later!
This article was written in collaboration with Destination2.co.uk.