Hidden Bangkok

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 21, 2013

Who: Mr Wilbur Suen, 27. The Singaporean bachelor is a web designer and the creator of online Bangkok guide, a one-stop portal with insider tips to the Thai capital.

Favourite city: Bangkok

Why: I have travelled to Bangkok very frequently since I was young because my father was stationed there for five years while I was growing up. I have very deep feelings for Bangkok and I have many close friends there, many of whom have introduced me to the best hidden places in the city.

Best place for phad thai

Thip Samai (313 Maha Chai Road, Samran Rat, Phra Nakhon, +66-2-221-6280, open daily, 5.30pm to 1.30am). This is a mustvisit for me whenever I am in Bangkok and I visit at least twice every trip. Even locals will tell you that this is the best phad thai in town.

It has a long history. It has been open since 1966 and still uses traditional charcoal stoves instead of gas to fry the phad thai. There are different varieties of phad thai. You can choose sweeter, more savoury or spicier, for instance.

Most varieties cost 50 baht (S$2), but their most famous version - and the one I like best - is phad thai wrapped in omelette, which costs 70 baht. You can also tell immediately that they use the best ingredients as everything, from the dried shrimp to the bean sprouts and prawns, tastes fresh.

It is the only thing they sell, so if you do not like phad thai, there is really nothing for you here.

The dish is also great paired with their signature drink, coconut shaved ice, which is just ice soaked in coconut juice and pulp. The drink is a bestseller and will be sold out after 10pm.

Best place for boat noodles

A little stall near the Victory monument, Best Of The Boat Noodle (Phaya Thai, Bangkok 10400, +66-2-271-3178, open daily, 11am to 9pm), really lives up to its name.

There are around five stalls there, all selling boat noodles, or kway teow rua, but this one is my favourite. I see people there ordering 10 to 20 bowls at a go, because the portions are very small but the noodles are that good. Boat noodles are not the most popular Thai dish among tourists but they are unique and delicious, and definitely worth a try. They are simple rice noodles with pork or beef slices and bean sprouts, but the broth - thick, and flavoured with pig's blood - sets them apart.

Singaporean visitors will also like this stall because it has air-conditioning. The menus of all the stalls are in Thai, but this stall has an English-speaking waiter who can help you. Each bowl of noodles is only 10 baht but the portions are palm-sized - you can polish it off in two bites. I'd say people usually get five bowls each.

Best place for curry crab

Somboon Seafood in UdomSuk (26 UdomSuk 60, Sukhumvit 103 Road, NongBon, Pravet, +66-2-746-6850-3, open daily, 4pm to 11.30pm). Somboon Seafood is actually a chain with five outlets. Only one of them, in Sam Yan, is open for lunch as well as dinner. The rest are open only from 4pm.

I personally find the quality of the food at the Sam Yan outlet not consistent, so I stick to the one at UdomSuk, although I have been to the branches at Surawong, Ratchada and Bantadthong, and they are all good too.

The main attraction at Somboon Seafood is the curry crab. This can cost anywhere from 260 to 1,200 baht, depending on the size of the crab you order. The curry sauce the crab comes with is cooked with eggs and spices, and is just delicious. In this restaurant, they also serve the crab de-shelled so you do not have to dirty your hands.

It is very different from Singaporean chilli crab. Almost everyone orders curry crab, and I see people literally licking all the sauce off their plates.

Be careful if you are going by taxi as some taxi drivers will try to take you instead to Somboondee Restaurant, a totally different restaurant with steep prices. Some taxi drivers get commission for taking passengers there. Have an idea of the area you want to go to, be persistent and make sure they take you to the right place.

Best place for a massage

I like to go to Dahra Beauty and Spa (Silom Road 154/8-9, +66-2-235-4811, open daily, 10am to 11pm, It is more pricey than most of the other massage places along busy streets, but there are good discounts if you book online.

For instance, there is a four-hour treatment that includes an aromatherapy massage, scrub and facial that usually costs 4,900 baht, but you can get it for half price if you book online on the spa's website.

This is the place I recommend to all my friends. The masseuses do not make small talk and are very good, so you definitely leave fully relaxed.

Best places to shop

While Bangkok is known as a shopper's paradise, tourists tend to go to the same few places such as Siam Paragon and Platinum Mall. Try Union Mall (54 Lat Phrao Road, Chom Phon, Chatuchak, open daily from 10am to 10pm). Many of my female friends prefer it to Platinum Mall because it has more variety and more interesting and unique pieces, so you do not end up getting the same clothes as everyone else who went to Bangkok. It can be a little pricier than Platinum, though.

For those who like accessories, try Sampeng Lane Market (Soi Wanit 1, open daily, 9am to 6pm). It is a wholesale market full of accessories, and has more choices and is cheaper than Platinum Mall. It is open only till 6pm though, so go early if you want to shop a lot.

Best place to shop with the locals

There is a hidden market along the Chao Phraya River called Talad Naew Naew. This is a street market famous with Thai university students and nurses.

Items here are extremely cheap - a plain top costs just a dollar. You can get there by taking the riverboat and alighting at stop No. 10, Wang Lang. This market is really not about shopping comfort and so you won't find many tourists. It gets quite hot and the smell will most likely not be pleasant. Many hawkers cook on the street and this adds to the heat.

But the goods there will be the cheapest you can find in Bangkok. The best time to visit is from 10am to 4pm when all the shops are open. Be prepared for huge crowds during the lunch hour.

Best area to stay in for first-time visitors

Pratunam. The area is accessible by the Airport Rail Link, and is just opposite Platinum Mall. Most of the established hotels there are also well-known to taxi drivers, so you won't have too much trouble getting back to your hotel even without speaking a word of Thai.

It is also an area full of great street food - you can seriously walk out of any hotel there and know that any food you buy off the street is going to be delicious.

One hotel in the area that I would recommend is the Hotel Novotel Bangkok Platinum (220 Petchaburi Road, Ratchatevee, +66-2-160-7100). It is directly above Platinum Mall and so an excellent location for those who plan to spend a lot of time shopping. Rooms start at S$138 a night.

Best way to experience Bangkok at night

The Chao Phraya river becomes truly beautiful at night, when all the bridges and temples are lit up, and the best way to enjoy the breathtaking scenery is to take a dinner cruise down the river.

There are around eight different companies offering dinner cruises, and their prices start from 1,700 baht. Most tourists take one of these, especially the one by Chao Phraya Cruises, which offers an international buffet.

Instead, I would recommend the River Side Hotel River Cruise, a dinner cruise that caters mostly to locals. Once on board, you will see few tourists. The a la carte menu serves Thai, Chinese and European dishes.

The journey starts from River Side Hotel (195 Ratwiti Road, Bangplad, +66-2-883-1588) at 8pm and heads to Rama 9 Bridge. You will sail past the Krung Thon Bridge, the Phra Sumen Fort, the Grand Palace and other sights before reaching the Rama 9 Bridge. The boat then turns around and arrives back at the hotel at 10.30pm.

This cruise costs just 120 baht, and you pay for whatever you order onboard. The last time I went, I did not pay more than S$50 in total for three people. Make sure you make a reservation beforehand and arrive no later than 7pm for the cruise.

Most addictive street snack

There is a snack sold at only very few street-side stalls called sweet potato balls, or khanom kai nok kra ta in Thai. It is not easy to find, so if you do happen to pass a stall selling it, make sure you buy it.

The balls are lightly crisp on the outside and airy, soft and sweet on the inside. I guarantee that you cannot stop after just one ball.

I usually get my fix in the Pratunam area, where I almost always can find a stall along the stretch of road between Platinum Fashion Mall and Pantip Plaza. I am still on the lookout for other stalls, though.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 21, 2013

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