Chaos and Calm in Bangkok

This is our fourth visit to Bangkok. Bangkok is unique, fluid, and always changing. And we always look forward to further exploration of this vast and fascinating city, built over the swamp and floodplains of the Chao Phrayo River.

The Bangkok vision of a green city…from Benchakitti Forest Park

A lot has changed over 17 years since our first visit. There are new green spaces, MRT and SkyTrain extensions, and dozens (hundreds?!) of new malls and high rise buildings. But in many ways it hasn’t changed, including frenetic streetlife, food, and more traditional low rise and open living in most neighborhoods.

Bonus meet up with our friend Charlie, who used to live in Bangkok, and now leads and organizes amazing safaris in Africa and Asia with Remote Recreation

But the pace of change in urban mobility hasn’t happened as fast as you would expect, or in pace with other big Asian and global cities. And unhealthy air, noise, and traffic are still major drawbacks to daily life. Some of this is due to challenging and unstable governance, some due to a slowing of the economy and the pandemic, but at its core, Bangkok is fighting a legacy of car and scooter dependence that has been coddled, accommodated, and supported by street expansion and lots of (mostly free) parking at every destination.

A slightly more orderly but still congested Bangkok in 2023

Of course, the addition of more highways and toll roads has helped overall capacity, and apparently even the continuous congestion and traffic jams of 2023 pale in comparison to the true chaos of the 1980s and 90s before road expansion and rail transit began.

Yup, this is where you walk…also the scooter lane, and unlike the narrow lanes of Europe, cars, vans, and SUVs are big here.

But it’s a catch up game, as the first SkyTrain (metro) didn’t open until 1999. Luckily, major development has been concentrated along transit corridors. And there are now 3 BTS SkyTrain lines with 62 stations and 2 MRT lines with 46 Stations. The buses seem to be a missed opportunity as they have little or no dedicated space and suffer in the congestion. These old buses belch a scary amount of diesel along the roadways into air often in the 150-200 (very unhealthy) AQI levels.

Up on the skyway…choosing the right station exit can save you time and the stress of crossing mega intersections

There is also an elevated driverless train line to the somewhat distant Suvarnabhumi (BKK) Airport that opened in 2010. These have all helped to reduce car dependence and expanded the reach of transit. But overall, the system is not extremely user friendly as the BTS, MRT, and Airport Trains are operated by separate companies, so ticketing is still separate and connections a bit clunky and congested. But it all works and much of the service is good. We just carried two fare cards and swapped out for SkyTrain to MRT trips, and bought an electronic single-fare token for our trip from the Airport.

Adding fare to our MRT tap cards…once you get the hang of it, it sort of makes sense. Minimum add is 100baht, but machines only take one bill per top up transaction. Quirky.

We spent a week here in 2007 staying with two different expat friends. Outside of India, Bangkok was our first big Asian city experience. It was a globalization boom time. (And possibly peak?) We were mesmerized by the chaos and modernity of the city, then one of the fastest developing in the world outside of China.

The travelers loved the new SkyTrain in 2007…so young!
Varied street life on the side streets…explore and you never know what you will find

At that time, we explored the country for 6 weeks, so saw the northern mountain regions, northeast rural and Mekong, and the southern peninsulas and fabulous islands. Like most western travelers to Thailand, we loved it. We stopped over here for 3 days in 2014 and 2017 as part of travels onward in Asia. Both follow up visits were enjoyable as we stayed in two different neighborhoods, but always close to a MRT or Skytrain station.

Chatuchak Park next to the mega weekend market of the same name has a great 2mi loop to walk and is very well kept with park staff on bikes. Yeah Bangkok!
Lumphini Park is the old main park of Bangkok…still a nice respite with trees, but nearby mega construction and a bit too much “stuff” in the park reduces its luster somewhat
Asian Water Lizards are all over the parks and canals of Bangkok, they can grow up to 10 feet!

So fast forward to January 2023….two coups, military leadership, a new King, global slowdown, and three years of a pandemic devastating the tourist economy which accounted for over 20% of the GDP in 2019. It’s still the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, but the stagnation is obvious and frustrating for the hard working and constantly striving lower and middle classes.

Canal paths are arteries of a calm and old style life in many neighborhoods
Some canals could link up neighborhoods, but most are neglected or cut off…definitely a future walking network opportunity

Its growth and development is still chugging along, but it does feel like it the benefits of mega projects, skyscrapers, and industry are not reaching the masses. The unfortunate decision in the late 80s to embark on a massive roadway expansion in the city instead of transit set the patterns that feel intractable in today’s Bangkok.

The Bangkok Art and Cultural Center is a fun and free space to explore in central Bangkok

On the bright side, a new central train station has been opened in northern Bangkok, that the government hopes to use as a hub of a vastly expanded rail network, with a specific goal for tourist service. Good plans if they can find the will or money to execute the plan.

The massive new Krung Thep Aphiwat Central Terminal opened January 19th
Me and the Royal Family approving of the fantastic new station

Thailand still seems to need more tourist (and other?) taxes to pay for infrastructure. One of the highly touristed (and beautiful) islands Koh Tao has instituted an arrival tax for each tourist to help pay for much needed sanitation and environmental improvement s, but it’s modest (<$1), so progress will be slow. Thailand itself is also proposing an international arrivals tax of 300 Baht (about $10) starting in June, but monies are designated for accident services and development assistance. It still seems light based on the impact tourists have on the infrastructure.

Platforms and multi level concourse are inside the grand hall, but no photos allowed…
Striking architecture
Recruitment for new taxi drivers….but the station is also connected to two metro lines
Beautiful, but a little vacant on opening as this was built for the future; including HSR

But the most obvious deficiency in Bangkok’s transport network is walking and cycling. It’s shockingly disconnected. The artery and capillary (Soi) network is disconnected by design and development legacy, as well as many routes being cut off by the remaining canals. But dead end streets are the nicest to live on and bring quiet from the chaos, so the challenge is to expand walking and cycling networks without inducing car and scooter traffic. It can work with some clever bollards, gates, or chicanes…and maybe some scooter traffic is acceptable as this would shorten trips for many from the arteries, as a grid is established.

This is the way!
Yup, Soi 14 does go through …just barely, but a fantastic calm link south of Sukamvit
There is literally no space for bikes on most roads in Bangkok…only for the brave and determined
Kitty finds some calm under a pick up truck

So for us, this is a livability failure. The lack of connectivity has been recognized by some studies (See UDDC Goodwalk pilot plan) and a few small steps have been taken recently to improve pedestrian mobility, such as new ladder crosswalks and a corresponding law increasing fine for motorists violating ped ROW in a them.

The calm of some of the alleys and sub alleys is a delight and an opportunity for connectivity

It is a bit encouraging, but mostly pedestrians are still a sub-species clinging to gutters, dodging scooters, and navigating a pretty hostile, polluted, and unpleasant streetscape on the main arteries. On hot and polluted days, which are many, it makes even the most ardent walker retreat to an alternate means.

Oh, but the food is amazing and tasty and still and integral part of daily life in Bangkok. The Northern Thai casual restaurant
Cheryl enjoying Khao Soi at the amazing Hom Doam in Thonglor
A Northern Thai food sampler at Hom Doam
A main canal, just west of the Jim Thompson museum house, has fast ferry service and connects to the river.

But indeed this a just a drop of perspective from a non-resident Farang, and I don’t begin to pretend to understand the complexities of life and culture here. But the local officials and planners do. And many are working hard to make the long vision changes to lifestyle and infrastructure that will lead to a healthier environment and people.

Great meeting fellow travelers Heather and Volkan for a long chat at Chamlong’s vegetarian restaurant near Chatuchak
Buddhist Temples are can be prominent or tucked away in hidden spots throughout Bangkok
Green alleys to quiet living oases…if you could only keep walking

Bangkok is a complex ecosystem of 11 million people, and finding the balance of economic growth and opportunity versus health, pollution, and mental health is tough. But as Asia often looks forward, I’m hopeful that next time we visit bangkok we’ll see more positive changes. Already they are considering a congestion charge, expanding the MRT, and modifying laws to improve pedestrian life. Just don’t move too many of the food carts out of the way….we can walk around!

The happy travelers in Benchakitti Forest Park

Happy travels and on to Southern India!

Taipei food love affair.

I’ve run out of superlatives to describe the food in Taipei, but I haven’t run out of food photos.

Waiting patiently at the Shilin Night Market for more soup dumplings.
Rich with an oyster omelette. Shilin Night Market.
Oh yes, the appetizer on our way into the market – Taiwanese Sausage on a ‘bun’ of sticky rice. The sausage is slightly sweet and the sticky rice so chewy- lots of Q. Delicious
This market was mostly moved underground. It’s a different feel to the stalls on the street – which also still remain – but there is seating which is nice.
On a day trip by train to the mountains, here I am in Pingxi, continuing my quest to eat all the soup dumplings.
Rich and his quest to eat all the beef noodle soup.

Ningxia Night Market was our next food stop after a day out of town. The amazing travel planner booked us into a hotel right across the street from an MRT station so it’s easy to get to downtown and the amazing night markets.

First stop, stall 91 for Liu Yu Zi’s deep-fried homemade taro balls that have crispy casing and chewy inside filled with pork floss and egg york.
The chef is using a spring scoop to make the balls of uniform size.
We only got two. The flavors were so unique and absolutely delicious.
Next stop. Squid!
As you can see, there is a bit of English on the stall signs, but Google translate camera comes in very handy.
The Chef chopping up the squid.
A bowl of squid. Pickled onions on top, we think.
The fun of the night markets is just strolling along and buying whatever catches your fancy.
This is a sorghum sausage inside a crepe with scrambled egg cooked onto the crepe. Another absolutely unique and delicious treat.
The close up. Yes, food photography is not easy. But perhaps this gives you an idea of what it was like. I like the background captures of night market life.
And to finish our evening, a peanut ice cream roll.
A crepe, shaved peanut candy, like peanut brittle, two scoops of taro ice cream, and a sprinkling of cilantro.
Rolled up like a burrito and delicious.

This city. Being presented with all new flavor profiles. And in a fairly easy to access way. Even speaking no Chinese we get fed thanks to the kindness of people and multicultural nature of Taipei.

Individual hot pots for lunch one day, with a side of the famous stinky tofu on the right. The smell is stronger than the taste. Glad we tried it but I won’t seek it out again.
For our final lunch we went to a small Japanese restaurant for curry. Rich got pork.
And I had fried chicken. This was a small place, the two chefs you see are the complete staff. They ran an organized and tasty place.

For our final night we went back to the Raohe night market. We both wanted the pepper buns again, and I went in saying, right – done with taking photos. But as soon as we had something new and amazing I was back at it! And again, in good company. There were plenty of other people, locals and visitors, snapping pictures and rhapsodizing about the food. Not many western/non Asian visitors here. Taipei seems to be a slightly ignored Asian city by the western world travelers.

Cabbage and tofu. Both from the small cart over Rich’s shoulder. Both delicious. Each plate $2.00. The market on a Tuesday night was much less crowded than Saturday. We could look around and find places to sit.

I had noticed a stand on our first visit selling pineapple buns filled with ice cream. We didn’t make it back to the stall the first night- I had reached my crowd limit – but on our second visit we made sure to leave time and room in our tummies. There is no pineapple involved in this bun, it’s a soft fluffy milk bun with a cookie like crumbly topping reminiscent of Dutch crunch rolls we get in SF. The top is cut to look like a pineapple.

Fire Ice Pineapple was the Google translation. Note that you can get cheese, butter, cheese and butter, or one of a few flavors of ice cream in your bun.
I decided on vanilla ice cream.
Rich got mango.
Both were delicious. I don’t think of desserts when craving Asian cooking, but from now on I will associate Taiwan with some pretty unique and delicious desserts. And not too sweet, which is nice.

With our bellies happy, and with a new love for this amazing City and its lovely residents, we move on. Rich is working on a post all about everything not food related that we did – and honest, we did more than eat!

The Happy Travelers enjoying the city of Taipei.

The amazing food city of Taipei, Taiwan.

Working up an appetite with a morning hike up Jiantan Mountain Park.

So much amazing food. So many fun places to go to eat good food: shopping malls, night markets, little hidden restaurants in office building basements.

We dove right in with Xiolongbao (soup dumplings) at Din Tai Fun, famous for this dish and with many locations around the city.

From our first meal we were captivated. We are so happy to be able to travel in Asia again. Taiwan only opened back up to tourists in October 2022 with no 14 day quarantine required. This is our first trip to Taiwan and yes, we are already talking about when we’ll come back. Hopefully for a bike tour. We mention that to everyone we chat with to get as many tips and recommendations as possible.

Elevenses here means iced coffee for Rich and an iced matcha milk for me. At Cho Cafe in the Wanhua District.

We’re walking and taking transit everywhere we go. Walk, museum, walk, snack. Walk, lunch, walk, bubble tea.

Hot and sour soup, greens, and pork leek dumplings in beef soup.
The beef soup was delicious. The dumplings devine. At Lao Shan Dong Homemade Noodles.
The workers were so nice to us at this place. They helped us order and the young man who brought my soup and dumplings asked if I liked spicy. Why yes, I do. He brought me a little dish of something spicy from the condiment bar.
Google translate is such a good addition to travel in countries where you don’t speak any of the language, this translates as spicy butter. Yes please.
One more photo of the delicious hand cut noodles in Rich’s soup. I failed to get a photo of the chef making these noodles when we walked in, and of course when we left he wasn’t there.

Taipei is justly famous for its night markets. We’ve gotten to four so far, and the mix of food and goods for sale, families, groups of youngsters, bright lights, and divine smells is intoxicating. Ok, I admit that when passing a stinky tofu stand the aroma is a bit overwhelming, but we did try the stinky tofu with lunch one day. Not bad. The taste is milder then the scent.

Even with so many food opportunities at the markets, there are fan favorites. Look for the lines and join in. This line is for Gua bao, or the Taiwanese Hamburger (刈包)
Replenishing the bao supply.
Rich waiting and watching. The line moves quickly.

四兩刈包-台北創始總店/Si-liang Taiwanese Gua Bao, in the Zhongzheng District was our choice but many places make versions of this.

Here you can see the bao, the peanut powder, and the coriander. There is also pickled mustard greens.
The meat, pork belly. Fat, lean, or half and half. We got half and half.
The delicious result. Many customers were buying multiple bao and riding off on scooters. We found a small park and sat and enjoyed.
Boba tea break!

Taipei is also loaded with tea stands. Bubble tea. With boba. With jelly cubes. With any base tea or fruit juice you could hope for. Green tea, black tea, milk tea. Again, such patience from the staff. It’s nice to be in a place not overwhelmed with tourists. Type of tea, level of sweetness, quantity of ice. Be ready with those decisions.

Taiwan is working to get rid of single use plastics, so all the bubble teas we’ve gotten have been in paper cups, this one welcoming the upcoming lunar new year of the Rabbit. Yes, still plastic straws but we save ours and reuse them. Many customers have their own tea containers and places offer discounts if you bring your own container.

Ok, another night market – this one really at night. And a Saturday night to boot! We expected crowds, and crowds there were. It was a bit overwhelming, but we dove in and immediately got in line for Fuzhou Black Pepper Buns (福州胡椒餅). Don’t let the lines discourage you, they move quickly and the staff have this down to a science.

Rahoe Street Night Market.
The line for black pepper pepper buns.
The goal. Get those buns in your belly! Yes, those are Michelin notations you see in the sign. We’ve never been to a Michelin starred restaurant, these Michelin noted places are more our style.
These buns are cooked in a tandoori style oven, stuck to the edges.
Closer photo of the buns, clustered like bats in the oven.
And halfway through this very hot, very delicious treat. The sesame encrusted bun did a good job of containing the filling.

Saturday at the night market was crowded. But people here are good with crowds, very collaborative.

If you saw something you wanted, you just pulled over to the side.
It was too crowded for this little dude, they got a lift up out of foot zone.

A note on all the masks, Taiwan lifted the outdoor mask mandate December 1st, 2022. Would you have guessed that from our photos? Probably not. People don’t seem all that eager to unmask outside yet. We mostly follow the crowds and mask when we’re in busy areas or in line for food, but when it’s just us walking around we go mask free.

One more fun food to share.

We have so many more photos and experiences to share, but I’m going to wrap up this post with one last food.

What are these little balls on skewers? So many possibilities. Octopus? Sweet potato and cheese? Meat? None of the above.
Fried milk.
Delicious. Halfway between a custard and ricotta cheese. The perfect end to an evening of snacking.

Eating our way through the markets reminded us of our recent time in the Basque area of Spain, and wandering the towns eating pinxtos. Similar ease of ordering, point and gesture if you don’t speak the language, hand over money, thank you and step away.

The well fed and Happy Travelers in front of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall.

We’ll share more soon from amazing Taipei!

What to eat along the way.

Week four of nearly daily cycling means quite a bit of eating and being sure we have plenty of water during the day. Breakfasts are mostly included at the hotels we stay at, so that’s one meal sorted each day.

A typical picnic lunch, but with an actual picnic table. Quite the timely find. Our hedgehog patterned tea towel/tablecloth/napkin, and the striped bag which has bamboo cutlery, a sharp knife, and a corkscrew are picnic necessities.

Our lunches are usually picnic style, with sandwiches purchased at a bakery in the morning. We feel qualified to critic sandwiches by county so far: Switzerland – too much mayo or salad cream or sauce! We resorted to scraping and squeezing excess goop off the sandwiches which were mostly purchased at supermarkets.

Sandwiches on board, ready for de-mayonnaising.

Switzerland doesn’t seem to have the quantity of bakeries we are enjoying in Germany. And, German ready made sandwiches are mostly mayo free. Butter on the bread holds up much better, and cucumber, lettuce, tomato and even a slice of hard boiled egg makes for a very nice lunch. Oh yes, and lovely seeded rolls! German sandwiches get the nod so far.

Apples have been a constant presence in my front bag.
We pick them here.
We pick them there.
The tall guy can pick them anywhere!
These little red ones with very white flesh are my favorite. The green ones with a touch of red are so tart!

Why so many apple trees along the roads? I’m not certain. We only pick from those that are obviously not part of an orchard which is someones living, and I’ve read a few different reasons for why so many apple trees dotting the landscape. Perhaps from 17th century laws requiring grooms to plant oak and apple trees before marrying, maybe the more common sense and practical notion that tree lined roads are lovely and apple trees do well. We also had a week of plums gleaned from trees in villages which were so overloaded they were dropping on the street.

Finding benches in the shade is a never ending quest. Should have removed my wet laundry from the back of my bike before taking this photo.

We have also learned the difficult and squabbling way that we have enough energy after a long day cycling to check in to a hotel, unpack (ie dump panniers upside on the floor), shower, and get drinks and dinner at ONE place. Not drinks at one place and move on to dinner at another – that doesn’t end well for hangry cyclists. Pick a place that meets both needs. Thankfully, Biergartens abound!

This pumpkin soup at a Biergarten in Beilngreis was fantastic.
Why yes, I am about to demolish this huge plate of food.

Stay well fed and carry plenty of water, refill water when the opportunity presents itself, and happy pedaling!