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BANGKOK — One of the most packed places to dine in Thailand’s capital is not a restaurant with tablecloths and fussy waiters. It’s the food court at the Terminal 21 shopping mall.
Stall after stall on the fifth floor of this mall offers an array of cuisines and dishes: Thai, Chinese, Indian, Hainanese, vegetarian, halal, spicy papaya salad, rice noodles, soup with fish balls, and fresh fruit juices.
At least a dozen people queue up to buy 100 Thai Baht debit cards to gain access to the eateries. That is about $3.
Few meals at Pier 21 will exceed that price. And few meals will disappoint.
“Look at these prices,” says Evan Roe, a native of Washington, D.C., who used to live in Bangkok and is visiting with a friend. “I’d come here for lunch all the time. It’s always packed because it has good, cheap food.”
This is Bangkok, an exotic city where you can eat, drink, stay, and get pampered for far less than you would in New York or most other cosmopolitan cities. On a recent evening, I struggle to eat enough to use my preloaded debit card. My card gets me duck with noodles, dumplings, and mango with sticky rice.
A round-trip economy airfare to Bangkok this fall cost less on Etihad Airways from New York City than a trip to Europe on any U.S. airline: $689 vs. more than $1,000. A night at a luxury five-star hotel such as the Banyan Tree or Metropolitan COMO was in the low-$100 price range. Compare that to $545 for a night at the Peninsula New York.
Granted, it can take up to 24 hours to get to Thailand from the eastern U.S., if you don’t get a non-stop flight. But once you arrive, you can pay $10 for an hour-long massage that will soothe any distressed muscles.
Airfares to Asia and other continents have been trending downwards thanks to lower jet fuel prices. A stronger U.S. dollar has made traveling overseas more affordable—which means that a trip to Asia is as approachable to U.S. citizens as it’s ever been. And with terrorist attacks plaguing the European Union, Asia now seems like an appealing alternative.
Upon my arrival in Bangkok, I head straight to Hua Hin, a seaside community just a few hours away, to decompress from the journey. For one night, and less than $200, I stay at the Aleenta Resort and Spa on the beach. The penthouse suite offers me a view of the ocean when I wake up. A gourmet breakfast of my choosing is included — eggs, noodle soup, pastries and more.
“We came here to show people you can have a really nice environment without being glitzy and glammy,” says general manager James Noble, who is from the United Kingdom.
A run on the beach leads me to a cave and peaceful trails. I take the route through town on the way back and chat with street vendors barbecuing chicken that they sell for less than $1.
After a day and night of sunbathing and dining by the water, I head back to Bangkok. Traffic is gnarly but any cab ride costs as much as a bottle of water. The MRT subway or BTS Skytrain are often better options, with fares that range from 22 cents to $1.12.
I stay at the Banyan Tree, where the most inexpensive room is a suite. The rooftop bar has one of the best views of the city.
For shopping, I head to the Chatuchak street market. The largest street market in Thailand, it has more than 8,000 stalls with vendors hawking everything from iPhone cases to socks to luggage. The quality of items is questionable but the sights, smells, sounds and energy are undeniably appealing.
I join friends for lunch at the food court.
“You can eat really cheap if you don’t mind eating this,” says Geofrrey Aggadasavin, an Australian who has lived in Bangkok for years.
“This” is a delicious chicken curry soup that he bought for me for about $2. It’s better than meals I have had at Michelin-starred restaurants run by celebrity chefs.
I then head to the movies. A ticket to see a Hollywood blockbuster at the Scala theater is $3.40. When I arrive a few minutes late, a man in a tuxedo with a yellow jacket escorts me to a seat with a flashlight to make sure I don’t fall down the stairs. There are no ticket machines accessed by credit cards. A cashier writes out your ticket on paper. It’s quaint, but the movie screen is as big as the one at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square.
In the evening, I make my way over to the Flower Market on Chak Phet Road, the largest of its kind in the city, where you can get not just flowers but fruits and vegetables. It is open 24 hours. I go not so much for the flowers but for the sight of locals haggling over jasmine and garlands. The market is busiest in the morning when trucks and boats deliver fresh goods.
Nearby Yaowarat Road offers much more delectable treats. Bangkok’s Chinatown on this particular evening is bustling with street vendors and tourists as it’s a holiday. My guide, Pair Sangkaew, and I dig into a dish of fresh shrimp and noodles.
“In a restaurant, this would cost you more than 300 baht,” she says. It cost us 80 baht, about $2.24.
But even high-end restaurants are easy on the budget.
At Issaya Siamaese Club, I have a five-star meal on a two-star budget in a beautifully converted house. Chef Ian Kittichai offers his take on Thai cuisine, such as pad Thai made with salmon instead of noodles.
“He’s doing traditional Thai food, and he’s doing it his way,” says his wife Sarah Chang.
Thai people are obsessed with their food, and teaching people how to cook it. So I make a point to take a cooking class.
Banyan Tree offers one to guests once a week for free. I learn how to make the traditional papaya salad.
Then I take a boat ride to Amita Thai Cooking class. Along the way, the other students and I get to see the Royal Palace, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha and other traditional sights along the Chao Phraya River.
Owner and chef Tam Piyawadi Jantrupo invites us into her home. We make Tom Yum Goong, clear hot and sour soup with fresh shrimp, and chicken satay.
“We cook because we love it,” she says. “This is the real Thai.”
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