I am not normally a tour kind of person. In fact, still scarred by my experience of my first and last tour to tourist cesspit Damnoen Saduak floating market six years ago, I generally avoid them like the plague. Who wants to be hoarded around in a cramped bus with a group of other foreign tourists? Put simply, it’s not what I moved to south-east Asia for. But I’m glad I made an exception for the Bangkok Night Lights tuk-tuk tour with Expique.
Expique is one of a number of newbies to hit the Bangkok tour scene recently, threatening to violently shake up what has until now been the monopolised domain of local travel agencies touting the same old naff trips at roughly the same exorbitant prices. Among its unique offerings is running a tour at night – avoiding the relentless daytime heat and Bangkok’s infamous traffic, and serving up an opportunity to see a very different side to the city than you can expect if you visit the exact same sights in daylight.
With companies like Expique aiming to give a more intimate experience than you’ll get elsewhere, the group size is vital. While their web site boasts a maximum ten participants per tour, I was spoiled in that I was joined by just one other person and our friendly Thai guide Esso. Outside the meet-up point at Krung Thonburi BTS station our private tuk-tuk was waiting, the order of the day for transport and the perfect way to zip along back-alley shortcuts and sidestep what little traffic there proved to be of an evening.
Our first stop was Klong San market, the site of a former Bangkok railway station and for that reason flanked at its rear by the eponymous cross-river ferry pier on the Chaophraya. A local market popular with teenage and twenty-something girls for its stock of the latest cheap fashion, Esso took great delight in pointing out the multi-coloured ‘big eye’ contact lenses on offer, at pains to point out that they wouldn’t really do anything for your eyesight. There is also some good standard market fare to be munched on – we tucked into crispy palm sugar rice cakes and deep-fried pla sen tod fish cakes as we made our way on to our next destination – and on the outer edges of the market a couple of bars offer pleasant views of ferries and cruise boats passing along the river.
Jumping back in our tuk-tuk, next up for us was a brief gaze at Saphan Phut, or Memorial Bridge. Esso’s helpful background knowledge meant I could answer a question of mine that had gone unanswered for quite some time – just what was this bridge a memorial to anyway? It turns out Saphan Phut, which celebrated its 82nd birthday the day after our tour and connects the old capital Thonburi with the larger Bangkok Yai, was founded in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Chakri dynasty that remains as today’s Thai royal household and of the founding of Bangkok as the capital.
A short walk from the river is the UNESCO heritage site of Wat Prayoon, sitting alongside the Chaophraya’s western bank. A shot taken here and posted on Expique’s web site had teased me, unable to work out where it was from – but though our stop here was only fleeting, it was long enough to take a couple of snaps and to decide that this was one of my highlights of the tour. The stunning white chedi stupa, glowing against the dark sky with just a glint of a crescent moon slightly to its right, was a thrilling sight. Though the area around the chedi itself was closed off for the night, we wandered through the temple, where a funeral was underway in one area and in another preparations for Songkhran celebrations were underway – the Thai new year festival gets underway in less than a week.
A short jump across the river on a ferry then a hop along by road, and we made an unscheduled stop alongside the Giant Swing (partly to avoid some traffic up ahead, and partly as a result of my excitement at having stumbled across something I had already been keen to tick off my to-visit list). The swing and Wat Suthat, the temple adjacent to it, are famous for an old annual Brahmin thanksgiving ceremony at the end of the rice harvest in which young men would swing twenty-four metres up from the ground before trying to grab a bag of silver coins with their teeth. Only after a number of deaths and injuries did the ceremony stop in 1932.
Appetite built up, it was time for some more food – and another unanticipated opportunity to cross something off my list – at famous pad thai restaurant Pad Thai Thipsamai. This bustling spot, popular with Thais but also with foreign tourists thanks to its relatively close location to the backpacker headquarters of Banglamphu, is said to have been opened by an ex-employee of Pad Thai Lung Pha, the almost-as-famous joint just along the street. I am yet to try the pad thai there, so I can’t delve into the argument as to which is better. There is no denying that Thipsamai has its fans – the accolades hang on the wall inside, more seating lines the pavement, there is a not insubstantial queue to get in through the turnstile-type entrance, and as soon as I checked in on Facebook I was flooded with comments from Thai friends proclaiming their love for the place and asking how long we waited for a table.
But while their take on pad thai was decent, with fresh prawns and wrapped in a wafer-thin layer of omelette – pleasantly sweet and almost tomatoey in flavour – it wasn’t the best I’ve had (the stall at On Nut night market still owns my heart). That said, I’ve had far, far worse – and this place is also known for its pad thai man kung, cooked in the gunky oil from the shrimp’s head, so I’ll have to come back again to try that. If you’re going to head here it’s also worth ordering in a big bottle of the fresh orange juice that is just as renowned as the food.
Competing with Wat Prayoon for a place in the memorable moments stakes, the tour took an unanticipated turn when we wandered into the grounds of Wat Pho – completely unlocked and open for wandering 24/7. Not only does coming by night-time mean you get to avoid the dual-priced 100 baht entrance fee that is levied only on foreigners and not Thais – and which is due to rise to 200 baht in 2015 – but you can also dodge the sweltering midday head when this place is packed and, most importantly, take in the sheer beauty of the lit-up temples with not a soul around. With the exception of a cycle tour group who were leaving as we arrived, we had the place entirely to ourselves. To say Wat Pho is magical of an evening is no overstatement. Think stupa upon stupa of intricate design, gorgeously and gently illuminated in fabulous golden hues against the vicious pitch black of the night sky. The sense of being here was so awe-inspiring (the sheer number of photos I managed to take is testament to that, convinced that each one was going to be different from the last) that I would go so far as to say you’ve been cheated if you have visited in daylight hours – and that you would do well to skip both here and the Grand Palace in the day in favour of a single nocturnal trip here.
A change of colours from golden to eclectic shades of blue, orange, yellow and pink signalled the almost-end of the road as we breezed through Pak Khlong Talat, the city’s wholesale flower market that feels like it has been going forever. The low prices – think 20 baht for a discount bunch of beautiful blue daisies – wow almost as much as the rare varieties. Who knew a flower existed by the name of the Winnie the Pooh Tomato, seemingly a distant cousin of the plum tomato and so-called for its teddy bear ear shape? The market is a bustling warren of traders selling not only flowers, but chillies, mushrooms, vegetables – just about anything you might need for that typical ‘how Southeast Asian does this look’ shot of a couple of baskets of produce.
The tour finally winds up in Bangkok’s Chinatown with a dessert stop for bua loy nam king, a typical Chinese treat of hot ginger soup loaded with soft, squidgy dumplings filled with a black sesame seed paste that explodes on your tongue. A taste to be acquired, perhaps – but a well-chosen one to round out a sweet, spicy and varied tour that packs a real punch around every corner and deals a number of unexpected hands. Heading back to the BTS, my stomach is full and my mind buzzing – the tour has uncovered spots I’ve not seen despite my six-year fling with the city, and it has shed new light (quite literally) on spots I’ve been to before. And thanks to that tuk-tuk, my feet are still feeling surprisingly fresh.
DISCLAIMER: I took a complimentary tour with Expique to see what they had to offer. All of the opinions in this article are of course my own. Book online with Expique through Viator here.
This post was updated on 29 October 2014 to amend formatting.