Getting off the tourist trail in Bangkok

The tourist mecca of Khaosan Road (photo by Bfick via Flickr)

With its bustling markets and golden temples, the Thai capital promises visitors many exciting cultural highlights.

The thrill of exploration can be tempered slightly, however, when it turns out that several hundred other tourists decided to visit at the same time as you.

Fortunately there are still a number of places to visit which feature little in the guidebooks and where few, if any, other westerners are to be found. 

The time-warp department store

The years have not been kind to this once-grand emporium, and with its crumbling facade it’s something of an anomaly in a city now dominated by gleaming mega-malls.

Having somehow remained in business against the odds, Nightingale-Olympic is now a bizarre forgotten realm, with flaking mannequins modelling 1960s fashions and hilariously outdated products (wooden tennis racquets, rusting musical instruments) on display, and still for sale.

Look past it’s undeniable weirdness, though, and it’s a genuinely touching monument to a more sedate, innocent era.

The ghost temple

Thais are obsessively superstitious and go to great lengths to avoid contact with ghosts – from the ubiquitous spirit houses and amulets to bizarre innovations like this $2000 electric ghost-repelling machine.

There is an encyclopaedic list of Thai spirits, and Wat Mahabut has a shrine devoted to one of the most feared: Mae Nak.

The junk market

At Klong Lod market, vendors, many of them homeless, set up stall alongside a stagnant canal to sell virtually anything they can get their hands on, including items scavenged from rubbish tips.

Among the garbage though are often such rare items as out of print books and old film posters, as well as a large selection of Buddhist amulets.

The macabre museum

Originally intended as a teaching resource for medical students, Siriraj Medical Museum treads a fine line between the educational and the truly grotesque.

It gives an insight into the Thai appetite for the macabre, with grisly specimens such as conjoined twins, a halved head showing the path of a bullet, and even the mummified corpse of notorious 1940s cannibal, Si Quey.

The country music club

Those who want to sample north-eastern rural life, but don’t fancy a seven hour drive, can visit one of Bangkok’s nightspots playing the Isaan music genres of Lukthung (lilting country songs about the hardships of rural life) or Mor lam (earthy songs about unrequited love, often with sultry female vocals).

One of the most popular clubs is Tawan Daeng, a cavernous barn-like structure open seven nights a week, regularly playing host to popular bands like Carabao.

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