Two Massages, a Fish Spa & a Pharmacy: An Ode to Bangkok’s Khao San Road
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I arrived in Bangkok from Laos with an agenda.
One of my favorite cities in the world, it is also a great place to get a few things done when you’ve been in remote places for a while. Luxury hotels, hi-speed internet (oh, how I’ve missed you!) and great food – all with unbeatable prices.
I’ve written about my love for Bangkok each year, so this time I decided to change things up a bit and focus on one of the city’s most fascinating streets.
Shockingly, the first two times I visited Bangkok, I was so busy exploring the Grand Palace, the temples and the markets that I never even made it to Khao San Road. By my third trip, I was determined to check it out. And when I did, it quickly became a must for me on every trip to Bangkok. For the past two weeks, I’ve been compiling a Khao San to-do list while in Bangkok.
Here’s the rundown of my to-do list:
1) Massage (natch)
2) Refill prescription I’d neglected to bring enough of (genius)
3) Haircut (bangs driving me nuts)
4) Replenish English language paperback supply (beach reading)
5) Street food!
All of the above can easily and economically be accomplished on Bangkok’s most famous street – the backpacker gateway to Southeast Asia – Khao San Road and its neighbor, the equally handy Soi Rambuttri.
With two nights but only one full day to spend in the city, I had to work fast. My hotel was the wonderful Royal Orchid Sheraton, one of my favorite Starwood properties in the world and right on the Chao Phraya River.
Despite Friday night rush hour traffic in Bangkok, I made it to the hotel just in time to enjoy a glass of wine in the Towers Lounge on the top floor. And the hotel was kind enough to upgrade me to one of their best suites – which was uh-mazing!
The Sheraton’s riverfront location is key because it allows for easy access to my favorite mode of transportation in Bangkok, the Tourist Boat. For just 25 baht (about 80 cents) the tourist boat can take you to any number of tourist attractions along the Chao Phraya River (Wat Arun, the Grand Palace), including a stop very close to Khao San Road.
The Sheraton even has its own stop on the boat route so transportation from the hotel to Khao San is as easy as a scenic boat ride down the river. After a delicious breakfast in the lounge Saturday morning, I hopped on the tourist boat with my to-do list in hand.
Just about anything is available on Khao San Road. Accommodation, travel services, massages, food, clothing, jewelry, used books, pirated DVDs, tattoos, hair braiding, fake IDs, you name it. Forgot to graduate from Oxford? Or become a member of the media? Or turn 21?
No problem! Khao San’s fake ID merchants can help. Need a tattoo and a bus ticket to Vietnam? Khao San’s got you covered. If you need it, you can probably find it on Khao San Road. It’s a place to disappear or, perhaps, to find yourself.
I, of course, had less ambitious needs. My first goal was to find a pharmacy. Somehow I’d managed to leave home without enough of my only prescription (I blame my lack of packing time). A little online research revealed that I could probably replace it overseas without a prescription so I decided that Bangkok was the perfect place to give that a shot.
Turns out, it couldn’t have been easier. In five minutes, I walked out of the pharmacy with exactly what I needed, no prescription necessary and for half the price I usually pay at home. Score!
I decided to celebrate my pharmaceutical victory with a massage. There are dozens of massage places up and down Khao San and Soi Rambuttri. I haven’t developed a favorite in the area but honestly, I’ve never had a bad massage in Thailand so I usually just pick one of the cheaper places (they range from 180 baht to 250 baht for an hour) and one that looks clean and is air conditioned.
As I was perusing the massage options, I noticed a new phenomenon on Khao San Road since my last visit – the arrival of the “Fish Spa.” I’d heard about fish spas before, on CNN or the Travel Channel – something like that – but never actually seen one. And I definitely don’t remember seeing them the last time I was in Bangkok yet suddenly they seemed to be everywhere.
So, when I finally selected my massage place, I couldn’t help but try a dip in their fish spa as well – I mean, how often do you get to try something like that?
The fish spa experience was up first so after they carefully washed my feet, I cautiously dipped them into the pool of tiny piranhas (OK, not really, but it felt like that at first!). It takes the fish only a few seconds to realize someone’s rung the dinner bell and they immediately began their tiny nibbles on my toes…eeewww!!!
It tickled like crazy for the first few minutes and I think I squirmed and squealed more than is considered acceptable for an adult. But after I got used to the sensation, it was actually kind of relaxing in a weird way. And my feet did seem pretty darn soft when I got back to the hotel that night.
After the fish spa, it was time for my massage – an hour’s worth of being kneaded and stretched like a pretzel by an 90lb Thai masseuse, what’s not to love? After my massage, I was feeling like a new woman. Priceless.
Next door to my massage place was a hair salon with a sign outside advertising hair cuts for 150 baht (about $4.50) so I figured I’d pop in there. I just needed a little trim of the bangs so I figured almost any hair stylist could handle that. I was right.
Bangs freshly trimmed, I was making significant progress on my list. Next up, a couple of new paperbacks. I’ve mentioned this before but English-language paperbacks are extremely expensive overseas – easily exceeding $20 US. Since I always like to have something to read for my flights and my beach time, I tend to go through several paperbacks on these RTW trips.
I know, I know, I should really make the transition to an e-reader. But there’s just something I love about a real book. Plus, I can read it on a beach and not worry about it getting wet.
On my first trip to Khao San a few years ago, I’d discovered a great used bookstore where travelers sell back the paperbacks they’ve read and you can get them for about $3-5 US. I found the store on Soi Rambuttri and perused the aisles for some new reading material.
Mission accomplished, I headed back down Rambuttri in search of some pad thai from one of the street vendors (the food carts are better there than Khao San, I think). After a delicious and super-cheap meal, I was honestly headed back to the tourist boat, I swear. But somehow I became distracted by a few girls getting foot massages in comfy-looking chairs nearby. Delightful!
On a whim, I decided another massage was in order. I mean, I hadn’t had a foot massage in a while, right? So yes, I had two massages (don’t judge) within about a 5-hour span.
It was a nice end to my Bangkok day and I’d accomplished everything I needed to do. And it was all quite a bargain. Here’s the final tally (conversions are approximate):
Tourist boat 50baht (roundtrip) – $1.60US
Prescription 300baht – $9US
Fish Spa 150baht – $5US
Massage #1 180baht – $6US
Haircut 150baht – $5US
2 books 250baht – $7.50US
Pad thai 35baht – $1US
Massage #2 180baht – $6US
Grand total for my full day in Bangkok? $41.10 Yes, ladies…that included TWO massages. And that, in a nutshell, is why I love Bangkok so much. And despite its reputation as backpacker central, Khao San Road and Soi Rambuttri are a great resource for anyone.
My checklist complete, I headed back to the boat for the ride back to the Sheraton. As I watched a dazzling sunset over the river from the Sheraton’s Tower Lounge, I reflected back on my productive day with a big smile and a delicious glass of Australian wine. Bangkok…what a city.
Next stop, Borneo!