23-27 December 2018
Most every travel list of places not to miss includes Bangkok. My first visit to Thailand was in January 2015. I enjoyed myself but was not effusive with praise. This week, I revisit Bangkok and during my trip I will see this snarled, smoky and be-templed city through the eyes of my 16-year-old niece, Mikaela. The monuments and palaces have not changed but I expect my perception and experiences may, for this trip we travel solo. For some of the historical and cultural significance of Bangkok, I refer you to my Bangkok, Thailand blog posted 30 January 2015. No use reinventing the wheel here. During that trip, I questioned Bangkok’s popularity. Though it offered some great architecture and photo ops, especially at the Royal Grand Palace with its demons and Buddhas, I found the city was crowded and polluted. A city of 10 million people, at least nine million of them were in cars snarled in bumper to bumper traffic. The skyline, what could be seen through smog, was one of skyscrapers. Sites were overrun with tourist hell bent on endless selfies.
This trip, I hope for better impressions and experiences. We arrive into Bangkok after a grueling 27-hour flight. A full night of drug-enhanced rest will be a blessing.
Every few minutes, Flag boats navigate the Chao Phraya River stopping at dozens of piers with access to major attractions. Our hotel is a five-minute walk to Pier 16 where 15 baht (45¢) takes us anywhere along the river. Blue Flag Tourist boats costs a flat 50 baht for a one-way ticket, or 180 baht for a day pass. More spacious than regular boats and less crowded, the ride comes with on-board guide who describes points of interest in sometimes comprehensible English. However, these ferries only run between Sathorn Pier and #13 Phra Arthit Pier. So we rely on the Orange Flag to maneuver the river.
Our first day is spent at the spectacular complex of buildings within and around the Royal Grand Palace. The art, sculpture and architecture fit my image of Siam, but, I remind myself, this is old Siam. Most Americans probably associate Bangkok’s Royal Palace with the 1956 film “The King and I” which supposedly took place here. Yul Brynner received an Academy Award for playing King Mongkut. Regardless, the film remains banned in Thailand.
The Royal Grand Palace proves Thailand’s Kings lived well. We roam leisurely about the 53-acre complex consisting of the royal residence, throne room, temples, government offices, and stupas, stupas, stupas. The traditional Thai three-tiered roof is everywhere. Every inch is covered in porcelain, reflective gems, mirror shards, intricate designs and color. What isn’t reflecting the light is in gold – blinding gold.
The most revered site is the golden stupa which holds some ashes of the cremated Buddha. The rich decoration is more than the eye can comprehend. Whether I look up, down, or sideways, there is something to admire. The forms, lines, colors and textures are spectacular.
My favorite building is Wat Phra Kaew which holds the Emerald Buddha. The walls are covered in murals of Buddha’s life. Not a corner nor crevice is left unpainted. The small 2-3-foot tall Emerald Buddha is carved from a single piece of jade and has its own seasonal wear. Thankfully, a Santa suit is not one of his costumes.
Mikaela and I love the Demons who guard the Palace from evil spirits. Demons are about 12′ tall and watch over every corner of the Royal Enclosure. Fierce faces, big teeth, and long swords were meant to scare off evil. Carvings of monkeys, elephants, soldiers, mythical beings, and wonderfully carved and ornate demons abound throughout the complex.
Behind the Grand Palace is the ancient temple of Wat Pho which is not just another Wat. Its 160-foot Reclining Buddha steals the show. The interior is all glittering gold and porcelain, mythical creatures and stunning murals. Every inch of Buddha is covered in gold leaf.
Across Chao Phraya River is the site of the third capital and royal palace of Siam/Thailand – Wat Arun. The central 280-foot tower is encrusted with bright and colorful porcelain. This is a stupa-like pagoda with steep, narrow steps leading to a second-level balcony. On my previous visit, I climbed those steps for the exceptional views of the river and the Grand Palace. Today, I will rely on my memory and just walk around to enjoy the carvings of demons and monkeys, figures of ancient Chinese soldiers, mythical animals and Hindu gods.
CHRISTMAS IN BANGKOK
It is 90° and humid with nary a Santa in sight. Things are roasting on open fires but none resemble chestnuts. Haven’t heard Jingle Bells once. Christmas is a little different among Buddha’s people.
Each of the ferry lines, Orange, Yellow, Green or Blue, serves a different purpose and length of travel. While the Blue Line is for tourist, the other lines go further on the river and make more stops. For an enjoyable cruise of the river and its embankment, one of the local flag boats is the way to travel. Today we board Orange Line, and travel to the Sathorn/Skytrain pier.
What a contrast to yesterday’s crowds! We walk a circuit of downtown amid modern high-rises and shops where the other 1% live. It is a plethora of lights, trees, festive shoppers, and food courts. We stroll past the Four Seasons Hotel, Peninsula Plaza complete with a gingerbread house and reindeer barn, The Grand Hyatt Erawan, Erawan Mall, and Central World and Siam Malls. Unfortunately, none of the beer gardens are in operation as yet but there are endless opportunities for purchasing food. Everyone seems in a shopping mood. The demons seem unable to scare away evil Capitalism. I spy only one tourist wearing a Santa hat.
The street markets hold the most interest for Mikaela. There is little that one can’t find in the markets. And prices are so reasonable I hate to even bargain with people. Mikaela easily found some light, comfortable pants for 100 baht.
Bangkok has many opportunities to join a cooking class, so we did. Our morning begins at the Bang Rak Market – the heart of this vibrant neighborhood. Our first order of business is walking the market with our chef to learn about the fresh ingredients with which we will cook our lunch. Our cooking instructor explains not only what these strange green and brown items are but how they are commonly used. We get an education in Thai dining and their love of food.
Our chef demonstrates the preparation of each course then we try to cook the dish. It helps to remember how she cut, arranged and mixed each ingredient, but she remains close as an entertaining and jovial teacher. Following her instructions, I prepare a tasty shrimp soup, a curry chicken, delicious pad Thai, and for dessert sticky rice with mango. Perhaps, I will be able to replicate some Thai cuisine once home in California. My niece seemed to master the slicing and dicing, mixing and eating very well.
Sated and happy, we have the afternoon to ourselves. We board a Blue Flag Tourist boat and, except for being less crowded and fewer stops, learn it is more pleasant traveling with the locals. The dialogue for tourists is pathetic and the ‘guides’ grouchy. But all is forgotten when we both enjoy a relaxing Thai message from one of our local businesses.
DAY TRIP TO AYUTTHAYA
Just north of Bangkok is Ayutthaya Historical Park, the ruins of the old capital city of the Kingdom of Siam and UNESCO site. It is easily reached by a local train which departs about every hour for the 1.5 to 2-hour trip north. Two words on Thai trains: cheap and uncomfortable. This train trip costs a whopping 20 baht, less than 70¢. We are crammed into a hot train and left standing for the duration. There is no such thing as a “full train” in Thailand. If there is paper for a ticket, you can board. It’s called “Standee.”
Ayutthaya is a welcome respite from hectic, overcrowded Bangkok. While the Wats are mostly in ruins, the ancient complex is spectacular and the local community is home to lots of street food and local culture. Once we arrived at the train station, we walked across the street through a plethora of tuk-tuk guide offers, to the ferry boat across the river. Then it is a 15-minute walk to the complex, the entire time being approached for tuk-tuk tours. Traffic appears as bad as Bangkok so we also ignored moped and bike rentals.
The old city of Ayutthaya was founded by King Ramathibodi I in 1351. Thirty-five kings ruled the Ayutthaya kingdom during its existence. The main site is actually an island surrounded by a network of canals and rivers. The city was captured by the Burmese in 1569. Though not pillaged, it lost “many valuable and artistic objects.” It was the capital of the country until its destruction by the Burmese Army in 1767. Restorations began in 1976 after it was declared an historical park. Portions of the park are declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park complex costs 50 baht to enter and is worth an hour of exploration.
Not all the area’s ruins are part of the UNESCO protected site, but those not included are sites beyond Ayutthaya Island itself. They can best be reached or viewed by bike or hiring one of the endless number of tuk-tuk drivers. The price depends upon your bargaining skills. The island sites include Wat Ratchaburana, Wat Mahathat, Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, Wat Phra Ram, and Wiharn Phra Mongkhon Bopit, ruins of Royal Palaces and fortresses. It is a beautiful contrast of red brick, blue sky and quiet beauty.
Before we return to Bangkok, Mikaela locates a local “restaurant” and we point out our preferences to the chef. My niece is great at spotting good places to eat, places I might have avoided on my own. Her instincts are good and we have a tasty lunch for 100 baht. Again, I question the bill as it seems ridiculous that we enjoy a delicious lunch with drinks for under 3$.
CRUISING AT SUNSET
Back in Bangkok, we board an Orange Line ferry for a pleasant journey up the Chao Phraya River toward the end of the line at Stop N30 Nonthaburi. Buildings and houses along the river and its numerous side canals range from very expensive teak homes and those of sturdy cement and stucco to wood houses built upon pilings that look close to collapse and cause me to wonder about conditions of sanitation. The river and canals are slightly trashy but the further north we go, the wider and cleaner the river becomes. The Chao Phraya supports a thriving community of restaurants and markets along its banks – all accessible by boat.
Our boat cruises past countless canals and homes, laundry lines and temples, under bridges and walkways, past patios and gardens. It is quiet here, nothing like the noisy streets we traveled earlier. The waterways have a charm about them and the early evening light and cool breezes are wonderful. In Nonthaburi, we walk along the pier through a thriving Chinese community, and Mikaela picks a riverfront restaurant where we watch the spectacular sunset.
The river fish are jumping and enjoy our dinner treats almost as much as we do. Here, feed a fish and more will come, scores. It’s a feeding frenzy of gobbling, jumping, wide-mouth fish. The river in the evening seems to be the best place in Bangkok. The sunset is beautiful.
Limiting my appeal for this city is the traffic, air pollution, heat, humidity, and crowds. However, there is no doubt left in my mind as to why Bangkok appears on so many top ten travel lists. The Royal Palace should not be missed nor should the Reclining Buddha. The river is great. The cost for a good meal, drink, and transportation is embarrassing low in comparison to other major cities.
But, it was our encounters with the Thai people that made our visit very special. I fully understand why the Thai is most often cited as the friendliest people in the world. They are unfailingly kind, helpful, exceedingly polite and generous. Language, when coupled with a smile and kind heart, is not a barrier. So many people went out of their way to assist us.
Our hotel host and his family are a perfect example. Nuj and his wife Jane waited upon us like we were royalty, fixing us a late dinner after restaurants were closed, walking us to the ferry and showing us how to use it, and driving us to the rail station. We owed them great thanks for their hospitality and warmth. Instead, it was they who gave us a parting gift.
My niece, never having traveled from the US., choose Thailand for her first out-of-country experience. She wanted something culturally different. I worried Thailand might be a little too different for her Midwest tastes. I was wrong. She could not have chosen a better country in which to baptize her Passport.