“One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster”
Traveling is truly a privilege and I have been fortunate enough to be able to use my passport several times. A new foreign city shakes me out of my mode of thinking and forces me to tune-in and feel new sites, sounds and people.
The idea of Bangkok has intrigued me for years. It seemed so foreign, an unknown culture and language, densely packed city with awful traffic, dirty, hot…the list goes on. These things sound like a turn-off but so many still go. I guess you have to go to the City of Angels (Krung Thep in Thai) to understand.
Landing in the new sleek Suvarnabhumi International Airport and whisked away in a car with no problem we got our first taste of Bangkok traffic. The congestion didn’t bother me because it gave me a chance to study the landscape of beautiful trees, neon signs, luxury condos and poverty all cramped together.
Situated on the bank of the Chao Phraya River, The Peninsula offers some of the best views of the river, skyline and is a quiet refuge from the chaos. We were greeted with some lovely flowers, a hotel upgrade and a nice bottle of welcome champagne. Although expensive by Bangkok standards the rates here are significantly lower than in other cities (my room was $271). Here is a tour of the room and the view:
Anxious to explore we headed out to the back of the hotel where a water taxi was waiting to take us across the river to catch a boat to the Grand Palace. I should tell you for winter this place is hot and humid so I can’t imagine what it is like in the summer.
I had heard about the numerous scams tourists fall into but only got to experience a half-hearted attempt. A man came up to me and told me that the Grand Palace was closed until 1:00pm. I replied with a, “1pm, reeeally?” We looked at each other and he knew I knew and started to say something and just waved his hand in an “oh forget it” swing and walked away. The Grand Palace has a dress code so be prepared to cover your feet, legs and shoulders. No shoes, no shirt, no Emerald Buddha. If you do find yourself there without the proper attire you can rent clothes to go in.
The Grand Palace was established 1782 to house King Rama I along with government offices and is over 218,000 square meters. I can’t even begin to convey the incredible detail that covered every square inch of every structure. You could spend days in the Grand Palace walls and not see every detail.
There are numerous guardian statues called Yaks that protect the temple buildings.
By far the busiest site was The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, one of the most respected sites in all of Thailand. People come from all over the country and world to pray and honor the Lord Buddha. Wikipedia reports, “According to the legend, the Emerald Buddha was created in India in 43 BC by Nagasena in the city of Pataliputra (today’s Patna).” The statue is made of jade and is only 45cm tall. You must remove your shoes to enter the temple and no cameras are allowed. Here is a picture via Wikipedia.
Worth a stop is the gift shop at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles; it has some of the most beautiful textiles I have ever seen. It’s a great idea for authentic gifts and a nice departure from the more mass-produced souvenirs surrounding the Grand Palace.
We hopped into one of the many hot pink Toyota taxis to Siam Square. The driver took an unexpected sharp left and turned off into an alley. Was this a shortcut, was he getting a commission to take us to a gift shop where we’d receive a “special rate?” A whole industry is thriving in these back alleys, tents set up with dozens of people selling goods, most looked like spare parts for scooters. Given the abundance of scooters and they way people drive them (I think there is a city ordinance that you have to ride at least 3 people at a time…) spare parts seems like a smart trade. Turned out to be a shortcut as we popped back on a main road and were quickly deposited to the street.
Alternating between the skywalks (walkways to bypass the street) and sidewalk we made our way through Siam Square. Stopping into shops to cool off, checking out the wares of street vendors and admiring the beautiful street Spirit Houses all the while trying to keep up with the pace of everyone.
Bangkok.com describes Spirit Houses as, “…doll house-sized homes are set atop a pedestal and placed in an auspicious location, which allows residents, workers and others to offer prayers and small gifts to appease spirits.”
One of the biggest draws of Bangkok is the food. There is something for everyone from street food to upscale dining at five-star restaurants. But the adventure is in finding the street food and little restaurants along the way. We stopped in for lunch at Ban Khun Mae and had one of the best (and hottest) papaya salads of the trip.
It seems like such a simple dish but so many places get it wrong. Fresh limejuice is a must and the right balance of fish sauce, oil and chili flakes.
Was the hot chicken in coconut milk with galangal soup worth eating in the crazy hot weather? Yes. I’d eat it again in a Bangkok summer. Pretty sure that like New York minute.
Chicken soup that was so packed with flavor I was tempted to find the chef and demand the recipe.
Satiated with lunch that came in under $10 for two we went searching for a food stand I read about on a blog. Never did find the stand but it didn’t matter because we were about to encounter more food than we thought possible.
We continued to wander south and were met with friendly smiles everywhere we went. The overall vibe is surprisingly relaxed given the heat and crowded conditions. Outside of the Grand Palace I didn’t feel like I was treated like a tourist, everyone was busy with his or her own life and left me alone, I liked that. Granted I was not hanging out on Khao San Road or Patong. A great green space to take a break and cool off is Lumphini Park just north of Rama IV Road.
Bangkok is no joke, it will wear you out. It’s hot, can be smelly, sometimes dirty and the traffic and crowds can be overwhelming and confusing. But it’s exciting and an opportunity to test yourself to make an adventure out of whatever comes your way. Get out there and explore as much as you can on foot or boat, have a loose itinerary and I guarantee you will feel a satisfaction that surprises you.
Next Blog – Part II: More food, enjoying the Chao Phraya River and the good life at The Peninsula.
I had to do it; I can’t pretend this song was not in my head the whole time in Bangkok.