Bangkok in a Nutshell
- MasterCard says that Thailand's capital of Bangkok is the most visited city in the world, ahead of London. It welcomes 16 million international arrivals a year.
- Bangkok is a very large sprawling city bisected by the Chao Phraya River. Bangkok was once crisscrossed by dozens of canals or “khlongs”, and its buildings stood on stilts, earning it the nickname Venice of the East. Most have now been filled, over the years.
- Bangkok traces its roots to a small trading post during the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the fifteenth century, which eventually grew and became the site of two capital cities, Thonburi in 1768 (west bank of river) and Rattanakosin in 1782 (east bank). This developed into Bangkok, the heart of the modernization of Siam, later renamed Thailand, during the late-nineteenth century.
- Bangkok is known to Thais as Krung Thep Maha Nakho, but its full ceremonial name is Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit.
Getting Around Bangkok
- The most famous, and popular means of transport is the tuk tuk. These trishaws - three wheeled taxis - are fun and at times, heart stopping, as they swerve in and out of the traffic. Brace yourself, also, for the inevitable argument with the driver about the fare. It will be exorbitant, unless you agree to visit his friend, the tailor, who will pay him petrol money in return for a captive clientele. And, even if you make it clear that you don't want to go to the tailor, you will still end up there.
- The backpacker’s mecca, the Khaosan Road, is crammed with cheap hotels and bars. Thai massage, in establishments of varying quality and reputation, mostly with rows of mattresses on the floor, is available on every corner. This is where I stay on my early trips. before I head north to Chiang Mai and the Mekong. Fried grasshoppers for supper.
What to See and Do in Bangkok
Bangkok is basically a Mega Wat Experience. Wat is the Thai word for temple and there are plenty of them, mainly, but not all, Buddhist. Marvelling at the glitzy and the assorted Buddhas has to be the number one Must Do. You'll either find them gaudily Disneylandesque or exquisite. Either way, they're fascinating.
The Grand Palace
The Number One Must See (if you’re up to braving the crowds) is the most opulent sight of them all, the Grand Palace (the King’s home) and its sacred Wat Phra Kaew Temple, which contains the tiny Emerald Buddha. The Grand Palace is a huge rectangle of assorted buildings on the banks of the river. It was the official residence of the Kings of Siam, their court, and royal government from 1782 until 1925. Today, the king lives in the Dusit Palace and the Grand Palace is regarded as a working museum
Taking up roughly a quarter of the Grand Palace compound, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is an astonishing complex of highly decorated buildings, surrounded with deities and shrines. This is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, built specially to the king's specification (1783) for his use, and to house the diminutive Gautama Buddha. The Buddha is just over two feet high and made of jasper, not emerald, and not jade, as some sources suggest (not that I can tell the difference). And it's too small to see clearly anyway with all the crowds surging around. The image is considered the sacred palladium (object of great antiquity on which the safety of a city or nation is said to depend) of Thailand.
South and close by, also on the river, is Wat Pho Temple, with its enormous reclining Buddha, famous for its training in Thai style massage, where if you are lucky, someone walks on your back. It's also known also as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (for obvious reasons). The royal Temple complex houses the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand, and the reclining Buddha is 46 metres long. The temple's one of the oldest in Bangkok (late seventeenth century) and its official name is Wat Phra Chetuphon Wimon Mangkhalaram Rajwaramahawiha.
Gold Buddha in Wat Suthat Thepwararam
Wat Suthat Thepwararam is yet another Royal temple. This one dates from 1847 or 1848 and contains a gold Buddha image, the Phra Sri Sakyamuni, which was moved from Sukhothai. At the lower terrace of the base, there are 28 Chinese pagodas, representing each of the Buddhas born on this earth.
The Chao Phraya River
The most atmospheric city life seems to take place on the waters of the Chao Phraya River, where long tailed boats and water taxis ply constantly up and down (these are quite useful to avoid the congested roads and tuk tuks). The view is dominated by Wat Arun, of the Thonburi capital, on the opposite shore. You can't miss it, with its steep steps and Khmer-style spire.
Or take a trip out to Damnoen Saduak Floating Market – more long tailed boats, chock full of all manner of vegetables, and vendors in their conical straw hats. (A Thai tourist destination that was in decline and has now been revived.)
Still More to See in Bangkok?
Further away still , The Golden Buddha, officially titled Phra Phuttha Maha Suwana Patimakon, is a gold statue, with a weight of 5.5 tons, located in the temple of Wat Trait.
Once watted out, there are plenty of day tours. Ayutthaya, River Kwai, the rainforest.
It's impossible to resist shopping in Bangkok. There are decent tailors (!), trinkets and crafts galore and fake designer good on every corner. Though the ultimate shopping experience is Patpong Market, (where I stocked up on 'Armani' jeans). You can buy just about anything here in the huge halls. There are rows and rows of pet stalls. At least, I think the animals are for pets. If it's the same as China, you either keep them or eat them. You can even choose a fake ID out of a plastic basket.
The Patpong area takes on a different face at night. It is also the heart of Bangkok's sex industry.
Bangkok has an incredible array of hotels. with amazing service. The Banyan Tree (there are several) is great. I've flown in from Brunei this time. Fifty minutes in the taxi from the airport - that’s not bad for Bangkok - and I'm there. The skyline has changed since 2005. There are many more tower blocks and very little Thai script. Nearly all the signage is in English now. My Banyan Tree is in an upmarket hotel area, adjacent to an equally upmarket shopping area. And things are definitely looking up. I’ve been upgraded to a suite. So I have a little palace on one of the top floors. There’s three separate rooms and a huge tub. It’s a shame I don’t have time to indulge. I’m off shopping, trying to match the bamboo design steel cutlery I bought in Kho Samui in 2003. Some items have gone AWOL over the years.
On the Hunt in Bangkok
I have researched on the internet and found a stall that stocks Thai cutlery. It's in a department store in a plaza. The shop is a maze of Thai artefacts and doesn't look that different to some of the temples. But Im overjoyed to track down almost identical items to mine. The shopkeeper tells me that my exact design isn’t made any more. ‘Same, same’. I’m pleased to find a decent match and tired, so I don’t bargain and he’s pleased too. There’s massage shop in the plaza, so I head there next. When in Rome.
I’ve taken a taxi to the plaza,as the concierge has ensured a fixed price for me. It’s double the meter rate, but still cheaper than the price a taxi will try and extort from me if I’m left on my own. Or it will be. So, rejuvenated after my pummelling, I decide to walk back to the hotel and plot a scenic route on Google, across Lumpini Park. It seems, additionally, to cut off a corner.
The park is chock full of joggers and after navigating them I find myself back in the road where the hotel is located. I can see it on the other side. Except that there is no way of crossing the dual carriageway, which is barricaded in the middle, not to mention packed with vehicles. I ask directions from a kindly Thai jogger who sends me to a zebra crossing up at the next junction. It adds half a mile to the journey. So much for Google.
Dinner in the hotel. Amazing red duck curry and chillie vodka cocktails in the rooftop bar. I shall definitely have to come back.
Next stop Bangladesh.