My travels throughout the years have taken me far and wide across the globe, however I couldn’t genuinely call many of those travels an adventure until I went to Thailand. After finishing my university studies and with no concrete plan for the future I decided to grab my suitcase and the little energy I had left to fly halfway across the world to teach English in a land I knew nothing about. As it turns out, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
During the month I spent in Thailand I was based in Bangkok where I was teaching English at Wat Cheang Wai, a secondary school for novice monks in the north district of Bang Sue. Despite having a full day of teaching I managed to visit most of the main tourist sites during the evenings and weekends, as well some quite unknown ones such as the mummified monk and wax monks next-door to the school.
The first week I stayed by the riverside at a little hostel above the flower market, Pak Khlong Talad, which allowed me to explore the riverside attractions while enjoying the breeze during my daily boat rides. During these days my eye became accustomed to be on the lookout for the tiny orange flag announcing the approach of my ride, my feet learnt to jump from dock to boat and back without hesitation and my heart learnt to beat to the rhythm of the waters flowing through the Chao Phraya river.
Before calling it a night on my first day in Bangkok, I decided to sit down and contemplate the passing of the Chao Phraya for a while, and had the good fortune to behold a beautiful temple from across the river as the fiery skies accentuated its silhouette before succumbing to the darkness of the night. That temple was Wat Arun. After class on the following day I set off to explore its majestic architecture; its white prang piercing Bangkok’s blue skies as it rises towards the heavens to get a better view of the city that surrounds it. Wat Arun’s white prang are beautifully decorated with delicate tiles; the story goes that, not wanting to waste a shipment of porcelain that had arrived in pieces, emperor Rama II gave orders to use them to decorate the temple, resulting in the masterpiece we contemplate today. Despite having been half covered in scaffolding, Wat Arun was without doubt my favourite temple.
I dare say most tourists only cross the river when visiting Wat Arun and then cross back to the east bank as soon as they’re done. However I had a lot of free time and am a strong believer that the best way to know a place is by lost in its streets (I did a lot of that in Bangkok) so, after visiting Wat Arun, I decided to walk down the west bank to Memorial Bridge and then cross. This little adventure taught me that: there are still men who try their luck at fishing, whether they actually catch something or simply enjoy the time by the river I don’t know; I discovered that there is a small area surrounding the Santa Cruz Church that still remembers the legacy of the Portuguese-Siamese relations; I also wondered into a few Wats that shall remain nameless but beautiful in my mind. After crossing Memorial Bridge there is no reason why the adventure should stop, once on the east bank one can follow the gaze of King Rama I down Tri Phet Rd until encountering Wat Suthat and the Giant Swing that rises before it. From there it is not far to the Democracy Monument, which also happens to be where Bangkok’s kilometre zero is found. When heading back to Memorial Bridge one can do so down Siri Phong Rd and give Rommaniant Park a quick visit, for it is really quite pleasant.
Alternatively, across the river from Wat Arun we find Wat Pho, a temple that distinguishes itself from the many others littering Bangkok as it is home to the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand, as well as being the birthplace of to renowned Traditional Thai Massage. The reclining Buddha is without doubt a breathtaking view due to its dimensions and the superb craftsmanship that was evidently required to make it, particularly the sole of its feet which are delicately decorated with mother of pearl. In addition to the reclining Buddha, Wat Pho is home to more than 400 images of Buddha, which is the largest collection in Thailand. Throughout the complex we also find beautifully decorated chedis, tiles with varied depictions and as well as a set of four dvarapala or guardian daemons at the entrance of the Phra Mondop construction. After exploring the complex you can enjoy a superb massage on site, but if you’re more interested in learning you can enrol in one of the numerous courses offered by the Wat Pho Traditional Thai Massage School, now located across the road.
Not far from there we find Bangkok’s main attraction: the Grand Palace. Although if you ask the locals many consider the 500B fee to be a robbery, it is a must-see as a tourist. The Grand Palace is constantly crowded by hundreds of tourists struggling to take in the majestic sight that surrounds them. As you enter the Grand Palace, you are transported to a place that had only existed in your imagination until then: majestic chedis from different eras crown the grounds; sumptuous buildings extend their ceilings to the sky as if trying to escape the banality of earthly life and join the skies; walls are glamorously clad in mesmerizing depictions narrating the feats of the heroes of yore; hidden behind jewelled walls we also find the Emerald Buddha calmly sitting on its throne as it flaunters its exquisitely crafted outfits according season; guarding the many gems are magnificent dvarapala scattered throughout the grounds, always on the lookout. Exploring the extent of the treasures within the Grand Palace can easily take a day, in particular if you visit the museums therein as well, so make sure to go with sufficient time to take it all in.
When you visit the Grand Palace you will receive a courtesy ticket to visit the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall and I highly recommend you take advantage of this. This reception hall is part of the Dusit Palace complex, however it acts as museum during most of the year. At first one might be surprised due to the strict regulations enforced upon entry, mainly in regard to the dress code and prohibition of phones and cameras inside the premises, however you quickly forget about it once you’re inside. It is impossible to describe the magnificence of each piece, for their exquisite detail would require an encyclopaedia to be described appropriately. As you walk through its grand halls the remarkable craftsmanship of Thai artisans is evidenced in all kinds of artistic disciplines: porcelain painted so delicately the illustrations might start moving around anytime; embroidery so detailed it could be confused with a photograph; carvings so complex it is only possible that mother nature carved them into the trees herself; beetlewing arrangements dancing with the light. In short, it is a place for the eyes to indulge in beauty without being distracted by taking the perfect instagram shot.
As most “modern” cities nowadays Bangkok has more malls than I can count, and many of them quite impressive I am told, but the only one I bothered to visit was Asiatique for it is the only one that has a Ferris Wheel overlooking the Chao Phraya. If you want to go shopping then you’re probably better off at MBK, but if you’re feeling like you deserve a nice dinner and then a great view of the city at night don’t hesitate to head to Asiatique. Alternatively you can go to The Dome, the sky bar made famous after its appearance in the Hangover, however they’re quite picky about the dress code, so watch out what footwear you take there!
Although I was staying above the flower market, it was a few days before I actually took the time to visit the maze of tiny allies that quickly engulfed my senses with bursting colours and scents. Among the rainbow of petals that line the corridors, the orange and yellow of the Dao Ruang flowers dominates, for they represent success and good fortune, making them highly popular during festivals and weddings, among other events. Wondering through the scented passages of the market can be as fascinating experience, for at each turn one encounters a variety of different arrangements, delicately created by the talented hands of the artisans’ shyly working in the shadows.
In Bangkok we also find one of the oldest Chinatowns in the world, dating back to the late eighteenth century. One of the main attractions of this area is the authenticity which continues to rule its daily live, seemingly oblivious to the curious eye of tourists; regardless of the time the streets are packed with merchants selling their products and buyers negotiating the best bargain possible. If visiting during the day, the main attraction would be Wat Traimit, famous for holding the largest golden Buddha in existence, who happens to be a proficient hide-and-seek player, for he inconspicuously remained under a layer of plaster during several decades before revealing its true nature. At night, however, the sun is replaced by the hundreds of billboards and advertisements that line the streets, their neon lights fighting among each other for the attention of passersby. Bellow this cacophony of colour and light, the streets of Chinatown offer the best assortment of cheap and authentic street food, for vendors take over as soon as shops start closing for the day, impregnating the street with the succulent scent of their dishes.
Another great place to explore Bangkok’s nightlife is Khao San Road; it is usually bursting with tourists engaged on anything from dancing to tasting exotic snacks like scorpions, or simply enjoying a Traditional Thai Massage. Even if partying is not your cup of tea, the assortment of activities offered in this street is a spectacle worth experiencing during your trip.
The Jim Thompson House is found in the more modern area of Bangkok, however it presents us with one of the very few samples of a traditional Thai house within Bangkok. Jim Thompson is well known for the interest he took in the dying Thai silk industry, brining it back to life and popularising it in the Western World. In addition to his work in the silk industry, Jim Thompson was a collector and his house now exhibits many of the pieces he gathered throughout his life. Today, this museum acts as a sanctuary for, as your walk through its doors and follow your guide’s the steps, the buzz of the city instantly dies out, immersing you in a haven of nature, art and history.
A couple of hundred meters away from the Jim Thompson House is the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre a wonderful combination of mall with gallery. In this place it is as easy to find a café to nourish your body, as it is to find a wonderful exhibit of art to nourish your soul. Most, if not all, the exhibitions found in this centre showcase the art of local artists allowing the visitor to see Thailand through the eyes of its people. The flexible opening hours this centre offers means there is no space for excuses not to visit it; I personally spent more than one evening exploring its corridors as a post-work therapy.
Finally, the Chatuchak Weekend Market might be a little far from most tourist attractions, however it is easily accessible by the BTS and well worth the effort. The market spreads over 35 acres and houses more than 8,000 stalls offering anything you can think of; as you walk in you are surrounded by an overwhelming folklore of clothes, plants, handicrafts, ceramics, jewellery, books and even wild animals tempting your wallet to empty its contents. Browsing through this labyrinth of wonders can be an exhausting feat; thankfully, if you follow the aroma emanating from the food section, this can easily be solved and, as the day comes to a close, you can perform your final wonderings through the crowded allies while enjoying a delightful coconut ice-cream before heading home.
There is much more I could say about Bangkok, and I might do so in future posts, but for now this is enough to entice you into planning a trip and immerse yourself in this wonderful culture.