10 Things to do in Bangkok
Our epic return to Asia began with Thailand and a visit from our good from Kevin from back home. Kevin is the best kind of travel guest to have: he showed up early and had cold beers and matching Thai beer brand koozies at the ready for our arrival. “Sweet As!” … (see New Zealand post for definition).
No trip to southeast Asia is complete without a stop through Bangkok, one of the region’s most fascinating and chaotic cities. Monks speed around on motorbikes, cellphone in hand; that lady may not really be a lady; and, every other person you meet has something to sell to you, all same same, but different…
The city is dotted with amazing temples, pagodas, and street-corner shrines tucked into and along every roadway, alley, and riverbank amidst towering skyscrapers, weathered apartment buildings, train lines, and canals. You can get lost in the maze of markets: floating markets, night markets, day markets, Chinatown markets — ALL THE MARKETS.
But nowhere can you find the locals more feverishly peddling their wares than the tourist district of Khao San Road, where anything that can be for sale – and everything that shouldn’t be for sale – is most definitely for sale, both the products and the crowds of clientele changing with the hour, from daylight to the dark wee morning hours.
We tried to get a short sampling of it all over our three days in the city. Here’s our list of some things do do in Bangkok:
The Grand Palace/Emerald Buddha Temple
This is the big drawcard in Bangkok as far as tourist sights go. Established in 1782 under King Rama I, the complex consists of the royal residence, government buildings, and the renowned Temple of the Emerald Buddha, as well as a number of other halls, stupas, other religious structures, and oddly enough, a small scale model of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. Most of the temples and buildings are beautifully covered in small colorful tiles, much more bright and shiny than most of the religious structures we saw throughout South Asia.
Better known as the Reclining Buddha Temple, Wat Pho is another important temple in Bangkok (wat = temple). The main attraction here was, you guessed it, a giant reclining Buddha – made of brick and stucco and lacquered and gilded, the Buddha stretches 46m in length and 15m high from the base to the top knot (on the head). Definitely a big Buddha. The feet of the statue are 5m long and 3m high, and have a special design on the soles, a tribute to the Lord Buddha in line with the belief from Sri Lanka that told of the group of Brahmins who found the patterns on the soles of Prince Siddhartha five days after his birth and held these patterns as one of the signs of a great man. Naturally, the Buddha was undergoing a pedicure during our visit and most of the feet were covered in scaffolding. The general rule of thumb is, if you don’t see any scaffolding then I’m definitely not there.
See the late King and the new King
With the death of their most recent king just last October (2016), Thailand is in a year of mourning. Everywhere you go there are large pictures of the former king (King Bhumibol Adulyadej) along streets, on billboards, and at important and popular sights, and black and white fabric is strung in many areas around the city, all paying respect to the king. Many Thai’s also wear black clothing as a sign of respect during this first year after the king’s death. The longest reigning monarch in the world (70 years), a small exhibit at the Grand Palace told of the king’s life, one in which he cared for his people and worked to create inventions that would better their lives. He was considered the father of modern Thailand as well as the “father of Thai invention.”
Bangkok’s National Museum
The National Museum is supposedly (as advertised) the largest in all of Southeast Asia, which we quickly decided was by square area rather than content. The museum as a whole could be summed up by “Buddha Subduing Mara”, the most common pose of Buddha images in Thailand, and definitely the most common display throughout the museum. In Buddhism, Mara is a demon who attempts to lure Buddha away from his path to enlightenment. In addition to the very high volume of Buddha Subduing Mara pieces, the museum also had some large and intricate chariots (some currently being worked on), other royal pieces such as throwns and howdahs (elaborate seats for riding on elephants), and interesting artifacts from others areas of Southeast Asia.
Jim Thompson House
Our second day in Bangkok, we ventured to the Jim Thompson house. With beautiful trees and gardens surrounding the home, the grounds were a small oasis amidst the bustling city. Jim Thompson was born in Delaware in 1906 and briefly served the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) in Thailand during World War II. He loved Bangkok so much, he settled there after the war and became involved in the silk trading business, sending samples to European fashion houses and growing a worldwide clientele. He also collected parts of derelict historic homes for the building of his own estate, which he decorated with artwork and antique pieces from around the region. He mysteriously disappeared while on a visit to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, last seen on March 26, 1967. All signs indicated that he was going for a walk and didn’t plan to be gone long. Not a single valid clue turned up in the ensuing years as to what might have happened to him. Cue Unsolved Mysteries music…
Erawan Shrine & Temple of the Golden Buddha
In addition to some of the heavy hitters listed above, we also visited some smaller shrines and lesser known sights, including the Erawan Shrine and the Golden Buddha. The Erawan Shrine was located on bustling corner in Bangkok’s commercial district, surrounded by towering shopping malls and the city Skytrain line. The shrine was originally built in 1956 in effort to end a string of misfortunes in the construction of a hotel, at that time called the Erawan Hotel. After the construction of the shrine, the string of misfortunes mysteriously ended. While the original hotel no longer exists, the shrine remains an important site, particularly for those in need of material assistance, who come to bow and present offerings of flowers, candles, incense, and bananas before the Lord Brahma. The shrine was packed with visitors when we were there and traditional Thai dancers performed nearby, something that is supposedly sometimes commissioned as a way of giving thanks if a wish is granted.
We just happened to stumble upon the Temple of the Golden Buddha (Wat Traimit), which sits at the outskirts of Bangkok’s Chinatown. This temple houses the largest golden Buddha image in the world (supposedly), made of pure gold and measuring 12’ 5” in diameter and 15’ 9” tall from base to crown. The figure weighs approximately 5.5 tons and has a price value of ~$35.7 million USD. While the origins of the figure are uncertain, it was made in the Sukhothai Dynasty style of the 13-14th century, though it could have been made after that time. When originally discovered the figure was completely covered in plaster to prevent it from being stolen, possibly by an invading enemy. It was rediscovered in 1955 that it was made of pure gold.
Take a Riverboat Ride
While we didn’t do an official tour boat along the Chao Phraya River, we did take a water taxi, still providing a nice view of Bangkok’s riverside skyline of high rises and temples, including Wat Arun, which in typical Kate-goes-sightseeing fashion, was covered in scaffolding. We also got a good view of the beautiful Rama III bridge, a cable-stayed bridge showcasing cables with gold-colored sheaths, making the whole bridge glimmer with gold. Classy.
Khao San Road
Any tourist that has been through Bangkok, and many who haven’t, know of Khao San Road. The famous tourist district road filled with clubs, bars, massage parlors, suit shops, guesthouses, and vendors of every possible good. Food vendors crank out pad Thai, fresh fruit smoothies, grilled chicken, and corn on the cob. Clothing stalls are packed with elephant pants, Chang and Singha beer tank tops, and all manner of t-shirts: Hitler lying naked on a beach, Kermit snorting lines of coke, and pictures of the Hanson brothers labeled “Nirvana”. Woven bracelets included phrases like “Wolfpack”, “I love small cock”, or occasionally, “Thailand”. Walking vendors follow you with hammocks, binders with suit designs, and small wooden frogs that “croak” when you rub a stick over their back. As the evening grows later, the roads sees a whole new crowd of vendors, peddling different goods and services for the late night crowd. No trip to Bangkok is complete without a trip to the infamous Khao San Road.
So… there’s not a lot to say here. Basically you rinse off your feet a bit and stick them into a large aquarium filled with hundreds of small fish that nibble off the dead skin, bacteria, and whatever else Bangkok has left on your feet, which you probably don’t want to know. Definitely a very strange feeling, Shawn laughed almost the entire time. Cool to try!
While Bangkok has several floating markets, we skipped the one that they peddle to all of the tourists (during which you spend most of your time in transit just to get there/return) and went to the closest one: Talin Chan, which can be accessed by either the hop-on hop-off water taxi boats or the #79 bus, which we caught not far from Khao San Road. This market only runs on weekend days and consists mostly of a floating pier filled with seating. Locals pull their boats up to the piers, and with help from others working on the pier, sell their delicious seafood meals right off the boat – large stuffed fish cooking on the grill, mussels, squid, meat skewers, soups, salads, enormous prawns… all served up from small boats. It being only around 10am, we wished we wouldn’t have eaten breakfast, but still tried out delicious plates of mussels and squid. In addition to the floating portion of the market, the street leading to the canal also had its own market, the majority of which was flowers, fruits, vegetables, and prepared foods, from ready-to-eat snacks and meals to homemade cooking sauces.
In addition to all of our sightseeing, we spent plenty of time on Khao San Road and the nearby Rambuttri Road, testing out the local brews and eating delicious Thai food (finally!). Kevin took his first ever tuk tuk ride, and we spotted several giant water monitor lizards while wondering along Bangkok’s canals. After walking around each day, we relaxed with nice foot massages and I finally got a much-needed pedicure. Overall, a very successful three days in Bangkok! Now… to the islands!!