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Bangkok and Beyond

If ever there was a city that exuded drama, immortality, history, the promise of discovery and excellent cuisine, Bangkok is it.

by / Published: 25 Jan 2014

Bangkok and Beyond

Intricate carvings at the Grand Palace in Bangkok

FAST FACTS
Currency: RM1 is equivalent to THB9.69
Population: 67,448,120
Weather: Tropical; rainy, warm, cloudy southwest monsoon (mid-May to September); dry, cool northeast monsoon (November to mid-March)
Getting there: AirAsia flies from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok 11 times daily. Other airlines are also available

The myth of Bangkok
For those of you ‘young’ enough to remember, there was a famous song sung by a Murray Head, who had this one hit and was never heard of again. ‘One Night in Bangkok’ hit the charts in 1984 with dubious yet infectious lyrics like “One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster / The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free”, and the whole world knew exactly what that meant! The song was from the musical ‘Chess’ and gained even more notoriety when it was banned in Thailand for having disrespectful lyrics. What this song (and various cinematic adventures) did do was give a rather inappropriate view of Bangkok, particularly to those who had never visited, but if you can see beyond the tourist tat and crazy traffic there really is so much more to this frenzied city of almost nine million inhabitants.

Historically, this was a city that came to be because of the Burmese sacking of Ayutthaya—the ancient seat of the Thai royals. This led to Thonburi becoming the capital city before an important general, Phraya Chakri, decided to move the capital across the Chao Phraya river to protect it against the Burmese. This general became King Rama I, the first ruler of the Chakri dynasty whose descendants still rule today.

Built according to the plans of Ayutthaya by craftsmen who survived the Burmese invasion, the new capital was given a new name, Krung Thep, roughly translated as ‘City of Angels’. It was foreign traders who called the city Bang Makok due to the abundance of a certain plant that was called ‘makok’ found by the river and in time was shortened to the now familiar Bangkok. It is also interesting to note that as surrounding countries were being colonised by the French, British and Dutch, Thailand remained independent and fiercely loyal to their royal family.

Wats, Khlongs and Sois—Don’t forget the Grand Palace!
No matter how well travelled you are or how many times you’ve been to Bangkok, there’s always a temple (wat), canal (khlong) or side street (soi) waiting for you to discover. Culture and history aren’t for everyone, especially children under the age of 12—“Not another temple!” is a lament I’ve heard enough times! But when in Bangkok, the Grand Palace and a couple of temples are an absolute must!

The Grand Palace

Yes, this is as touristy as it gets with busloads of camera wielding tourists disgorging out of tour buses. Combine this with the heat and humidity, and you could be tempted to avoid it altogether. Even if you visit the palace only once, do it. Get a private guide who will offer information not usually found in books, and go early in the morning for the full experience. Construction of the palace began in 1782 under King Rama I and as each generation passed, buildings and wings were added. Until 1925, it was actually the royal residence but it is now used for special occasions.

Take a few hours to explore as there really is so much to see—from the fresco paintings and the royal throne hall, to extravagant gold-gilded statues (Thai demon gods are particularly popular) to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, known as Wat Phraw Kaew.

There is an entrance fee and a strict dress code but if you rock up in your hot pants or singlet, there’s the option of renting something to cover those wobbly bits up.

Wat Arun

The venerated Temple of the Dawn lies on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River and is a collection of buildings interspaced with ponds and shrines. The temple is actually famed for its towers, which are covered with vibrant Chinese ceramic pieces, and although privy to every tourist visiting Bangkok, is a must-see temple.

Wat Pho
Wat Pho is located next to the Grand Palace and is as renowned for having Thailand’s largest reclining Buddha for its massage school where masseurs have been training for decades. Visitors can wander around admiring the 46-meter long Buddha, and have a proper Thai massage after. And, if you want to acquire new skills, there are long-term and short-term courses available.

Wat Traimit
If you can squeeze in just one more temple, check out Wat Traimit, which isn’t as ornate or colourful as other temples but houses one of the world’s biggest solid gold Buddha statues with an interesting tale behind it. The statue was discovered when workers dropped a heavy 13th century image of Buddha which cracked open to reveal a gold one inside, hidden for hundreds of years to prevent it from being taken by invaders.

Floating markets and more
Every country has markets and they offer a fascinating peek into the culture of the local people—what they eat, how they live and their creativity. In this part of the world, the wet market thrives with its noise, freshly slaughtered poultry and strange looking produce. You either love these places or you avoid them. Fortunately, Bangkok has markets catering to every taste and shopping addiction and they are all well worth a visit.

Chatuchak
The name itself strikes a fear in anyone who thinks shopping is a dirty word. When something touts itself as ‘one of the world’s largest weekend markets’ and covers almost 30 acres, you just know you’re going to buy something you don’t need. On my first visit to the maze that is Chatuchak, the narrow wooden walkways sunk into mud when it rained, and I got a pair of flared jeans under the ‘No Name’ label—those were the days! It has since become quite respectable with proper signage, covered walkways, a no-smoking ban, all kinds of gorgeous things to buy and a massive array of food to fuel up on.

No matter when you go, it will be hot and humid so be ready for it. Always bargain but not to the point where everyone is embarrassed, and if you’re buying furniture or anything large, there are shipping companies that have set up in the market—all very organised. The weekend is the best time to go as everything is open but if you’re there during the week, there are parts of the market open so find out before.

There is an animal and pet section of the market which is well worth a look but amongst the cute fighting roosters, kittens, puppies and little furry creatures, there may unfortunately be endangered or protected animals which look like they shouldn’t be there—and definitely not to be kept as pets.

Floating markets
There are some who travel to get away from the tourist traps, off the beaten track and all that, but I think a smidgen of mass tourism is fun! The floating markets on the outskirts of Bangkok are really enjoyable. There are four to choose from: Damnoen Saduak (largest and most popular), Amphawa (50km outside Bangkok and famous for seafood), Taling Chan (only 12km outside Bangkok, smaller and more authentic) and Khlong Lat Mayom (nearest to Bangkok, less touristy). You can get fruit, tasty hawker food, souvenirs… anything you get in a market but on boats.

What really intrigued me when visiting was seeing how the locals lived by and on the river. Little kids brushing their teeth (and doing the things little kids do in the water!), diving in, cooking with the water, doing their laundry in it and looking more healthy and robust than us city-dwellers with all our mod-cons and filtered water!

The other side
The City of Angels is also known as being the starting point for all travellers, gap year students and wannabe hippies as they embark on their adventures clutching their faithful Lonely Planet guidebooks. The Banana Pancake Trail is the great South East Asian trip covering Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and India; and Khao San Road is where it all begins—or ends, depending how far you get. Cheap accommodation, food (banana pancakes galore!), tattoo parlours, travel agents, vans heading to the islands and beyond, massage, braids, fisherman trousers, Red Bull T-shirts, cafes showing grade B thrillers… everything and anything someone needs to imagine they’re part of The Beach posse. And if you’re above 25, this road can really tire you out!

The art of the eight limbs
Thai kickboxing or Muay Thai has become the martial art flavour of the day so again when in Bangkok and if you’re looking for a sweaty, adrenaline filled night, head to one of the stadiums to watch fighters punch, knee, elbow and kick till one goes down. Stadiums like the notorious Lumpini (soon to be closed and re-housed in a new facility) and Ratchadamnoen host regular fights throughout the week. If you want to get into the thick of things, sit with the locals but be warned that Thais are extremely passionate about Muay Thai and the betting that goes with it.

Day tripping
Once the city has been covered and escape from the chaos is needed, there are a few places to visit just for the day.

Ayutthaya

Wat Mahathat head in a tree in Ayutthaya

The most common way to visit the ancient city is by boat down the Chao Phraya river, usually having a meal on board then going for a walk around the UNESCO heritage site. Now, you can also do fantastic bicycle trips where you pick up your bike as you arrive and follow a guide around the ruins.

Ayutthaya was a thriving capital city for over 400 years with foreign traders describing it as one of the biggest cities in the region at that time. It was powerful, wealthy and had vassal states on the Malay Peninsula and Cambodia. People often compare this to Angkor Wat, saying that the latter is more impressive; but remember that Ayutthaya was built after Angkor, has no Hindu influence, and was almost completely devastated by the Burmese.

Bridge on the River Kwai
Another famous day trip is to leave early in the morning from Bangkok (two to three hours drive depending on the mode of transport) and visit the town and province of Kanchanaburi. If this name doesn’t ring a bell, this is where the infamous Death Railway of World War 2 was built with the aim of connecting Thailand and Burma by thousands of Allied POWs. Visitors come here mainly to see the bridge (made even more famous by the 1957 movie The Bridge on The River Kwai), the JEATH—Japan, England, Australia/America, Thailand, Holland; countries involved in the building of the railway, the War Museum and various war cemeteries. All are poignant reminders of how vicious the war was in the region.

On a lighter note, there are many other activities to try including the Thai staples of elephant rides and bamboo rafting, and visiting the famed limestone temple caves.

Hua Hin

Thailand’s beaches and islands are their biggest draw. From Phuket and Koh Samui to Koh Chang and the Similan islands, there is an island and beach for everyone from the family to the glow-stick waving party animal.

If you’re looking for powder white sand, azure seas and tranquillity, go to Hua Hin. If you’re after pounding dance music, buckets of Thai whisky and go-go bars, head for the other islands or stay in Bangkok. Hua Hin began its touristy career as a seaside destination in the 1920s for the genteel and royalty to escape the city heat. Two kings—Rama VI and Rama VII—built summer palaces here with the most famous one being the wonderfully named ‘Far From Worries’ Palace, which is still used as a royal holiday getaway.

Getting to Hua Hin from Bangkok is easy. You can opt for a bus, taxi or mini van. If you have time, try the train, which takes longer but is so much more scenic. Accommodation is a breeze, and visitors will be spoilt for choice with all the big-name resorts where lazing around the pool is the activity of the day, or boutique hotels to perfect the art of having a drink at sunset.

Things to do, places to go
The ubiquitous night market is a must-see. I spent many a night happily sampling the food and was particularly enraptured with the oyster omelettes and ‘pad thai’. This isn’t Chatuchak but you will go home with some unnecessary buy; that’s just how holiday market shopping goes. If you don’t go home with at least a set of cushion covers and a box of incense, you haven’t been to a Thai night market.

The pier seafood restaurants are another famous Hua Hin institution, where you can have any kind of edible seafood cooked any way you want for a very reasonable price.

And after all that eating, night market scavenging and pool lounging, you may want to get a little ball action. This bustling beach town is home to an unhealthy number of golf courses, which is why many husbands are only too happy to visit, making Hua Hin the ideal family destination and the perfect come-down to the chaos of Bangkok.

WHERE TO GO
The Grand Palace
Na Phra Lan Road,
Old City, Bangkok

Wat Arun
158, Wang Derm Road,
Bangkok Yai, Bangkok
Tel: +66–2891 2185

Wat Pho
2, Sanam Chai Road,
next to the Grand Palace
Tel: +66 2226 0335

Wat Traimit
Tri Mit Road,
Samphanthawong, Bangkok
Tel: +66 2225 9775

Chatuchak Weekend Market
Thanon Kamphaeng Phet,
Chatuchak, Bangkok

Ratchadamnoen Stadium
1, Ratchadamnoen Nok Road,
Pom Prap Sattru Phai, Bangkok
Tel: +66 2281 4205
 

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