By Jim Ferri
The first thing you notice about Bangkok is the chaos.
It’s a city of 8+ million people, and at any given moment every one of them appears to be driving in every direction possible, turning each street into a claustrophobic clutter of cars and taxis, trucks and buses, tuk-tuks and more tuk-tuks. And through this mass of metal, motorbikes, and moto-taxis flit about like motorized dragonflies.
Yes, the traffic is dreadful, but many overlook it because of Bangkok’s other attributes. Among them is the fascinating Thai culture, the exotic beauty of the city, and, for many, the incredible food.
But at the top of the list is the fact that Bangkok is such a bargain compared to other major cities. You can find bargains at numerous hotels and hostels in every price range, including major international brands. And many of these hotels are new and stylish.
Also, a steal is transportation within the city, including taxis, tuk-tuks and its metro-like Skytrain. Even more of a bargain is its world-renowned street food, which is everywhere and quite cheap.
Add to that the airline deals you find as well. As of this writing, for example, there are plenty of airfares under $650 roundtrip from the USA to Bangkok during September/October.
But the best bargain I discovered is the city’s plethora of unique charms. In fact, there are so many you don’t want to wing it in Bangkok despite how you travel elsewhere. Do some research ahead of time with a good guidebook, and you’ll arrive well prepared. It’s the best way to get a real taste of the beautiful sights, sounds, and food of this fantastic city.
Wat Phra Kaeo and the Grand Palace
On the charm and beauty list make your first stop Wat Phra Kaeo. There are more than 40,000 temples in Thailand, and this wat is the holiest temple in the entire country. It’s part of the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok’s Old City.
Wat Phra Kaeo houses the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred relic in all of Thailand. You can see the Buddha in the Bot (the ordination hall), which is so sacred police are stationed inside to prevent the taking of photos.
Despite its name, however, the Buddha is not emerald at all but instead carved from jadeite. Only 26 inches tall, he sits atop a beautiful, incredibly ornate, golden altar.
The entire wat is the most exquisitely ornate complex I’ve ever seen in my life. Anywhere. Everything covered in gold and a thousand different hues of glass, stone, tile, and paint. It’s overwhelming in its beauty, and you could easily stay an entire day walking about admiring every single building.
Adjacent to Wat Phra Kaeo is the Grand Palace, a blend of traditional Thai architecture and Neo-Classical style. The King’s official residence from 1782 until 1946, its main hall is the only area open to the public.
It’s now used by the King to entertain foreign monarchs and ambassadors. Tourists at the gate entertain themselves taking selfies with the guards.
(An important note here: Thais revere the royal family, and it’s important to be respectful while talking of them. In the past some Westerners have been given jail sentences for making jokes about them.)
Wat Pho and Pampered Feet
About a 15-minute walk from the Palace complex is 16th-century Wat Pho, Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple. In one of the temples of this amazing complex is the 150-foot-long reclining Buddha, the soles of its feet inlaid with 108 mother-of-pearl images, said to identify the true Buddha.
In addition to the Reclining Buddha, the Wat Is also well known as a center for traditional medicine. More important to some travelers, however, is that it’s also home to the most famous massage school in Thailand. Masseurs are available to relieve us of our aches and pains for 260 baht (about $8) per 30 minutes.
Wat Pho is popular with tourists. If you can, get here early to avoid the huge tour groups that start flowing in about 8:30 AM.
Two Places for “Stuff”
In Bangkok, the National Museum is, in essence. Thailand’s attic. Here you find the beautiful cultural cornucopia of the nation including mother-of-pearl inlay, beautiful paintings, golden treasures, enamel wares, woodcarvings, musical instruments, furniture old weapons, regalia, etc. It is one of the most comprehensive collections throughout Southeast Asia.
Miles away, the vast Chatuchak Weekend Market is an eye-opener that provides more insights into Thai culture. I found it quite interesting but be prepared to do some walking: it has 12,000 vendors spread over 27 acres.
You’ll find it all in Chatuchak: antiques, designer clothing, housewares, Buddhist art, Asian kitsch, and just about everything else you can think of including plenty of food stalls and tiny restaurants. Items are grouped in sections, which helps tame it a bit, and maps are available. Nevertheless, it is a vast maze of colors, sights, sounds, and smells. Think Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar with a beautiful Southeast Asian twist.
Years ago Bangkok was crisscrossed with numerous canals on which vendors in sampans offered their goods and foodstuffs for sale. Today the image of those floating markets continues to be a major attraction for many visiting Bangkok.
But since most canals were filled in – exacerbating Bangkok’s nightmarish traffic situation – vendors have been forced further afield.
Today there are several markets in and around the city. The best known, and perhaps the most touristy, is the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market about an hour outside the city.
I hired a car and driver for the day and arrived about 8:00 AM. The parking lot was empty, and I pretty much had the canals to myself.
You cruise the canals on sampans. Vendors sell their goods from other sampans or from he shops that line the canal banks. I hired one but before we could leave the photographer insisted taking a photo of me with the woman driver. Obviously, they’d have a nifty gift with my photo for sale when we returned.
After pushing off, we’re soon cruising by little souvenir and food shops. We pass many more selling paintings, T-shirts, woven bags and just about everything else you can think of. Peering into the jungle behind I see small shrines sticking up in the foliage. Around us, little fish jump out of the water.
We turn onto another canal and pass a little dress shop. My driver becomes visibly annoyed that I don’t want to stop at any of the places along the way. Still, though, she motors slowly through each market area.
We soon pass other sampans, their passengers eating something they just purchased, before we’re alongside a guy holding a huge python, asking if I wanted my picture taken with it. A minute later I’m intrigued by a woman sitting in her little canal-side shop watching television.
As we pass more vendors, my driver tells people I didn’t want to buy anything, just take photos. Many seem annoyed.
Further along, as we turn to go back, we pass more Python men. I find myself wondering how much of a living they can make doing this, and just where did they get them in the first place.
As we later approach our little pier, a group of tourists is boarding their sampans. Alongside them is the photographer lady, now holding a plate with my photo on it, and a framed portrait of me sitting in the boat.
I escape with my driver for the traffic in Bangkok.
Getting Around Bangkok
In Bangkok tour boats and river taxis can you bring you near many of the city’s main attractions. If you want to get a feel for Bangkok’s classic transportation, or just want to get somewhere on the cheap, opt for an open-sided tuk-tuk.
But because of pollution, the city’s air-conditioned taxis are often a better choice, especially since they’re so cheap. A word of caution though: Bangkok taxi drivers don’t have the best of reputations so ensure the meter is on or agree to the fare in advance.
The popular Skytrain is another way to get about the city. Luckily they are air-conditioned which is crucial in Bangkok during its sweltering summers. Fares start at 15 baht (about 50¢) for one stop. A one-day pass – good for unlimited travel within a single day – is 120 baht (approximately $3.80). Many of the sky train ticket machines only except coins (no credit cards or bills) so make sure you have plenty of coins with you.