Tag Archives: Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand (part 2)

As we made our way from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, via Sukhothai, toward the southern island of Koh Lanta, we stopped once more in Bangkok to visit a couple of sights we missed the first time around.

As our good friend Khun had given us such a great introduction to the capital of his homeland, we felt a little like we were returning home – somewhere familiar, somewhere known.

Since we were here last when the anti-government (and anti-corruption) protests had just started, Thailand has held a general election which was disrupted enough so that any result will undoubtedly be contested, leaving the country in political stalemate. There were less people on the streets in the centre of Bangkok this time, and where crowds of protesters once sat, street stalls selling food or supporters garb lined the enforced pedestrian thoroughfares. T-shirts bearing the slogan “Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand” piled high, and wearing the colours of the national flag is synonymous with supporting the protesters goal of a temporary suspension of democracy.

The Grand Palace & Wat Phra Kaew

Next door to the stunning Wat Pho we saw on our first visit to Bangkok, the Grand Palace was the residence of the Kings for 150 years after it was built in 1782, and is still used for royal and official ceremonies throughout the year. Within the grounds is Wat Phra Kaew, and the combined audio guide tour took us through this compact, temple-filled splendour first..

Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Kaew. Gold, gold, everywhere!

Each successive King has left their mark on this Royal Wat – some opting for maintenance, preservation and restraint, while others went all out for glory, such as King Rama IV covering the huge Phra Si Rattana Chedi with gold tiles imported from Italy, or building a model of Angkor Wat (as northern Cambodia used to be part of Siam, the former name for Thailand – hence the use of ‘Siam’ in the name of many Thai restaurants in the UK)

Sights in Wat Phra Kaew

Sights in Wat Phra Kaew (clockwise from top right): Model of Angkor Wat; Statues and mirrored tiles; Julie and I imitating the mythological creatures; Golden statues; Ramakian Mural Cloisters with golden highlights

The undisputed highlight of Wat Phra Kaew (and that’s saying something!) is the Emerald Buddha. Thought to have originated in India, it was hidden for 300 years and only rediscovered in Chiang Rai after the chedi it was hiding in was struck by lightning. The figure was moved briefly to Chiang Mai, then Sukhothai and now sits in contemplation and for adoration atop a golden throne.

The Emerald Buddha

The Emerald Buddha. Photos are not permitted from inside the temple, but if you have enough zoom they helpfully leave the front doors open..

In a very elaborate ceremony timed with the seasons, the King climbs a staircase behind the throne, and changes the Emerald Buddha’s outfit.

The Emerald Buddha's costumes

The Emerald Buddha’s costumes (photo credit: Peggy’s Photos)

After Wat Phra Kaew, the expansive Grand Palace is a welcome contrast to the claustrophobic golden glitziness. Although the splendid main palace building is closed to all but invited visitors, there are two open galleries on the ground floor either side of the central staircase. The left gallery houses a collection of ancient fighting weapons – spears, maces, axes and swords, and the right – cannon, muskets, pistols, and rifles, including several made in England.

The Royal Palace, Bangkok

Us in front of the Royal Palace in Bangkok, Thailand

The Royal Palace Guards

The Royal Palace guards. I’m reluctant to call this the short straw, as their eyes got plenty of exercise checking out the female visitors

There was so much to see that we used most of our 2 hour audio guide allowance in the wat, and had to rush the end of the Grand Palace – on reflection the balance was about right, and although we feared an extra charge for the late return of the equipment, we weren’t fined for being 15 minutes over.

Khao San Road (KSR)

Khao San Road, commonly abbreviated to KSR, is the most well-known and most tourist-orientated street in Bangkok. The roadside is overflowing with souvenir stands, bars, cafes, restaurants, massage parlours and a couple of small shopping centres, and the higher storeys are mostly taken by hostels and small B&Bs.

Khao San Road

Khao San Road (KSR), a good place to stop for a beer, a (weak) cocktail in a bucket, and/or a massage!

Chinatown Walk

One of the first things we try to do in a new place is have a walk about to get our bearings, and we often like to achieve this with a walking tour as it also shows us places we may not otherwise have found on our own.

Chinatown arch in Bangkok

The east gate entrance to Chinatown, and a very brave traffic policeman

The Chinatown area of Bangkok is a sprawled mass of backstreets and alleyways full of retail shops and wholesale merchants counters. As we first saw in Beijing, Hong Kong and also old Hanoi, each street specialises in a given item – shoes street, clothes street, ingredients street, toy street, etc. as most of the shops were devoid of customers, and with pretty much the same array of goods available in each of their neighbours, we pondered how they could all stay in business.

Main road through Chinatown, Bangkok

The main road artery through the middle of Bangkok’s Chinatown

This was one of the hardest walking maps we’ve ever tried to follow – we’re used to heading up small streets then backtracking but there were 3 occasions that we found ourselves a street away from where we should have been! Still, it was good fun getting lost in the narrow busyness.

Chinatown’s narrow backstreets (clockwise from top right): the very busy ingredients street; picked vegetables; a bored shopkeeper; mid-transaction; dried fruits; and prayers at Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown’s largest and liveliest temple

Jim Thompson House

Reading the reviews of our hotel in Bangkok, a few had mentioned that it was close to the Jim Thompson House, so we did a little bit of research and as our overnight train left late in the evening, we decided to see what it was all about.

To briefly summarise Jim Thompson’s story, he is credited with almost singlehandedly reviving the Thailand silk trade in the 1950’s and 60’s. Then, on a trip to Malaysia in 1967 he reportedly went for a stroll and never returned. Almost 6 months after his disappearance, his elder sister was murdered in her home in the US. To this day his body or whereabouts remains a mystery.

Jim Thompson House Museum

Jim Thompson House Museum

The house is unusual for Thai residences because it’s actually made of 6 native Thai houses joined together. Mr Thompson had them moved from different areas of Thailand and rebuilt across the river from the families and factories that manufactured his beloved silk, using the extra space to store the collection of Asian art gathered on his travels.

Jim Thompson House collage

(Clockwise from top right): The main lounge or seating area; figurine detail close-up; art collection under the main house, including a giant wood-printing block; and the reception hall containing very rare wooden statues

He was a man of great taste, and his collection is a delight to walk around. I particularly liked that when rebuilding the houses he had some of the walls reversed so he could appreciate the beautiful fretwork from the inside.

Bangkok, Thailand

Our final few days in Cambodia were spent back in Phnom Penh applying for our Thai visas, and then it was time for the journey to Bangkok. We had thought of flying, but in the end decided that we preferred to go overland. Not so much, however, that we were willing to buy the ticket direct from Phnom Penh to Bangkok (15+ hours bumping along Cambodian roads in a single day wasn’t our idea of fun). So we broke the journey with another night in Siem Reap and discovered that splitting the bumpy roads over two days into a combined duration of what turned out to be about 18 hours was scarcely any better…

20131230-161052.jpgBorder crossing out of Cambodia – Angkor Wat again!

By the time we arrived in Bangkok it was dark and we weren’t entirely sure where the bus had dropped us off so we flagged down a local taxi, made sure he turned on his meter and showed him the map that the hotel had sent us. I don’t think the map was very helpful because he rang them up for directions before we sped off. After about 15 minutes, a bit of a wrong turn and another phone call we arrived, exhausted, hungry and in need of a shower.

We decided to tackle the hunger first as it was getting late. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any restaurants close by our hotel. Eventually we found somewhere that looked open and what a surreal experience that turned out to be… The decor of the restaurant was like a standard local diner except that it was decorated for Christmas with a small tree and tinsel hanging from the ceiling. The waitress brought menus across but they didn’t have any English translation (or pictures) so, as we have learnt is usual in such situations in Asia, she drafted in another diner who did speak English to take our order, he tentatively went through a few of the dishes but we jumped on fried rice and ordered two plates with beer. As we were waiting for the food we noticed the TV in the corner was showing a Pirates of the Caribbean film but this was quickly replaced by a very drunk man singing karaoke… Seemingly for our benefit he was choosing songs in English. Our food was brought across by the young waiter and I have never seen anyone mince as convincingly as him except in TV comedy sketches! The food was tasty, but by this stage everything was just a little bit too strange, and we refused their offers of more beer, or for us to join in with the karaoke and hastily paid the bill!

20131230-161108.jpgProof that we didn’t dream up the strange karaoke bar restaurant

The next morning we’d arranged to meet up with Khun, a friend we’d made in Mongolia, who was back in his home country of Thailand for a holiday from his studies in America. Originally he’d hoped to take us on a tour of the Grand Palace, but due to the ongoing political protests in Bangkok we decided to change plans and head away from the centre to the weekend Chatuchak market. To get there was a crash course in Bangkok’s public transport – fantastic! First up was the San Saep canal boats. Khun explained that Bangkok once had hundreds of canals and is known as the ‘Venice of the East’. Henceforth, Andrew christened these ferries Bangkok vaporettos after the water buses in Venice.

20131230-161123.jpg‘Bangkok vaporetto’, outside and in!

The market was great. It’s one of the world’s largest outdoor markets and was full of clothes, souvenirs, Buddhists charms and trinkets, as well as food and just about anything you can imagine in the shape of an elephant.

20131230-161444.jpgA mish-mash of colours in the Chatuchak market

We must have been more worn out than we’d realised from the long bus journey because we spent most of the next few days chilling in the apartment that we’d rented for the remainder of the week. Catching up on sleep, cooking for ourselves and swimming in the apartment block’s pool.

20131230-161148.jpgBlissful, usually empty, but very cold swimming pool

On our final day in the city we ventured out to visit Wat Pho. A wat is a Buddhist monastery and this was our first experience of a Thai one. From a distance it looked somewhat similar to a Cambodian wat with curled roof eaves, white walls and orange tiles, but as we got closer we realised that there were differences. Wat Pho was much more extravagantly decorated than any wat we saw in Cambodia, the eaves and gables were decorated with mirrors and shimmering metallic paints, and the stupas here were covered in floral tiles rather than the plain white paint that we’d seen before – quite a visual assault.

20140104-090948.jpgWat Pho – huge tiled stupas and glitzy roofs

20140104-091001.jpgWat Pho is also home to Thailand’s largest reclining Buddha statue – 15m high and 43m long

20140104-090955.jpgBuddha statues everywhere!

Despite doing a lot of cooking for ourselves while we were in Bangkok we had managed to find a local street restaurant serving fantastic Pad Thai, the local stir fried noodles. Before departing for the train station and the overnight journey to Chiang Mai we got a couple of portions to takeaway for our dinner.

20140101-134358.jpgThese disappeared so quickly we wished that we’d ordered double!