Bangkok is a cultural and culinary paradise. So why wouldn’t I be back again? This time it was a true holiday not a couple of days tacked onto a work trip.
My sister had only seen Bangkok fleetingly while on transit here many years ago. It was time she experienced this vibrant place, so we made our plans, packed our bags and here we are!
And what better way to start a trip than with a sumptuous Thai meal with old friends. I was once again touched by the warmth and hospitality shown to me by my former team. They treated us to a fabulous dinner at the Baan Glom Gig, a cosy restaurant serving traditional homemade Thai food. You know the food is excellent when the locals eat there too. It was a lovely evening spent catching up with everyone.
My friend Sareerat, who had extracted the promise from me to “come back soon ” was our super tour guide on this trip.
As we drove through the city in the morning, there were police buses and blocks at main intersections near government offices and Parliament. The Anti-Amnesty Bill street protests have been going on relentlessly for two weeks. The controversial Bill would grant amnesty to offences committed during the political turmoil after Thailand’s 2006 coup, which ousted Mr Thaksin and pave the way for the return of the former Prime Minister.
We started our day with a visit to the Grand Palace. It took us a while to walk around the huge grounds and take in the beautiful medley of architectural designs. There is an inner, middle and outer court, great halls, pavilions, temples and gardens. In the midday sun the gold dazzled and the gems and glass covered spires and murals reflected the grandeur and opulence of the palace which was the residence of the Kings of Siam for centuries. By the time we finished touring this huge complex, we were famished.
Lunch was at a small local restaurant at Ta Prachan by the Chao Phraya. We had to weave our way through tightly packed stalls and winding pavements – this was clearly not a place that farangs (foreigners) frequented. That’s the unique experience you get when you have a local friend taking you around. The food was simple and delicious and exceedingly reasonably priced.
Our next stop was Wat Arun, on the other bank, which we got to by river taxi. It is a must-see. This temple has a striking architectural similarity to the Angkor Wat in Cambodia especially the steep, more than 45 degree gradient (felt that way anyway), steps to the top. It is simply magnificent – its central tower is encrusted with porcelain and seashells. The design is quite exquisite.
The other very impressive temple is Wat Pho. The statue of the reclining Buddha is 15m high and 43m long and the feet are 3m high and 4.5m long. You will find Thai massage being offered here! A rather peculiar place to have a massage establishment I thought. I later looked it up and found out that the temple housed one of the earliest Thai massage schools. Traditional Thai massage and medicine is taught in an open air hall outside the temple. I thought I might have a religious experience getting a massage there, but unfortunately they were already closed.
After a lovely relaxing dinner by the river, Sareerat thought we should experience a political rally! So off we went making our way through the pulsating Khao San Road, which was alive with drinking and drunk farangs, loud music, street vendors selling all manner of food – including deep fried insects of all sorts – grasshoppers, scorpions, cockroaches and your plain vanilla maggots.
We finally made it to the site of the Anti-Amnesty Bill rally. Far from a charged atmosphere, it was actually very festive! There were brightly coloured balloons, clappers, whistles and other noise-making devices, free drinks and food … lucky for us if not for Sareerat, we wouldn’t even have dreamt of going anywhere near a political rally in a foreign country and had this amazing experience. My sis and I obviously didn’t understand a word of the fervent speeches being made. There are strong feelings against the proposed Amnesty Bill – every one I spoke to was firmly against it and their fervour was plainly evident.
And so ended our first day.
A Train Trundles Through This Market!
As the train passes, they pull their awnings in and stand back, away from the train’s slipstream. (While I stood photographing, standing amongst the stalls, I was careful not to get sucked into the slipstream! I had to just stretch out my hand and I would have been able to touch the moving train). The fruit and vegetable sellers don’t even bother to move their goods! They stack their goods to the precise height which would allow the train to glide over their produce. They just drape a cloth over them and with a deft flick, remove the cloth once the train has passed. The whole scene then unfolds in reverse with the boxes and crates being put back on the edge of the track and the awnings replaced to their original position. It is one of the most bizarre and unique occurrences I have ever witnessed.
It must be a nightmare for the railway authorities to ensure that no one (especially the pesky camera-toting farangs) gets run over!
With this highly anticipated event witnessed, we drove on to the famous Amphawa Floating Market. On our way, we stopped at Wat Bang Kung which was quite incredible – this Buddhist temple is inside a banyan tree! The roots of the tree envelope the temple and inside its wide trunk is the temple. Within the same compound is a curious mix of things – there were large statues of cockerels strewn all about the place with real ponies lazily grazing among them. At the far end, quite oddly, there were statues of muay thai boxers in various poses! An interesting juxtaposition between the holy temple and everything else that has developed around it. Curious indeed.
Our next stop was a quick one at Wat Bo – a 400 year old temple which looked like it was sagging in the middle. The special feature here was that there is a temple beneath the main temple. There are more than a hundred temples in this area, impossible to visit them all – the rest will just have to wait.
We drove on to the Amphawa Floating Market. Sadly, it was a disappointment as there were only a few boats and scarcely any of the hustle and bustle I had expected. I understand this was due to the moon’s position which determines market days.
We visited the Heritage Museum then headed back to Bangkok but not before dinner at a seafood restaurant called Tarua restaurant just outside Bangkok.
With all the walking we had done the past two days, we managed to get a foot and shoulder massage in before they closed. That was really much needed!!
To Market to Market …
No trip to Bangkok is complete without visiting the Chatuchak weekend market. It is the largest market in Thailand and the world’s largest weekend market. Frequently called J.J., it covers over 35 acres and contains upwards of 15,000 stalls (Wiki). That’s where we spent the better part of the day. It has 27 sections and you can easily get lost in this maze of shops and stalls. Locals and tourists pack this vast 30 plus acres. Getting around meant jostling and ducking and elbowing. You can get just about anything here – paintings, carvings, ceramics, leather goods, clothes, furniture, even paella – yes, paella!
In the late evening, Sareerat picked us up and decided we were deserving of a proper Thai massage. So she drives us to – the Vichaiyut hospital of course. Where else does one get a Thai massage? I literally fell about laughing when I heard that the hospital has a Thai massage wing – it sounded quite funny put that way. But actually it’s not that amusing as it is part of traditional Thai medicine. We learnt that most hospitals have a ‘massage wing’. I had a male masseuse who stretched and pulled and folded me into various contortions – I barely managed to breathe throughout this never-experienced-before session. My sis on the other hand, was so relaxed and was falling asleep as her lady tended to her ever so gently and soothingly! That’s the other thing we noticed, no two masseuse do it the same way even within the same establishment. But I have to quickly add that all that stretching and pulling did me a world of good as all the kinks and knots amazingly disappeared and I was properly aligned again.
We were starving after that vigourous session (at least I was) and we went to yet another restaurant which only locals frequent. Yum!
We were not done for the day yet! Our next discovery was ‘Pak Klong Talad’ – Bangkok’s famous flower market which comes alive at night. It’s a huge wholesale and retail flower market. As it was Loy Krathong eve, it was mind-numbingly crowded. Vendors and all manner of people were coming and going in all directions. Traffic was chockablock and noisy, everyone was picking their way through this mad chaos. It was quite something else. All the sublime sense of well-being that I felt after the massage was instantly gone after that crowd-jostling! Had it not been the eve of Loy Krathong, it might have been a little saner I suspect. It was an enjoyable experience nonetheless.
This morning we were joined by another ex-colleague who was holidaying in Chiangmai and decided to make a detour and join us in Bangkok for the day before flying back to Singapore. As he is a hardcore foodie, we got down to the business of eating straightaway!
We drove out of town to another floating market called ‘Klong Lat Mayom’. The seafood was fabulous – fresh and delicious! We feasted to our hearts content.
After the feasting, we spent a happy afternoon shopping in Bangkok. In the evening we had Loy Krathong to look forward to.
The word loy means “to float” while krathong is a lotus blossom-shaped vessel containing candles, incense sticks and flowers. On the full-moon night of the 12th lunar month, Thais float their krathong down a river or canal to pay respects to the Buddha and seek forgiveness from the Goddess of Water for any misdeeds. In the northern region of Thailand they celebrate ‘Yee Peng’ which is also a festival of lights where beautifully illuminated lanterns are released into the night sky.
We took a cruise down the Chao Phraya and from the vantage point of the open top deck of the ferry, we could see the hundreds of people gathered on either side of the river floating their krathongs. The landmark buildings along the Chao Phraya were also beautifully illuminated and there were many colourful floats on the river. It was magical. We brought along our own krathongs, having bought it at the flower market yesterday, not realising that the cruise operator also provided krathongs as part of the dinner cruise package. So we had double opportunity to release all our negativity and make our wishes.
We queued on the deck as each of us had our krathongs lowered onto the river. We watched as the krathongs floated away with the current. The flame is said to signify longevity, fulfillment of wishes and release from sins. However, it was a windy night and most of the candles went off even before the krathongs were placed on the water (also ruining my photo op). It wasn’t quite how the postcards show it!. It was a beautiful night nonetheless and we were just relieved that it didn’t rain.
For more photos of this trip, go to: http://www.shobhagopinath.com/Travel/Bangkok-Nov-2013/