Three Nights in Bangkok and the World's Your Oyster
The title is a (modified) flashback reference to a 1980's Murray Head song, which I blame for piquing my interest in this exotic city that can "make a hard man humble". Indeed, Bangkok is a wild city where anything goes. The sites, sound, smells, and speed can overwhelm even a well-seasoned traveler. And if that doesn't get you, the heat and humidity will!
We flew to Bangkok from Seoul, South Korea, during the week of Thanksgiving in November. It was a late overnight flight and we arrived at the crack of dawn after about five hours in the air. Fortunately, we had early check-in privileges at the Sheraton hotel. We changed from our winter gear into shorts and a tee, since it was already 85+ degrees at 99% humidity. After a delicious buffet breakfast at the Sheraton, we headed out to start exploring.
Day 1: Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Pat Pong Night Market
Tip for travelers to Bangkok. While anything -- and I mean absolutely ANYTHING -- seems acceptable in this town, the one thing that is not acceptable is entering a temple or a palace in shorts and a tee - men or women. Funny how that little rule has given rise to a convenient marketplace outside every temple and palace. Before we could begin our day, we first had to join the throngs of tourists purchasing "acceptable" clothing at one of these markets. I chose a light-weight, thin pair of elephant-print wrap pants and cute white blouse to go with it. Women have to be covered to their ankles with no shoulders bared; it seems men can get away with traditional Thai baggy pants that hit at about the calf. Our first site of the day was the Grand Palace, which lives up to its name.
The Grand Palace is a complex maze of religious and governmental buildings. In one building, visitors queue in reverent silence to enter the temple of the emerald buddha. In another building, tourists jostle for photos of the king's throne and amble past various displays of weaponry through the years. There are colorful gardens trimmed to perfection and a mish-mash of architectural styles. Golden spires shimmer in the hot tropical sun mingled with brilliant blues, reds, and greens. To sum it up: the Grand Palace is a delightful experience! Just don't expect to make much sense of it all!
After wandering about the Grand Palace for about two hours, our next destination for the day was Wat Pho, home of the gigantic reclining golden Buddha! It was much calmer and quieter than the Golden Palace. We traveled there by tuk-tuk and I definitely fell in love with this fun mode of transport! While here, I made a wish 100 times with 100 pennies. I can state with 100% confidence that my wish came true. *wink*
By the time we left Wat Pho, we were soaked with sweat and ready for a shower and a beverage...and maybe a meal. This is a normal feeling in Bangkok - the need to shower. Following a refreshing pit stop at the hotel, we headed out to Pat Pong night market, just across the street from the hotel. Tip: do not buy anything the first night. Try to get some sense of market prices before you start haggling with the street vendors. If you go to Asiatique, where everything has price tags and there is no haggling, you will learn what the price "should" be. Then you can bargain down 10-25% from there with the street vendors.
Day 2: Wat Saket, Wat Arun, Asiatique and the Loi Krathong Festival
We did not know it when we planned our trip, but we happened to be in Bangkok during the Loi Krathong festival. This is an ancient annual event celebrated throughout southern Thailand. On the night of the last full moon of the (Lunar) year, people float lighted candles in decorated banana leaf baskets in lakes and rivers to honor Buddha. Floating the "krathong" in water symbolizes letting go of one's hatred and anger. Throughout the week of Loi Krathong, the temples are in full festival mode, with colorful banners, special prayer ceremonies, live dance and music shows, and even carnival games and food vendors. Since tonight was the apex of the event - when everyone gathers to float their boats - people everywhere were in high spirits and you could feel the excitement in the air.
At Wat Saket, we climbed 300 steps up the Golden Mount for a spectacular panoramic view of Bangkok. Here, people were marking their wishes on a giant red cloth, bowing, and ceremonially circumnavigating the golden chedi. Colorful streamers flapped in the wind, and the deep gong of large metal bells resonated up the stairway. At the base of Wat Saket is a strange display of skeletons and vultures. We learned that in the 1700's, a plague struck Bangkok, killing over 60,000 people. Wat Saket served as the city's crematorium for these victims and this memorial marks the site of the burial ground.
We then ventured over to the port area to catch a ferry to Wat Arun. Boats are a major form of transportation in Bangkok. Traffic is so bad in the streets, that it is usually faster to get around by boat. The Chao Phraya river is dirty brown, agitated every which way by boat wakes of all speeds. It's dizzying and thrilling! Wat Arun was under reconstruction, so many areas were closed off to the public, but we enjoyed seeing the great variety of krathong available for purchase and we started getting excited for the festivities later that evening.
We had dinner reservations at a restaurant in Asiatique, so we took another ferry to the Asiatique port. It was now late afternoon and the city was starting to move in preparation for Loi Krathong. Masses of people crowded onto boats; I ended up crammed against a railing, barely able to breathe. I admit I just kept my eyes closed and silently prayed that the boat would not tip...while also constructing various "what if" scenarios in my mind and planning my escape route. Ugh. It was scary. But all's well that ended well. We arrived as the sun was starting to bow. We had an amazing several-course dinner, enjoyed the carnival and sent our anger and fears adrift in a krathong down the Chao Phraya. The thrill of our evening was the journey back to the hotel. The ferries were crammed, so we joined a throng moving towards the street. After walking about two miles, we finally realized we could hail a street bike. Zooming through the humid night air, whizzing past cars and crowds, zig-zagging through crammed intersections - it was the thrill of a lifetime!
Day 3: Cycling in the Green Lung (Phra Padaeng)
Bangkok wears you out. After just two days, we needed an escape and some fresh air, so we boarded a ferry at the Klong Toey pier and within 10 minutes we were surrounded by peaceful quiet and lush, tropical green. Ahhhh! We spent a happy Thanksgiving Day cycling on the small isle known as the Green Lung (or Phra Padaeng or Bang Krachao). While its name rings like a metaphor, its shape literally looks like a lung. We cycled on roads and along narrow concrete and wood paths, elevated in some places about three feet over a vast marshland. The trail along the roads is fairly well-marked, however, twisting and turning through the swamp area can be a bit tricky. I'm not sure how, but we did succeed in finding our way to major sites along the route, including a buddhist temple and a beautiful national park. We had lunch at a roadside restaurant and enjoyed a green tea latte at one of the newer shops popping up. It seems that this rural little slice of peace will not be a secret for much longer.
Day 4: Lumpini Park and Jim Thompson Museum
Lumpini Park is Bangkok's version of Central Park. It is filled with joggers, cyclists, mommies with strollers, and elderly couples tossing bread crumbs to the ducks. The park is meticulously groomed, with palm trees and bright flowers. We walked through the park and then took a sky train to the Jim Thompson Museum. Jim Thompson was an American entrepreneur and architect who is credited with re-building Thailand's silk industry after World War I, for which he was awarded the Order of the White Elephant. He is legendary because he mysteriously disappeared one night while on a holiday in Malaysia in 1967 and nobody ever heard from him again. That he was one of the most well-known, well-connected men in the Far East at that time, with ties to the Office of the Secret Service (precursor to the CIA), made his unsolved disappearance all the more intriguing. His house is a work of art -- and filled with works of Chinese art. After the museum, we showered, retrieved our belongings from the Sheraton, and then went to Cloud 47, a rooftop restaurant and bar with a jaw-dropping 360 view of the city. We arrived in the late afternoon, watched the spectacular sunset show, and then headed to the airport back to Seoul.