Bangkok 101

>Bangkok Thailand – the name alone evokes images of a mysterious oriental cityscape of busy streets, sidewalk vendors, bustling markets, exotic entertainments, and striking Buddhist architecture. As the capital of modern Thailand and the center of its burgeoning economy Bangkok is a multifaceted city filled with myriad delights and destinations. Known as the “Venice of the East” because of its many canals and water-bourn culture (the word Bangkok means “water-flower village”), Thais themselves refer to the city as Krung Thep, City of Angels.Bangkok’s history is relatively brief. Following the fall of Ayuthaya (Siam’s historic capital and a World Heritage site - an easy daytrip from Bangkok) to the Burmese in the late 18th century, Siamese society was fractured and prostrate. A hero emerged, Taksin, who rallied and united the Siamese people and established a new capital at Thonburi on the Chao Phraya River. The next king, Chao Phraya Chakri (Rama I, founder of the current dynasty) moved the capital across the river and founded Bangkok in 1782. Bangkok has been Siam/Thailand’s capital and primary city ever since. Rama undertook an ambitious building program including the Grand Palace complex and Wat Phra Kaew in an attempt to recapture the lost glory of Ayuthaya. Other important Wats and palaces followed in successive decades. From a western perspective, Bangkok burst into the public consciousness during the Vietnam War as American GIs flocked here on leave. The Southeast Asian economic boom of the 1980s and ‘90s fueled the explosive expansion of Bangkok into the teeming metropolis of 10 million it is today. Bangkok’s top sights are clearly the Grand Palace complex and Wat Pho. The highlight of a Grand Palace visit is Wat Phra Kaew, home of the Emerald Buddha. The complex is a jaw-dropping collection of spectacular buildings, monuments, and statues. The entrance is guarded by two fantastic yaksha, or mythical giants. The compound walls are lined with beautifully restored murals of the Ramakian (Thai version of the Ramayana). The grounds are punctuated by multiple stupas, with their dramatically and diversely decorated prangs (spires). Many stupas are ringed by elaborate mythical warriors. The bots (temples buildings) are decorated by colored tiles and tiny mirrors – quite dazzling. Brightly gilded mythical statues add to the fantastical, mystical ambiance. Next door Wat Pho is Bangkok’s oldest temple. Pho is another complex of beautiful bots and stupas (more than 100) and home to Thailand’s largest reclining Buddha. The striking, 150 foot long, gilded gold statue barely fits in its bot. The soles of the feet are particularly interesting, displaying 108 auspicious laksana (characteristics of the Buddha) in mother of pearl. Thailand’s largest collection of Buddha images (almost 400) is also housed here. Lastly, Wat Pho is the national center for traditional Thai medicine, including Thai massage. There is no better place in the country for this obligatory experience. For about $10, one can experience 90 minutes of therapeutic, relaxing heaven. Bangkok’s third signature sight is Wat Arun – the Temple of the Dawn. Its 266 foot Khmer-style prang dominates the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. Wat Arun was founded by Taksin but the tower itself was built by Ramas II and III in the early 19th century. One of Arun’s unique and pleasing features is its creative design and decoration. The materials used are a lesson in early Asian recycling. The entire stupa is decorated with broken Chinese porcelain. Eighteenth century Chinese trading ships used tons of broken porcelain as ballast, providing inexpensive, readily available materials. After the Big Three, Bangkok boasts dozens of additional, interesting wats and sights. Among them is Wat Saket. Located atop an artificial hill, together they are known as the Golden Mount. Panoramic views of the city, Buddhist prayer wheels and bells, and the golden wat itself reward those who brave the winding hike up the hill. Wat Benchamabophit is a stirring example of modern Thai architecture and is made of Carrara marble. Wat Traimit in Chinatown contains the impressive 10-foot, 5+ ton solid gold Buddha. Dusit Palace Park contains several worthwhile sights. A green oasis in the concrete metropolis, Dusit displays photogenic gardens, a pleasant zoo, Vimanmek Teak Mansion, Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall, the Royal Elephant Museum, and an Ancient Cloth Museum. Nearby is Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. Bangkok boasts several museums as well, including the National Musuem (religious sculpture) and the Royal Barge Museum. Monuments worth a look are the Art Deco-style Democracy Monument, the Rama V Memorial (King Chulalongkorn of “The King and I” fame), and the Erawan Shrine with its attendant musicians and dancers. The Jim Thompson House rounds out a Bangkok visit nicely. American Jim Thompson was essentially the father of the Thai silk industry. An interesting character, Thompson appreciated Thai art and culture and his home is a great example of residential architecture and Thai art. No discussion of Thailand’s capital is complete with mentioning its tremendous shopping opportunities. First on any Bangkok shopping list should be clothing and textiles. Inexpensive clothing, both local fashions and designer knock-offs are ubiquitous. Thai silk is famous the world over and Bangkok tailors are a real bargain. Handicrafts are equally plentiful and varied. Teak carvings, masks, ceramics, baskets, wall hangings, pottery, handbags, table linens, and even stuffed animals are just the beginning. Gems and jewelry are also a great value. The shopping experience itself can be a recreational endeavor here. Markets abound. The most famous are the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, Chatuchak Weekend Market, Sampeng Lane, Nakhon Kasem (electronics), and Phahurat (textiles). Additionally, almost every neighborhood boasts a food market and there are several flower and/or plant markets. Although it has become primarily a tourist attraction, the Damnoen Saduak floating market is a famous daytrip. Bangkok is one of Asia’s great entertainment capitals. As the center of the country’s music industry, the city offers many live music venues, both traditional and western. For those interested, dance clubs and movie theaters are everywhere. For traditional performing arts Chalermkung Royal Theater offers performances of khohn (masked dance-drama). Natayasala presents the ancient art of Thai puppetry. Classical Thai dance can be enjoyed at the National Theater, the Thailand Cultural Center, and Dusit Palace Park. Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing, is an exciting mix of boxing, ultimate fighting, and martial arts (but much of the show is in the stands). While there are venues all over the city the best boxers fight at Lumphini and Ratchadamnoen Stadiums. In addition to the sights everyone wants to see, we at Imprint Tours are always on the lookout for off-the-beaten-track, out-of-the-way places to get a taste of real cultural life. Bangkok offers several options for the savvy traveler as well as some very unusual activities. Our favorite way to escape the crush of urban Bangkok is to take a klong (canal) tour of the Thonburi district. Thonburi retains the feel of village Thailand despite being surrounded by ultra-urban Bangkok. Once you leave the river in your longtail boat you enter a different world – one of real, workaday Thai life. The visitor experiences the true waterborne nature of Bangkok life. One sees children playing, swimming, and bathing; people fishing, doing laundry, cooking and/or eating a meal – all on the water. Beautiful teak mansions sit side by side with ramshackle hovels. Temple compounds and schools provide public areas for community gathering. Extremely poor people smile and wave with no apparent envy of our western affluence. On our Tantalizing Thailand tour we organize a dusk klong tour, a great time for quiet people watching and photographing. Another way to get even deeper into “village Bangkok” is on a bicycle. Several tour operators feature half-day cycling trips to the Bang Bua Thong or Bang Kra Jao neighborhoods where visitors are exposed to real Thai village life. Another urban excursion that exposes travelers to rural life is Ko Kred. This artificial island is like a time capsule. With no roads, the island is traversed only by walkways. The island is famous for its fruit and its terracotta pottery. The island is mostly populated by ethnic Mon villagers. Traditional Mon life is on display with their traditional wooden stilt houses interspersed among the orchards. Some pleasant riverside wats are worth a look, especially Wat Paramaiyikawat (or Wat Poramai). Lastly, Bangkok is famous for its night life. Much of it is seedy and driven by the sex industry. But even straight-laced visitors can get a “sanitized” glimpse of late-night Bangkok at the Kathoey cabarets. Several venues are tourist friendly and one can see choreographed stage shows of Broadway hits and lip-synched hits performed by kathoeys transvestite “lady boy”) in lavish, sequined costumes. Alternative Bangkok also includes the Forensic Medicine Museum with its preserved cadavers, body parts, and clothing from famous Thai murders. There is also a Museum of Counterfeit Goods, a Corrections Museum, and a snake farm. Whatever one’s tastes or interests Bangkok offers much to engage the traveler. Access is easy via a brand new international airport and good, inexpensive public transportation makes getting around a breeze. And like all of Southeast Asia, compared to western destination cities, Bangkok continues to be a tremendous travel value.