To be honest, I was a little afraid to go to Bangkok. My idea before boarding the plane was of a world of debauchery, dark alleys and night markets where “lady boy” shows and grungy Muai Thai fights were taking place. I thought it might be a hot, sweaty concrete jungle filled with frat-boy mentality backpackers looking for hookers, drugs and alcohol. Not my kind of scene, but surprisingly Bangkok revealed a world of relaxation and beauty amongst the hustle.
Stories my father told me about taking leave from the Vietnam war and renting a stretch limo with his friend for a whirlwind tour of the city for two weeks did not help my idea either. Throw in the fact of a language barrier, warnings of scams and people trying to rip off tourists, not being able to drink the water, possible food sickness and you can understand why we might have had some reservations.
But on arrival, shortly after checking in to our quiet B&B, we only walked a block or two and started to realize that people keep coming here for a reason. There is something palpable in the air and also something that is disorienting. There are tons of people, moving in all different directions on all sorts of vehicles. Taxis, Tuk Tuks, bicycles and let’s not forget the whole family somehow fitting on one scooter without wearing a helmet. There are colorful stands with all sorts of food and sweet snacks cooked fresh in front of your eyes for around $1. Walk a block and you wind up in a new air conditioned mall with a Starbucks or a fancy hotel lobby. It’s a mixture of old and dirty right next to new, bright and shiny. You can pay 25 cents for something and right next door pay $10 for the same thing. “Where am I?” You might start asking yourself regularly.
The only thing that was true from my original ideas is that Bangkok is a hot and sweaty city, no doubt. We loved our hotel but were quickly regretting not having access to a pool. Being savvy travelers we were somehow able to visit neighboring hotels to use their pools for some respite from the heat. One of the nicest was the “So Sofitel” hotel pool with an infinity pool pouring over the city, a gym, a steam room, really nice locker room and a bar. Only downsides are it’s a bit on the pricey side, but worth it if you spend the afternoon enjoying it, and they don’t have enough lounge chairs.
One of the nicest places to catch a cool breeze is to take a ride on the air conditioned Sky Train around the city but my favorite was a daily ride on the Chao Phraya river. When I first saw the river, only a block away from our hotel, it reminded me of a crazy and colorful grand canal in Venice. Instead of gondolas, there are rainbow colored long tail boats with enormous truck engines sticking out the back pumping smelly exhaust in the air and passenger ferries bumping from pier to pier.
We instantly fell in love with all the chaos and all the peaceful moments sandwiched in between. It makes you wonder how can one find a moment to meditate in a bright, golden Buddhist temple with throngs of tourists coming and going, somehow not a seemingly peaceful environment, and yet strangely – it can be peaceful inside the chaos. There are so many juxtapositions it will make your head spin. So get some Thai yoga massages as you go. At $7.50 for an hour massage. You can’t afford to not be relaxed.
Along the river are high-end hotels like the Mandarin Oriental next to crumbling abandoned buildings with gorgeous temples dotted in between. Take a ride down the river and you will come across Chinatown, an enormous flower market where women spend their days braiding flowers into bracelets given in offering of devotion to the Buddha, many temples, and the Grand Palace.
On our first evening we took a free ferry over to a modern night market on a pier called Asiatique. More than a bit touristy, they have street food vendors and a big craft and clothing market. Restaurants and bars on the pier. But the highlight is an enormous, air-conditioned Ferris wheel that looks over the city. Their are also some go karts for kids, which we rode of course. Helmets we hanging on a fence, but no one was wearing them! Very dangerous, but these are the distinctions of being in a foreign country.
On our first day we took the ferry to Wat Pho, home of the enormous reclining Buddha who was built to scare away evil spirits and protect the city. It was my favorite sacred location in Bangkok. Luckily we hired a guide within the entrance of the temple to take us on a tour. He was a devout Buddhist and shared a tremendous amount of knowledge with us. He was one of the most articulate people I have ever met to describe some very deep aspects of Buddhist philosophy in such an accessible and simple way.
Apparently there is a garden next to the Buddha with a large Bodhi tree grown from a sampling of the original Bodhi tree in India (the tree that Buddha achieved enlightenment under.) He taught us how to pray and pay respects in the Thai Buddhist tradition. He lead us in a mantra chant to pray for our safety and protection while offering incense to the temple. It was a very moving experience.
There are various “types” of Buddhas in Thailand that are affiliated with each day of the week. In the temple there are statues dedicated to each one. If you can find out the day of the week you were born then you can find your Buddha. A fun concept.
In fact Thai Buddhism consists of a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist concepts. It is common to see depictions of Hanuman (the monkey God) as well as Ganesha (the elephant God) in various temples. You can also see statues of Confuscious and symbols and architecture from China including a statues of Li Po which was our guide’s favorite statue.
Throughout Wat Pho you can see images that teach about Thai massage, paintings of the human body and its various pressure points and energy centers. There is a Thai Massage school on the premises of the temple grounds where you can partake in various healing modalities. We had a massage there and it was great. Where else can you get a massage while looking out over a temple? In the U.S. you will usually see it listed as a “Thai yoga massage” because the Thai massage style consists of adding pressure on the muscles (with the therapist using their body weight or sometimes walking on you) as well as putting you into various yoga stretches.) I would only advise this massage for those in good physical condition. It can be quite vigorous.
At night we took a tour with the “Bangkok Street Food” tour. Our guide took a group of us in Tuk Tuks speeding through the city. We were hoping to have actual “street food” which we would consider off of carts out in the street, but this tour took us to local restaurants, most of which have been in business for over 50 – 100 years, which was astounding. Most only made one or two dishes they were famous for including chicken with rice, friend noodles and pad thai. A highlight of the trip was visiting a rooftop bar on the river and Wat Pho at night when it’s lit up and no one is there.
They also took us to the bustling flower market which is one of the largest flower markets in the world. It’s open most of the day into late night when they deliver the flowers so they stay fresh. You can see people stringing orchids and others types of flowers into Malas used as offerings to Buddha. Most are beautiful works of art and incredibly creative and labor intensive floral designs.
In general the real street food stands in Bangkok are great and super cheap. Daniel was the one with the most adventurous palette though. He even went for the fried grasshoppers and some other unreconizable bugs! But mostly you will see delicious pad Thai noodles made by Thai grandmas and my favorite dish ever – sweet mango sticky rice:
Then there was the Grand Palace, also on the Chao Praya river. This was also better appreciated with a tour. The King is very interesting. Not only is he a political figure, but he is also considered a spiritual figure. He is believed to be an incarnation of Rama and is called Rama the 9th. Rama is a Hindu god, so the Thai religion can be quite confusing but also fascinating for a newcomer. Our guide told us that the current King was actually born in the United States in Massachusetts. His daughter also married to an American at one point too. In general, the King and images of the royal family are considered sacred and you are forewarned not to make fun of them or disrespect them in any way as it is considered incredibly offensive to the Thai people. After learning about the “Rama” title I can understand why.
The King conducts a ceremony three times a year to change the outfit of the Emerald Buddha that lives at the palace and which contains 5 relics of the Buddha inside of it. Our guide, after finding out I practice meditation, asked if I would like to learn how to worship, of course I said, “yes please.” He then proceeded to walk three times around the temple chanting mantras, hands in prayer and asked me to follow along. It was a magical experience for me. Somehow it seemed as though waves of people were walking right at us and we were going against the tide slowly walking, chanting our Sanskrit mantras. But it was a sensation of peace inside of chaos and I felt as though it made me understand something quite deeply about meditation.
I guess you could say that we are always looking for peace and to sustain a sense of peace but in reality we can’t control our external environment, however we can control our own mind and our own thoughts regardless of the external environment. This moment was a supreme example of that. After circling the temple three times, we went inside to sit with the hoards of tourists in front of the Emerald Buddha who is quite small. He said to kneel with hands in prayer and bow three times. He said a prayer for us and gave me a strand of threaded flowers to take with me that smelled divine. After we left the temple he asked me how I felt about it the experience. He told me he felt much calmer after having practice with me and we thanked each other for a holy moment together. On the temple grounds we met some monks traveling from Bodhgaya India and chatted. There are many monks from various temples in sapphron robes paying respect to Buddha which is a wonderful sight.
Near the Maharaj pier where the ferry leaves you to visit the palace is the amulet market at the end of the fancy pier. An interesting walk through stalls selling Buddha images and good luck charms. You feel as though you’re suddenly in a scene from Indiana Jones looking for an ancient treasure.
We also visited Wat Arun, the temple of the dawn, on the other side of the river. A bit tricky to get to, you have to take two boats. Our opinion is it’s more impressive from a distance, but it’s still beautiful. However, we wandered into a neighboring temple outside the gates where there was a monk giving blessings. We were siting and watching each person and then he looked over and asked us to come forward. He chanted mantras and showered us with some holy water and gave us each a threaded bracelet chanting “good luck, good luck” in between his Sanskrit mantras. So I guess he blessed us for a round of good luck and hey – who doesn’t need good luck?
We were debating about visiting the floating markets, some of which are about a 2 hour drive from Bangkok, but decided to save our time and money and visit the Chatuchak weekend market instead which was outstanding. Worth dedicating a morning or afternoon to. If you are a serious shopper, maybe a whole day as it’s a huge market. Don’t worry about carrying anything because they actually have a DHL and other delivery services inside the market where you can ship stuff home. Think rows and rows of tiny boutique shops, crafts people, street food vendors, stands selling clothing, home furnishing and anything else you need. Some booths are even air conditioned, but mostly it’s a hot, sweaty, fun mess like the rest of Bangkok, we loved it.
Another break from the heat is hanging out at a rooftop bar. The best from our small sampling was Red Sky bar at Centra hotel near Siam station. Very sexy, a minimal dress code and a casual atmosphere mixed with a 360 degree view of the city and a modern decor. You can fine dine or opt for a bar menu and drinks. Extra special if you have a full moon rising in the sky. We attempted to visit the Sky bar at Sirocco which is featured in the movie “the Hangover” but found it to be a little outdated and Vegas-cheesy. Be warned that some bars have a strict dress code of long pants for men, not too casual, no beach wear allowed. Other options are to find a smaller, more casual bar along the river side and enjoy seeing the temples lit up at night, much more intimate.
All in all we loved Bangkok and left with a warm feeling in our hearts for the city while successfully avoiding all the crappy, seedy things we’ve always heard about it. One of the greatest cities in the world in our opinion.
Hotel we stayed in: Escape non-smoking B&B. An odd name for a hotel but the staff was helpful and incredibly friendly. They helped us find taxis when needed and brought us a nice breakfast to our room every morning. Very cute and modern design of the rooms, comfortable bed. Very convenient location. One block from the Saphan Taksin BTS train and the Saphon Central pier where you can pick up the ferry and long tail boats to the temples. There is also a free ferry that will take you to the Asiatique night market, a fun pier full of street food stands, boutiques and a giant air-conditioned Ferris wheel.