Krung Thep – City of Angels
I don’t think I’d ever been this unprepared for a trip before. Certainly, I don’t plan trips to the same degree every time but usually I have a vague idea what I want to do and see when I go somewhere new. When I discovered that a vocationally-renowned conference was taking place in Bangkok, Thailand, I was very keen to go. I booked my place and my flights 9 months prior then duly acted like it wasn’t happening. This year has been plagued by complications which I may yet get to write about if they are ever fully resolved, and there were a few weeks in April when I had no passport and thought the trip wasn’t going to happen for me. So I ignored my guidebook, did only very basic research online, and finally boarded the plane with quite a bit of trepidation and little idea of what to expect at the other end.
I jumped the ditch from New Zealand to Australia, and after a brief connection, and a smooth 9.5hr flight, I landed in Bangkok, and waited with increasing impatience at baggage reclaim for a bag that never came. Great start. One of the few things I had planned was how to get to my hotel in the Silom district. Taking the airport link train to Makkasan, I transferred to the Metro station of Petchaburi and discovered that I wouldn’t have been able to come this way if I had had my luggage. Every metro station has a security gate and bag search to go through and as a result, large bags and luggage are not allowed. Finally getting off at Si Lom station, I emerged into night time, and the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, slightly disorientated at a cross roads, and struggling to find any kind of signage to indicate which street I wanted. By the time I found my hotel, I was more than ready for the air conditioning and a good night’s sleep.
I was very impressed with the ease of Bangkok’s main public transport systems. The next day was a Sunday, and I took the skytrain (BTS) to Mo Chit and headed to the famous Chatuchak weekend market. I’m not a fan of shopping generally, and do it only when necessary, so I expected to only spend a couple of hours there before heading on somewhere else. So I surprised myself to emerge 7 hrs later, limping yet satisfied. The best way to describe it is like a rabbit warren. Apparently there is order to the chaos, and maps are supposedly available somewhere, but I preferred to just head on in and start wandering up and down the various sheds. The market is the largest market in Thailand and the world’s largest weekend market with roughly 15,000 stalls. They are crammed into little lots nestled around narrow alleyways that criss-cross the section, and I was determined to cover every square-inch of the place.
Generally, the market is grouped into categories of wares, so clothes are mostly together, homewares are mostly together, food is grouped together, and animals are all together. There are some exceptions, but for the most part, if you are interested in just one type of product, you can focus on a specific area of the market. I had been warned in advance that the animal section was not a place to visit as an animal lover. It started off innocently enough with puppies and kittens in air-conditioned rooms, but the deeper in I got, I found puppies struggling in the heat, cages crammed full of rodents, birds tightly packed into spaces, vivariums over-populated with reptiles, and exotic species that I know need specialist care, but were sold freely to anyone who would pay the price. I went with an open mind, but it didn’t sit well with my conscience.
The main lesson I learned at the market, was that if you see something you want to buy, buy it. I tried to find my way back to two stalls I had seen earlier in the day in order to buy something, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not retrace my steps to locate them again, and missed out. It was impossible to come to this place without buying something, and I enjoyed sampling different foods from different stalls. The heat was incredible though, and without any suncream (which was packed in the luggage that had never arrived), I limited my time outside as best I could. I really wanted to take pictures to capture the chaos, but most of the time, it was so crammed with people trying to squeeze past in the narrow corridors that there just wasn’t much opportunity. It just needs to be experienced.
After 7hrs of idly wandering, I emerged into the daylight with a grin on my face. I knew early on that Bangkok was going to capture my heart, and with each new place I went, I felt more and more at home. Next to Chatuchak market is the green space of Queen Sirikit Park. By now late afternoon, the park was full of locals spread across the grass relaxing with friends and family. A large lake snakes its way up the park and even through the murky waters, large fish were visible at the surface and people merrily paddled swan boats up and down the waters. Even though my feet were blistered and sore, I meandered through the park for a while before heading back to the BTS and my hotel on the other side of the city. I was relieved to get to my room and find that my luggage had finally arrived.
The next morning was overcast, and I took the BTS to Saphan Taksin where a short walk takes you to the banks of Chao Phraya river, and Central Pier. From here there are plenty of boat options with the main boat service (the Chao Phraya express boat) being colour-coded according to the stops it makes. The main stops that tourists make are covered by all the colours, but the price varies, with the most expensive being the blue boat which is sold specifically as a tourist boat and comes with a commentary. I jumped on the first boat that came (orange) which cost THB 15 compared to THB 40 for the tourist boat, and although crammed, I was able to watch the world go by as we chugged up river. I love trying to merge with the locals when I’m abroad, so I was happy to avoid the tourist boat, but for the uninitiated, there is no announcement of stops, so it is important to have a good idea of which stop you want.
I disembarked at N9 (Tha Chang), and walked through the food stalls to emerge at the bottom of the road that leads to the Grand Palace. Even from this distance, I could see the crowds and buses that hovered near the main entrance, and as I reached the main gateway, I stopped to get my shawl ready and make myself respectful. It is important at the Wat’s of Bangkok to be covered up. Some places are more strict that others, but generally shoulders and upper legs need to be covered. I was quickly accosted at the entrance, and told my shawl was not enough, and was sent inside to hire a shirt to better cover my shoulders. The main walkway up to the entrance was packed with tour groups and the sky was growing ominously dark. I duly paid the THB400 entrance fee and hired an audio guide for another THB200. Entering through the main gate, I was jostled into a throng of people.
The audio guide took me on a tour around Wat Phra Kaeo, past elaborate and ornate statues and shimmering details on the various buildings. I was finding it really hard to absorb the information that was being relayed to me through the headphones and left at the end of it, feeling like I’d learned nothing about the meaning of the place, but despite that it was a marvel for the eyes. In the cloisters, there were ornate murals with golden tints, and the Phra Sri Ratana Chedi stood out in its golden glory against the black sky. The various temples and mausoleums stood proudly with gilted window frames and doorways, and the roof details sparkled with greens, blues and golds. I admired the various statues that adorned the route. Halfway round the Wat, the threatening storm finally broke, and the thunder rolled in and a deluge fell from the sky. I took the opportunity to head indoors to the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. It was impossible to get to the front of the crowds for a closer look but it sat proud at a height so even with rows of people it was still possible to see the buddha, and I left those who wished to pay their respects at the front, and hovered at the back for a while, taking it all in.
In the back corner of the Wat is the doorway to the Grand Palace. Once the Wat is exited, it cannot be re-entered, and immediately on passing through, to the left is the private Barom Phiman Hall, a former royal residence which is guarded and off-limits. The main building of the Grand Palace is grandiose and beautiful, flanked by several halls and with beautiful elephant statues next to the main staircases. It continued to rain in varying intensities but this didn’t deter people from posing for photos. The main building is closed to the public, but most of the neighbouring halls are open to explore. When the next downpour came, I headed into the Emerald Buddha Temple Museum to pass some time before leaving the complex.
From the main entrance, I wandered off on a walking tour of the area, having purchased a poncho to try and stay dry, wandering along streets filled with stalls, and down alleyways where various gems were for sale. I found myself at a boutique group of eateries by the river and sat on a bench watching the river life, waiting for the latest shower to pass. On reaching Thammasat University, I turned away from the river and headed to the long green expanse of Sanam Luang. Heading north, I struggled initially to find a way to get across the road. There aren’t always crossings in Bangkok, and whilst the locals are adept at jumping between traffic to cross very busy roads, I found myself at a fast dual carriageway with no hope of getting a gap to risk running across. Eventually I found a suitable spot after a bit of wandering and headed down the large expanse of Thanon Ratcadamnoen Klang before turning off to visit the infamous Thanon Khao San. This region is a mecca for backpackers and nightlife, but for me, it was just a street full of restaurants catering for Western tastes, bars full of Western beer, and stalls selling t-shirts emblazoned with ‘I Love Kao San’, or ‘I Love Bangkok’. It just wasn’t a side of Bangkok I was interested in giving much time to.
I headed back towards the green belt and wandered south past pink elephants, and beautiful buildings. I followed the very busy road of Thanon Sanam Chai and was shocked to hear a noise behind me and look round to see a man had come off his motorbike on the far side. Motorbikes are exceedingly common in Bangkok, but unfortunately wearing helmets is not. The man lay motionless for a few minutes before finally I saw his arms move as a crowd gathered round him. A local woman who had also stopped next to me, gave me a look that suggested I should move on, so I duly did. I never did hear an ambulance, and the traffic continued its erratic dance around him.
I reached Wat Pho, one of the city’s larger Wats, in the mid-afternoon, and after the busyness of the Grand Palace I was pleasantly relieved to find this place quieter in comparison. There were still plenty of people around but if felt less crammed and more peaceful. I loved Wat Pho, and it was my favourite part of this region of Bangkok, as well as my favourite Wat that I visited. I realised there how much the crowds at the Grand Palace had marred my visit there. The main draw for Wat Pho is the giant reclining buddha in one of the temples. It was the only crowded place but people were patient at waiting for their turn to take photos. I still don’t understand the significance of a lot of the buildings that make up the various Wats, but they are all so detailed and ornate that I was happy to just wander round and ogle at them. Statues were scattered around the grounds, buddha were found in various buildings, and Chedi lined the courtyards. By now, the clouds had lifted, the thunderstorm departed, and it was a gloriously sunny afternoon, so the gold detail glistened and I found a spot to sit for a while and people watch. My feet were heavily blistered, dirty and painful, and the rest was much needed.
It was a short walk to pier N8 Tha Tien, where Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn stood on the far side of the river. This is one of Bangkok’s most photographed buildings, and is much-recommended to visit, but when I was there, it was completely covered in scaffolding, so I didn’t bother. I added it to my mental list of things I’d do on another visit, and jumped on the express boat back to central pier. Back in Thanon Silom, there was plenty of choice for food and I tucked into the best mushroom soup and fried chicken that I have ever eaten.
After a day out of the city when I tried (and failed) to give my poorly feet a rest, I was semi-rejuvenated for another day of pounding the streets of Bangkok. Returning to the river, I took the ferry to N6 at Yodpiman, and cut through in search of the flower market. What I found was a large produce market, and I discovered afterwards, that the flowers arrive at night and are replaced in the daytime with fruits and vegetables, so I headed off in search of Chinatown. I had a brief wander around the Indian region where shops were full of saris and rolls of material. Hitting Chinatown, the shops changed to jewellery stores, and I ducked into an alleyway to find a collection of street markets that spanned block after block. Again, I gave into the moment and enjoyed some shopping whilst squeezing through tight spaces and dodging motorbikes that tried to drive through the tightly packed crowds. It was chaotic but I loved it. I was almost sad to reach the end of it, but went in search of the Chinatown Arch.
Near the arch is Wat Traimit, a relatively small Wat but up its many steps the inner hall contains a solid gold buddha, weighing 5.5 tons, and an estimated worth of $250m. Like many Wats, they hired out shawls and sarongs for a refundable deposit. I generally carried a shawl and wore long-legged clothes on the days I planned to visit Wats but on this occasion, I had gone on a whim so was less prepared. This Wat is also close to Hua Lamphong train station, one of the city’s main stations. After a nosy round it, I hopped on the metro at the adjoining station of the same name and returned to Si Lom.
From Si Lom station, the large expanse of Lumphini Park was accessible, and I whiled away the afternoon wandering round here, snacking on sweet buns and bubble tea. Whilst the day was rather cloudy, the park was well used. Locals jogged, biked and walked round the various pathways, and on the various lakes, paddle boats could be hired. A large fountain could be found in one of the lakes, and as I meandered around, I was pleased to see a young man on a bicycle, stop repeatedly to put some cat food on the ground for the myriad of stray cats that were around the park. But just a little further, I got a shock when a large reptile wandered across my path and slinked into the lake. At first I thought it was a small crocodile, but when I got nearer I realised it was a monitor lizard. Deeper into the park, I found several more parading around the shallows.
As the afternoon turned into evening, I stumbled across a large group of people doing an outdoor exercise class. It was both amusing and fascinating to watch and it was fantastic to see the park being so well used in so many different ways. It was such a relaxing place to be away from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok’s busy streets. My rumbling stomach eventually drew me away and I went off in search of food. I’d had a hankering for noodle soup since I’d arrived, and finally finding somewhere that sold it, I settled down to the best bowl of noodle soup I’ve ever had. Bangkok is as much alive at night as it is during the day, and I relished wandering through the streets on my way back to the hotel. It was my final night in Silom. With the conference starting the next day, I was shifting hotel and location, ready to explore a different side of Bangkok…