I haven’t mentioned this yet in previous posts about my Asia trip (Hong Kong, Macau), but the excuse for the whole 3+ week journey was to visit friends who are spending a year working & studying in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. It’s an isolated country that’s complicated to get to; Bangkok is one of the primary entry points by air – and the one that’s cheapest/easiest to reach from Seattle. As such, I was in Bangkok twice (on the way into, and then back out of, Bhutan). In total, I only actually spent about 2 days there, which isn’t nearly enough to get a deep understanding of the place. All I can offer are some first superficial impressions about the city.
Actually, there are some cities that you could get a pretty good grasp on in only 2 days; Bangkok is not one of them. It’s big (10+ million people), but even more than that, it’s exceptionally spread out. There’s no real “center” – no old town, no central business district – which makes it harder to feel you’ve actually been in Bangkok. There are plenty of interesting sights but they’re strewn across the city, in some cases several kilometers from each other.
The distance between things makes it harder to spend your day on foot, and the heat complicates that further. Bangkok is, based on average air temperature, the world’s hottest big city. We visited in the hottest months: April & May. It got up to ~38° C (100° F) during the day, and never dropped below 90° F at night (luckily, it wasn’t particularly humid like it usually is).
Although on our second visit we partook of our hotel’s beautiful swimming pool, we spent the hottest parts of the day dutifully visiting temples and palaces like good tourists. We weren’t alone. Bangkok is the #3 most visited city in the world, after Paris and London, and there was definitely no shortage of foreigners around. Someone once told me that Thailand is Australia’s Mexico, and I see what they mean.
The benefit of all those visitors is that there’s well-developed tourist infrastructure: a very nice airport with a fast train to the city, tons of top-notch hotels and restaurants at those famously-affordable Thailand prices, and an elevated train system – the SkyTrain – that’s a convenient & fast way to get around the traffic-clogged city (SkyTrain doesn’t go very many places yet, but it’s growing).
To be honest, our time in Bangkok was a bit of an afterthought when it came to planning this trip – we put more energy into our longer visit to Hong Kong and our once-in-a-lifetime Bhutan experience. Fortunately, there’s a small library’s worth of Bangkok guide books available, and just about all of them agree that the top 3 “Things to Do” are: Wat Phra Kaew and the adjacent Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and cruising on the Chao Phraya river. Off we went.
First, the river cruise (check out the video here). Most things in Thailand are inexpensive, so we organized a tour in our own private longboat. The river itself was choppy from a combination of wind and boat traffic, but our driver steered us through a maze of small, calm canals lined with houses and temples. It was a very fun and memorable way to see the city and cool off a bit (which you can see in the other videos here and here).
“King of Thailand” is a title that has religious implications as well as political ones, and the King’s former residence is both adjacent to, and outshone by, Wat Phra Kaew, “The Temple of the Emerald Buddha.” It’s considered the most sacred temple in Thailand. The small Emerald Buddha statue itself is a bit underwhelming compared to the architecture and ornate decoration of the entire temple complex. Pictures will do it better justice…
Wat Pho, another beautiful temple complex, is most famous for it’s enormous gold statue of a Reclining Buddha. I can’t remember seeing a more impressive statue, religious or otherwise. Behind the statue, 108 bronze buckets hang on the wall – 108 being a particularly auspicious number in Buddhism. People walk along the wall and drop a coin into each bucket for good luck, which as the effect of filling the building with a constant and unique “clanking” noise that I can still hear clearly in my head.
We rounded out our time in Bangkok lounging in the aforementioned swimming pool, stepping inside a large, modern, air-conditioned mall near our hotel, and eating some predictably delicious Thai food (everything you’ve heard is true: it’s easy to find great food in Bangkok). Overall, both my visits to Bangkok were very enjoyable and I’d happily go back again.
It’s a good thing that Bangkok’s airport is relatively nice. We got to see a lot of it going back & forth to Hong Kong and Bhutan, which I’ll finally start covering in my next post…
PS: If you’d like to see more Bangkok pics, they’re on Flickr.