Monday, 6 March 2017

Exploring the Big Mango: 4 days in Bangkok

"There it was, spread largely on both banks, the Oriental capital which had yet suffered no white conqueror…" - Joseph Conrad
I've already written a Bangkok survival guide, but I would like to go more in detail about this incredible city.

The temples

I literally love temples and history so I just couldn't miss the emerald Buddha inside Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho, located at walking distance one from the other. The former is inside the grounds of  the Grand Palace, which is the only tourist attraction in the city that has a steep entrance fee: 500 baht (13,50€). It also closes early, at 3:30 pm,  so I had to schedule the visit carefully. Wat Pho was equally beautiful and at 100 baht (2,70€) was more affordable. Another plus it that it is open until 6:30 pm so I had no excuse.

A stone giant in Wat Pho

Wat Phra Kaew and the  Grand Palace cover a huge area, but in my opinion Wat Phra kaew is more interesting than the former royal residence, which is a mishmash of Thai and different European styles. The complex has a huge courtyard and then many different temples and pavilions, each of them a bit different, with many interesting and unexpected details. Wat Pho is similar in the sense that like any temple in Thailand it is not one single structure but an ensemble of them. It took me a couple of hours to see each of them.

A quiet corner of Wat Phra Kaew
By visiting both I learned about the influence of Chinese culture in the art of Thailand, for example in the miniature Chinese rock gardens, and the link with Hindu mythology in the Ramakian murals. I loved the statues of curious monster-like creatures, the Yakshas, with green skin and bulging eyes that often guard the temples. There were also all kinds of Chinese-style statues carved from granite: some looked like dogs, others like crying men, wise men or even comical men.

Some yakshas in Wat Phra Kaew
I loved the variety of Thai temples: there is nowhere to rest your eyes, and every pavilion is slightly different from the one just next to it. There are huge Buddha golden statues, small jade ones, decorated ceramic tiles and so on. Inside Wat Pho the colossal reclining Buddha is a famous sight and it is perhaps more impressive than the smaller emerald Buddha, only that the latter is the most revered icon in the country. Little by little you learn to recognize the different postures of Buddha: the reclining one and the meditating one, of course, but also Buddha touching the earth or teaching.

A Buddha statue in teaching position

One thing that  surprised me about these temples was that you can see ceremonies taking place and people actually praying and making offers. All Buddhist temples are a place of worship and a tourist attraction at the same time, very much like any church in Europe.

Inside Wat Phra Kaew

The downside to visting the Grand Palace and Wat Pho is that there were too many Chinese tourists and by the end I felt a little dizzy at so many statues, stupas and gold. It was an amazing experience, but unfortunately there did not seem to be a decent place to eat around there and the cabs are reluctant to take you on the metre. 

The bars 

Everybody knows Bangkok has an incredible night life. Ignoring the infamous ping pong shows and other similar places, one thing that I'm happy I've seen is one of  the posh skyroof bars, the Vertigo and Moon Bar on top of the Banyan Tree hotel. The dress code is smart casual, the drink obviously expensive, but it's more the experience that counts. The view is just amazing: it gives you an idea of how big Bangkok really is. I went with some people I met in my hostel (the Bed Station, which you should really go to if you are in Bangkok), otherwise I wouldn't have thought about going to such a place (luxury is not my kind of thing). It was packed and to have a table we had to wait a little.

Moon Bar
The other extreme is perhaps the infamous Khao San Road, which I didn't particularly like. During the day it is a long street full of souvenir shops, tattoo parlours and Western bars, but at night it turns into craziness. It is here that backpackers in Thailand looking for cheap drinks and fun love to meet. I found it zero per cent authentic: too many Western pubs, flashpacker hostels and all-day breakfast bars for my taste. It's like a display of all that's despicable about the backpacking world: how we want to travel cheaply and independently but then expect  to have  the same food and the same brands available at any time. It is the only place in the city where they served scorpions on a stick to amused tourists, then offer you a massage right on armchairs in the middle of the street and a lady selling wooden frogs tries to convince you to buy her ugly souvenir. Well, I guess you have to see it once.

Jim Thompson's house

This is in every guidebook about Bangkok, yet most people I knew skipped it. A bad choice according to me, because I found it a quite relaxing and instructive experience, a corner of old Bangkok in a hyper-modern city. Moreover, it was literally at walking distance from my hostel in Ratchathewi.

Inside Jim Thompson's house

Jim Thompson was a silk merchant and an Asian art collector in the 1950s. For 100 baht (2,70€) you get to see his house, which assembled various Thai traditional dwellings and it displays the traditional lifestyle in this part of the world. Who ever knew that Bangkok was built on canals?

The home includes a jungle garden with a pond, a spirit house and a handicraft centre, where you can learn something about silk weaving and other traditional Thai products.

Street food and shopping

For such a big metropolis, Bangkok doesn't have as many Thai restaurants as you would expect. There are plenty of foreign restaurants, from fast food chains to Japanese sushi bars, but to eat Thai food locals usually go to improvised stalls that pop up everywhere along the streets of the city. The meal is very inexpensive, around 40 baht (1€) for a pad thai. If you don't know this delicacy, it is a simple dish of rice noodles with tofu, eggs, bean sprouts, and sprinkled with chopped peanuts, chilly and a wedge of lime. Of course there are other options, from meat skewers to noodle soups, but pad thai is quite addictive.

Pad Thai
What Bangkok has in abundance are shopping opportunities. Chatuchak Market pops up during the weekend in an area easily accessible with public transport. Here you can find anything, but what makes it so special is its artistic flair: design clothes and kitsch gadgets, but also fruit snacks and dried herbs and spices for sale at cheap prices. The rule of course is to haggle for everything you want to buy. Unfortunately, I visited on my first day in Bangkok and I was intimidated by this practice and did not buy anything. Don't do like me!

Grilling meat at Chatuchak weekend market

If an open-air market is not your cup of tea, around Siam Square there are air-conditioned huge shopping malls, of which you'll have to see at least one if you are in Bangkok for more than a couple of days. This area is well-connected by the BTS train so it was really not a problem to stop by and see what the fuss about Asian malls is really about.

Have you been to Bangkok? What do you think are the best activities and things to see?

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