Airport Rating ****
Reception of locals *****
Bangkok is an assault on the senses. The sights, sounds and smells are overwhelming and impressive in equal measure. The dichotomy of rich and poor, modern Bangkok and the old city are amplified when compared to other cities in SE Asia. There is a lot to see and a lot to do, and if you can handle the humidity and heat you could easily spend months here and still be exploring the city.
I caught an overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok with a few people that I had met on my way to the north of Thailand. The trains from the north are quite big, I'm a reasonably sized guy and didn't have much trouble in the beds located in the carriages. There were about 9 of us who headed down together, most were around my age or a little bit older and the journey was a lot of fun (probably not for those around us though). We spent most of the journey enjoying the scenery of the Thai countryside. We played a few games and spoke about our home countries. An attendant on the train came round late in the evening to convert the seating into beds.
We decided we weren't ready to sleep just yet and decided to have some competitions. The girls thought it would be fun to have a tricep dip competition. As a guy that likes to work out, I had a lot of fun doing it but it was hilarious, One Swiss girl in particular spent the best part of 20 minutes trying to do one tricep dip. Everytime she would get close, everyone would burst out laughing. I felt bad for her, but when you start laughing, pretty much anything is funny.
By 3am most people were asleep so instead of disturbing everyone if someone wanted to talk they would just come over to your bed or you would go to theirs. It was funny watching people trying to jump from bed to bed then disappearing behind curtains. After an hour or so I felt ready to close my eyes and just then I saw a head poke through the curtain. There was no way anyone was getting any sleep.
Same same, but different
We arrived in the city, suffering from sleep deprivation, but as soon as we stepped out the train and the noise of the city hit us, it was like a second wind of energy. We were good to go.
I have mentioned in other posts, the sights you see and activities you do are amazing, but sometimes, the people you meet are the best part of the journey. I have stayed in touch with most of the people I met in the north of Thailand, in fact some of them flew over and stayed with me in London a few months after the trip.
We each went our separate ways to drop our bags off and then met back to head off to the Grand Palace in central Bangkok. Since 1782, the Grand Palace complex has been the official residences of the King's of Thailand, and although the current King lives in different residences, the complex is still used to host official events.
The complex itself is large and the buildings are a majestic mix of gold and silver. Wat Phra Kaew, or the temple of the Emerald Buddha is one of the complex's major attractions. The Emerald Buddha is believed to have been crafted in the 1300's but was found in Chiang Rai in 1434 after a heavy rainstorm. The statue was transferred between a number of different cities before finally coming into the possession of the King of Siam.
As with other temples in Thailand, there is a strict dress code - no vests, and shorts must be below knee length. For females, shoulders must also be covered. There is a strict no photo policy which is rigorously enforced, I saw quite a few tourists try to take a cheeky picture and all were caught. It doesn't quite have the presence of larger statues, but the the green jade statue is very striking.
The Golden Palace complex is very large and well dispersed with quite a few buildings and temples throughout, far too many to list. The Phra Tinang Racharudee was a particularly impressive pavilion, constructed in a traditional Thai style where the King celebrates his birthdays. The Maha Chakri Prasat is another large complex within the Golden Palace composed of 9 different halls. The building, dating back to the mid 19th century is very large, imposing and has all the majesty of a Kingdom filled with self confidence.
They have a saying in Thailand, "same same, but different" and palaces and temples are a perfect example of this. Even though after a while you get temple fatigue, there are intricate differences that remain fascinating, even after you have seen your hundredth temple.
Across the road from the Golden Palace is Wat Pho, one of the oldest temples in Bangkok and home of the famous reclining Buddha. The oldest part of the temple is believed to have been constructed in the 17th century. The temple is said to have been the first public university in Thailand and is where the popular Thai Massage was formalised. There are medical inscriptions and markings throughout the temple and even more impressively, courses in Thai Massage are still run in the temple.
There are very cheap massage parlours all over Thailand, and Bangkok is no exception. For the equivalent of a couple of pounds, you get a one hour Thai massage
I'll never forget the first one I had. I had gone with an English and Swiss girl that I had met in Thailand and you go into a room and get changed into light clothes made out of cotton. We lay down into adjoining beds and then the curtains are pulled shut. I expected a nice soothing, calming massage, and that's how it started out, but it very quickly transformed into something more sinister. Before I knew it, my body was being twisted and contorted into unnatural positions. Everything I'd make a bit of noise, the other beds would start laughing. They did a bit near the end where they crack your back. I don't think the masseuse was prepared for how inflexible I was. The cracks were so loud, even the masseuse in the room next to us started laughing. Its strange, its painful when you have it done, but the feeling afterward is so good that the next day you want another one. I know I had double digit massages by the time I left the country.
The centrepiece of the temple is the giant reclining Buddha, 46 metres long. Walking into the room I wasn't sure what to expect, but nothing prepared me for the sheer scale of the statue. I literally felt like I was the size of just the statues head. It was a hot day and the temple was giving out free bottles of water which I thought was a very nice touch.
Another temple of considerable prestige is Wat Arun, an old Hindu/Buddhist temple that is now used for Buddhist practices. Built in the 1600's the temple is accessible by boat. The temple complex is next to a Buddhist Monastery and there are hundreds of Monks, going about their daily lives in and around the around the temple. The main temple itself is a pyramid like structure that you are able to climb on top of. The stairs are ridiculously steep, handrails have been added recently, I can't help but wonder how many accidents must have happened before their addition. Going up, other than being a little physically taxing isn't so bad, but the way down is not for the weak hearted. The drop is almost vertical and you have to hold onto the guardrails pretty tightly.
After spending a couple of days touring palaces and temples, we decided to head toward the liveliest part of Bangkok, the infamous Khaosan Road.
The road is only about half a mile long, but over the past decade has become a hub for solo travelers and backpackers. The road (and the area surrounding it) is cramped, sweaty with the smell of food being cooked by street vendors particularly strong. Stalls line the sides of the street so that it is basically impossible to walk on the pavement, and there is a very energetic vibe about the area. Everywhere you look, there are tourists, most in their 20's/30's shopping for bargains, having Thai massages or sitting in bars. Food is reasonably priced and there are always offers on to entice tourists. Coaches leave, and arrive with tourists and backpackers from the north and south of the country at regular intervals.
One of the guys who I had met had read good reviews about one of the tailors on the road and decided to purchase some tailored suits. The price was very cheap, under GBP 100 for a tailored suit made out of cashmere so I decided to get in on it and got a couple. Hands down my best purchase in the country. If anyone is interested, I'll be happy to share their details, I can't recommend them highly enough.
The road is also home to a group of Singh's who make their money telling the fortune of travellers, usually westerners. They stopped me, and after doing their Fateh (greeting), they told me they could tell me my fortune. I hate when people try to fleece others out of their hard earned money with fake scams and superstitions. I decided to follow this through before calling them out. After telling me about my future family life, I confronted them and said this is a pure scam. Their leader came around the corner, a humungous Singh, like the ones you see in older paintings, big tall turban, huge flowing beard. He asked me what the matter was. I told him that he dresses like a religious man and acts as a fraud. He folded his hands in front of me and told me to take my money back. He said they are poor and are just trying to make a living. He told me he meditates everyday but he still needs to eat. Perhaps this was another scam, but I told him to keep the money and walked away. I saw the guys a few hours later during a rainstorm, whilst other tourists had gone indoors, they were huddling on a doorstep. My heart sank a little and I realised they are just making a living and using their unique identity to look like Punjabi mystics. Fair play.
As day turns to night, the road begins to transform into a large street party. You can hear different types of music in every building and there is a carnival atmosphere. We sat down for some food in an large open air area.
"Scorpions, BBQ scorpions, who wants scorpions". I thought I was hearing things, until I turned around and there was a box of scorpions infront of me. One of the girls I was with decided she wanted some, and the rest of us decided we might as well try some, we'd come this far. There wasn't a particularly strong flavour, and the scorpion was much more palatable than the tarantula I ate in Cambodia.
After a while we decided to check out the nightlife. Unlike the UK and many parts of Europe, a lot of bars here spill out into the street where the music is also playing. Whether you drink or you don't, you cant help but get caught up in the buzz and before I knew it, the sun was beginning to rise.
There are two sides to Bangkok. The traditional and the modern and the newer city can compete with the very best capitals in the world. Pathum Wan is a shopping district in Bangkok and home of a number of malls, including Centralworld, the sixth largest shopping centre in the world.
The surrounding area is quite glamorous, with large theatre halls, cinema's and modern skyscapers. Centralworld has a unique layout. Every floor is divided into different 'zones' These zones correspond to different areas in the world - the Turkey zone is laid out in a traditional Turkish souk format with Turkish restaurants. The England zone comes complete with large London buses and a fish and chip shop. I thought it was a very cool format and had fun exploring the shopping centre without spending any money. Unlike Khaosan Road, everything here is very expensive, with prices similar to those found in Western Europe and America.
The business district of Bangkok, Bang Rak is comparable to the likes of Canary Wharf in London, although spread out over a larger area. The most well known landmark in this area is the Sky Bar. The bar is used in a number of Hollywood films and is one of the places in the city where you really need to dress up. After spending months in shorts and vests, I had to go out and buy a shirt, trousers and some shoes, just to make sure I could get in. It felt strange to wear formal attire in such a hot climate. The lobby of the building is as grand as you would expect with high ceilings. We jumped into the lift up to the 63rd floor. The Sky Bar is the world's highest open air bar and looking over the edge you could see why. The only issue is, similar to the Shard in London, or the CN Tower in Canada, at such heights, you lose perspectives of the city around you. Everything just seems to be the same size.
Nevertheless, the views over the city were incredible. A word of warning, the area's where you can haggle prices and pay pennies is a long way away. Refreshments here are similar in price to the Shard in London - very expensive, but it is definitely worth a visit, just to see a different side to the city.
If you can handle the heat, humidity and noise, Bangkok is a fantastic place to spend some time. There is a lot to see and do, however the city can be pretty full on. Personally, I preferred some of the cities in the north of country, but its not fair to compare Bangkok with another city in Thailand. In fact, its not fair to compare Bangkok to any other city I have been to. It has a unique character, strong, loud, in your face. Certain area's make you realise this isn't just a city going places, but its a city that in many respects is already there.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.