I had booked my trip to Asia 18 months in advance, and the visit to Bangkok was to be one of the highlights, so I was really disappointed when the political turbulence started in the city just before Christmas. As our departure date approached I came across an article by a Bangkok local, who was advising anxious tourists that they would be fine in the city, provided they avoided certain areas – the protestors had now been confined to one of the city parks and the perimeter of a few government buildings, and were not likely to worry any visitors. Feeling reassured, (but still a little nervous) we decided to stick to our plans and stay overnight for one day in Bangkok. I am so glad we did!
One Day in Bangkok – a contrast of Old and New
The centre of Bangkok is sleek and modern with many high-rise buildings and glittering up-market shopping centres rubbing shoulders with the old lovely old colonial buildings. (In stark contrast to the outskirts of the city which are rather over-crowded and derelict, like most very large cities which are home to millions of people). We reached the city around 11am and had just over 24 hours at our disposal before it would be time to return to the ship, so there was no time to lose…
Life on the River
No visit to Bangkok is complete without exploring the Chao Phraya River which has been the life-blood of the city for hundreds of years since it was settled. We decided to explore the river using the Chao Phraya Tourist Boat, (rather than the regular ferry), because they have a commentary in English to help first-time visitors find their way around. You can buy a day-ticket for the tourist boat which gives you unlimited travel between the 8 different stops on the most popular part of the river through the Rattanakosin Island Historic Area.
The river banks are lined with lovely old temples, palaces and communities, as well as many of the most expensive hotels in the city. Our first stop was Na Phra Lan station for the amazing Grand Palace which is a must on every tourist’s must-do list. To our great disappointment, we had arrived too late – the last entry time is 3pm, which we had just missed! Plan to be there first thing in the morning, and dress conservatively in long sleeves and trousers – there is a strict dress code for entrance to this site! However, we did enjoy walking around the perimeter and could see quite a bit of the external architecture.
We found it easy to get around the city using the modern and super-clean Sky Train – It was great being able to see something of the city at you zip along at tree-top height. Getting up and down the approach stairs could be a problem for anyone with restricted mobility – I seldom saw any elevators or escalators to get people up the two flights of steps.
Our hotel in Bangkok was close to the Centre Point shopping centre and this is where we headed for supper (you could also go on a supper cruise along the river to see the city all lit up – we were just too tired from our hectic afternoon!). The Centre has a long row of restaurants, each one more enticing than the other and we rounded off our day with some wonderfully hot and fragrant Thai food.
Next day we were up bright and early for our 8am half-day Temple Tour pick-up. We expected to be part of a group, but sadly the riots have resulted in many tourists avoiding Bangkok and cancelling their visits…bad news for the people working in the tourism sector. Our tour turned out to be a private one, which was great for us! We drove through the Bangkok University Campus to the first temple, Wat Traimit, famously home to the Golden Buddha, the world’s largest solid gold Buddha.
The Temple is very beautiful and ornate, having attended in introductory lecture on Zen Buddhism on the ship, we had at least a little understanding of the religion and what to expect. From Wat Traimit we moved on to see the remarkable huge 50mt reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, one of the oldest temples in Bangkok, as well as the home of Bangkok’s original Thai Massage School.
The grounds are huge and house many buildings and shrines. As impressive as this one was, it was the final temple Wat Benchamabophit (or Marble Temple) that stands out in my mind as a beautiful and serene place; a little less ornate, and much quieter, this one was my personal favourite.
Two quick tips:
- you need to dress conservatively for all the temples – take along a large shawl if you are not wearing sleeves – men should wear long pants.
- Carry a shoe-bag with you and wear shoes that are easy to slip off – you will have to remove your shoes each time you enter a Temple.
The moment you pull out a map on the street in Bangkok you are likely to be approached by a well-spoken gentleman who offers to help you…(usually a doctor or teacher!!) Just be aware that this “help” is a scam! When you tell the helper where you want to go he will tell you that the place you want is closed today (for stocktaking, holiday, feast day, etc) and direct you to another place, usually a retail outlet belonging to a family member. It is best to decline directions unless you are really and truly lost! We were approached in this manner at least 4 times in one afternoon as we tried to make our way to a particular shopping centre.
PS We did see the protestors…on the second day they staged a rally downtown and brought traffic to a halt…our taxi driver did not even remark on it, just switched off the engine and waited patiently – just another Bangkok traffic-jam!