Two relaxed days in Bangkok
Krung Thep as the Thais themselves call it, Bangkok is a beehive of over 8 million people. It is famous for its awe-inspiring shrines and colourful night life, not to mention the bustling markets and other shopping opportunities.
We spent only two whole days in the Thai capital this time and it wasn’t easy to choose from the wide array of sights. We don’t like to rush from one place to another so we finally decided to look around the Grand Palace (because our son hasn’t seen it yet) and Chinatown, both in the centre of Bangkok.
No shoulders or knees please!
Tourists will know the complex as the Grand Palace although its official name is Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha). We saw it back in 2000 when my wife and I first travelled to Thailand. We don’t particularly enjoy crowded places (to say the least) but we thought our son should also see the majestic buildings so we paid the hefty 500 Baht each and entered. Well, almost, because we first had to buy a pair of long trousers for Áron, who was wearing shorts. The same thing happens to those arriving in sleeveless tops (only they’ll have to buy a T-shirt).
Visitors are only allowed to see a few of the more than 100 buildings of the complex. The main attraction is clearly the Emerald Buddha and its temple. You can only enter the elaborately ornamented building without your shoes and photography is not strictly forbidden inside. The large room is half empty but the other half is composed in a way that the rich details direct your eyes on the – surprisingly small – green figure sitting on a high platform. Interestingly, the Buddha statue was originally kept in Chiang Rai, where it was accidently discovered after lightning cracked a building.
If I went again, I’d avoid the whole neighbourhood at the weekend. It can be frustrating when you have to stop every second to let someone take a photo and there are queues even for the dustbin. Also, some of the buildings, like the coronation hall, are only open Monday to Friday.
Bird’s nest soup, anyone?
If you’ve got tired of the hordes of other tourists, take a boat down the Chao Phraya river to Pier 5 (Ratchawong). You are bang in Chinatown, surrounded by another kind of crowd. It is as old as Bangkok itself and one of the largest of its kind in the world.
During the day it is the gold capital of Bangkok. You can see the golden letters against a red background everywhere. Then there are countless stores selling food products. When the sun goes down some of the streets turn into a night market of clothes, bags and whatever you can imagine.
Yaowarat in Thai, Chinatown is also famous for its street food and restaurants. We tried a busy eatery across Hotel Royal (we actually had to wait for a table). Professional staff, unexpected but addictive flavours and affordable prices. But you can also try bird’s nest soup or seafood the pricier restaurants.
For a cultural experience, leave the busy streets behind and check out Wat Traimit, the temple of the gold Buddha. It looks like Buddha statue are not made but discovered in Thailand because this 3-meter-tall solid gold figure was also found by accident. All right, the statue itself was there for centuries but nobody knew it was made of gold until it was dropped while being moved. The plaster covering broke and a top tourist attraction was born.
The same building houses a small exhibition about the Buddha statue and a museum about Chinatown on the second floor.
Breakfast with Buddhist monks
It’s tricky to find a budget room in Bangkok that’s not a cubicle without any windows and so noisy you can’t sleep all night. After a long search I stumbled on a homestay by Wat Sangkathan in the northern Nonthaburi district of the city. For just 10 dollars we had a spacious room with a bathroom and a little terrace. But the main advantage was the location.
Wat Sangkathan is a temple popular with Thai people, who come and spend a few days learning about the teachings of the Buddha. They follow a strict daily routine, which includes that they can only eat once a day before noon. The monks collect food and then share it not only with their disciplines but anyone who turns up in the morning.
This is how we ended up having breakfast with all those people in white and orange. Of course, donations are appreciated. At the weekend there is even a small market with a large range of homemade products and fruits and very friendly prices.
The temple complex offers a quiet retreat after the craze of Bangkok. There’s a large pond full of enormous catfish, a dream of any fisherman (but be warned, fishing is not allowed). We saw turtles and a giant lizard, too.
Our plan was to go north to Chiang Rai from the capital but because we dislike buses we chose to take a train to Chiang Mai first. Thai Railways has a very useful website where you can book tickets online. Just make sure you buy your ticket days ahead as the popular lines fill up very quickly. We only got third class tickets one day before departure for the 14-hour journey. The seats were not designed to fit the average European but there were empty seats most of the time so we survived. We loved the restaurant in the train and all the food offered by locals between the stations.