An Insiders Guide To Bangkok
Truthfully, Bangkok can be anything a visitor wants it to be; a picturesque Asian postcard crammed with beautiful palaces, and pagodas; a haven with some of the world's finest hotels; a place to let loose and enjoy the most renowned nightlife in the Orient; a chance to savor one of the world's unique cuisines; one of Southeast Asia's best shopping destinations.
And wherever you go in Bangkok, you'll be struck by the friendly, easy way of Thais. Life is sanuk, their word for fun. And with an insiders view of this fascinating city, you will find it sanuk, too!
Although Thai history reaches back to the Bronze Age, Bangkok is a relatively young city, founded in 1782. It has one-tenth of the country's population, about six million people, half under the age of thirty. The city is embraced by the Chao Phraya River of Kings, a glorious working waterway filled with sampans, rice barges, and boats of every imaginable description.
Buddhist temples (wats), high-rise office buildings, luxury hotels, and shopping malls dominate a kaleidoscopic Bangkok skyline blend of old and new. But get beneath the thin veneer of Western influence, and you'll discover Thais have not lost traditional values. Witness ubiquitous street food vendors, monks on early morning begging rounds, and women stringing jasmine blossoms near shrines, and you'll agree ancient culture has been reserved.
Its important to know a bit about Thai culture to really discover the inside of the country and of the city.
Buddhism, more a way of life than a religion, has one aim only: to abolish suffering. It is a flexible, moral, and philosophical framework where people fashion their own salvation. Buddhists believe a person's life does not begin with birth and end with death but continues in an afterlife premised on their behavior in the present life. Earthly impermanence does much to create the relaxed, carefree Thai character, certainly one of the appealing attractions of the country.
As a symbol of hope, the king, a man who works tirelessly for his people, has earned great respect. He acts as a decisive mediator in times of unrest. Few can achieve what King Blumibol can with a word or quiet request. The longest reigning king in the world, he is the glue that holds society together. An accomplished jazz musician and talented photographer, he was born in the United States and educated in Switzerland.
Today, Thailand has a growing democracy and an established rule of law. Its military does not play the dominant role it once did.
Bangkok has more attractions packed into each square mile than most cities. The major attractions are definitely worth seeing; just ignore the crowds and appreciate the architecture and culture of the sights.
Wat Phra Khao and the Grand Palace top all lists for sightseeing; allow a half day. Include nearby Wat Pho and the National Museum. Chinatown's traditional life, unaffected by modern civilization, is fascinating. The historical sites of Rattanakosin Island, the focal point of public life when Bangkok was founded, are also worth a visit, and Wat Arun on the Chao Phraya River is often considered the symbol of Bangkok.
Cross the river to Thonburi and tour the canals (klongs) to appreciate the culture and heritage of Thailand. The golden teak Vimanmek Palace, restored by Queen Sirikit, reflects the exquisite taste and splendor of bygone Thai court life. The Royal Barge Museum houses the king's barges with mythical figureheads. Jim Thompson, founder of the Thai silk industry, left an unmatched legacy of Asian fine art in his residence near Siam Square.
Banglampoo, Pra Athit and Khao San Road, a very popular area of inexpensive restaurants, cheap rooms, street vendors and budget-level fun, is a short walk from the Phra Athit express boat pier. Taxi drivers know it well. There are no real "sights" here, but the street life and bustle are entertaining. Young Western and Asian backpackers lounge around beer bars to share experiences and offer advice on how to travel Southeast Asia "on the cheap."
Ko Kret's main attraction is a landscape filled with clay pots, kilns, and mortars, and an authentic ancient lifestyle more and more difficult to find.
Chao Phraya Express boats leave from the southern Wat Ratchsingkhorn Pier for the 90-minute journey to Pakkred. A boat tour around Ko Kret costs 200 baht.
Founded in 1939, this museum of ancient torture shows many of the grim methods used to execute prisoners during the Ayutthaya Period, the most notable being a huge rattan ball whose inner lining was studded with sharp spikes. The prisoner was placed inside and the ball given to elephants to kick around. In a most understated remark, the guidebook to the museum notes, "The offender will be hurt by many big sharp nails inside." Another memorable quote from the guide: "The executed prisoner's fingerprints will be taken for examination in order to ensure that he was not the wrong person."
There is no charge to enter the museum, and a staff member will gladly escort you around.
To get there, take the express boat to Nonthaburi Pier, cross the river by ferry and continue by bus or motorbike for ten minutes to the town. Taxis are an alternative, but be sure the driver understands where you want to go. Longboats traveling on Thonburi waterways also pass by the town.
Little-known Wat Clusters
Tha Chin River Area
Busses leave from Bangkok's Southern Bus Terminal for Don Wai.
Baiyoke Sky Tower
Ancient City & Crocodile Farm
You can travel to the park on our own, but your visit will be much more rewarding if you take a tour with the benefit of a guide to describe the landmarks. Ancient City Co. at Ratchadamnoen Avenue (Tel: 224 - 1936/7) organizes tours, or you'll find the trip among those listed on sandwich boards outside the offices of most travel agents. This unique outdoor museum is open from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily and charges 50 baht for adults and 25 baht for children.
The Crocodile Farm is about 1 mile from Ancient City. In addition to 30,000 crocodiles, the dinosaur museum has 13 species of life-size creatures.
Caddies are generally young females who carry your bag, clean your ball, give you the distances, and even read your putts, hopefully not your mind. You'll often have two accompanying you, one with an umbrella to shield you from the tropic sun and one to carry your bag.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand has an excellent, well-illustrated brochure titled Golf in Thailand with the top 75 courses profiled in color.
The Siam Society
For scheduled events and tours, contact the Siam Society, 13 Soi Asoke, Sukhumvit 21, Bangkok 10110. Tel: 661-6470/7, Fax: 258-3491.siam-society.org, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thai Cooking Classes
Its easy to base in Bangkok and explore the region through a series of interesting and unusual daytrips.
Ayutthaya & Bang Pa-In
When you arrive in Ayutthaya, hire (250 baht is a fair price) a tuk tuk with an English-speaking guide to show you the celebrated temples. Then hire (300 baht is a good price) a long-tail boat for the 12-mile Chao Phraya River trip to the king's summer palace at Bang Pa-In; return to Bangkok from Bang Pa-In by train.
Nakhon Pathom & Buddha Monthon
Leave from the Southern Bus Terminal for the one-hour ride to the chedi.
Rose Garden Country Resort
For those with limited time, the Rose Garden offers good insight into local traditions. Admission to the gardens is 10 baht and 220 baht for the cultural performances. The park is open daily with shuttle buses between the resort and major Bangkok hotels. Tel: 295-3261.
By any world standard, Bangkok hotels can't be beat for value received. Forget published room rates. In Thailand's depressed economy, hotel room prices are as negotiable as carpets in the souks of Marrakech. Walk-in reduced rates, corporate discounts, frequent guest programs, Bangkok travel agent contracted rates, and special promotions often save you up to 50% off rack rates.
Top-end hotels are located along the river, near Siam Square, the Queen Sirikit Convention Center, and major shopping and entertainment intersections with prices in the US$100 range. Chinatown, Khao San Road and Banglampoo offer rock bottom room rates, often less than US $10 a night.
Hint: Bangkok travel agents offer highly discounted room rates for all classes of hotels. Book your arrival night before you leave home and shop the agents for subsequent lodging.
Soi 9 Sukhumvit Road
Thai food currently enjoys worldwide popularity not just in ethnic and local neighborhoods, but at fashionable city addresses as well. Travelers to Bangkok quickly learn to enjoy the great scope of Thai cuisine; freshness, subtle flavors, and an artful presentation of dishes, street food excepted. Add mai ped (not too spicy) to your vocabulary if hot food disagrees with you.
Thais are inveterate snackers, and street food hawkers with stone mortar, charcoal stoves, water buckets, umbrellas, and chairs supply the essentials. Don't hesitate to try these inexpensive wok concoctions, but watch how the cooking utensils are cleaned. Many Thai people find it's cheaper to buy from local street vendors than to prepare meals at home.
Continental and Asian cuisines are often served in lavish hotel dining rooms and Western-style restaurants, and no matter where you are, you'll be near an American franchised fast food shop flaunting familiar signs.
Name it and you'll find it in Bangkok. Jazz, blues, and country-western clubs are found along Sarasin Road near Lumpini Park. Major hotels have popular discos and the Hard Rock Café, Planet Hollywood make their presence known. The NASA Spacedrome Disco packs in 4,000 on busy nights (Tel: 324-3368). Silom Road Soi 4 caters to the gay scene, yuppies and hippies.
The National Theater (Tel: 221-5861) and Thai Cultural Center (Tel: 247-0028) schedule classical dance recitals, the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra, and performing arts groups.
For some less traditional nighttime entertainment, the transvestite Calypso Cabaret holds forth in the Asia Hotel (Tel: 261-6355). The Mambo Cabaret (Tel: 259-5128) brings in 600 nightly to check out the cabaret's claim for having the most beautiful transvestites. These shows are more likely to amuse (or confuse) than offend.
If you are at all unsure about Bangkoks notorious red light districts and loose policies on prostitution, avoid the infamous Patpong, Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy areas. The brand new Clinton Plaza near the Ambassador Hotel is also one of the main arenas for male patrons seeking earthy pleasures. Today, however, Patpong is almost as well known for its nightly bazaar as for its sleazy bars.
Thai silks and cottons, silverware, brass and bronzeware, pewterware, pottery and celadon, lacquerware, precious stones and finished jewelry, antiques and neo-antiques, and a dazzling assortment of folk handicrafts are popular traditional products. Decorative items and well-designed teak furniture satisfy discriminating shoppers. Tailors and dressmakers offer reliable services. Your shopping challenge is knowing what to buy and where to buy it; quality varies considerably. Electronic goods and camera equipment are expensive.
But, if you cant handle the haggling, visit Narayana Phand, across from the World Trade Center on Ratchadamri Road next to Gaysorn Plaza and near the Erawan Shrine. Established about a half century ago, this shop is a joint venture between the Royal Thai Government and the private sector and worth a special trip. Shop here for Thai handicrafts and local products. You're guaranteed high quality and reliable merchandise at reasonable prices. Check out their new website at http://www.naraiphand.com.
Most visits to Bangkok coincide with a national holiday or local celebration. Most of these are celebrated in true Thai style in the city and surrounding areas. Below are the major happenings.
One wheel at the front, two at the back, a motorbike engine with handlebars for steering, and a slippery plastic seat cover over the back wheels with a not-too-protective cover, and you've defined the tuk tuk, Bangkok's unique local transportation. Low-price metered taxis have relegated the tuk tuk to the tourist trade and local family transport.
Driving in Bangkok is not for the faint-hearted. In spite of signs and speed limits, anything goes. A Rule of Thumb: the right of way usually belongs to the larger vehicle. Forget this option.
Bangkok enjoys a tropical climate with three distinct seasons. The average annual 83°F. can climb to 95°F. during the March through May hot summer months. Ruled by monsoons from the southwest, the rainy season prevails from June through October with river flooding sometimes occurring in early fall. Weather conditions are most temperate from November through February, the ideal months to visit the city. Bangkok is hot and humid mid-day at any time of the year.
Thais are hygiene-conscious. Most restaurants have high standards of cleanliness. Don't become paranoid to the point where you may miss one of the joys of Thailand, Thai food. Drink bottled water.
The government's campaign to educate people on preventive measures for AIDS and sexually-transmitted diseases has slowed the incidence of infection, but the risks remain very real in a country whose thriving sex industry is well known. Major hospitals are first rate; in particular, the Bumrungrad Hospital at 33 Sukhumvit Soi 3, Tel.667-1000
By international standards, Bangkok is a safe city, but petty crime is always common in areas where tourists gather. Thailand is no exception. Use common sense.
Bangkok is also the place to pick up visas for other nearby Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Most travel agencies can arrange these for you, or you can go directly to the consulates of the respective countries and apply in person.
The basic unit of currency is the Thai baht, worth about two and a half US cents. Don't waste valuable time trying to find the best dollar exchange rate. There's very little difference with the exception of poorer rates offered by hotel cashiers. Travelers Checks and credit cards are accepted everywhere. ATMs are readily available.
Cybercafes are plentiful and cheap; expect to pay about four US cents a minute. Check netcafeguide.com for locations.
Interntational telephone calls from Bangkok are very easy and most city hotelsespecially the larger ones--have international direct-dial phones. Use your phone card; its much cheaper.
There is no better resource for authentic information on Bangkok than the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Visit their excellent website, or stop into one of their offices either in Bangkok or elsewhere.
Tourism Authority of Thailand
And by all means, pick up a copy of Nancy Chandler's "Map of Bangkok" and spend time with it. The new offbeat "Groovy Maps & Guides" cover Bangkok at night.
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