A September 1998 trip
to Bangkok by actonsteve
Quote: Bangkok is a spicy, sticky city where wall-to-wall traffic contrasts with tranquil temples and gentle people. With delicious food, speeding tuk-tuks, and pungent canals, Bangkok is a city you will never forget . . .
Travellers from around the world head for Thailand and Bangkok in search of adventure, the exotic, or just something out of the oridinary. The 'City of Angels' provides this in abundance and is one of the most overwhelming and exciting cities in the world. Sooner or later, if you are a world-traveller, you must head for the capital of the Kingdom of the Thais.
There are almost too many sights in Bangkok to see all in one go. Glittering temples loom over the sluggish Chao Phraya river, monks chant as they pass Buddhist shrines on street corners, tuk-tuks call for your custom, incense is lit in secret gardens, cries and shouts come from local markets, and the great sights of the Grand Palace, Wat Arun, and Wat Po are simply indescribable.
If Southeast Asia has got a hub and a heart -- then the steamy city of Bangkok is probably it.
And what a city it is. The centre is colossal and confusing to nearly every tourist. The western boundary is the murky Chao Phraya river which flows from north to south. Across the Chao Phraya is Bangkok at its most miasmic: a veritable ants' nest of traffic-choked arteries and tiny alleys.
If you're on a budget, then you'll be heading for the backpacker bubble of Khao San Road. This is within walking distance of the city's hub, the green main square of Sanam Luang.
Bangkok will grow on you. The city is hard work but it's also full of surprises. One night, I turned the corner of Khao San Road and saw the night-market light up the entire street and thought -- wow -- what an amazing city!
I would rank Bangkok as one of the toughest cities in the world to get around. Things are improving -- investment has meant the introduction of a monorail (MTR) called the Skytrain that crosses the city from east to west. The MTR is cheap (a mere 40 baht), silent, and rides above the pollution like a magic carpet. The only problem is that it goes nowhere near Banglamphu -- it has helped make getting around the city manageable.
And then there are the tuk-tuks . . .
To me they are the quintessential Bangkok experience -- sitting on nothing more than a motor battery with wheels while careening around Sanam Luang can be utterly exhilarating. Still, they are open to the pollution and that 20-baht bargain fare usually means a slight detour; my driver decided to stop at a Chinese jewellery emporium en-route to our final destination -- he explained that if he brought me here and I stayed for eight minutes he would get a free petrol coupon. Of course, while you're there for the eight minutes, the jewellery salesmen can work on you.
Oh Bangkok, we love you and all your little foibles -- but you are a naughty boy . . .
Hotel | "The KS Guesthouse - Thai hospitality and smiles.."
I found one in the KS Guesthouse in Banglamphu. Number one plus point is the location it is within walking distance of the bedlam of the Khao San Road without being on top of it. It was also within walking distance of the Chao Phraya river piers and Sanam Luang with the Grand Palace and Wat Po. I was very lucky to find it. My original intention when getting off the bus was just finding a cheap room but I managed to befriend a Thai called Ay who lived in Banglamphu who told me most of the hotels down the Khao San Road had bad security and were prone to thievery. The KS Guesthouse, where he took me, was at the top of the Changrabongse Road near the department store and had it's own security man outside.
It was a very new hotel and was determined to build up a good reputation. The staff were exceptionally friendly, even keeping their beaming smile when I asked to change up a thousand baht note for a 10 baht bottle of water. And the rooms were superb. I cannot stress the importance of air-conditioning in Bangkok. The humidity is so strong that it remains hot at night and even when you are writing out your postcards your arm is covered in a film of sweat. It becomes necessary to shower at least twice a day. The airconditioning at the KS was superb and linked with an electronic lock. So as soon as you entered (electronic cards are used instead of keys) the lighting and airconditioning are automatically activated. And then deactivated when you leave your room.
When I was there a single room cost 250 bahts. The linen was crisp and clean and changed once a day. The bed was a good size and the bathroom very clean and containing a flushing toilet. They don't quite have hot water like other hotels but in the heat it is sometimes good to have a cold shower. The desk-staff were very friendly and courteous and almost fell over themselves for the guests. In fact, until last year I still received a Christmas card from the KS guesthouse.
For the area, this hotel is secure, clean and good value. When I go back to Bangkok I would certainly head there again.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on March 22, 2003
The KS Guesthouse
Chakrabongse Road, Banglamphu
Restaurant | "Dining in Bangkok: Fried frog in Curried sauce.."
One of the great pleasures of visiting Thailand is the food. A mix between traditional Tai with Indian, Lao and Chinese thrown in the mix. Thai food is one of the great cuisines of the world and uses lemongrass, chilli and aromatic herbs to give it such a distinctive flavour. All meals are generally served with rice and preceded with a soup dish. Then comes the main course with several side dishes. Almost all meals have the ingredients of chilli, garlic, sugar, nam pla and lime juice.
There will be a restaurant on almost every corner in Bangkok but there were two that I went back again and again because I liked their menus and atmosphere so much.
Prouberts's - The Khao San Road.
This was the archetypical backpackers restaurant but I liked it as it was a few hundred metres from where I was staying. The restaurant is front of house and behind is a budget guesthouse grouped around a courtyard. Both guesthouse and restaurant are owned by one family whose children scurry around serving the numerous backpackers who could be found there. Of course it features the Khao San Road international favourites - banana pancakes, museli and English breakfasts. The western food comes in much smaller portions then you are used to - but the backpackers don't seem to notice, being too busy tucking into their 'Lonely Planet's'.
Their Thai food however is exceptional. With a coke or Singha beer the price will generally come to about 150 bahts (£2/$US5) and they are of reasonable portions. Their Beef in oyster sauce is delicious especially with crunchy fresh vegetables and a scoop of rice. Even better is their 'Many flavoured' chicken which simply glides of the tongue and the Som Tam which is green papaya salad with shrimps, garlic and tomatoes.
Wanakarm Restaurant - Convent Road
Near the Silom Road and Patpong is a small restaurant in a sidestreet. In researching this journal I realised that I still had the 'borrowed' menu from when I was there, and the variety of food is astonishing. It is a roadside restaurant mainly consisting of Thai's and with the kitchens open to the air. Lighting is by lantern and the staff and friendly and efficient. While known by some foreigners this restaurant is way off the tourist route.
There are some western dishes on the menu as well as Chinese, Indonesian, and Vietnamese. I opted for Thai with Kwaiyto as a starter - this is Chinese noodle soup. Main dish was my favourite - Kai Yang - garlic chicken and mixed fried vegetables. My companions had Gaieng khiaw waan phet which is duck in green curry sauce. Truly delicious. All not coming to more then about 80 bahts each.
Now can you see the attraction of Bangkok?
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 22, 2003
Prouberts / Warnakarm
Khao San Road / Convent Road
Although it looks like something from antiquity - in actuality, it's not that old. It was built in the early 19th century on the site of an old palace when Thonburi was the short-lived capital of Thailand. It was a ruin for decades, and resembled the famous rubble in Ayutthaya until King Taksim noticed it one dawn and vowed to restore it. Now it is in all it's glory and visitors can wonder just how many Chinese porcelain tiles they used to coat the Wat. While usually the Thais go for extreme shades of colour - this time they go for dazzle and it's reflection and on a sunny day it can be seen from skyscrapers 12 miles away.
Half the fun of visiting the Wat is reaching it. It stands on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river. This wide rolling aromatic river cuts a swathe through the western part of Bangkok's centre with all the great attractions on the east bank. Wat Arun has prime position on the west bank and can be reached by waterbus or longtail. The waterbus is a great lumbering affair which stops 13 times along it's journey along the Chao Phraya. To get to Wat Arun get off at Tha Thien stop and take a water ferry across to the other side. Tha Thien pier is also close to Wat Po (see other entry) and the Grand Palace which you can see all three in a short space of time. The pier is just off Maharat Road and the alleys leading to it contain vegetable stalls, delivery vans and a very pungent fish market. The pier itself is an enclosed rickety affair made of brown wood and is lined with hawkers, sellars and women stirring bubbling wok's.
To cross to the other side you must pay the fare to an old lady in a booth (1 baht - a bargain!!), push through the turnstyle and wait for the waterbus to cross the river. The waterbus takes a little dexterity to climb aboard, and I found a seat on the edge and then listened to the propeller start up and push across the river. The Chao Phraya is a very busy river - huge rice barges, water-taxi's, and canoes have to be dodged to get to the other side. The pier is next to the Temple and up close you can get an idea of the scale of this grandiose building. It stretches for about 300ft in circumference with each corner decorated with a forty foot tower. The central prau is built in a sort of ziggurat fashion with layer being built upon layer until it reaches to central needle which is 80 ft high. Unfortunatley when I was there the interior was closed for restoration work but I was able to spend an hour wandering around the vicinity and admiring the white/glass Chinese porcelain tiles which seem to coat everything. They look exceptionally delicate and cover every square inch of the temple - particulary interesting are the snarling yaksha's (demon's) which have been carved into the white marble.
Wat Arun is on most package tourist's itinerary which means an extraordinary amount of hat-sellars and hawkers. The tourist circus can be a little overwhelming in the sticky heat, particularly the stallholders on the western side of the Wat. The exit passage is lined with stalls selling stuffed animals, post-cards and T-Shirts - and the stallholders shout loudly to get your attention. You dare not look too closely at their wares just in case they think you are interested. Even more disturbing are the Thai dancing girls hanging around charging 80 baht to have their photo taken with them, not to mention the white python which is put around your neck needing 50 baht to have it removed.
But for all the tourist dross Wat Arun is a magnificent sight. I think it is best appreciated from the water. On my waterbus back to Tha Thien were an assortment of Thai characters - soldiers, boat-boy's, shaven headed monk's, mangy dogs, old women and Asian tourists (mainly Japanese). We all clung on as the bus dodged a huge barge in the middle of the river. To me the Chao Phraya was the lifeblood of Bangkok, and a hell of alot cooler then the polluted steaming roads. I stayed for a time on the pier and watched the waterlife around me. The pier creaked and groaned as the currents pulled at it's supports and the murky foetid surface slapped against it's sides. And to my surprise the Chao Phraya, in the middle of polluted Bangkok, is festooned by bright green waterlillies.
Me: "I just want to travel on one of the waterbuses to the Oriental hotel..."
Him: "It full! No more room!"
Me: "But there are spaces on there, I can see them.."
Him: "You want longtail! Only 300 baht, this man will take you!"
Sleepy man gets up and shambles over.
"You want see canals! We do best deal only 300 baht!"
As a tourist you are herded by the touts on the Chao Phraya piers like elephants into a kraal and then ferried around by the tout's wizened scrawny relatives. Oh the bahts they must coin in.
But the canals of Bangkok are a great excursion for a couple of hours. From the faintly aromatic water, you can see Bangkok life go around you - stilt houses, gaudy temples, people washing in the river and colourful viharn's. There is something typically oriental to sit back in a longtail with a cold beer and watching the scenery drift past. The sound of the Bangkok traffic is a distant memory, and combined wth a trip to the barge museum and Wat Arun this can one of the best uses of your time in the Thai capital.
All Bangkok used to look like the canals of Thonburi. 19th century Bangkok was described as 'Venice of the East' - the great roads east of the Chao Phraya river - Sukhamvit, Phetaburi and Silom were once wide canals as Bangkok was built on swampy soil (the same soil which prevents an underground metro being built). People lived in stilt houses and paddled around in canoes, the famous floating market at Damnoen Saduak is a relic of those days. The irony is that even in those days there was traffic congestion in Bangkok - at certain junctions there were canoe jams.
To have a look at the more watery side of the river you can take a tuk-tuk across the Prao Pinklao bridge from Banglamphu which is a short walk to the royal barge museum or take a tour from one of the Chao Phraya river piers. This is the way most tourists see the canals and the best places to pick up longtails are the two piers closest to the Grand Palace - Tha Maharat and Tha Chang. The rickety piers are usually crowded with people who are trying to pick up waterbuses to other parts of Bangkok, and even when you are waiting for the waterbuses the touts will approach you with offers of tours. Bartering is a good idea here and most tours should work out about 300-400 baht to see Thonburi. But you can beat them down to even 200 baht, but a warning the more you want to see - the more expensive it will be. The barge museum and Wat Arun will be extra, Wat Arun in particular is easily reached by public transport. Lumbering waterbuses set off from Tha Thien pier for only 10 bahts.
Longtails seat up to four people but most operators generally only allow two. And once you have clambered into this tiny craft they will gun the engines and set off across the Chao Phraya. Longtails are tiny craft only 10ft long, they are powered by a propeller shaft controlled from the rear of the boat by the pilot. The space is very confined as you must stretch your legs out in front of you and watch out for the spray. Then it was west into the canals of Thonburi. There was something utterly oriental about touring these canals. Traffic noise was obliterated, and either side were wooden houses built on stilts with attached longtails bobbing in the water. At the start of the journey the banks were lined with palms, refuse piers, chicken coop's and people fishing or standing up to their waists washing in the water. It was wonderful to settle back and watch the life of the river go on about you.
The guide muttered something about James Bond. Then we realised, this was where the khlong chase in 'The Man With The Golden Gun' happened. Unlike in the film, there was very little boat traffic on the canals. Coloured Viharn's (Temples) and Wat's lined the banks - their golden stupa's glittering in the sun. They were nestled between concrete apartment blocks and houses were lifted 4ft above the brown water on stilts. These houses looked very brittle and were designed for life outside - you could see the washing lines, televisions, dogs, chickens, young girls collecting water from the river and whole families having meals on tables open to the river.
It was so relaxing - then souvenir sellars in canoes ambushed us. The sticky heat of Bangkok is just as bad on the canals as in the streets and it was good to settle back with a Singha beer and watch a forest of palms drift by. Then after one and a half hours it was suddenly over and we were clambering out of a wobbly longtail and back onto the pier. I spent a little more time on Tha Thang pier as I was fascinated by the water life around me. To me this was the Asia I wanted to see:- zooming longtails, jetty boys herding Thai's into water taxi's and the pinnacles of temples on the other side of the river.
Away from the pollution and noise, the Chao Phraya is the best part of Bangkok.
There's plenty on the Thai royal family in the National Museum. This collection of antiquities is very good and slap bang in the tourist mecca of Sanam Luang and a few hundred feet from the bedlam of the Khao San Road. It houses the chief artistic treasures of Thailand and is housed in a large teak building built in the traditional Thai style. It is exceptionally popular with Thai and foreign visitors and if you want a dose of culture in this fast buzzy city then this place is for you.
I visited on my last day in Bangkok to kill time before I caught my bus to the airport. I had unwisely got very burn't on the beaches of Phuket and at that point could not wear my shoulderbag due to singed shoulders and chest. The idea was to keep out of the sun on the last day as my face was peeling and looked exceptionally red, and the fan-coolled rooms of the museum would protect me from the sun and I would learn more about Thailand at the same time. And did I learn? - yes I did - I learn't the names of the last Khmer Emperor's, I learn't what masks depicting the Ramakien looked like and that only the medieval Thai royal family had the luxury of an indoor toilet and bathroom.
The Museum stands on the western side of Sanam Luang. Next to it and to the north is the National Theatre and Gallery as well as the Chakrabongse Road leading to the Khao San Road. Traffic hurtles onto the Sanam Luang from the speeding Ratchadamnon Road in the northeast of the square and most famously the golden spires, gaudy colour and curled eaves of the Grand Palace adjoin the southern part of the square. To get there take a tuk-tuk or air-conditioned taxi to Sanam Luang, or waterbus to Tha Maharat or Tha Chang piers. The walk from the Khao San Road can be very quick but you may dice with death under the Prao Pinklao bridge or choke to death due to bus exhaust on the western side of Sanam Luang. Sanam Luang is also a good place for festivals and you may see the famous Thai 'kite-fighting' which goes on there.
The Museum itself costs only 40 baht and is open from 9.00am to 4.00pm. You are given a free map and guide but I must stress this is not a high-tech museum, in fact I suspect the museum has not been updated in decades. It is beautifully laid out in a number of viharn's built to resemble the classic Thai monastery or Wat. Spacious buildings are interspersed by green lawns and overlooked by palm trees. And of course it contains the mandatory platoon of Thai schoolchildren trooping through who are more interested in the farang's (foreigners) then the exhibts.
The first section concentrates on Thai history and the kingdom of the Thais which appeared in about 900AD. The first great cities were Sukhothai and Ayutthaya (see other entry) whose citizens numbered over one million people each. There were also maps showing the ancient trade routes stretching from Siam to Western Europe. Then it moved on to a very respectful history of the Thai monarch's and the fan-coolled galleries showed portraits of King Chulalongkorn and King Ananda. There were photo's of the current King - Bhumibol and his Queen Sirikit and a winchester gun used by King Rama V given by Theodore Roosevelt.
Alot of the museum was given over to mannequins dressed in Thai military dress and there were models and pictures of ancient Ayutthaya and it's royal elephants. Outside in the green grounds there was 'The Red House', a traditional mohoghany Thai house built on stilts. To enter you had to remove your boots and step delicately on the teak floor. The cooller air was most welcome and the traditional furnishings and carvings were very impressive. In one of the outer buildings was the main collection. This was a tumble of swords, statues, chariots ceramics, furniture and gigantic royal elephant howdah's. The best exhibts were definitely the royal funeral chariots - fronted by the writhing heads of twenty serpents covered in gold leaf.
If you need a bit of peace and contemplation after the National Museum then cross Sanam Luang to the Luak Muang shrine. The pillar is Bangkok's own personal shrine and is a green garden with pond and gazebo. Tens of worshippers were burning incense or praying in quiet contemplation. Even in the middle of busy Bangkok everywhere I go smiles and polite interest greets me. This is a city with a big heart.
This is the true Bangkok experience.
The Silom Road is the main drag of southwestern Bangkok. You can start at either end from Lumpini Park or from the water at the Oriental Hotel. I would start from the Oriental Hotel. This is one of the most famous hotels in the world and charges up to 7,000 baht a night for a room. It was one of my ambitions while visiting Bangkok to visit this monument and it is easy to reach from the Chao Phraya River as it has it's own waterbus stop. The roads of Bangkok are generally so congested that I found it was easier and fresher to travel by waterbus, and one stops at the Oriental every ten minutes.
The original Oriental Hotel was built in 1876 in Colonial fashion. Now that original hotel is one of four wing's and backs onto landscaped gardens leading down to the river. I managed to walk through the Oriental on my way to the Silom Road before the conceirge's shooed me out, and it is exquisitely beautiful with wicker furniture in the bar/lounge and numerous galleries and boutiques catering to the more wealthy traveller. The Oriental in it's heyday looked after Carl Faberge, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward. And despite nowadays being more equipped for the business traveller there is still a whiff of the colonial east in it's parlours, ballrooms and cocktail lounges.
But the modern Orient hits you when you step outside. The heat and humidity of Bangkok are like a physical blow, this mixed with the exhaust from a thousand motor cars/bikes tuk-tuk's etc makes a heady brew. The Silom Road starts from outside the Oriental Hotel and is wall-to-wall traffic stretching away to the east. This is tourist country but they like the inhabitants have to struggle along dodging stalls, beggars, motorbikes, broken pavements etc in almost crippling humidity. The road is very workaday and contains dozens of banks, hotels, hawkers, and shopping malls with Thai proffessionals scurrying around. All this would be bearable if not for the traffic - it was bumper to bumper, six lanes wide. And above us was an overpass with the longest traffic jam I have ever seen. The exhaust hung in the air like a cloud and I saw tourists scurry past with cloth over their mouth's.
To escape this most people head for the department stores or shopping malls with their air-conditioning. The best on Silom is 'Central' opposite the Uma Devi Temple. This is on three levels and contains a number of clothing outfits, bookshops and handicraft emporium's. You can forget bartering in these swish shops as the carvings, batik and patterned fabrics all have fixed prices. I picked up sarong's for some friends at home for about 500 baht (£3.60) and the bookshop was good with a number of foreign language paperbacks. And if you can't yet face the humidity outside there is a good food court with fragrant Thai dishes not to mention Chinese, Indian and Malay.
Once you push east the going gets tougher and I found myself paralelling the Silom Road as much as possible in the less polluted soi's either side. But at one point I was caught between a stinking canal and a huge waft of exhaust and was nearly sick in the street. I kept thinking how do Thai's cope this every day of their lives? But Lumpini park was not far away and I crossed the Rama IV Road and entered this verdant park.
Oh my god! Fresh air!
I laid down on the grass to recover. The park is worth a look as it is one of the few green spaces in the Thai capital. Joggers pound the lawns and families spread out picnic's and the traffic noise can be barely heard in the distance. It is built around two lakes with little sailboats for hire. But the best thing about it is the sense of space and quiet, you do not feel assaulted by the traffic and exhaust as in the rest of Bangkok.
I did leave though to visit 'Robinsons' department store at the corner or Silom and Rama IV.This is the Bangkok branch of the Singapore colonial department store and was very posh. Beautiful glasswork was available and wealthy Thai's in designer clothes moved around the store.One woman was very imperious - she was dripping in jewels and was ordering shop assistants around with a wave of her hand.
But next door to 'Robinsons' is the infamous Patpong - the Sex Industry district. During the day things were very quiet with only a handful of bars open and most sleeping off the debaucheries of the night before. The few bars that were open mainly consisted of middle-aged European men with beer-bellies slumped over the counter watching football games on the overhead television. Surely they could find something better to do in Bangkok?
I came back to the Patpong at night with two Irish girls (I figured I wouldn't get too hassled if I went back with women, I figured wrong) and it is like a Sex Industry Disneyland. They have a night-market lining the middle of the Soi with counterfeit watches and carved elephants. But the whole four alley's/Soi's pulsate with the neon of the surrounding bars called 'Love Nest' and 'Pussy Galore'. If you are a man wandering through (even if you are with women) you will be harassed by teenage Thai girls every twenty feet. After a while you get extremely tired of saying "No thank you! Not interested! I'm with somebody!"
What did that Abba song say:- "One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble..."
How very true.....
I can still see the imagery in my minds eye - row upon row of headless scarlet Buddha statues, crumbling prau's (towers) reaching hundreds of feet in the air - green lawns, palm tree's, mangy dogs, calm lakes and everywhere that feeling of exotic bygone grandeur. A graveyard of brooding russet-red crumbling temples stretching as far as the eye can see.
Ayutthaya along with Erawan NP and Chiang Mai was the highlight of my trip to Thailand. And it was really special as I stepped away from the grind of the backpacker trail so prevalent in Katchanaburi and Bangkok's Khao San - and immersed myself in Thai culture. And the experience did me the power of good, though it did have some hairy moments.
But if you only make one excursion out of Bangkok then head for Ayutthaya. This was the ancient capital of the kingdom of the Thai's. It once was a city so massive and important that it rivaled medieval London and Rome. Now it is a city of ruins and ghosts where eerie red temples soar out of massive fields situated on an island 4 miles wide at the meeting of the Lopburi and Chao Phraya rivers. Redbrick prangs soar above the palms and loom above the meandering rivers. Quite simply, if I had to choose a town which evoked the soul and history of Thailand - then it would be Ayutthaya.
So why come here?
Why make the daytrip from Bangkok or break your journey north to Chiang Mai? Well, it has to be one of the best archaeological sites in Asia. It is up there in world terms with Pompeii, Stonehenge, Luxor, Khajuraho and Knossos. The whole city within it's four mile square moat is one giant open-air museum. This was a city of great kings, canals, soaring prang's and temples coated in so much gilt that the sparkle dazzled from miles away. It's empire at it's height stretched to cover most of central Thailand reaching into Cambodia. It was always coveted by the Thai's ancient enemy - the Burmese, who repeatedly tried to capture it. They finally breached the walls in 1757 and sacked the city completely. It's great temples were destroyed, it's monks massacred and the population herded away to Burma to become slaves. The king escaped to die of starvation in the jungle - the Thais consider it the greatest calamity ever in their history and the damage was so great that it became uninabitable - and a new capital was started in Bangkok. The locals say that you can hear the screams of the dying still very late at night.
This journal concentrates on the best ruins to see in Ayutthaya, the next will be about the practicalities of visiting this special town.
Wat Maharat - Temple of the Great Relic
This is the most famous ruin and the one most people head to when they reach Ayutthaya. It is smack in the middle of town along the Chao Phrom Road and costs 30 baht admission. The sweet old ladies in the ticket booth will watch your bicycle while you visit the ruins. The ruins themselves are about 500ft square and after being sacked 250 years ago are still in good condition. Walls are apparent and great swathes of crumbling red-brick broken by statues and prau's. The first thing you notice are the number of freestanding pillars and headless Buddha statues (the Burmese decapitated the one's they didn't have time to destroy properly). Originally it had a 100ft prang lording it over a number of chedi's. The prang collapsed many years ago leaving the inner ruins of a temple including a 10ft grey seated Buddha now dressed in a saffron robe (see photo). The vista of the stone buddha with the red prau's in the background looke the epitome of Asia - very mysterious and exotic.
Whatever you do head to the west of the ruins. There a stone head of a Buddha has become emeshed in the grey roots of a bodhi tree (see photo). At the rear of the temple was another immaculate stone Buddha facing an army of broken headed ones, steps behind him led up to the first tier of the prang. From here you get terrific views across the lawns to the lake and the scarlet prau of Wat Rajpuna.
Wat Rajpuna - Khmer styled temple
This is real Indiana Jones territory.And a visit here will satisfy those stubble and bullwhip fantasies you have been harbouring all these years. It is next to Wat Maharat on the Chao Phrom Road and costs 30 baht admission. It dates from 1424 and was built in memory of two brothers who killed each other in an elephant backed duel. It's prime attraction is a 50ft high prang (tower) which stands in the middle of a ruined compound (see photo). The prang contained a royal tomb which when it was opened in 1958 spilled out with Thai treasure now in the Ayutthaya museum.
To get to the prang you must walk through a number of 10ft room where you can spot the edifice in a central courtyard. Steps lead up into the prang which is unsurprisingly empty but does contain some nice carvings of mythological creatures. I was there very early in the morning and had the 800 year old ruins to myself. It was easy to imagine how they were coated in marble and gilded ornamentation rather like Wat Po is today. If you looked carefully you could see where the Burmese had set fire to the temple 200 years ago and scorch marks were still apparent on the statues of the Buddha's.
Wat Wang Luang - the Royal Palace
This is the image of Ayutthaya stamped on all the postcards - the three giant ruined chedi's with elephants in the foreground. There are elephant rides at Wang Luang for the daytrippers from Bangkok and cost about 300 baht to circumnavigate the ruins. They dress the elephants up in gaudy colourful ceremonial gear including a headress and howdah. Wang Luang is very popular with Thai's as well as westerners and you may find, as I did, that you are more of an attraction then the ruins.
This was once hundreds of years ago a magnificent palace complex as big and shiny as the Grand Palace in Bangkok. It was a massive palace of pavilions, chedi's and audience halls - like something out of 'The King and I'. The Burmese torched it to the ground and all that is left are ruins that stretch over a quarter of a mile. Three colossal white-streaked chedi's dominate the main building which was over 500ft long. This is central to an extensive russet-red brickwork landscape of broken walls and solitariy column's. I have never seen anything so utterly exotic and it must have been breathtaking in it's prime.
Make sure you alot much time to Wat Wang Luang, for however long you spend there I can guarantee that you will not see it all...
"Nice doggy....go away doggy...."
It came up close and glared at me until I fled down the lane. Then with a howl to the moon it exhulted that it had repelled the intruder to it''s territory, and trotted back to the rest of the feral pack.
Ayutthaya is on the tourbus and backpacker tourist trail but step away from that and you will find a pure, friendly and sometimes terrifying Thailand. By the time I reached Katchanaburi on the river Kwai I had had enough of the impersonal backpacker route and was desperate to get away from the banana pancakes, ''Lonely Planet'' snobbery and penny-pinching ways of International travellers. I craved Thailand in all it''s raw form and in Ayutthaya I found it.
Getting to and around Ayutthaya
To get to Ayutthaya from Bangkok is very simple. There are over twenty trains a day from Hualompong station, and it''s a good way of breaking up a journey to Chiang Mai or the Lao border at Nong Khai as night trains leave from Ayutthaya station. You can arrive in forty minutes from Bangkok early in the morning, explore the ruins throughout the day - then catch the night train at night. The station is on the eastern part of the city, over the moat on the Chao Phrom Road. tuk-tuk''s from the station to hotels costs about twenty bahts. The station itself is really entertaining. There are absolutely no announcements or overhead directions in English so you will have to resort to a phrasebook or ask a fellow traveller. In the waiting room everyone is usually sprawled on benches and there are chickens and dogs roaming the tracks. About 5.00pm the national anthem comes on the loudspeaker and the entire station gets up and starts singing while martial music is played.
Although I left by train, I cut out Bangkok and arrived by bus from Katchanaburi. This takes about four hours from the river Kwai and you must change buses in the immaculate town of Suphanburi. This way you can take a train north to Chiang Mai from Ayutthaya and cut out the bedlam of Bangkok. I ended up with my backpack on my knee as the bus filled to capacity with Thais and it stopped every five minutes to pick up people from bus stops at the edge of rice paddies. When it did eventually empty I was left alone with an overcurious Thai woman who kept comparing my hairy white arms with her smoothe brown ones. Still, I did want to experience the real Thailand.
You can also reach Ayutthaya via rice barge form Bangkok. Tour agencies sell these trips for about 600 baht a day where you travel up the Chao Phraya for four hours leaving you about two for Ayutthaya. Tuk-tuk''s can be hired for the day for about 500 baht and can whizz you from ruin to ruin, but I hired a bicycle for 40 bahts a day. These rickety contraptions can be hired from the guesthouses and can be left at the ticket kiosks while you visit the ruins. Ayutthaya is as flat as pancake which makes it a good cycling bet. The roads aren''t busy near the ruins but if you travel along the U-thong road things can get very hairy. It becomes hard work to avoid the beeping songthaews, mopeds, pedestrians etc. And if you think the Thai''s are laughing at a big hairy foreigner on a bicycle - well, they probably are...
The Museums of Ayutthaya..
To put these piles of red stone and rubble into some kind of context you must visit one of the Museums of Ayutthaya. Both are very close to each other down the Rojana Road and with reasonable airconditioning they make a good place to escape the sun and humidity of this tropical town for a few hours:-
Chao Sam Phraya National Museum: (30 baht)
This is where all the swag looted from the ruins ends up. At the end of a gravel drive is a huge wooden house fronting a lake, nine rooms house the treasures found in the city. Ornate statues dot each room including a priceless golden fish taken from Wat Rajpuna which was once it''s sacred icon. There were some wonderful 17th tapestries depicting Ayutthaya as it was - an amphibious city where everyone paddled from A to B in a canoe. Everyone lived on houseboats as they do today in Thonburi on waterways which stretched for hundreds of miles.
The airconditioning here only gets five out of ten as it is mainly creaking whirring fans.
The Ayutthaya Historical Centre: (100 baht)
This is a ultra-modern high-tech museum built by the Japanese. The story of Ayutthaya is told via television screens, models and multi-media presentations. The museum is along Rojana Road and is surrounded by lakes and an impressive high-tech drawbridge. Inside is one enormous room with the exhibts around the sides. The models of ancient Ayutthaya were superb especially the 10ft wide one showing the city in it''s heyday. And I loved the one showing the kings royal elephants being herded into a kraal. The importance of religion was another theme with moving tableux showing phimai (peasants) peeping at the Royal barge as it went by, knowing if they were caught it was instant death.
Light sensors activate chanting as you move around. And the airconditioning gets eight of ten. In fact, you may not want to leave.
Accommodation and Nightlife
At one point while you are in SouthEast Asia you will use a traditional squat toilet.
It will simply consist of a hole in the ground and a bucket and scoop nearby to wash things away. You have to squat sideways and it is rather uncomfortable. I can''t imagine how the older Thai''s manage it - practice, I suppose.
Of course there are four-star accomodation in Ayutthaya with flush-toilets and hot showers. These stand on the outskirts and cater fro the tour-parties and overnighters from Bangkok. There are really only two - the U-Thong Inn and Ayutthaya Grand Hotel could really be called luxury hotels at 1,000 bahts each.
The Thais head for the guesthouses just north of the market/bus station on Nereusan Road. Budget travellers head there too and the three major ones are T&T guesthouse, Old BJ guesthouse and Ayutthaya guesthouse. Each cost not more then 100 baht a night and for this you get paper-walls, creaking fan and downstairs cold shower. The service, however, is very friendly and you cannot beat the price. These are generally family run and a typical guesthouse downstairs is one room filled with coke-crates, a small library and a group of Thai''s practising their English. They will cook your chilli beef in front of you and go fetch the blender to make the milk-shake while the son plays on the guitar.
Opposite the three guesthouse is the only farang (foreigner) bar in Ayutthaya. One night I went over and met some of the British expat''s who had settled in Thailand. After a few beers I began to learn more about Thailand then any guidebook. According to them it is a very class conscious society with the monarch being inviolate and even the placing of his portrait in an office is a matter of serious debate. Farang''s are a special category and are viewed as comedy - that is why we get away with so much. And each expat had a Thai girlfriend who had introduced them to her family, which in Thailand comes first. This was also a ''singsong'' bar and had a number of girls dancing lethargically to the music. Not enjoying this, I made my excuses and headed back across the road.
I had to walk through the territory of packs of mangy scabby stray dogs. Several followed and growled at me. One had had his teeth removed and his lower jaw extended so his bottom teeth portruded. I had asked one of the expat''s earlier why there were so many mangy dogs in Ayutthaya?
"Simple.....no one has gone out and shot them lately..."
The gold leaf adorning the stupa's is dazzling, the Khmer style prang's pierce the skyline, the snarling yaksha's are terrifying and the green and diamond tiles simply glitter in the sun. This truly is a Siamese wonderland.
Despite the hordes of farang's (foreigners) tramping through I would say this is Bangkok's top sight. This gaudy collection of royal buildings and temples is in the centre of Bangkok off the green Sanam Luang. It is the Thai equivalent of the Kremlin/Hofburg/Buckingham Palace and although the royal family live a little to the north in Dusit, this is where the main ceremonies and traditions of the Thai state are held. It is divided into two parts - to the north Wat Phrao Kaew - 'The Temple of the Emerald Buddha' and to south the more restrained refined Grand Palace. Both are visited on the same ticket.
The 1.5km compound covers the southern side of the national square - Sanam Luang. This oval green lawned traffic junction has Banglamphu and the Khao San Road to the north, the National Museum to the west and the cities shrine - the Lak Muang - to the east. But the whole of the south is taken up by the towering white walls of the Grand Palace. To get there either take a river bus to Tha Chang pier or take a tuk-tuk from central Bangkok (not more then 50 bahts). If you are staying in the infamous Khao San Road then head west to the Chakrabongse Road and then south to Sanam Luang. The big problem here is that there are no ways for the pedestrian to cross. Traffic roars off the Phra Pinklao bridge and you must take your life into your hands and run to the central reservation. It may be quicker and less hazardous to take a tuk-tuk from Khao San for ten bahts.
When visiting the Grand Palace I will give you two pieces of advice. Firstly, stock up on icewater before you enter, especially at mid-day. The high Bangkok humidity can reduce your clothes to wet rags within minutes and you will get very thirsty very quickly. Secondly DO NOT WEAR SHORTS OR BARE ARMS. Wat Phrao Kaew is a hallowed temple and site of one of the great religious icons of Thailand - 'the Emerald Buddha' and you should dress sensitively. Wraparound detachable leggings are available to hire at the entrance for about 40 baht. One of our party had to hire these and made such a mess of putting them on that he was a hilarious source of amusement for a group of Japanese tourists.
After passing royal guards you walk down a long driveway, across a green lawn to the left is a 10ft white wall were the shining stupa's and golden spires of Wat Phraw Kaew. 125 bahts grants admission to foreigners (it is free for Thai's) and you follow the crowds along a passage into this Siamese wonderland. The entire compound is breathtaking with a profusion of spire's, statues, viharn's and mausaleum's all decked out in glittering jewels. Immaculate flagstones take you through a small entranceway to be confronted by a goblin-like hermit (see photo) statue surrounded by precious stones. Just to the left is the classic sight of Thailand - the snarling, hideous, 16ft half-man half-beast yaksha who stands guarding the Bot from evil spirits. The Bot (temple) housing 'The Emerald Buddha' is the most holy in the country and is decorated in green porcelain tiles sparkling with gilt and coloured glass. 112 garuda's (half-men, half-bird's) support the whole edifice.
To the left the eye is swept up to the gilt-gold dazzle of the Phra Sri Ratchana Chedi. Chedi's are tombs and are like inverted funnel-like structures (see photo) and this one soared 40ft and stunned the eyes. Not far away another 16ft tall blue fierce yaksha clasps his sword in front of a viharn. But if you follow the steps behind him you will have amazing views back towards the Wat Phrao Kaew and the Sri Ratana Chedi and another stunning blue and gold viharn - the Phra Viharn Yod. But I was entranced by a jade model in front of the temple - this is Angkor Wat, the famous temple complex far away in the jungles of Cambodia. The model is hundreds of years old and dated from a time when the reach of Siamese monarchs stretched into Kampuchea. There were further statues of mythical beasts (half-human, half-serpents) against the walls of the compound, but you instantly head for the main attraction - 'The Temple of the Emerald Buddha'.
First you must remove your shoes, store them away with the monks and climb the steps. Inside is a gold inlaid temple and a monk will tell you where to sit and to be careful not to show the soles of your feet to the Lord Buddha. The focus is a mountain of gilt stupa's building to a pinnacle 20ft above the floor. A green impish carved Buddha made from a single sheet of jade is at the summit and surrounded by gold. The Buddha is so holy that only the king can change his clothes or clean him in a special ceremony each year. With the chanting of the monks the atmosphere of worship is very absorbing and seductive.
By now the heat may be getting to you and there are covered arcades covering the perimeter of the compound. These are inlaid with frescoes depicting the 'Ramakien' - the Thai equivalent to the Indian Ramayana. Battles, kings and concubines cover the walls but best of all they provide protection from the mid-day tropical sun. As you leave the compound you will pass by the Royal Palaces with their talon-winged roofs and elephant statues. Elephants are very revered in Thailand and the monarchy are the only people who can own white elephants. There are a couple up in the royal stables in Dusit and in past times rulers would send each other gifts of elephants knowing that housing and feed would bankrupt their rival. Hence the term - 'white elephant' in the English language.
They flit around the compound like little buzzing jewels in the heat. You can hear and see them everywhere and for me were one of the reasons why this magnificent temple is one of the highlights of Bangkok. The entire place dazzles with it's tapering prau's and golden buddha statues. When you see the spires and gold leaf of the temple from a distance across the Bangkok skyline, especially when it is lit up at night, you remember why you were inspired to visit Thailand in the first place.
The temple compound predates the city of Bangkok. It's white walls were there when there was nothing of Bangkok but a marshy bend in the river. It dates from the 17th century when it was known as Wat Potaram. Only we foreigners call it the old name - Wat Po - Thai's call it Wat Pha Chetaphon after the name of the road it is situated on. But the most satisfying thing about Wat Po is that it is still an active monastery. Thai monks in their saffron robes and shaved heads are in profusion here and not only is it a religious retreat but a centre of learning. Religious tutors taught novices astrology, history, literature and theology. Wat Po could be considered one of Thailands first universities. On your travels around the Wat you will bump into many of these monks. Many Thai's as children do a little time as monks and to catch a teaching session underneath a banyan tree with elder monks speaking to wide-eyed novices is to catch a little bit of magical Thailand.
To get there is relatively simple. It is literally a hop, skip and jump from the amazing Grand Palace. When you leave the palace turn left, and left again until you reach Maharaj Road which runs paralell to the river. If you follow the white crenellated walls of the Grand Palace for 200m you will see the spires and praus of the temple. From the river, Tha Thien is the closest waterbus stop, and from Siam Square the fare in a tuk-tuk costs about 50 baht. This is one of the major attractions in Thailand so there are always hawkers, drink-sellars and tuk-tuk drivers buzzing around the entrance which costs 125 baht (£2/$3.50). You will be offered the services of a guide for an extra 100 bahts - this is a good idea because he can tell you about the amazing detail and history of the place. Also, another word of advice stock up on cold water. There is none to be had in there and the humidity and high temperature means dehydration is a real problem.
The compound is massive, over 400 ft long. Most tourists head straight for the temple of the Reclining Buddha which is just to the right of the entrance but there are plenty of other attractions. The gigantic Ubosoth (ordination hall) stands in the centre of the compound and is surrounded by a concentric cloister, and the royal chedi is between this and the entrance. But it is the forest of chedis in the compound that is stunning. There must be about 100 of these, and each one was a round base of inlaid porcelain sweeping up in a bulbous mass to a tapering point (see photo). A pair of 12ft Chinese warrior statues guard the outer entrance to the compound and look almost disneylike with their Fu Manchu moustaches and rich robes (see photo). These are not the only statues in the compound - there are 200 year old statues of farang's (foreigners) with straw hats and oversize features. To add to the attraction huge dragonflies as big as your hand buzz around the chedi's and ornamental shrubs.
At the back of the Wat is a massage school. For 50 baht old Thai women will lay on hands while you stretch out on mats. But it was the southern side of the Bot which interested me as they led into the cloisters leading to the Ordination hall. The cloisters themselves contained long glass cases of priceless statues of the Buddha rescued from Ayutthaya or Sukhothai. Each was seated in a cross-legged fashion, 4ft high and covered in gold leaf - they wore beatific expressions, coiled hair and were dressed in the red robes of the monks around them. There must have been about forty of them in one cloister. As I did wander around the compound I bumped into numerous peaceful monks who still in quiet contemplation adding to the tranquility of the place. What we forget is that these monasteries are holy residences in Bangkok, tourists are wandering around the monks workplace, home and place of worship.
I got an idea of this as I approached the 100ft high Ordination hall where a low chanting was emanating. I removed my boots and stepped over the temple threshold, and careful not to show the soles of my feet to the Lord Buddha (a big no-no in Thailand), sat down at the back. A number of robed monks were sitting on a dais acknowledging a chant from an old monk on a rostrum. High above was a golden Buddha atop a dais of gilt which contrasted with the decor of the temple which was bright scarlet. I sat cross-legged for ten minutes until the last monk left and lapped up the contemplatative atmosphere and the sheer exoticness of it all.
But the star of the show is the 'Temple of the Reclining Buddha' which is on all the tour bus itineries. The viharn containing this stands near the entrance and is over 70ft long. Inside a 50ft long statue of the Buddha sleeping on his side with his arm under his head. He is covered in shiny gold from his curled head to his mother-of-pearl feet and is lit by oil lamps. For a few baht you can drop forty small coins into forty bowls and the giant golden titan may grant you a wish.
There is no doubt that Wat Po is one of the great sights of Bangkok and I rate it above the Grand Palace. You get a sense that you are intruding on something here, that holy life goes on around you and that you have to fit into it. If you are willing to do so - to take off your boots and enjoy the chanting and holy air - then Wat Po will be your most rewarding experience in Bangkok.
One morning after arriving on the bus from Phuket I got to see it at 5.30am before the crowds arrive. It is almost eerie in it's silence. Abolutely no movement from end to end. As I watched the Khao San came slowly to life. Hoardings were raised, stalls were wheeled out and weary backpackers trudged along the road looking for lodging. After a while the first tuk-tuks took up their places, the first wok's were being lit and the first beers of a new day were being drunk.
You will either love the Khao San Road or hate it. This is usually the first port of call to young international backpackers as soon as they arrive at Bangkok airport. To some it is an easy introduction to the culture shock of Southeast Asia to others a westernised bubble that excludes the Thailand that they have travelled so far to see. There are now 110 guesthouses on the Khao San and the surrounding streets. It is now estaimated that over 500,000 backpackers trudge through each year and the entire street caters to their every whim. You can sleep in 80 baht a night hotels, get your hair braided, arrange for a visa to Laos, buy fake rolex watches and drink yourself into oblivion in the many bars. It is little wonder that for many people visiting Bangkok all they see is the Khao San Road.
It is situated in the northwest of the city, just north of the Grand Palace and Banglamphu. A few streets to the west is the Chao Phraya river and the nearest river stop is Phra Athit. It is also just south of the Royal Chitlada palaces and half a mile west of the shopping heaven of the Sukhamvit Road. In short, it is in the very centre of things. It is however, exceptionally difficult from there to get to other parts of Bangkok. Although the Grand Palace is within (polluted?) walking distance, Khao San is nowhere near the city bus terminal's and horribly distant from the bran-new skytrain. Even Huamlampong station is about a mile and a half away through horrendous traffic. Therefore you will have to rely on air-conditioned taxi's or tuk-tuk's to get around. These congregate at either end of the road and charge about 40 baht to whizz you around Bangkok. It is possible to get to Banglamphu from Don Muang airport taking the A2 bus which drops off opposite the Wat on the Tanao Road. This costs about 60 bahts.
But Khao San's primarily function is to provide cheap accomodation to the trillions of backpackers who pass through. The hotels have now exploded out of the Khao San and to the east and west. In fact the best cheap hotels such as the Apple, Apple 2, Merry V and New Siam are not on the Khao San but in some of the soi's to the west such as Songhran and Phra Athit. The guesthouses on the Khao San often double as restaurants/travel agents and cost about 100 baht a night for a room. Be warned the Khao San can get very noisy at night and you room for that price will not provide much relief from the noise. Most walls are paper thin and those facing the road itself have to contend with speeding tuk-tuks and the carousing which goes on there late at night. Incidently, take your own padlock as theft is common. And if things go wrong there is a tourist police station at the junction of Khao San and Changrabonse Road.
It was this police station, of course, which was featured in the Leonardo DiCaprio film 'The Beach' . As was the travel agent seen in the same film. There are about twenty travel agents along the Khao San - some reputable, some fly-by-night who may take your money and run. Most sell bus and train tickets as well as more exotic arrangements such as visas and tickets to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. They are most useful for providing cheap private buses to the airport and other destintions. My bus to Katchanaburi was half the price of the public bus. The best ones such as Khiri Travel also provide luggage storage for 10 bahts a day which is useful if you have left the guesthouse and are waiting to catch your flight.
But the Khao San is there to serve the visiting backpacker. It is lined with currency changers, internet cafe's, used bookshops selling 'Lonely Planets', fake-ID shops, tatoo artists, hippy gear shops, BOOTS chemists, 7-11's and tour agencies. The best cyber-cafe is 'Hello Internet cafe' with 100 bahts per hour and once you have finished there you can admire the cheap sarong's on the roadside stalls or pick up a pair of 'thongs' while waiting to have your hair braided or your hands hennered. There are cars parked along the Khao San and the pavements get so busy that people are forced to walk in the road. They share the road with food-stalls and Thai's selling satay on skewers or corn-on-the cob. Rock music throbs from bars while people clutching beers spill out onto the street.
Due to the sheer volume of people passing through you will bump into that couple you met in Chiang Mai or the Israeli who was on the same diving course as you on Ko Samui. I bumped into a Swedish friend, Yuri, who I know here in London while eating breakfast at the Nat Guesthouse. In fact the cheap eating is Khao San's main-drawcard - streetfood is cheap and inexpensive. While restaurants like Prouberts and May Kiardee cater for those who don't want to spend more then 100 baht on food. Each restaurant sells exactly the same Thai food as well as western specialities such as German pastries, English breakfasts, American hamburgers, Israeli falafel and the travellers staples of museli and banana pancakes.
And of course the backpackers have to be entertained. Single travellers too shy to chat to their neighbours watch videos in the bars and restaurants. There are two bars which think they are in Santa Monica or Bondi Beach rather then Southeast Asia - 'Buddy' and 'Gullivers'. There is a club off Khao San called 'The Bangkok bar' where the backpackers have squeezed the Thai students who used to use it out. The bars are open almost 20 hours a day and will be filled with tipsy backpackers saying they have seen the real Thailand as they travel on the well-worn route of between Chiang Mai and Ko Samui/Phangan. Also, where there are westerners - there are also prostitutes. One morning as I was waiting for my pick-up for a bus a Thai girl approached an American backpacker in my restaurant. She had obviously had slim pickings that night and sat down next to him and slowly but surely seduced him. First she befriended him, then complimented him and then led him off after an hour of wearing him down to do the business.
The Khao San provokes different reactions from different people. Personally, I found it very unfriendly. There is alot of attitude and the sheer volume of people makes it a very impersonal place. One of my neighbours has just returned from a year in Thailand and I asked him what do the Thai's think of Khao San. He says they keep it at arms length and think it is full of smelly stingy foreigners.I think it is true, the only Thai's you will meet are travel agents or tuk-tuk drivers, but if you go five minutes to the north or east you will find an area solely inhabited by Thais. The battered pavement will be littered with vegetable stalls, mangy dogs, people selling iced water, cobblers, motorbikes and people stirring woks with the smell of cashews and chestnuts wafting in the hot air.
Lonely Planet, the travellers bible, looks down it's nose at package tourists but it has created a ghetto just as insular as those it denigrates. I've heard the Khao San is on the domestic tourist trail - Thai visitors to Bangkok are bused in to to gawp at and photograph the dreadlocked foreigners and 'smelly hippies'.
Isn't that the ultimate irony?
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