City of Angels- Fallen and Otherwise

Bangkok hits you- between the eyes. It’s a mind-boggling combo of incense-filled red-and-gold temples; of neon-lit strip bars and `short term’ hotels; of saffron-clad monks and barely-clad teenage hookers. Busy, bustling, wild- and not a place you’ll forget in a hurry.

City of Angels- Fallen and Otherwise

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 26, 2002

Bangkok literally teems with sights to see. Two centuries of being Thailand’s capital may not seem like much, but within just two hundred years, they’ve managed to fill Bangkok pretty much up to the brim with palaces, wats, and a whole lot more. Of all the attractions, my top recommendations would include the Grand Palace--a stunning complex of mansions and palaces and temples; the pretty golden teak Vimanmek Mansion; and the many wats of Bangkok--especially Wat Phra Kaew (within the Grand Palace), Wat Arun, and Wat Benchamabopit, an exquisite creation in white marble.

If you’re in Bangkok over a weekend, browse around a bit at the delightful Chatuchak Weekend Market, a great place to buy almost anything you can think of. And yes, very high up on the list of musts is Bangkok’s fabulous food. If you like eating out, Bangkok’s a great place to indulge, especially at the plethora of food stalls that line virtually every street--they dish up delicious Thai food at invariably at ridiculously low rates.${QuickSuggestions} Bangkok can be befuddling--it took us a day to get 'acclimatised', but we soon caught onto the way this city functions.

Firstly, bargaining is the norm--haggle for everything, whether it’s a taxi or a bowl of tom yam. Begin by proposing a price which is 40-50% of the quoted price; it’ll take time and lots of patience, but at least you won’t be fleeced--hopefully.

Secondly, don’t get taken in by the huge number of sellers--of anything--who’ll hound you. Anybody who looks like a tourist will attract touts, taxi-drivers, and tourist guides, all offering fabulously discounted tours, great rates and more--don’t fall for them. Some--especially at major sights--will even tell you that you’re not appropriately dressed or that the sight’s closed for the day: don't listen! (Even if you’re not 'decently' clad, the Thai Tourism Department provides skirts and shirts--for free--at major sights).

Thirdly, whenever you’re hiring something-- whether you’re booking a tour or hiring a taxi--don’t go with anybody who approaches you. Instead, do your own searching: hail a passing taxi, phone a travel agent, or whatever. It minimises the chances of being cheated by someone who’s out to make a killing. ${BestWay} The options for getting around Bangkok are many--buses, taxis, tuk-tuks; boats on the Chao Phraya River and the khlongs (the canals), and the Sky Train. The Sky Train, Bangkok’s elevated train system, is the best--it literally rises above Bangkok’s legendary traffic jams. The only problem is it doesn’t cover all of Bangkok.

The other important form of public transport is the bus system, but buses are often crowded and can be very slow because of traffic jams. Rented cars, taxis, tuk-tuks, and river taxis can all be hired in Bangkok, but I’d warn against them--nearly all the drivers we encountered were out to fleece us. If you do get into a taxi or a tuk-tuk, make sure you fix on the fare before you start, and don’t get into one whose driver approaches you-- instead, hail a passing one: less chances of getting dumped with one who’s looking out for tourists to prey on. If you’re on your own, you could try a ride on a motorbike taxi: their drivers wear sleeveless jackets over their shirts, indicating that their vehicles are taxis. The motorbike taxis ply in certain areas, and weave neatly between stopped cars during traffic jams.

The Ambassador

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 26, 2002

We were touring South East Asia on a terribly tight budget, and we’d asked a friend of ours who lives in Bangkok to make reservations for us in a hotel that sort of fitted the budget we had in mind--i.e., as cheap as possible. Landing up at the Ambassador, therefore, came as a bit of a surprise because, for the kind of tariff we were paying, the place looked amazingly spiffy. Bang in the heart of town--on Sukhumvit Road--the Ambassador’s a high-rise hotel, ISO 9002, that's all vast lobby, gleaming glass, brass, wood, and orchids. Not the Waldorf, but good enough--with concierge, business center, health club, guest relations desk, lounge, pub, café, a special seafood center, two specialty restaurants (a Chinese one and a French one), a coffee bar called the Espresso, and a Bakery Counter--all this and a beer garden.

It’s a huge place and, for just Baht 1100 a night for a double room, it was pretty good. As far as the room was concerned, it was clean and comfortable, although the corridors outside were poorly lit and the carpets scruffy. Anyway, the room itself was large and airy and came with a full complement of furniture: king-size bed, wardrobe, bedside tables, large TV, huge dresser, minibar, and two spacious sofa chairs. Very comfy and air-conditioned, though the view left a lot to be desired--our window looked out on a terrace surrounded on all three sides by blank, peeling walls.

Included in the room tariff was buffet breakfast at the Ambassador’s Seafood Centre, which included a decent spread of fruit, breads, pancakes, potatoes, stir-fries, fried rice, eggs, cold cuts, juice, tea and coffee (i.e., the works). Other than that, we didn’t really patronize the hotel’s restaurants too much as they were a bit too expensive for us. We did have lunch once in the Café, though--a chicken green curry with rice which was exquisite.

On the whole, the Ambassador was a good place to stay, not just because it was fairly comfortable and clean (besides, of course, being cheap), but also because it was very well located--and I’d definitely stay here again if I went back to Bangkok.

Ambassador Bangkok
171 Sukhumvit Road
Bangkok, Thailand
(66-2) 6776240 to 5

Yong Lee

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 26, 2002

Yong Lee is one of those `where the locals eat’ restaurants which are almost ubiquitous in Bangkok. We discovered it on an exploratory tour around Sukhumvit, and even though it didn’t look too inspiring, the aromas wafting from it were tantalising enough to tempt us into venturing forth. The restaurant’s tiny and really rather dilapidated (wooden tables, no tablecloths, rafters overhead, and the entire room open on two sides to the pavement). The staff’s brisk, efficient, no-nonsense, and not the type to hang around chatting- either among themselves or with you. If you can overlook all that, and concentrate on the food, you’ll have a good time- because Yong Lee may be unprepossessing, but its food is fabulous.

Yong Lee’s menu is pretty extensive (though the menu card itself was falling apart, and had plenty of corrections and amendments scribbled all over in ballpoint pen); the restaurant serves Chinese, Thai and European food. Skip the European food, and try the Oriental- this place is basically a rice-and-noodle shop, and they’ve got some great stuff. All the usual stir-fries, chicken, seafood, beef and pork- and some more interesting dishes too. We ordered steamed rice, fried chicken with pepper and garlic, and fried wild boar with oyster sauce. The portion sizes were generous beyond expectations, the food well-made; and along with a Coke apiece, all of it came for just 250 baht- great value for money.

Yong Lee’s open from 11.30 in the morning to 8.30 at night, so if you’re planning on having your dinner here, arrive early.

Yong Lee
On the corner of Soi 15 and Soi 13, Sukhumvit Road
Bangkok, Thailand

Chatuchak Weekend Market

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 26, 2002

Every Saturday and Sunday, the Chatuchak Park, all 35 acres of it, comes alive with a huge collection of things for sale (really- trying to put everything that’s on sale into neat little categories is virtually impossible!). We visited Chatuchak on our last day in Bangkok, planning to do a bit of last-minute souvenir-shopping, and gosh- were we spoilt for choice! An hour or two of wandering through the stalls here, and the sheer range of clothes, shoes, tapestries and stuff like that had us wishing we could’ve pushed up our budget by a few million baht.

Anyway, to get to the basics. The easiest way to get to Chatuchak is to take the Sky Train to Mo Chit terminal (which is what we did)- the market begins just below the terminal; all you do is walk down from the terminal.

Chatuchak’s huge, colourful, noisy- and consists of large bright shops, glittering goods, narrow aisles. In the first few rows, the stalls sell clothes- mainly jeans, T-shirts, shirts and sarongs- jewellery and trinkets, bags, shoes, hats; souvenirs (basketry, ceramic, handmade paper, woodwork, metalware and things like that) and a massive range of odds and ends. Past that, the stalls in the middle rows sell upholstery, lampshades, glassware, artificial flowers, wrapping paper, floral decorations crafted from paper and plastic; and- well, anything else you could possibly want, including mundane things like cheese-graters, paper-cutters, cushion covers and tiny models of tuk-tuks. Right at the back of the market are stalls which sell pets- rabbits, birds, puppies, fish- along with cages, fish bowls, artificial waterplants and things like that. Also around the same area are a few shops that sell food- especially dried seafood (the somewhat overpowering stench nearly made us faint!). Despite that, Chatuchak’s a must-visit: save your shopping for here! One last bit of advice, though: bargain like mad!

Chatuchak Weekend Market
Paholyothin Road
Bangkok, Thailand

Grand Palace

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 26, 2002

Definitely at the top of the list of Bangkok’s major sights is the spectacular Grand Palace, a vast spread of buildings including temples, pavilions, palaces and what not, all of them sumptuously decorated. It spreads out over 61 acres, on the bank of the Chao Phraya River, and was built in 1782 by King Rama I. It’s really the ultimate in opulence, with mirror-covered spires, phoenixes, and kinnarees (half-woman, half-bird mythical figures), lions and Buddhas all across.

Once you enter the Grand Palace, take your time wandering around: there’s lots to see here, and all of it is beautiful. Among the must-sees in the Grand Palace is a miniature model of Angkor Wat; the section known as the Upper Terrace; the Chakri Maha Prasat and the Dusit Maha Prasat, a palace housing a stunning throne decorated with an extremely intricate mother-of-pearl inlay. The Chakri Maha Prasat is a splendid palace which houses a weapons museum--a fairly large but uninspiring collection of swords, lances, axes, pikes, spears, and guns (but with no explanations or anything even remotely approaching one), which is guarded by smart stiff-upper lip Thai guardsmen with whom tourists clamour to be photographed. The Dusit Maha Prasat, also one of the highlights of the Grand Palace, has the most gorgeously decorated walls; they're cream in colour, and carefully hand-painted in a repetitive pattern of red, blue, ochre, black, and rose pink--very subdued and beautiful, and so skilfully done that it looks like wallpaper. The Dusit Maha Prasat also has a computer screen and terminal on which you can access an interactive module about the Grand Palace--pretty good.

Further on, also within the Grand Palace, is the Borom Phiman mansion, made of a dull beige stone and looking, with its tall columns and thoroughly European lines, as if it wound up in Thailand by mistake (the green-domed, white-and-grey columned Royal Palace on Phitsanulok Road even beats this one, though: it really looks, from the outside at least, like a younger cousin of the Schönbrunn or Fontainebleau or something!).

Anyway, back to the Grand Palace, where another of the can’t-be-missed sights is the heavily gilded Wat Phra Kaew, the royal chapel, which is home to the famous--and highly revered--Emerald Buddha. Actually made of jade, the Emerald Buddha is said to have initially been covered with plaster, to protect it from marauding Burmese armies.

If you’re looking through the Grand Palace, it’s worthwhile going to the nearby Wat Pho which, though it’s not part of the palace grounds, is close enough to warrant the walk. Wat Pho’s another stunning building of gold, white and red, and is best known for the huge Reclining Buddha it houses. The second tallest Buddha in Thailand, this statue’s all gold-plated and the soles of its feet are heavily inlaid with mother-of-pearl: very impressive.

Entry fees to the Grand Palace are Baht 200 per person. Entry fees to Wat Pho are also Baht 20 per person.

Grand Palace
Na Phra Lan Road Ko Rattanakosin District
Bangkok, Thailand, 10500
+66 (2) 694 1222

Vimanmek Palace

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 26, 2002

The world’s largest golden teak building, the Vimanmek Palace is another of Bangkok’s big sights. A gorgeously mellow gold in colour, the mansion- for that’s what it really is- sits amidst an expanse of green lawns and flower beds- very pretty indeed. We came here straight after seeing the Grand Palace (the ticket to the Grand Palace, for 200 baht per person, is valid for entry to Vimanmek too), and arrived at just a few minutes after 2 pm- just in time to see the daily programme of traditional Thai dances which is held at Vimanmek at 2 every afternoon. The dances go on for about half an hour, and are pretty entertaining- and great photo material too.

Down to what there is to see at Vimanmek: right at the beginning is the Palace Museum, a modest-sized collection which is nevertheless interesting enough- it has some stunning artefacts crafted from gold and silver, nielloware, beetleware (this is something I hadn’t seen before: little statuettes- of peacocks, roosters, other colourful birds, etc- all decorated with the bright blue-green chitinous covering of a local beetle); ceramics, basketry, Thai silk, and stuff like that- very good.

The Vimanmek Palace (built in 1901 by King Rama V) can only be seen as part of a guided tour group. The mansion is interesting enough, historic and fairly imposing, but the guides- if the one who led our group was anything to go by- are abysmal. Barring the fact that his English left a lot to be desired, he seemed to have memorised the script so thoroughly that just one question would throw him totally offtrack).

Anyway, more about the mansion itself: as I’d mentioned, Vimanmek is the world’s largest golden teak building, constructed just over 100 years ago in a Thai-European (more European, really) style, without using a single nail. It has 72 rooms, of which less than half are open to visitors. These include bathrooms, bedrooms, staterooms, libraries, and more all of them still furnished with original upholstery, furniture and fittings used by the former royal families of Thailand. Among the many treasures are a huge collection of photographs and paintings of various kings, queens, princesses, princes, etc; clothing, jewellery, books, weapons, typewriters, musical instruments and other objects owned by them- including carriages, the world’s largest blue topaz; a chamberpot used by King Rama V (!) and more.

All fairly interesting, including the unrepaired hole in the roof (well, partly unrepaired) caused by a Japanese bombing in World War II- the Thais believe that the benevolent wraith of King Rama V protected Vimanmek from complete destruction!

Vimanmek Palace (Vimanmek Mansion)
Thanon Ratchawithi
Bangkok, Thailand, 10300
+66 2 628 6300-9

Tour to Ayutthaya

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 26, 2002

Ayutthaya, 76km from Bangkok, was the capital of Thailand for about 400 years--from 1350 to 1767 (when it was finally sacked by invading Burmese armies). In its heyday, Ayutthaya was a metropolis of considerable stature and ranked as one of the world’s most important (and magnificent) cities. Today, all that remains is a series of ruins, which are very much worth a look.

Our Ayutthaya tour had been booked by a friend, and the tour van came to our hotel at 6.45am to pick us up, although it was 8am by the time the half-a-dozen other people on the tour had been picked up. An hour’s drive out of Bangkok brought us to our first stop on the way, the Royal Summer Palace at Bang Pa In. Supposedly inspired by Versailles (I didn't see much of a resemblance, myself), Bang Pa In is dotted with pools of water teeming with turtles and fish. Well-laid out gardens, bushes pruned into animal shapes, and plaster statues of very European figures dot the landscape, and a series of pavilions and mansions stand at intervals along the paths. Among the buildings, there’s a red-and-ochre observatory tower; a huge teak mansion with very European interiors; a splendid Chinese mansion, all red and gold; so on and so forth. Opulent enough, and good for half an hour’s look-around before you hit the road and head for Ayutthaya, past lush green paddy fields, coconut trees and rivers.

Surrounded by three rivers, Ayutthaya’s a massive complex of palaces and chedis (pagodas; Ayutthaya has 55 of them). This city has largely succumbed to the passage of time--brick chedis stand, most of them crumbling, here and there while Buddha statues, their heads lopped off by antique-selling Thais, sit in headless rows. It’s a spooky place, half-overgrown by grass, but a major tourist attraction nevertheless. We were taken on a tour around some of the main chedis and wats (including one with a huge seated gold-plated Buddha; this wat also has a 'money tree'--currency notes stapled together in an interminable strip by devotees. It stands on a pedestal, a huge loose globe of paper, with one end trailing Bahts, and tempting godless greedy-guts like us!).

A peek at a Reclining Buddha (a plaster-coated one), a visit to the Ayutthaya Handicrafts Centre (some lovely work here: Thai silk, silverware, carved wood, enamel and ceramic ware, chopsticks, and tiny flowers crafted out of the pith of the water acacia), and then we were taken down to the bank of the Chao Phraya river, where we got onto a large, comfortable boat for the cruise--with a great lunch included--back to Bangkok. We docked at Bangkok (near the Sheraton hotel) at around 4pm but, Bangkok traffic being what it is, managed to get back to our hotel only at 5.45pm. On the whole, a fulfilling trip.

Ayutthaya Historical Park
86 Kilometers North Of Bangkok
Ayutthaya, Thailand, 13000
+66 35 246 076-7

The Wats of Bangkok

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by phileasfogg on November 26, 2002

Thai wats or temples are among the most prominent expressions of architectural creativity in Thailand, and the national capital swarms with them. Bangkok has more than 400 wats, all gently curving roofs, soaring spires, gilded statues, paintings, and prettiness. They’re all across the city, and an hour’s cruise down the Chao Phraya River will show you, along the banks, some of the loveliest of the lot.

Wats, irrespective of when they were built, were traditionally not a single building, but a series of structures, all housed within a complex, which included a hospital, a school, a temple (of course!), a community centre, and often even a venue for dances. Even today, they’re important, not just as places of religious significance, but also as centres of social activity. Loads of people (other than thousands of tourists, that is!) visit Bangkok’s many wats. We went on the rounds too, and though we couldn’t find the time to visit all the important ones, we saw four of the most popular, and here’s a quick round-up of them.

Wat Benchamabopit: The `Marble Wat’, Wat Benchamabopit is one of Bangkok’s more contemporary wats - it was built in 1899. A stunning temple whose walls are made of exquisite white Carrara marble, the wat was originally supposed to house a sacred image of the Buddha, from Phitsanulok - a replica of the image now sits in Wat Banchamabopit. The temple’s relatively quiet (although there are some outsize drums and gongs in a pavilion outside!) and the main chapel, with its prettily painted walls, is nice and peaceful. Entry to the wat is free.

Wat Arun: Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, stands beside the Chao Phraya River. The wat’s main feature - one of Bangkok’s best known sights - is a huge spire which rises 250 feet high. Basically white, the spire’s decorated with an intricate pattern of paint and a lovely inlay of ceramic, mirror, and metal - the entire effect’s stunning. Around the main spire are a series of smaller towers, all of them decorated with paint and inlay, and with a colorful array of statues along the bases. Entry fees for Wat Arun are 20 baht per person.

Wat Phra Kaew: Within the Grand Palace Complex lies the heavily gilded and extremely ornate Wat Phra Kaew, the royal chapel. Also known as the `Temple of the Emerald Buddha’, Wat Phra Kaew is named for the famous - and highly revered - Emerald Buddha statue which it houses. Carved from a single piece of jade, the Emerald Buddha is 24 inches tall and sits under a canopy, on a gilded pedestal. The statue’s believed to have initially been covered with plaster to protect it from marauding Burmese armies. Entry tickets to the Grand Palace (@200 baht per person) include entry to Wat Phra Kaew.

Wat Pho: The `Temple of the Reclining Buddha’, Wat Pho’s located right next to the Grand Palace, although it’s not part of the palace complex. This is Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple, and it’s imposing enough - a stunning building of gold, white, and red. It’s best known for the huge reclining Buddha (46 mt long and 13 mt high) it houses. The second tallest Buddha in Thailand, this statue’s all gold - plated and the soles of it are heavily inlaid with mother-of-pearl: very impressive. The wat has some other interesting attractions, too: some nice murals, a neat collection of ancient Buddha images, and more. Entry fees to Wat Pho are 20 baht per person.

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