Beyond every street corner in Bangkok there is a delightful reminder of the past or of the glorious local culture.
by SeenThat on January 10, 2008
Thai cities always include a pillar - a symbolic representation of a linga - which is considered to host the city’s guardian spirit or deity. As such, these places are located in the vicinity of – or within - larger temples and are an official center of worship for the city’s welfare, though usually they are the preferred temples for fertility rites as well.LocationBangkok’s City Pillar is located across the avenue from the Grand Palace’s northern corner, a supposedly auspicious location, especially so for tourists since they can visit it in the way to the palace.Opening HoursSan Lak Muang is open daily from 5:30am until 7:30pm. HistoryThe shrine contains a wooden pillar erected by King Rama I in 1782, at the time of the Bangkok’s foundation. The capital was moved here from Thonburi – just across the Chao Praya River, since the new location provided better protection against the Burmese. The inauguration was on 6:45am, Sunday, April 21, 1782, on the 10th day of the waxing moon in the Thai calendar; a date which was considered by the king’s astrologists as propitious. Judging by the spectacular city we see nowadays, they were right.The Inner ShrineThe pillar was made with a lacquered and gilded wood from a Chaiyaphruk tree. The city’s horoscope was placed within an inner cavity; it stands 2.74 meters above the ground and sits two meters underground.In 1852, King Rama IV added a second pillar – smaller in size – next to the original one. Colorful statues of five spirits (Phra Sua Muang, Phra Song Muang, Phra Kanchaisri, Chao Chettakhup and Chao Hoklong) surround both pillars.The Outer StructureDespite its importance the shrine is among the humblest in the city; missing it is easy. Topped by a snow-white, crown-like structure, the shrine is much smaller than the typical temple in Bangkok; several medieval cannons adorn its southern side, adding an almost surrealistic touch to the whole scene.The CrowdsI have passed through the site several times in my way to the Grand Palace and never managed to enter the tiny inner shrine due to the eternal crowds.However, the structure is open on one side and looking at the inner sanctuary – half hidden behind a thick cloud of incense smoke – is possible; there, women kneel and pray for sons and daughters.The DancesBeautiful Thai classical dances are performed several times daily from 8:30am until 3:30pm during the week and until 4:00pm on Sundays. Carried out against the Grand Palace spires surrealistic background, just outside the shrine, the dances are a must while in Bangkok.
by SeenThat on January 19, 2008
Few places manage to transfer its visitors to another, magical world as the Ratanakosin Grand Palace does. While crossing the park leading there, spires and stupas densely rising above the wall surrounding the complex in an impossible kaleidoscope of colors and shapes act as an irresistible magnet for visitors. A view from another world, where spirits are believed to live within talismans, statues and little, colored houses.PracticalitiesThe palace compound charges an admission fee from foreigners only, Thais enter free. The ticket includes visits to Wat Phra Kaeo, to the Grand Palace Compound, to the Royal Thai Decorations and Coins Pavilion and to the Vimanmek Mansion and Apisek Dusit Throne Hall on Ratchawithi Road.Proper dress is required; women visitors must wear long pants or long skirts and men in short pants are not allowed to enter. Photography inside the main temple is forbidden. The palace is open daily, between 8:30am and 3:30pm.HistoryThe Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha were built after King Rama I ascended the throne as the founder of the Chakri Dynasty on 6 April 1782 and have undergone several repairs and renovations; they are at the very heart of Bangkok on Ratanakosin Island. Phra Borom MaharatchawongPhra Borom Maharatchawong (Grand Palace) is a former royal residence which includes four main buildings. The largest of the palace buildings is the triple-winged, three storey, Chakri Mahaprasat (Grand Palace Hall), which was designed in 1882 by British architects for the King Rama V as his own residence.The top part is pure Thai with tapering spires and tiered sloping roofs, and the lower parts are in a mix of Western styles. Boromphiman Hall is a French-styled structure built by King Rama V for Crown Prince Vajiravudh as his residence. It is now used to accommodate visiting foreign heads of state. On the inside walls of the complex there are extensive mural paintings depicting scenes from the famous epic "Ramayana," which form the longest wall painting in the world.Wat Phra KaeoWat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is a wonderful chedi adorned with Thai orange-and-green roof tiles, mosaic-encrusted pillars and rich marble pediments.The Emerald Buddha (Phra Kaeo Morakot) is the most highly revered Buddha image in Thailand and it sits high at the chedi’s center; it is only 66cm high and carved from a single block of fine jade.Hordes of worshippers block the way to it, hence the main sight in the temple are the numerous sculptures of the Thai mythology, including fierce-looking giants guarding the gates, six pairs of Cambodian-style bronze lions and stone figures from China.Angkor WatAn important attraction for those planning to visit Cambodia is a scaled down model of Angkor Wat. In Cambodia there is nothing similar to this very realistic model; studying it is a wonderful preparation for a visit at the real site.
by SeenThat on January 20, 2008
The quick transition from Siam Square – a central commercial quarter – to the quiet alley ending at a narrow, romantic canal contributes to the magic of seeing a wooden hut emerging from a lush tropical garden with lotus ponds at walking distance from the BTS Skytrain and ultramodern Bangkok.The place is the perfect noon break during a busy shopping day at Bangkok’s main commercial districts. Teak HousesTraditional Thai teak houses are becoming a rarity due to the modernization of the cities and the ban on teak logging. A wonderful model of that architectural style - as Thompson’s House is - should be visited and cherished.AdmissionThompson’s House is open daily, between 9am and 5:30pm; the admission fee is 100 baht. The house includes nowadays a shop and museum which offers – among other items - a broad choice of literature related to its owner and Thai silk.The Missing OwnerThis specific house once belonged to Jim Thompson, officially an American silk entrepreneur, though other stories about the owner are usually told. Apparently, Thompson was a New York architect and agent of the OSS (later to become the CIA), which was involved in clandestine operations in the Far East during the Second World War, before settling in Bangkok at the end of the war and disappearing mysteriously in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands in 1967. What is known for certain is that after settling in Bangkok, he built up a worldwide clientele for Thai silk; a skill that may have died out otherwise.He was awarded the Order of the White Elephant, a decoration bestowed upon foreigners for having rendered exceptional service to Thailand, for his contribution to the development of the Thai silk industry.The GardenThe house is surrounded by a lush garden, probably unmatched in downtown Bangkok in its lushness. The house wood structure seems to naturally emerge from the greenery. The CanalTraditionally, Thais lived next to water; thus, Thompson’s House was built next to Klong Maha Nag. In the past the weaving village of Ban Krua was across it, adding hence to the location’s symbolism.The HouseThe impressive Thompson’s House complex was constructed without nails from six 200-year-old teak houses which Thompson shipped to Bangkok from all over the kingdom and is a feast to the eyes; its construction was completed in 1959 by carpenters brought from Ayuthaya.The house walls and columns lean slightly inwards, creating an elegant illusion of height. The roof is curved and includes the traditional spirits’ exits in the shape of curved wood sticks at the roof’s corners.The tasteful interior has been left as it was during Thompson's life and is nowadays a museum that displays Thompson's fine collection of Asian art, artifacts and antiques.
Wat Pho, also known as Wat Phra Chetuphon or Temple of the Reclining Buddha, is located next to Bangkok’s Grand Palace, on its southern side. This is Bangkok’s oldest and biggest temple; built in 1688 (before the city’s foundation!) it has ninety-five pagodas and 394 Buddha images, an amount unmatched by any other temple in town.TimingDue to the popularity of the site, it is recommended to visit the religious attractions as early as possible and plan for a relaxing massage afterwards.A Thai WatThai wats follow an archetypal structure. Two surrounding walls separate them from the world. The Buddhavasa or Phutthawat is the area between the walls; it includes the monks’ dormitories, an Hor Rakang (Bell Tower) and Buddha statues along the walls.The Bot or Ubosoth (Ordination Hall) is the name of the sacred building within the inner space, into which only monks enter; it contains a Buddha statue. Nearby is the Viharn (Assembly Hall) which is open to the public and contains the most important Buddha statue in the compound.Completing the inner courtyard is a stuppa or chedi, shaped as a three layers structure. The bottom resembles a turned over rice bowl, the upper layers resemble a folded Buddha garment and his walking stick. Beyond being a metaphor of Buddhist doctrine, chedis sometimes contains relics.The Reclining BuddhaBeyond its impressive statistics, Wat Pho is best known for the Reclining Buddha. If an ideology does not impress, the size of its structures may compensate; this seems to be the case with the Buddha which is forty-six meters long and fifteen meters high. Its soles are decorated with 108 Lakshanas or auspicious signs inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The graceful Bot at the compound centre has attractive teak doors showing stories from the Ramayana and decorated with mother-of-pearl.Open EncyclopediaIn 1832, the king ordered to decorate the walls with diagrams on history, literature, astrology, medicine and animal husbandry and transformed thus the temple into an open encyclopedia. As time passed by, the institution began specializing and nowadays it is famous for its Thai Traditional Massage School, which is considered to be the best in the country.MassagesThe school offers massages, practical courses and it is still a center for traditional medicine. The massages include body massage, body massage with herbs, and foot massage, and cost around six dollars per hour; the establishment is open daily between 8am until 5pm. The courses offered are Thai massage, therapeutic and healing massage and foot massage; more information can be obtained at phone 2211-2974 or at the premises. Thai massage is very different from other forms of massage and is based on the twisting and bending of every limb in somewhat unconventional ways. Slightly scaring at the first time, it provides a wonderful relaxation and is able to heal light mechanical problems after a trek or other strenuous physical activity.
by SeenThat on January 30, 2008
The sharp contrast between this beautiful, neat, black and white, minimalist temple and the typical green and orange Thai pagodas is the first sign telling the visitor that this temple is special.HistoryIts history confirms the first impression. The Black Metal Pagoda was built in the reign of King Rama III in 1846, as a replica of an historic Sri Lankan Buddhist temple; having the original been destroyed, the temple in Bangkok became unique of its kind in the world. Reaching Wat RatchanatdaramReaching the Black Metal Pagoda is easy; the temple is at Ratchadamnoen corner Mahachai, near the Democracy Square. The Grand Palace, the Golden Mount, Wat Pho and Khaosan Road are all at walking distance from it. Even the Chao Praya River is not far away.Due to its nearness to Khaosan Road, all the transport serving that location is fine for reaching the temple. An attractive option for reaching it is using the Chao Praya Express Boat from anywhere along the riverside to the Memorial Bridge Pier, and then taking a healthy walk or a taxi from there.Monks and MarketMany monks attend the complex and are more than happy for an opportunity to practice their English. Near the temple is the Amulets Market, where expensive Buddhist charms can be bought; the same merchandise can be found elsewhere in Bangkok at better prices.StructureThe temple is famous for its Metal Castle (Loha Prasat) west of the complex main temple. The five levels castle is square and has thirty-seven spires; the central one reaches thirty–seven meters above the street level. The upper three levels host the beautiful and elaborated cast iron spires which give the temple its common name, unusual shape and black color. Climbing all the way up to the spires’ level and taking a close look at the unique roof is possible; the Golden Mount is in clear sight from there and in clear days, glorious views of Bangkok are available. The interior is unusually uncluttered for a Thai temple and has a handsome wooden, spiral staircase constructed with thick wood steps inserted in a central metal column; it leads up to the spires. Also this secondary structural aspect of the temple is very unusual. Classical drums used to call for the prayers adorn the interior.SymbolsThe temple design symbolizes the different qualities contributing to enlightenment in Buddhism. In fact, the temple is an open Buddhist encyclopedia; the main aspects of Buddhist doctrine can be read on the building structure, similarly to the situation in Angkor Wat.
Wat Saket Ratcha Wora Maha Wihan is a well-known sight in Bangkok, and not only because it is engraved in the two Baht coin.Its hill – raising seventy-seven meters above the street level - is seen from far away; climbing it allows beautiful views of downtown Bangkok and the Grand Palace. LocationIts location is ideal for guests at hotels in the Khaosan Road area, since it is located next to Ratchadamnoen Avenue and opposite to the Black Metal Temple - Wat Ratchanatda.ReachingWat Saket can be reached by foot from Khaosan Road or with any transport serving that area. An additional and very attractive option is using the Chao Praya Express Boat from anywhere along the riverside to the Memorial Bridge Pier, and then taking a healthy walk or a taxi. The Golden MountWithin Wat Saket is Phu Khao Thong, an artificial hill with a temple built around and atop it. The hill is a slanted ramp which reaches a strikingly beautiful chedi at its summit, where Buddha relics are kept. A Chedi or a Stuppa is a three layered structure, where the bottom layer resembles a turned over rice bowl, while the upper layers resemble a folded Buddha garment and his walking stick. Beyond being a metaphor of Buddhist doctrine, chedis sometimes contains relics.The whole structure has been painted in yellow that fits the golden chedi at the top. The high, curved walls containing the whole structure create wonderful views along the way.HistoryThe golden chedi atop the hill is a main Thai landmark; its peculiar shape is the result of its complicated history. During the Ayuthaya Kingdom a temple called Wat Sakae existed on the same location.Later, King Rama I rebuilt the temple - which was beyond his city’s walls - and renamed it Wat Saket. King Rama III ordered the creation of a chedi atop an artificial hill, but the temple collapsed because of the soft soil underneath. His successor, King Rama IV directed the construction of a new chedi on the former ruins, which was then called Suwannabanphot. For a long time the temple was the city’s main crematorium.FestivalIn November, a festival is held at Wat Saket; it includes a candlelit procession up the Golden Mount. MonksThere are many monks around this temple, especially on the ramp climbing around the hill; they seem to be waiting for tourists to speak with and usually are a reliable source of information.Future TellingJust out of the relic’s chamber, a couple of monks do their best at telling the visitor’s future, using several methods typical of Buddhist temples. In the most popular and fast method, the guest is awarded a printed page telling his future after having left a donation. The guest picks a stick out of a box; the stick has a number that correspond to one of the pre-printed futures.
by SeenThat on June 1, 2007
Restaurants, guesthouses, convenience stores, travel agencies, Thai massage parlours, souvenirs and T-shirts stalls; on each of these categories, Khaosan Road probably features the highest density per square meter in the whole world. It may seem unappealing, but Khaosan’s eclectic reality is a powerful magnet for travelers from all the inhabited planets.Suddenly a minority in their own country, the few Thais venturing into this alien, galactic center do their best to sell the ultimate souvenir to funny looking, round-eyed, long-nosed humans.May be it is the heavy heat and humidity of Bangkok that inflict a languid humor upon most visitors, or maybe the sweet fumes breathed out by cars using leaded fuel; regardless the actual reason, it seems that millions of travelers prefer to carry out all their businesses in Khaosan Road while in Bangkok, rather than travel around the city. The road is spectacular. Here, travelers can settle down and still live under the illusion they are moving fast across vast distances. A face from a different corner of the planet appears every few meters; sounds in different languages create destructive interferences among the sound waves and mimic a modern Babel Tower. Nobody completely understands his alien conversation partners and yet everything seems to function properly in a modern version of the Biblical "Speaking in Tongues." Such diversity is irresistible for any traveler and few other places provide the opportunity for him to imagine he is everywhere – and nowhere – at once. Where else a Nepali restaurant flirting with Mexican food would feel comfortable? Where else a pumpkin flavored coffee would be the natural end to a meal of fried insects? Where else can Indian tailors provide an extra-elegant suit in ten minutes and for the price of a meal to a traveler about to visit semi-naked hill tribes?Even if some travelers would feel embarrassed to admit enjoying such a kitschy environment, Khaosan provides the perfect pretext to justify an open visit during broad daylight: the best flight deals in the world are available here. Professionally organized, Thai travel agents successfully manage to force all the airlines to keep prices low, thus faithfully representing their transient customers. Most of the best Thai travel agents are located along the alleys surrounding Khaosan Road.The more a traveler stays there, the better he realizes he had hardly scratched the surface of this complex place. Many – nobody knows the exact number – cultures coexist there in perfect harmony showing thus that such a reality is a feasible future.The street setup may look chaotic at first, but certain rules appear to function quite well during all my visits along the years. The best travel agencies are on the alleys surrounding the main street. The best hotels and guesthouses are on Khaosan Road itself, but the quieter ones are behind the temple on its western side. All the souvenirs, clothes, CD’s, electrical adaptors and other knickknacks are vastly cheaper elsewhere in Bangkok. The best Western food restaurants in the area are on the main street, but the best Thai ones are in the surrounding streets.Despite the astonishing amount of establishments in each category, over time the best ones can be singled out; here is a partial list of those.Travel AgenciesOn the narrow alley between Khaosan Road and Ratchadamnoen Avenue, the Indian travel agency managed time and again to beat all the other agencies with their knowledge, accuracy, punctuality and prices. However, that it is true only regarding visas to other Asian countries and plane tickets. Trips within Thailand should be arranged independently without the help of travel agencies; traveling within Thailand is easy and inexpensive.HotelsStrangely, the most expensive hotels in the area are not those offering the best rooms. Those are in the new building of the D&D Guesthouse (68-70 Khaosan Road). Moreover, being located at the very center of the street, it offers a superb spot from where to explore the area. From the pool at its roof there are great views of the Grand Palace, especially at night.Western FoodDespite the wide variety available of restaurants serving this kind of food, Gulliver’s Travelers Tavern at the western end of Khaosan Road, has not only an irresistible name, but it also successfully mimics an English Pub and has an attractively eclectic clientele, including Thais. The food is rather expensive, but it is worth it.Coffee ShopsCoffee World and Starbucks have very attractive branches in Khaosan and both offer good coffee with a Thai twinge.Thai FoodThe several stalls occupying the western end of Rambuttri Road – the first street north of Khaosan – beat all the fancy restaurants in the area in their variety and authenticity of the Thai dishes served. It is the perfect place to get acquainted with one of the most wonderful cuisines in the world.Night MarketAt night, Khaosan Road can be called a night market, though technically it is not one. Simply, all the shops and stalls stay open and food stalls catering for every imaginable culture appear everywhere; the crowds returning from a busy day at the city complete the eclectic picture.Thai MassageWat Pho, also known as Wat Phra Chetuphon or Temple of the Reclining Buddha, is located next to the Grand Palace on its southern side. It is Bangkok’s oldest and biggest temple; built in 1688 – before the foundation of the city – it has ninety-five pagodas and 394 Buddha images, an amount unmatched by any other temple in town. In 1832, the king ordered to decorate the walls with diagrams on history, literature, astrology, medicine and animal husbandry and transformed thus the temple into an open encyclopedia. As time passed by, the institution began specializing and nowadays it is famous for its Thai Traditional Massage School, which is considered to be the best in the country. The school offers massages, practical courses and it is still a center for traditional medicine. The massages include body massage, body massage with herbs, and foot massage, and cost around six dollars per hour; the establishment is open daily between 8am until 5pm. Reaching KhaosanReaching Khaosan is easy from anywhere in Bangkok with local buses or taxis; however, the Skytrain and the Metro do not reach it. From the Suvarnabhumi Airport, the A2 bus reaches the street and costs 150 Baht. Most taxi-boats traveling along the Chao Praya River stop at Phra Arthit (pier number N.13); from there it is easy to walk the few blocks remaining to Khaosan Road.Other sites of interest within walking distance from Khaosan Road are the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha shrine, the Democracy Monument, the Black Metal Temple and the Golden Mount.
Connecting Sukhumvit Road with Siam Square, Ploen Chit Road hosts many of the main cultural and shopping centers in Bangkok; all of them are shaded by the ubiquitous Skytrain. Despite the last connecting all the road’s attractions, Ploen Chit is better explored by foot. In Bangkokian terms this is a rather short and calm street; except for the Siam Square area there are no stalls blocking its wide, shaded sidewalks. If walking from Siam Square to Central World Plaza, pay attention to a group of blind people playing traditional Thai music in front of the police headquarters. The Thai society does not care for them properly; leaving them a few baths of spare change may seem an insignificant contribution but it is not so.Beginning the walk on the western side of Ploen Chit, just west from the Siam Skytrain Station is Siam Square, at the junction with Phayathoi Road. At the corner itself, is the Siam Discovery Center, which is connected with an elevated bridge to the Siam Center. The mall hosts several international clothing shops, several good restaurants and the Grand EGV Cinema. After shopping for a whole day, there is nothing better than a movie to forget the aching feet. The Grand EGV is the most luxurious modern and comfortable theatre in Thailand and is located on the 6th and 7th floors; it has seven theatres that are divided into two different styles. The two Gold Class theatres have a seating capacity of forty, while the Five Deluxe Cinemas have non-marked seats, which allow the viewers to sit anywhere. The more interesting option is the Gold Class, which sells movies at New York prices in Bangkok; the price in local terms is so high than you can pay using your international credit card and no one will even blink. The theatre itself has a huge screen and a good surround sound system, but that’s a secondary feature; the main point is that it hosts few spectators and it offers a private big coach to each one of them. Your next neighbor is about one meter away from you: nobody will fall asleep on your shoulder. An almost private waiter can fetch you basic foods and beverages. The place is so comfortable that the featured movie is almost irrelevant.Across the junction from the Siam Discovery Center is Mahboonkrong, usually known as MBK, which is considered among knowing Thais as The Place for cellular phones; however finding a suitable one among the myriad of stalls packing up its narrow corridors may prove to be an Herculean task.Just east of the Siam Discovery Center is the Siam Paragon, the most up-market shopping center in town, and maybe in South East Asia, with 250 exclusive stores and endless luxury items. It features also the Siam Ocean World, which is the largest aquarium in South-East Asia. It has also an excellent food plaza, hosting oddities such as a branch of the excellent Piri Piri Portuguese Chicken.Eastwards, at the first main junction, is the Central World (former World Trade Center) which had recently emerged from a massive renewal; the old and dark structure was replaced by huge amounts of glass and is now a river of light. The biggest shopping mall in Thailand includes six shopping zones and two popular department stores (Zen and Isetan). All the main brands are represented here and it would take more than a day just to explore its five-hundred (!) world class stores and fifty restaurants. The building is huge, measuring some four hundred meters long and including an attached hotel, fifty-five floors high. It is difficult to miss this huge building at the central junction of Ratchadamri with Ploen Chit, just where the two Skytrain lines meet. In your first days in town this is the perfect landmark to locate yourself. In front of Central World is the Gaysorn Plaza, which despite its humble size is one of Bangkok leading luxury shopping malls. Gucci, Tiffany, and Armani, compete for the customers’ attention with Thai handicrafts and antiques. Northwards, on Ratchadamri Road, is a huge branch of Big C, maybe the best supermarket in town.At the kitty corner of Central World, across the junction is the Erawan Shrine; it belongs to the Grand Hyatt Erawan, one of the best hotels in Bangkok. The shrine was built to appease the spirits after a series of construction accidents occurred when the hotel was being built. Traditional Thai dances can be appreciated there during the day. The temple is unusually dedicated to Brahma (Phra Phrom) and was named after his elephant. Next to it is the Sogo Department Store, and connected to Sogo with an elevated bridge is the Amarin Plaza. Amarin is the perfect place to search for traditional Thai products, many shops selling silk and clothes made from it are placed here. To increase the feeling of having entered a Thai space, the restaurants on their upper floors are mainly local and there is even a good stall-like place serving traditional Thai filtered coffee, caa-faa tung, always served with condensed milk. A few blocks eastwards is the Central Department Store, which hosts at its basement what is maybe the best Thai-food plaza in Bangkok. Central has other branches in the city, and it is recommended to check prices with the nearby Isetan and Zen before buying something of value. A good book store occupies its top floor together with a mini-branch of Starbucks, the perfect combination for the tired traveler, and a rare one in Bangkok. A Starbucks branch is placed on the first floor and faces the street; it is pleasantly styled as a street facing bar.The several nearby malls allow confirming an idiosyncrasy in their uniform design. In all of them the Children’s Floor is below the Women’s Floor, which in turn is below the Men’s floor; this is not casual and was done to comply with certain Buddhist principles.
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