Walking through a city is a good way of studying it thoroughly; Bangkok offers many wonderful walks.
by SeenThat on March 23, 2008
Denizens of any given city have their own peculiar pace. In extreme conditions the pace is usually slow, that’s the case in La Paz – maybe due to the lack of oxygen and the cold – and in Vientiane – probably due to the heat. Near the last, Bangkok surprises by its vitality and fast pace despite the humidity, lack of winds and the eternal heat.This unconscious pace dictates the pedestrians’ behaviour, allowing them walking without colliding or delaying others. It is part of the local culture and it can be appreciated only while walking around.This walk begins at Khaosan Road - the backpackers’ home in Bangkok and ends not far away from there amidst some of the most spectacular royal and religious structures in the world; advancing from the lower echelons to royalty within a few hours and offering thus an instant social ladder for the impatient traveller.Despite the short distances involved and despite being within a modern urban area, a good traveller is always ready for the worst, thus I recommend beginning the walk with a healthy breakfast at one of Khaosan Road many attractive restaurants.Once heavy and happy, advance towards Khaosan western end, where Wat Chana Songkhram blocks the way; it may be a small temple, but it is a good prelude to the other sights in this tour. Surrounding the central structure there is a lively market of Thai food attended by nuns and in the back-structures are many attractive relics from past eras; at the back-exit is a holy banyan tree, which is honoured with plenty of colourful ribbons, reminding the visitors of Buddha’s history.Exit the temple through the main gate – on the Khaosan Road and Thanon Chakrapong junction – and turn northwards. One block after that begins the Banglamphu Market. Part of it is on Thanon Rambuttri (eastwards) and part on Thanon Chakrapong itself. This market is interesting mainly due to its lack of fame. Among the typical neighbourhood markets in Bangkok it is the closest to the Grand Palace. It offers a look into the Thai life and is a good place for buying traditional fisherman’s pants.Thanon Chakrapong (and the market) ends by Khlong Banglamphu, a typical water canal in this Venice of the East. Turn westwards on Thanon Phra Sumen – which runs parallel to the canal – and follow it until it sharply turns to the south and changes name to Thanon Phra Athit. At the corner is the Phra Sumen Fort, right on the Chao Praya Riverside. The fort is worth a second visit at night, when it is delightfully illuminate and provides amazing views of the Saphan Phra Ram VIII Bridge and the river. Around the fort are the Santi Chai Prakan Park and several attractive coffee shops; the last are more expensive then those on Khaosan Road and attract mainly local yuppies. After recovering the lost calories with an espresso and a piece of cake, continue through Thanon Pra Athit which displays an eclectic mix of Thai nobility houses and typical Thai shop houses.After passing the College of Dramatic Arts, the National Museum appears at the left. Even if skipping the collection it is worth taking a look t its garden which is populated with tasteful sculptures and works of art.Just after it, still on the left, are the Thammasat University and Wat Mahathat, in this order. Silpakorn University is on the intersection of Thanon Maharat with Thanon Na Phra Lan and in front of the Grand Palace.Few places manage to transfer its visitors to another, magical world as the Ratanakosin Grand Palace does. While approaching it 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.The 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. Leving the Grand Palace turn right on Thanon Na Phra Lan; at the kitty corner from the palace is Wat Lak Muang - the city pillar.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.After exploring it, continue walking around the grand palace on Thanon Sanamchai. Beyond the palace southern wall is Wat Pho, the biggest and oldest temple in Bangkok.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.Beyond 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 this 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.Finish the tour with a professional and restoring Thai massage there. 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 the physical damages of a strenuous morning walk.
by SeenThat on March 24, 2008
Contradictions are an integral part of human individuals and societies; we can fiercely claim we hate humid heat and an hour later find ourselves booking the first flight to Bangkok. Most of these contradictions are superficial; there is more to Bangkok than humidity. Cities, being reflections of the cultures that created them, feature many such contradictions; Bangkok is not free of them.Speaking of a walk in nature in one of the world’s biggest metropolises sounds strange. However, below the Skytrain and above the metro, Bangkok offers a surprising variety of green spots. Nature walks can easily turn into tiring or dangerous adventures. Wild giant squirrels carrying untamed cashews are the most dangerous things the traveler would probably find in Bangkok and yet… who knows. The wisest approach is to be prepared for everything; including an unknown period of time away from civilization and its 7 Eleven branches.Thus, before beginning a tour through Bangkok parks, canals and teak houses, I recommend reaching Thanon Silom with the Skytrain or metro and having a serious breakfast at one of its superb coffee shops.Afterward, head northwards, until the street’s end at the corner of Suan Lumphini, the biggest park in metropolitan Bangkok. Lumphini is the local spelling of Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal.King Rama VI - King Mankhutklao - created the park in the 1920s; his statue is on the southwestern entrance to the park. Back then, the park was on the city outskirts, while now it is at its very center, connecting the main commercial and shopping quarters.The main attractions in the park are two lakes and two exquisite ponds surrounded by that extraordinary electric green of Thai foliage. Boats can be rented in the bigger lake and bicycles can be used for exploring the Thai Lanna Pavillion, the Chinese Pavillion and the Chinese Clock Tower. Near the park is the Lumphini Boxing Stadium, the main Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) arena in town.After enjoying the park, walk northwards along Thanon Ratchadamri along the Royal Bangkok Sports Club until the intersection with Thanon Ploenchit. The junction is cannot be missed since it features the eastern meeting point between the two Skytrain lines. Turn left on Ploenchit; this is the main shopping district in Bangkok and yet, it keeps a surprisingly close contact with water canals; reminding the traveler that the Thai culture emerged in traditional teak houses placed next to water.Any one of the malls along the way offers equally attractive options for a lush coffee break. Central World Plaza and the Siam Center offer especially varied options.After the break, continue eastwards, cross Siam Square through the elevated pedestrian bridges running parallel to the Skytrain, enjoy the views and then continue two blocks eastwards along the same avenue – which now is called Thanon Phra Rama I. The second alley at the right is called Soi Kasem San 2 and at its end are Jim Thompson's House and the Khlong Saen Saep canal.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 Skytrain and ultramodern Bangkok.Traditional 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 – allows a close look at such an architectural wonder.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 house is surrounded by a verdant garden, probably unmatched in downtown Bangkok in its lushness. The house wood structure seems to naturally emerge from the greenery. The 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.Traditionally, Thais lived next to water; thus, Thompson’s House was built next to Klong Maha Nag (Klong Saen Saep). In the past the weaving village of Ban Krua was across it, adding hence to the location’s importance and symbolism. Nowadays, the canals are still significant transport arteries; fierce boat taxis can be spotted (Is this the local version of Train Spotting?) forcing the calm canal waters to chew on the traditional house contention walls.
by SeenThat on March 26, 2008
Bangkok is densely populated; an unknown number of people – well over ten million – live in a twenty-kilometer side square. Most of them concentrate in a few areas; the city lacks a unique downtown. Moreover, around twelve million tourists flood its streets every year. Yet, a traveler can walk across it at all hours and nobody would bump into him or even enter the generous private space allotted by fellow walkers. A truly polite and respectful people, Thais make touring by foot their crowded capital a pleasure. Live and let live at its best, noodle stalls survive comfortably next to posh malls, spicy chili fumes mix up with the sweet aroma of Thai coffee, spreading out that message in a subliminal way. Big cities are strange beasts; their rich multiethnic mosaic allowed for endless interactions and unpredictable cultural fusions. Invariably, cultural aspects are reflected in the streets. If the human mosaic is rich enough, different cultures would overlap in space, though usually not in time.An intimate knowledge of such areas demands visiting it at different times. For a long time after having made Bangkok my home away from home, I avoided the Silom area. Its reputation was frightening.However, after a while, one of my gadgets went bad and I was forced to visit the company’s local branch in Silom – one of Bangkok’s main commercial quarters. I was asked to return a few hours later, in the early afternoon. During the lapse, I explored the area and discovered a very different Silom. The infamous clubs were closed – though many of its workers were thinly disguised within the many coffee shops catering for them and the surrounding offices. Emerging from their nocturnal irrelevance were many temples that showed another face, the multiethnic one, of Bangkok. Being overwhelmingly Buddhist, few travelers remember that other religions and ethnic groups live peacefully and in harmony in BangkokLuckily, a short walk across Silom allows seeing several of their temples and centersReaching SilomThe Skytrain’s Sala Daeng station and the Lumphini Park metro station connect Silom to the rest of Bangkok. The visitor would reach Silom at the junction with Phra Rama IV Avenue, where the Silom’s Robinson Center can be visited for a morning shopping spree. Below it, under the street level, was the humorous choice for a branch of "Tops," a supermarket. HinduFor someone of my specific religious background, the Hindu religion is hard to comprehend. I watched it carefully in Nepal, a mainly Hindu culture, and failed to understand how the simple believer can master a doctrine encompassing 330 million gods.The obvious result is a colorful society with richly decorated temples; Bangkok features one on Thanon Silom. Sri Mariamman, on Silom corner Pan, is an amazing Hindu temple built in the nineteenth century by Tamil immigrants. It is strikingly similar to a temple with the same name in Singapore’s Indian Quarter. The temple is extraordinarily colorful and ornate, with literally thousands of Hindu gods occupying every free spot on the structure, including sitting on a pyramid-like structure by its entrance, where they like sitting watching lesser humans staring at them from below. Unluckily it is forbidden to take pictures within its walls. The temple was built in honor of Jao Mae Maha Umathewi, also known as Uma Devi and Mariammam, the Goddess of Death; but there are also Buddha images within it.The "Other-Food" Syndrome - IslamAcross the street, on Soi Pradit (also called Soi 20) is the Mirasuddeen Mosque, a relatively small, boxy temple built up in the nineties. The insignificant structure would not be in the list of Bangkok’s attractions if it wasn’t due to its peculiar neighbors.After a while in Thailand, the Other-Food Syndrome would hit the traveler. He loves the Thai cuisine – one of the finest by any standard – but after awhile the taste buds rebel against the chilies and the unusual mix of spices. How many green mangos spiced up with sugar and hot chilies can he eat? It isn’t a total rejection, but a natural need for a break, for something less alien – or at least from another alien cuisine; a temporary goodbye for the sake of a happy and hot reunion.Bangkok features many restaurants specializing on cuisines from around the world. However, those often serve sterilized, fusion versions that are hard to recognize and provide little joy. Ethnic neighborhoods provide an opportunity to enjoy their specific cuisine the way demanding expats like it. Next to the mosque is an extraordinary street market serving Muslim food, with anything from meaty kebab to vegetarian falafel.ChristianityThere are many churches in Bangkok; some are even quite close to the trajectory of this walk. However, one of the most exceptional sights related to the Christian minority in the metropolis is of a different nature.For the traveler understanding that means having some knowledge of Buddhism, the main religion in the area. During my first months in the country, I had noticed Buddhist temples of a peculiar shape (they had a characteristic tower I later found to be a chimney) that whenever I looked at them were empty. One day, a local friend made an innocent comment about going to a crematorium and then I understood: I had not seen any Buddhist cemetery. Buddhist Thais are cremated.This is not the situation with Thai Christians that have one of the few cemeteries in Bangkok. Occupying much of Soi 9, the cemetery is in bad shape since it is being relocated, due to a new local law forbidding burial within the city. The best known grave in it is the Xavier Crypt.Night MarketThe Patpong alleys have more to offer than the dubious establishments that gave them their fame; they host one of the most extravagant night markets in Bangkok. The market is clearly aimed for tourists, but is worth a visit during the late afternoon or the early evening hours, before the place gets unpleasant. Any imaginable gewgaw is in sale there; from fake Timex and Rolex watches to T-shirts in trendy designs. The market wakes up in the late afternoon and is open until midnightOh no! More Food!On the corner of Silom with Soi 18, there is a night market which is less popular than its flashy neighbor at the Patpong alleys. Nonetheless, this one is more Thai in nature and thus more attractive for a late dinner of traditional Thai dishes. Some of the best dishes – like the ripe mango over sticky rice with coconut cream – are available only during their season.
by SeenThat on March 31, 2008
The original Silk Road was roughly 8000km long and thus unsuitable for a morning walk. Modern Bangkok offers its own version, no less silky, and shorter for certain.Walking is an intrinsic part of shopping; seeking and comparing means moving around. Ergo shop, ergo sum. Most tourists would vote a shopping tour of a city – especially of an exciting one like Bangkok – as one of the most important events in any visit.Shopping for jeans in a Western styled shopping mall in Bangkok under the vigilant and colorful eyes of a spirits’ house, where offerings of Coca Cola – intercalated with Pepsi so that also the corporations would not be offended – are proudly displayed, transforms a banal shopping event into a cultural experience. Afterwards, leaving the air conditioned mall and facing a classical Thai dance, while people make offerings to an elephant statue and carry around burning incense sticks makes the shopping experience less decadent.A shopping spree in Bangkok can be exhilarating and confusing; both feelings would be the result of the malls sizes and variety. Seeing everything would take months; choosing the perfect item could take years. On the other hand, easing the experience is the fact that Bangkok department stores are all arranged in a fashion that arises from Buddhist beliefs: the floor dedicated to children products is below the one for women, which in turn is below the men’s floor. A preliminary study of the main malls and products can be done in one day. A quick tour of the main places – without shopping yet – would allow acclimatizing to the scene. Such a walk would draw a half circle between Thanon Petchaburi and Thanon Ploenchit. The most modern and varied malls are on Ploenchit, while the specialized and traditional ones are on Petchaburi. Unlike other walks, this one should begin late, since most shops open only at ten.Along Petchaburi Road, is Panthip Plaza, the biggest computer's shopping centre in Thailand. The best electronic gadgets in Thailand are concentrated in its six floors; whole products as well as single parts, both new and used, are available at prices similar to Singapore’s low prices, but usually one generation behind those. When arriving there directly from the USA, I could compare the merchandise directly; Panthip was better in variety and prices than any similar place I visited in the USA.A block eastwards along Petchaburi and just north of Central World Plaza, on the junction with Petchaburi Road, is the Fashion Mall and the Pratunam clothes market across the street; before buying clothes anywhere else it is worth visiting them, no other place in Bangkok compares to them in variety and prices.Central World Plaza (former World Trade Center) has 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, a hotel tower 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 500 world class stores and countless restaurants.Supermarkets are rare and scattered in Bangkok along big distances; the Big C is the best of them, in quality and prices, and has a very comfortable branch in front of the Central World Plaza. The display of tropical fruits there is awesome and should not be missed.Across the junction, is the crowded and plain looking Sogo Department Store; just next to the Erawan Shrine 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 sell silk and silk-clothes 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 traditional stall place serving traditional Thai filtered coffee. In front of Amarin is Gaysorn a relatively small shopping mall packed with stylish, exclusive shops.A few blocks east along Ploenchit is the Central Department Store, which includes the best Thai-food plaza in Bangkok at its basement. A good book store occupies the top floor together with a mini-branch of Starbucks, the perfect combination for a tired traveler. Another Starbucks faces the street by the entrance and is pleasantly styled as a street facing bar. Before buying there something of value, it is recommended to check prices with the nearby Isetan and Zen.Moving back westwards, just before arriving at Siam Square is the sparklingly new Siam Paragon, the most up-market shopping center in town, and maybe in South East Asia, with 250 stores and endless luxury items. Its food plaza includes everything from Portuguese spicy chicken to Mongolian barbeque.At the corner of Siam Square Skytrain station, is the Siam Discovery Center, which is connected with an elevated bridge to the Siam Center and hosts the most luxurious cinema in Bangkok. Across the Siam Square junction is Mahboonkrong, popularly nicknamed MBK, which is considered among knowing Thais as the best shopping mall for cellular phones, despite being less stylish and having less expensive merchandise than the other malls mentioned here.
In certain aspect, Bangkok is unique; twelve million tourists pass through it every year creating thus one of these characteristics. Certain areas of Bangkok are densely populated by tourists and expats and ethnic minorities; it provides an exciting "vacation within a vacation" opportunity.Bordering the Chao Praya River and reaching the Hua Lamphong Train Station – Bangkok’s Chinatown is easily accessible and provides entertainment for a few hours. The Hua Lamphong Metro Station reaches the northeastern corner of the Samphanthawong District – the formal name of the area.Crossing it from west to east – since the quarter follows the Chao Praya riverside, this line is somewhat askew – the Yaowarat Road is the heart of the neighbourhood. Most shops and markets are enclosed between this street and Charoen Krung Road. Being roughly a mile long, it provides a good opportunity for a pleasant walk through one of the most picturesque neighbourhoods in town. Historically, this was the centre of the local Chinese community since Bangkok’s earliest days, though Yaowarat Road dates back only to the end of the nineteenth century, before that Sampheng Road was the district’s centre.At first glance, it is difficult to difference this area from other neighborhoods in the city, however, the Chinese letters announcing gold shops, gewgaws hole-in-the-wall shops, rice dishes, noodles soup, dim sum, bird's nest soup, and Chinese traditional medicine tell the secret even to the most distracted traveller. The best place to start such a walk is from the Hua Lamphong Station, near it is Wat Trimit, a temple were a three meters height Buddha made of 18 karats gold and weighing five and half tones can be appreciated. As a protection from the Burmese invader, the statue was covered with plaster; its golden interior was discovered only in 1954. Sitting in the Mara position, it is typical of the Sukhothai Kingdom and thus it is dated to be around 800 years old. It is open daily between 8am and 5pm.Half a long block southwest from the temple is the Chinese Gate, announcing the entrance to the Yaowarat Road and to Chinatown heart; it is placed on the Odeon Circle. Expectedly, the area features Chinese temples as well, entering Yaowarat Road from the gate, the Thien Fah Foundation, is the first to appear at the left side of the road; it is also the first Chinese foundation chronicled in Thailand. It was established to provide the poor with health care; a Guan Yin shrine can be appreciated in its interior. Guan Yin is the Buddhists’ Compassion Bodhisattva, depicted usually as a woman. The Ah Nia Geng Shrine shares a similar nature and is located roughly midway along the street. Near it is the Guan Yu Shrine, a temple honouring a general of that name under the warlord Liu Bei during the late Eastern Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms. He played a significant role in the civil war that led to the Han Dynasty collapse and the establishment of the Kingdom of Shu. Slightly north of there is the Leng Buai Ia Temple, which is the oldest shrine in the area. For being the Chinese centre in Bangkok, the neighborhood is quite eclectic, featuring even one of the oldest Catholic churches in the city. The Holy Rosary Church - Wat Mae Phra Luk Prakham or Wat Kalawar – is near the Chao Praya River at the very southern tip of the neighbourhood. It was built in 1787 – just after Bangkok’s foundation – though the actual building dates back to 1890. Near it is River City; an arts and antiques shopping centre which is not directly related to Chinatown.The area is known for the several small and specialized markets it hosts. Saphan Lek is the bridge crossing Khlong Ong Ang canal on Charoen Krung Road, features many small shops selling goods, especially game consoles. Nearby is Woeng Nakhon Kasem, Bangkok’s Thieves Market. The Khlong Thom Market (in Pom Prap Sattru Phai district, bordering Chinatown to the north) is a famous market for low cost electronics. During Saturdays nights, the stalls operated until dawn.Across Khlong Ong Ang canal – Chinatown western border - is Phahurat or the Indian Market, also known as Little India; it surrounds Phahurat Road in the Phra Nakhon (Holy City) District. The area was founded by the Vietnamese immigrants who arrived during the reign of King Taksin.Sadly, in 1898, a fire destroyed the area. Following it, Phahurat Road was created (honouring a dead daughter of the then king ruling) and Indian immigrants populated the area. Hindu Indians concentrate around Soi 12 (Soi are the small streets spanning off a Thai central avenue), but Sikhs, Muslims and Tamils can be also spotted. Beyond the fabulous smells of Indian spices and dishes, the area is renowned for its tailors, who can prepare suits quickly, inexpensively and of decent quality.
©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009