Exploring Bangkok on Our Own

Although we relied on guides to provide us with historical perspective and explain the nuances of important sights in Bangkok on this trip, we these were supplements to, rather than replacements of our preferred method of learning cities–exploring them on our own. So while we took more Bangkok tours that normal, we still struck out on our own. First a mea culpa. I got a little behind on blogging and tagging the pictures. My sister is so good at picture tagging and does it nightly but I procrastinated. So, while you might enjoy the pictures, I don’t have them under each highlight. Still, among the highlights were:

Boat tour of Bangkok klongs (channels) of the Chao Phraya River. We got on a long-tail boat for a one-hour ride starting at Saphan Taksin (the Flower Market) and ending at the National Museum. After passing through some locks, we saw houses of all descriptions (from ramshackle to mansions), and temples ranging from family places of worship to grand, gilded monuments. We also saw small fish farms and floating gardens and boat-accessible shops and restaurants catering to residents. Most of all, we saw other long-tail boats carrying tourists through the canals. But unless you take a pre-arranged private tour, be prepared to look and click your camera quickly and to do your own narration. The driver, after all, has one mission: to get you through the route as fast as possible and to get his next fare. The only time he slows down is at the locks when he has to wait for the water levels to rise or fall.

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National Museum, we intended to focus primarily on the Buddhaisawan Temple (which was built specifically to highlight the beautiful enthroned Buddha and incredible murals), the Red House (a reconstructed royal residence) and the Thai history gallery. The temple absolutely lived up to its billing and we were amazed to see the scale and the grandeur of the Royal Funeral Chariots. Although the Red House (built in the late 18th century is interesting, we have seen what we consider to be more interesting buildings from this period in a number of other countries. The largest section of the museum, that focusing on artifacts from the Prince’s residence, including the late Princess’s lovely palanquin and some of the royal gold, silver and porcelain (the latter being primarily from China) were also interesting, although we would have preferred much beater explanations. While the pre-13th century section certainly had some lovely pieces, we were very disappointed to learn that the post-13th century segment–and especially the Thai history gallery–were closed for renovations.

Wat Suthat and its Giant Swing, of which we just caught a glimpse on a taxi ride by, is an 89-foot tall pair of teak columns that used to be used in religious ceremonies. Long since deemed to be too dangerous, it is no longer used. The temple itself is far more impressive than the swing. Everything about it is beautiful, from the architecture and sweeping roofs of the two main buildings; to the massive Buddha (which even the King honored by accompanying it barefoot in a procession to the temple he and his predecessors–Rama I,II and III–built for it; the carvings on the huge portals and the 26,000 square feet of beautifully-restored frescos.

Wat Traimitr, which has a 11.5- foot, 5.5-ton gold Buddha whose existence was unknown until a crane lifting a clay Buddha that covered the gold was unable to support the weight It cracked the the gold Buddha underneath was discovered. Although the temple is not among the most impressive, the sparkling gold sculpture, and the very idea of it being solid gold, was well worth the visit.

Chiroen Krung. A walk from the city’s financial district and the upscale boutique shopping along lower Chiroen Krung, to the very different portion of the street in Chinatown. Only a kilometer or two away, the character changes totally to hundreds of the type of small machine shops that occupy the front and downstairs of homes. Exactly the type of machine shops that were so common 15 years ago in Beijing, and are almost extinct (at least in the areas we walked) today.

Jim Thompson House, the estate of a Princeton-educated architect who fell I love with Thailand during World War II,when he served with the OSS. He moved to the country and single-handedly turned Thai silk into a highly sought, high-priced global brand. This estate, which Thompson designed, consists of a lovely set of teak buildings build around a jungles-like garden. The rambling, Western-style home is filled with antique Oriental furniture, sculptures, paintings and ceramics. You also have the luxury of taking your shoes off and walking on the house’s silk-smooth teak floors. And if you want to splurge, you an also buy some of the soft, oriental-design shirts and scarves that the company he founded still produces.

Political Demonstration. Sunday was a day of big political demonstrations in Bangkok in favor of a former prime minister who had been deposed and forced into exile. After a number of years, his supporters have not given up in their efforts to foster his return. Although one of our guides warned us to stay away from the demonstration (fearing violence) we had to see Thai democracy in action. We walked through the very center of demonstration both on our way to and back from Khao San Road. Violence? Just the opposite—at least on that day, although violence erupted on subsequent days. On Sunday, people were decked out in the country’s red, white and blue colors and were as mellow as those leaving the massage parlor. Men, women and children stood and sat in orderly groups, cheering the political speeches and enjoying the music between speeches. They maintained orderly zones through which people coul walk and limited their "protests" to cheers and "claps" from castanet–like plastic hands that many were carrying. Democracy (or an attempt to regain the democracy that many protesters believe have been taken from them) in action.

The demonstrations took on a somewhat different tone over the next couple days as opponents of the current Thaksin ruling party and prime minister (primarily business people and the urban middle class) pressed for a no-confidence vote and small groups began occupying (again, totally peacefully and with no police or government opposition) some government ministries. Although we have no idea how where this round of demonstrations will go,the only real current disruption appears to be to traffic. We learned that several days later, the crowd took over some building and were a little more vocal, with some people hurt. the story will unfold over time.

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Thongler neighborhood, which is the hippest, not to speak of the richest neighborhood in the city. This former bridal gown center is now filled with million-dollar mansions (few of which can be seen from the road) and some of the city’s edgiest galleries and hottest clubs and restaurants. After researching a few we decided on Supanniga a seafood-centric Thai restaurant founded by chefs who trained under Nahm’ David Thompson. We had three dishes. Minced pork with garlic, peanuts and chili on a slice of tangerine were tiny, but provided a nice combination of sweet, salt, spice and citrus. Crab meat and roe in a spicy red curry with ha pho leaves was good, but the chili sauce lacked depth and richness. Joyce was less than satisfied with a pad Thai with crabmeat and roe. The roe was overcooked (dry, almost saw-dust) and the dish was heavy on sprouts and green onions, light on noodles and the "unique sauce" lacked depth and distinction. Overall, pretty good, but not a repeat.

The Summer Palace (Bang Pa In), which has been used by the kings since the 17th century, when nearby Ayutthaya had been the nation’s capital. Although little used in the early days of the Bangkok-era, it has been restored and is now used for state receptions. The palace is divided into two sections: the Outer Palace, which is used for ceremonial purposes and the Inner Palace that is reserved for the King and his family. All are surrounded by a custom-shaped lake and lovely gardens. The vast majority of buildings are of colonial style. Among the most interesting are where King Chulalogkorn’s brothers and their entourages stayed and the gothic-spired Niwet Thammaprawat Temple. The most impressive buildings were the glass pavilion, the Garden of the Secured Land (a royal residence that was accidentally burned and rebuilt in 1991) and especially (and the only building we were able to enter), a Chinese palace that the Chinese designed, built and furnished as a gift to the king.

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Ayutthaya was a huge (which included three royal palaces, 375 temples and 29 forts),prosperous cultural and trading center and the capital of Siam (the previous name of Thailand) from 1350 through 1767, a period during which it was ruled by 33 kings. By then, divisions among the royal family had become so great that one faction opened the gates to the Burmese, who defeated Siam for the second time (the first being in 1560). This time, the Burmese showed no mercy. After vandalizing the city and expropriating all valuables, they destroyed all palaces and temples and in a final act of vengeance, decapitated Buddha statutes, which, to a Buddhist, robbed them of their souls. While our previous tour (about 12 years ago), explained the history and visited a number of different sites, this tour barely mentioned the history. (The above explanation came from the Internet). This time, our guide focused primarily on the unstable ground’s susceptibility to earthquakes, how many of the remaining towers looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa and on humorous stories that had little to do with the ruins.

Wat Na Phra Mane, or The Royal Temple, was originally built in the 15th century as the state temple of the king. It houses the "Principle Buddha" (so called due to its posture and its royal attire) and also a 1,000-year-old green stone Buddha. While the Principle Buddha was indeed elegant, before we left we were prompted to put a monk through what must be a great indignity: we were told to kneel in front of the monk, close our eyes and make a wish,while the monk sprinkled us with a little holy water. What has to be done to keep tourists happy! Then came one more stop.

Wat Lokayasstharam’s Reclining Buddha. While the original carved stone Buddha was from the Ayutthaya era, it was been totally restored–including substituting a new head–in 1954. But while we stopped there, everything we learned was from a sign. Our guide was too busy explaining which of the many souvenir stops were best and how she could get us better prices than if we negotiated on our own. (Gee, I wonder why she was so interested in becoming involved in sales?)

Samut Prakan. Tom had read great things about the Musang Boran Ancient Siam museum, a 200-acre museum, designed in the shape of the country, that provides reconstructed models of Thai villages, temples and homes from different sections of the country. Since the tour is self-guiding (or specialized guides are available in different languages), we decided to do it on our own. Rather than navigate our way to the train station, finding a cab to take us to Musang Boran and then reversing the process to return, we got a few quotes for and then negotiated a price for a cab to take us to the museum. Wait for us and then bring us back to our hotel.

When we arrived, we bought a very good high-level guidebook that provides a map and three or four paragraph overviews of each sight) for about $3 (a comprehensive book is available for about $10). Armed with our paper guide, we hopped on our bikes (free with the basic $17 admission) and left on a journey through the history and mythology of Ancient Siam. Although one could easily spend days to visit and learn the history of each of the sights, we only had about three hours. This gave us enough time to ride past and read the descriptive signs for all the sights and to visit several of the most impressive and most interesting. These included Bangkok’s Grand Palace, Ayutthaya’s Sanphet Prasat Palace, Prasat Phra Wiham, a floating market and the Pavilion of the Enlightenment. We also really enjoyed the recreations of towns and rural villages.

Our overall impression was "Wow"! Incredible reproductions that were presented in a fun, yet very educational way. Incredible detail in buildings, carvings, paintings and maintaining some of the most complex buildings and a well-honed system for helping people gain value regardless of how much time they had to spend. Our second impression was that the park is a cultural treasure in and of itself. An incredible, convenient and easy way for anyone in Bangkok to learn about the cultural heritage of the entire country. We were not at all surprised to see more than a dozen school and scout groups at the cultural park and to see that many of the children appeared to be engaged. No wonder it is referred to as "The Resource Center of Thai Culture”. We would love to see this type of site in the U.S.

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Samut Prakan also has two other sights in the area that we considered visiting. The Erawan Miseum explores four of the world’s major religions. The other site, in which we had less interest is the Crocodile Farm. It allows visitors to visit the largest crocodile in captivity, buy and feed chicken carcasses to crocodiles and watch men wrestle the reptiles. However, we ended up passing on both.

Thai Boxing. This is one of citizens’, not to speak of tourists’, most engaging forms of entertainment. Patrons are almost as engaged in the action,via cheering and betting, as are the contestants. Although we certainly found "eight- fisted boxing (counting hands and feet of both fighters) to be interesting and exciting, it was not something we felt we had to repeat–especially given the early hours we had to rise each day.

Overall, Bangkok is a beautiful (especially the incredible temples), dynamic city with some of the most interesting cuisine in IndoChina. Our greatest caveat comes from the traffic. It was awful last time we were there, with all its Tuk-Tuks and motorbikes. Now, however, there are even more vehicles, and and many more cars (which result in even worse traffic jams). The good news is that taxi meter rates Re incredibly cheap. The bad news is that cabs often refuse to use their meters in favor of steep negotiated rates.

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