Giants guarding the entrance to Bangkok's Grand Palace
Bangkok is the introductory city to Asia for many Americans, and the hectic pace and traffic may remind New Yorkers and Angelenos of home.
A city of eleven million, Bangkok can be a slow crawl to get through by taxi. I recommend booking accommodations near the river or the sky train. It will save you the headache of navigating this bustling, congested city where you could easily find yourself stuck in traffic for hours.
My guest house near Sukhumvit Road provided easy access to the Skytrain, which transported me without complication to the Chao Phraya River. Here I picked up an express boat to some of the most impressive attractions of the city.
With its intricate details, galleries, garden and dazzling architecture, The Grand Palace is mesmerizing. This was the residence of the King of Thailand from the 18th century to the mid-20th century. The most revered statue in Thailand is here, the Emerald Buddha, in Wat Phra Kaew. If you visit in the winter it may be wearing a scarf.
The huge Reclining Buddha at nearby Wat Pho is also well worth a visit. I saw many Buddhas on my visit to Thailand, but this one was by far the largest. Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, is another notable site along the river.
Within walking distance of the Grand Palace is the National Museum of Thailand. The exhibits there trace the history of Thailand (and Bangkok) through several hundred years, providing some perspective. This is especially helpful if you are planning to visit the ancient cities of Ayutthaya or Sukhothai.
Be careful of tuk-tuk drivers in this area offering you a ride. They may take you to a gem shop where your purchase of overpriced items will provide the driver a nice commission. Don’t believe them if you are told certain attractions are closed, as this is a common scam.
For the most amazing shopping experience in Thailand, take the Skytrain on the weekend to the Mo Chit stop and check out the deals at the Chatuchak Market, the world’s largest open air market. It’s one huge swap meet, covering 27 acres and 15,000 booths. A visit here could easily take up your whole day (or weekend). Nearly everything can be found here, including some amazing Thai handicrafts. Bargains abound, but it is encouraged and expected that you will practice the art of haggling. Engage in it with good humor. For shy shoppers, a favorite haggling strategy is to look, remain silent and wait patiently as the merchant drops the price before your eyes.
If money is no object, take the Skytain to Siam Square near the Siam Paragon Shopping Center. This is the premier shopping mall in Southeast Asia for luxury goods. Here you can ring up your credit card to your heart’s content.
Another worthwhile visit in Bangkok is the house of the late American expat Jim Thompson. Thompson, a former OSS (forerunner of the CIA) station chief and architect, fell in love with the Thai culture and decided to reside here. He was also an entrepreneur who helped rebuild the Thai silk industry. Thompson shipped in six teak wood Thai houses and decorated them with Thai and Asian art, including paintings, sculptures and porcelains. He considered the collection his way of preserving some of Thailand’s finest treasures. The writer Somerset Maugham remarked, “You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare is you have arranged them with faultless taste.” Thompson’s art collection is considered one of the finest in Thailand, and his home is still considered a work of art.
Khao San Road is a magnet for backpackers from around the world. You can find many useful items here at bargain prices. Sample food from the street food carts and kick back with a Singha beer. This is a great place to relax and people watch.
Be careful of too-good-to-be-true travel offers targeted at unwary tourists. Don’t buy any bus tickets to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and be particularly wary of travel agents selling visa and transit services. These are almost always scams.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej is highly revered in Thailand. The king is the world’s longest reigning monarch and you will grow familiar with his visage as his portrait is everywhere, including Thai currency. It’s considered extremely rude – and, in fact, illegal – to show any disrespect to the king. At the train station everyone stands before the portrait of the king at 6 p.m. to pay homage as the Thai national anthem plays.
It’s advisable to study up on Thai customs to avoid making a faux pas. Don’t show disrespect to the king, pat children on the head or point your feet at anyone or at images of Buddha. Never openly lose your temper or cause locals to “lose face” – at least for minor offenses. Do take your shoes off when entering temples. Despite these cultural expectations, the Thai people are generally quite friendly and their country is known as “the land of smiles.”
Take along a handy supply of bottled water while walking around Bangkok. It is important to stay hydrated while trekking in the Thai heat. There are loads of 7-11’s scattered about (including one right next door to my guest house) where you can stock up on bottled water. Avoid the tap water at all costs – even for brushing your teeth.
Keep in mind that summer is generally rainy season. But after one of their heaviest monsoon seasons in decades, Thailand has been dealing with its most severe floods in half a century. The death toll has reached nearly 400 across the country, and authorities had to scramble to protect Bangkok (although it now appears that floodwaters are receding).
Bangkok is a good base for further travels throughout Southeast Asia, and flights to other points nearby are relatively inexpensive. Consider also visiting Chiang Mai and the beaches to the south if you’re in Thailand for any length of time.