Once known as the Venice of the East because of its dependence on canals for transport, Bangkok today is a bustling metropolis with some of Asia’s top hotels and attractions. Though the city’s main sights are its temples and palaces, what stayed most with me during our visits were the people and the pace of life. I encourage you to spend a few days in Bangkok but plan your time and visits wisely. It can be unbearably hot during the summer and the traffic jams can easily inflict road rage on even the most laid back traveler.
Some of my favorite sites included the Wat Phra Kaew or Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This is one of Asia’s most spectacular temple complexes and it certainly worth a visit. In the cloisters you will see the Ramakian epic (a Thai version of the Indian Ramayana) and at the upper terrace there is the golden Phra Si Ratana Chedi, a mosaic-studded scripture library, and the Royal Pantheon, where brightly colored statues of monkeys and demons support two gilt stupas. Next comes the most important aspect of the complex for many Thais: the tiny jade Buddha image that resides in the Emerald Buddha Temple itself. Be sure to wear the appropriate attire (no shorts or open shoulders) at all Thai temples and be deferential to the worshippers at these sites.
In the same complex, we walked through the fusion of Western and Eastern architecture styles of the Grand Palace which is the former home of the Thai royal family and is still used for royal ceremonies. The most striking building is the Dusit Hall which is capped by a four-tiered roof. Along the west side of the Grand Palace is Wat Pho, Bangkok’s biggest and oldest temple. The main attraction here is the 151 foot long reclining Buddha image, the feet of which are inlaid with mother-of-pearl designs The whole complex has lots more to see including almost 100 stupas and statues.
This is one of Bangkok’s longest running transvestite shows and is performed in a 200-seat theater. As a red blooded heterosexual male, I can honestly admit that even I had a hard time believing that these people used to be men. Its one of those things that you really have to see to believe. Sources tell me that these performers have had the necessary operations to remove all vestiges of their former lives. I think I’ll take their word for it! Man or woman? You be the judge!
Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and the Grand Palace
The Grand Palace is the center of religious life for the Thai people. Its 945,000 square meters of grounds hold more than 100 buildings that represent over 200 years of royal history and architectural experimentation. These are the preeminent sights in Bangkok. Women have to wear a long skirt and cover their shoulders and men have to wear pants and a button-down shirt. In front of the entrance to the Grand Palace stands the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Inside the main chapel building is the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred Buddha image in Thailand. It was discovered in 1434 when lightning shattered a chedi (tower) in the northern city of Chiang Rai. An abbot found a stucco Buddha inside. He took the stucco off to reveal the Emerald Buddha. These pictures depict some of the buildings in the temple compound and the halls of the Grand Palace. Notice that several of the buildings have a European flavor to them. This was because the king at the time admired the palaces of the European monarchy. In addition, the courtyards are littered with Chinese statues, many of which were gifts from the Chinese emperors.
Chao Phraya River
At times we explored the city by longtail boat. As you can seen in these pictures, the water is quite filthy (almost on par with the River Ganges in India). However, many people bathe in the river and live on its shores. We even managed to feed catfish that live in the river (we resisted the temptation to catch any of them for dinner). Bangkok’s canals offer exceptional sightseeing opportunities and a quieter, quicker alternative to any road-based transport. Some of the smaller canals wind through dense foliage flanked with stilted houses and small temples. We rode the longtail boats of Bangkok and even passed some mobile food stalls.
Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn)
The name of this wat (temple) is derived from Aruna, the Hindu god of dawn. It was built during the Ayutthayan period, and its Khmer architecture (see my pictures from Cambodia) reflects the influence of the neighboring Angkor kingdom. Wat Arun’s distinctive 79m prang (center tower), was built in the Khmer style and is inlaid with ceramic tiles and porcelain. Our guide informed us that the temple’s phallic shape was not accidental. In the Hindu religion, the phallus (or lingham) is representative of the god Shiva and is a very sacred symbol. We seemed to encounter these phalluses wherever we went in Southeast Asia.
One way to get around town is by tuk-tuk. These three-wheeled motorized vehicles scour the city and generally try to rip you off. You should be able to get prices at least 30% cheaper than taxi fares. Be sure not to get scammed!
Wat Traimit or the Temple of the Golden Buddha
This temple is located in Chinatown and is home to the Giant Golden Buddha, a three meter, five ton, pure gold Sukhothai-style statue. When the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya, the people of the capital saved the statue by covering it with stucco. Its true identity remained a secret until 1955, when the statue slipped from a moving crane as it was being transported to Wat Traimit. Cracks developed in the plaster, the stucco was removed, and the Golden Buddha was rediscovered.