First time in Bangkok and I had no idea what to expect! Seems like a strange statement to make in this Internet-reliant era, but with the abundance of temples, markets, shopping malls and other attractions in Bangkok, the usual travel sites didn’t really help with whittling down a manageable two-day itinerary; instead I was all the more confused with what to see and where to eat or shop. Case in point: Tripadvisor’s reviewers usually give pretty helpful hints on a destination, especially in the U.S.–I’ve always been able to bank on learning about restaurants most loved by locals, little known places and must-see attractions that ended up being worth my precious tourist time, but this time my search yielded little useful information.
To be fair, Tripadvisor’s list on Bangkok did have many of the attractions that I’d expect a visitor to want to see in Bangkok, but the list is also interspersed with the most nondescript places–like a cross fit club, a cineplex, Kidzania Bangkok, and amazingly, at the top of this so-called attractions list, is an escape room game, instead of the king’s palace or one of the temples. I’m sure the escape room is great, but it’s not unique to Bangkok, and so you can hardly fault me for being dismissive of a list that included so many modern, non-travel related places. Abandoning the travel sites, I went off on my debut weekend in Bangkok without hardly any planning at all–another first during this trip (in a long time, that is.) Or perhaps, my sentiment is indicative of an ignorant view of Bangkok, one of the top visited cities in the world, because…
…maybe tourism in Bangkok has evolved so far beyond the stereotypical expectations of an exotic Southeast Asian destination that traditional Thai heritage and culture isn’t what people look for when they visit there. But if that’s how you approach Bangkok on your first visit, I wouldn’t think twice about calling you facetious, because it’s a shame to let cheap alcohol, Muay Thai fights and ladyboys colour your perceptions of Bangkok, while overlooking the city’s heritage.
For this reason, I chose to stay near the site of the Grand Palace, which was also within walking distance of a few temples, or wat, as they are called. The details are dizzying and at the third temple, it’s easy to start losing track of the names, but those details, — the spires, the use of bright yellow gold paint, the mosaic, the embellished ceilings — bold and vivid, are the things that stay in your mind.
Meditation studies and receiving blessings
I don’t know if it was a special occasion but every temple we went to had people praying while offering incense and flowers to the likeness of Buddha. The first temple I encountered was Wat Mahathat, the most important temple for Buddhist and meditation studies. It was busy, full of (mostly) elderly ladies dressed in white, offering prayers to a large gold statue of Buddha in the main hall. I sat down to take in the scene–while the soft bustle of people walking about and whispering to one another didn’t help me focus on any kind of meditation, I did enjoy the relaxed and unstructured environment that the practitioners seemed to be going about in the hall. This was unique to Wat Mahathat; other temples, while aesthetically much more interesting, only had drop-in visitors who would walk in, sit in kneeling position to bow in respect a few times before moving on shortly after.
Buddha statues I saw are all elevated on a platform — even the one of Buddha laying on his side, head propped up with his hand — so to really get a good view of the sights, you’d definitely be looking upwards a fair bit. Temple spires, pillars and ceilings are also covered in motifs and paintings with stories to tell about Buddha, or the kings of Thailand. Such details tell so much about the culture and history of a place, it might be worth while to get a guide.
Plants around the grounds of any location are so well-kept and pruned to perfection. Thais seem to favour a Japanese influence with their plants, with bonsais, big and small, popping up all over the landscape. The lack of leafy, rainforest trees towering high above buildings results in less of a feeling that one is in a tropical climate, and more the look of a wealthy man’s well-sculpted garden.
Bangkok’s architecture, according to a tour guide at Wat Pho, is influenced by numerous cultures that it came into contact with, which is why I saw so many Chinese-style statues of historical figures, including a rather comical, almost caricature-ish one of Marco Polo. There were many beautiful door designs as well. And cats. Many cats.
Wat Phra Kaew, Temple of the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace
It’s not a single building, but rather a complex of buildings that were built over different periods in time. The embellishments — floral motifs, dancing men in traditional gear and mythical creatures — found on building walls, pillars and around the grounds of the Palace are intricate and colourful, often with a glittering sheen that sparkle when kissed by the sun. Gold turrets, etchings, domes and mosaic featured prominently everywhere. A Westerner or English-speaking person may find any description of the place a bit lacking, but at the end of the day, you’ll be so busy finding delight in the eclectic and beautiful details, that making sense of it all will take a backseat. Entry costs 500 Baht.
Wat Arun, based on the grounds and condition of its exterior, is like a poor cousin of temples like Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew, but I loved this one best. Dull and dirty chipped tiles, mouldy walls and statues around the grounds made of stone rather than gold-plated bronze characterize this temple, yet I liked it best because we were able to climb up to the top for a view of the Chao Phraya River–but be warned! That staircase is not for the weak-kneed, as they are steep, levelling out to a 30 degree angle at the top flight of stairs. Think twice before bringing children up there, if you don’t to be stuck for hours, trying to persuade a five-year-old that it’s not so scary to descend.
In the day, Wat Arun might not look so impressive, but the night view is a totally different story. Lit up by lights, the temple transforms into a magical looking place, an iridescent rose-gold glow bouncing off the walls. Gorgeous and best viewed from the water, on a canal ride.