Bangkok – A city of contrasts!
An intense mix of the old and new, a treat to all your senses and buzzing with chaotic energy, Bangkok or Krung Thep, “City of Angels” or “Venice of the East”, never fails to thrill. Food, nightlife, local markets, modern shopping malls all vie for your interest amidst rich history and culture – palaces and Buddhist temples, which may be very bewildering. But in Bangkok, it works!
We landed on a bright and sunny December morning at Suvarnabhumi Airport. After the tedious long lines of getting Visa on arrival, we ventured out in a cab, only getting stuck in midday traffic snarls. It was surprising to see very orderly traffic! After a couple of hours, we reached our Marriott in the bustling, happening area of Sukhumvit, which is just a few blocks from the Phrom Phong BTS station. We planned to stay here, just so we could take the Bangkok Mass Transit System train (BTS) everywhere, which we did, and it was great to avoid the traffic and go with the pulse of the city.
After a very late lunch of great vegetarian Pad thai in the Emquartier mall, we proceeded to stroll through and take in the sights and the designer stores. The Emquartier helix area is brilliantly designed with an indoor green area and several water bodies and a great sweeping view of the city from the rooftop.
Our Michelin Star Gaggan Experience
After strolling around Sukhumvit, we were ready for the most awaited part of our trip. We had managed to get reservations at Gaggan, the progressive, avant garde Indian restaurant, which has consistently ranked in the world’s best restaurants. It was all that we had expected it to be and more! The experience can only be justified as a post in itself. More about that soon.
After a great meal and being stuffed to the gills, we decided against a taxi and walked to the BTS station and took a train back to Sukhumvit. I was really impressed with how crowded and alive the station and train was, even close to midnight. Not to mention, the cops who were stationed on each platform!
The next surprise was when we got off at our stop (Phrom Phong), the area was beyond recognition. The Soi (Thai for a small street),got transformed into nightlife that Bangkok is famous for – bars, massage salons and such. During the day, it just seemed to be small food carts and seemingly innocent storefronts! That being said, it was impressive that the sidewalks were still clean and walkable.
Bangkok – Old city of palaces and temples
Next morning dawned bright and clear. After a quick breakfast in our hotel, we took the BTS to Saphan Taksin and then the ferry on the Chao Praya River to get to the old part of the city to see all the palaces and temples.
The first stop was the grand palace and the temple of the Emerald Buddha. The compound has more than 100 buildings, all beautifully decorated with gold and diamonds. The crowds were immense, mainly mourners for the King. The very beloved, honorable King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away earlier in the year and the Grand palace and areas were full of mourners. The discipline of the crowds and the cleanliness of the area around the palace was amazing. Needless to say, the people left nothing but their respects behind for their King. The security checks were also pretty heavy. But inspite of this, we were able to go around and spend a few hours there. The most notable of the entire Grand Palace is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which actually is a chapel with living quarters for the monks.
Wat Po – Best massage in the world!
We proceeded to go to Wat Po from the Grand Palace. Our agenda for that afternoon was not just the monument but also to somehow get a massage at the famed Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School. We had heard that the crowds at the branch situated inside the Wat Po complex can be crazy so we had a different plan in mind – to just go to the main building itself which was in one of the narrow streets around Wat Po. Armed with just this piece of information, we walked around. The building was so easy to find and we got a slot right away. An hour of the traditional Thai massage for the equivalent of 20 USD and the BEST massage that I had ever had so far. Period.
Completely relaxed and rejuvnated, we strolled around Wat Po. The main sight is the beautiful gigantic reclining Buddha covered in gold leaf and ornaments at his feet. It is an imposing 46 m long and 15 m high! Wat Pho has four chapels with innumerable golden Buddhas from all over Thailand. Even though the main sight is of course to see the reclining Buddha, but all around the compound are Chinese statutes, and the 91 stupas beautifully decorated in sparkling tiles and ceramic work.
After a quick lunch, we strolled around the area some more and sampled the concoction called “Thai coffee with tea”, and is just what the name suggests.
Bangkok’s famous Tuk-tuk tour
We then took the ferry to make a stop at Wat Arun, which was closed for the day. Disappointed, we took the ferry back to the mainland for the very last tour of the trip, a tuk-tuk tour. The tuk-tuks is just a more open variation on the Indian auto rickshaw. We had booked a night tuk-tuk tour and the evening promised lots of local sights, food and fun. We started promptly at 7:00 PM and the first stop was one of the night markets. The highlights of the trip include sampling some local fare like pandan toast, fish balls (for the carnivores) and the local red bull.
We had dinner in Thip-simai restaurant, considered as the best Pad Thai in Bangkok. It was great watching them prepare it over roaring fires in giant woks. Their speciality is the egg wrapped Pad Thai where a screaming hot wok is thinly layered with beaten egg and cooked like a thin crepe. Once the egg cooks, a plate of freshly cooked Pad Thai is dumped into the middle of the egg, wrapped up on all sides, and placed back onto the plate. And they made a vegetarian version! The other special item on the menu is the orange juice, the freshest I have ever had. It was a treat watching the Pad Thai being made and eating dinner with the tuk tuk tour group.
Wat Po at night
After dinner, we toured Wat Po by night. It was a completely different world at night, the stupas lit only by moonlight. The tour ended with the flower market, which never sleeps. We got to see a lot of local flowers and produce. After sampling some local fruits (durian, mangosteen, longan), we bid goodbye to our guides and went back to our hotel. The trip was over and we would be flying back in a few hours.
Spicy, sweet, screaming hot and a treat for all the senses …..and I am not talking about the food. There is so much to do and see in this amazing city. We barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer!
Quick tips for travelers:
- Dress modestly around all the palaces and temples. No shorts, tights or sleeveless tops. There are stores selling clothes all around these landmarks if you ever need.
- Beware of people promising to take you to the Wat Po or Grand Palace or telling you its closed for the day. We had a guy telling us that the Wat Po was in the other direction and he would take us there. But we kept walking on and were on right track! They often take you to a shop or other establishment where they will get a commission. Its more prevalent in Old Bangkok.
- The BTS is safe, reliable and is well connected. Buy a rabbit card and reload as necessary.
- The immigration line for the visa on entry has two categories – a regular one and an expedited one. This is not so clear when you are in line. You can pay extra and have your visa done faster though mind you, the receipt still shows the regular rate (leading you to question the procedure) but saving you all the time if you cant wait to begin your trip!