Bangkok seemed to me a fantastic mix of modernity and mysticism; Western rush and Eastern romanticism. Bangkok was my initiation into the contradictions of modern Asia: extreme luxury juxtaposed with ramshackle poverty; booming illicit trade alongside religious sensibilities; advanced technology coupled with ancient traditions. Let’s begin the Grand Bangkok Sightseeing Tour.
Indeed, the legendary city of sin left massive impressions. Bangkok, to me, is forever associated with grandness. Not the grandness of the bustling metropolis laden with skyscrapers, gargantuan crowds, and the proverbial so much that’s synonymous with Tokyo or Hong Kong–but rather the grandness of overwhelming warmth and friendliness, awe-inspiring aesthetics, larger-than-life attractions, and extreme ironies. It’s the kind of place that’s simultaneously fascinating and challenging–in the way only a new experience smacking with culture shock could be. And in the end, Bangkok’s exotic charms, pockets of tranquility, and traces of the timeless gradually tug on your heart and the city grows on you.
After the veil of night has been lifted, Bangkok awakes not with a yawn and a stretch, but with a bang and a clatter. Mangy dogs, street urchins, people hurrying to their respective jobs, and multinational travelers surge through the streets and narrow back sois. Tuk-tuks and motorbikes clamor for attention, motoring with the reckless speed of video game vehicles. Odors commingle in an unlikely musk of burning meat and stir-fry grease, prayer incense, sweat, and a big whiff of grime. Clinging humidity and car fumes leave grit hanging in the air; in fact, the air pollution is so strong that one wonders about the local life expectancy. Commerce comes alive everywhere you look–produce and flower stands, food carts, lottery-ticket vendors, and clothes, crafts, and accessory stalls collide on roads lined with 711s, KFCs, and tailor shops. Everywhere, a solicitation, an entreaty: “Farang, farang!” “You want?” “You like?”
After getting over the attack on the senses that is Bangkok, one can sink into the comforts of a people so genuinely friendly, it’s almost as shocking as the city’s less palatable attributes. Locals are full of smiles and helpful suggestions, and extremely chatty. Of course, sometimes people cozy up to you because they have ulterior motives–but more often than not, the Thais’ amiable solicitations arise out of national pride, curiosity about foreigners, and humble sincerity. For instance, a tuk-tuk driver insisted, at no extra cost, on taking me to the Temple of the Lucky Buddha–simply because “Lucky Buddha good Buddha.” A local university professor I met outside the Grand Palace spent a good 15 minutes pointing out special attractions and restaurants on my city map. Coupled with a love of fun and a virtually ubiquitous attitude of mai pen rai (essentially, “no worries”), the Thai people were as charming and inviting as could be. As a large sign at the city’s airport poignantly beckons, “Welcome to the Land of Smile”–indeed, a most common characteristic on the face of a Bangkok resident is a radiant, ear-to-ear grin.
Another remarkable manifestation of Thai beauty lies in its temple architecture. The swirled, golden eaves of roofs glinting in the sun; facades encrusted in glittering, colored glass in all the colors of the rainbow; many-headed serpents pouncing out of banister knobs; everywhere, everything is ornate, gilded, mosaic-laden. Every temple is a testament to the careful, complex Thai aesthetic, a realm of vibrant, jeweled bliss–where at every turn lies yet another visual stimulus. Fittingly, Bangkok happens to be home to two of the most impressive temples in Thailand.
Nothing can really prepare you for the splendor of the Grand Palace. You may have visited Versailles, trekked to the Taj Mahal, or ambled around Angkor Wat–but no other site that comes to mind mirrors the Grand Palace’s otherworldly grounds. This large, walled complex spread out over 945,000 square meters, containing governmental offices, galleries, and Buddhist chapels, is the most shockingly vivid sight on Bangkok’s landscape. The Palace itself is not so remarkable–while certainly grand in size, its style is more Western, via the Victorian Era. However, the other 100 buildings represent over 200 years of architectural experimentation–and it shows.
The Palace grounds are a feat of the surreal. The sectional, orange- and green-tiled roofs of the main buildings, in all their psychedelic, geometric glory, resemble the brightly-hued toys of one’s childhood. Golden and gilded chedis rise out of the colorful fray. Visitors wander through mazes of bejeweled buildings, brass Buddhas, massive and multicolored guard statues, gold-plated shrines, mother-of-pearl inlaid doorways, exquisite prayer wheels, mosaic-encrusted stupas, and extensive murals depicting the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana. Peek around a corner and you’re likely to spy miniature ruby and sapphire glass-garnished guardians dancing Tut-style around the base of a magnificent chedi, or stone elephants encircling a holy altar, posed ready to charge whomever dares approach their inner sanctum.
The centerpiece and crowning glory of this dreamscape is Wat Phra Kaew, commonly known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The inner walls of the temple are adorned with magnificent murals depicting the life, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha. Past the crowd, atop a high altar, stand tiers of Buddha statuettes stacked like the layers of a wedding cake–but instead of the plastic bride and groom, at its top looms the famed Emerald Buddha (actually, made of jade), considered the talisman of the Thai kingdom. Sitting in a glass case, high above the heads of worshippers and tourists, the sparkling green Buddha has a palpable aura of mystery.
Bangkok’s second most famous attraction is Wat Pho, the oldest and largest temple in the city. In a complex of worshiping sites not quite as awe-inspiring and grandiose as the Palace–but at the same time more tranquil, and just as fascinating–stand small temples, galleries containing Buddha images, 91 chedis, four wihaans, a library, and shady, manicured groves. The main event here is the spectacularly large reclining Buddha (over 140 feet long and 50 feet high), plated in gold and inlaid with beautiful mother-of-pearl illustrations of the 108 laksanas (characteristics of the Buddha) on the soles of its feet. The colossal Buddha is in fact one of the most common iconic images associated with Bangkok–and in fact, all of Thailand.
Wat Po’s other most renowned feature is its national headquarters for the teaching and preservation of traditional Thai medicine–including Thai massage. A combination of accupressure, massage, and stretching, Thai massage is not your average healing experience, and is well worth the 200 baht (about five U.S. dollars) per hour at Wat Pho. Treating oneself to a traditional Thai massage is a must while visiting the country, so you might as well get one where most licensed practitioners get trained!
All temples and other major sightseeing aside, the place that really clinches the grandness of Bangkok is Chatuchak Weekend Market–the mother of all open-air markets, with 3,000 stalls spanning over a mile. Vendors at Chatuchak hawk everything and anything, from live animals to batik wall hangings, opium pipes, prayer beads, vintage Levis, electronics…and on and on the litany of treasures goes. An attraction in and of itself, you can spend the better part of a day just roaming the market, zigzagging from stall to stall, eyeing items or honing your bargaining skills. (By the end of a couple hours here, you can become a total shark.) Grab an iced drink (sold in plastic bags punctured by a straw–don’t ask me why) and get lost in the maze. And if you’re ready to indulge in emptying your wallet, this is the place. Thai silks by the meter, in all colors imaginable, come at bargain prices. Hill-tribe crafts, clothing, and handbags make nice gifts, as do teak and bamboo sushi sets and other funky housewares. If you’re prepared to do a bit of shipping, gorgeous Buddha statues, Oriental rugs, Thai furniture, and antiques can be yours for fairly good fees–just stick to your bargaining guns.
Whatever your pleasure, take a few days in Bangkok to let its sights, sounds, smells, and essence wash over you. Although it’s a city of over six million residents (and growing), life moves at a fairly mellow pace. While it’s a place of gigantic scope, it’s got a heart as warm as its climate