The Thai people refer to their capital as the “City of Angels” but for visitors it can be anything but angelic. It’s a mega-city. At mid-day it can be unbearably hot, particularity if you’re coming from a cooler climate. The script they use is nothing like our alphabet and the English spelling of streets can change as you walk along. Hardly anyone speaks English. Taxis might stop when you flag them down but are just as likely to take off again when you tell the drivers where you want to go.
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That’s Bangkok. The secret to surviving the city—to actually enjoy it—is not to be a I-have-to-see-everything-because-I-will-never-be-here-again tourist. I just returned and the second time around I left with a smile. Here’s how I did it.
Tip #1: Make the arrival easy
Getting from the international airport to your hotel is not difficult if you know what to expect. Bring a city map with the streets and monuments marked in Thai script and English. Know the exchange rate and get some Thai money from the ATM before proceeding to the taxi stand on the lower level. You will be asked what district your hotel is in (for example, the historic district is Rattanakosin) before a taxi is assigned to you.
You pay the driver the meter charge plus a 50 baht airport surcharge. As you drive along you will also be expected to hand over the money for tolls (probably two). For me it all added up to less than $12.
#2: Find your bearings
It is easy to feel lost all the time you’re in Bangkok and finding someone to look at your map and help you out is just about impossible. I stayed in historic Rattanakosin so could walk to most sites with the occasional tuk-tuk ride thrown in. My B&B, however, was tucked down a side lane and just about impossible for the taxi driver to find. So the first thing I did after settling in was to walk around my neighbourhood looking for landmarks.
My hotel happened to be near the Democracy Monument, a tall, unusual statute that can be seen from afar and easy to point out on a map. From there I could make my way around and back to my place.
It is almost impossible to cross a street without the help of a local. About the only time someone spoke to me in English was when a woman noticed I was trailing her to make it through the traffic and she suddenly yelled “RUN” and grabbed my wrist and off we both went.
Tip #3: Don’t overdo the temples
There are several notable monasteries and temples in Bangkok and if you attempt to see too many the memories can fade into an unpleasant blur. Make the effort to see these three and enjoy them. They are all in the same area. Dress appropriately or you will have to rent clothing to cover your shoulders or knees.
The Emerald Buddha Temple (Wat Phra Kaew): If you can only see one temple then this should be it for it is spectacular. It’s on the grounds of the Royal Palace so is easy to find. This Buddha is carved from a single piece of rare green jade and is the most revered Buddha image in all of Thailand. The whole place just glitters. This is a good place to begin the day, particularly if you can get there before the tour buses.
Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Po): This is Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple and was the first place that public education was offered. It is near the Royal Palace.
Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun): You have to cross the Chao Phraya River to get here after visiting Wat Po but that is easy enough to do (and fun). This 82m high pagoda is one of the city’s best-known landmarks and always appears in tourist brochures.
Tip #4: Sprinkle in a few other attractions
I made a list of a few other must-sees and after I had ticked-them-off I simply wandered. Lists will vary but here was mine: National Museum, flower and food market by the Chaophraya River, Chatuchak weekend market, Jim Thompson’s house and garden, and the October 14 memorial to pro-democracy protestors (across from the Democracy Memorial).
Out of curiosity I walked up to Khaosan Road, broadly promoted as THE backpacker haven but unless you’re part of the crowd that’s just moving from one party destination to another, I would skip it.
Tip #5: Enjoy being there
Perhaps the most enjoyable way to experience Thai life is to ride along the Chao Phraya River. You can get to many attractions by taking the tourist boat (with a blue flag) that stops at 9 piers. The night cruise is particularly popular.
A ride down the canal is also interesting but a bit more challenging as you have only moments to climb over the side of the boat before it takes off. Most everyone who takes it is a local although it is a handy way to get to Jim Thompson’s house and garden.
When I was just finding my way about the first day, I came upon the Golden Mount, an artificial hill with a golden pagoda on top. It was very early when I went and I almost had it to myself. I wandered in the wrong way, up the landscaped slope, listening to the bells and the chants. A Buddhist nun dressed in white passed me and the few other visitors lit incense and gave merit.
It was my introduction to Southeast Asia and a serene one at that.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012