Bangkok, Thailand. [May 2014]
Any traveler who returns home safe can count his blessings for dodging figurative and literal bullets in some politically unstable destinations. Three days after we flew out of Suvarnabhumi the Thai army staged a coup d’état that, while not nearly as violent as seen in the past, made travel logistics rather difficult. We were fortunate to have avoided the chaos.
Bangkok has many facets and the one we explore is less Hangover and more Rick Steves. The city of temples is full of places to explore Buddhist spirituality, with smiling faces and fragrant eats welcoming you on every street.
One of our favorites is Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn – accessible via a cheap water shuttle across the Chao Phraya river. Tourists are allowed to climb up some steep stairs and catch a view of the Grand Palace and Wat Pho across the water. After taking the water taxi back, check out the riverfront restaurants (like The Deck at Arun Residence) around sunset time for awe-inspiring views of the temple.
At the Bangkok National Museum, we find a welcoming moment of solitude in the busy city inside the Buddhaisawan Chapel, housing beautiful murals depicting the Buddha’s life and the image of the Phra Sihing Buddha.
The Grand Palace complex is a visual feast of golden splendor, from the massive Reclining Buddha to the daunting Golden Stupa to the Emerald Buddha, the national palladium of Thailand. Why hasn’t Goldmember taken this place over yet?
Having had enough of Bangkok’s notorious traffic, we drive 90 minutes out of the metropolis and dive into boat traffic at Damnoen Saduak, the largest floating market in the area. Yes, it is designed for tourists, but that does not take away the charming feeling of ordering a coconut shaved ice with rice pudding and chicken skewers while floating around from stall to stall shopping for souvenirs. Just be sure you don’t pay anything over 10% of the original asking price – and show some resolve in walking (or paddling) away as a negotiation tactic.
But tranquility turned out to be not as far from our hotel as we thought – we find ourselves immersed in a masterpiece of design and hub of zen at Jim Thompson house. The multi-lingual guided walking tour shows guests around the businessman’s old home and his vast collection of Thai art, the restaurant is tastefully decorated and serves up delicious local delicacies (albeit expensive by Bangkok standards), and demonstrations of silk extraction are set up around the grounds, the products of which can be purchased at the Jim Thompson boutique a few feet away.
Back at the Novotel after exhausting expeditions all day, we take a moment to reflect on what makes Bangkok and Thailand so magnetic to travelers. Above the sights, the history, the eats, and the visual overload, it is the friendliness of the Thai people that make the visitor feel like home in a foreign and exotic place. The next time you are stuck in an epic Bangkok traffic jam or burned your tongue on a flaming hot bowl of Tom Yum Koong, just do what the Thai people do: Smile.
“Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey.” – Fitzhugh Mullan