Even though Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand, it is tiny compared to Bangkok. The capital is full of all the noise, dirt, traffic, and quantity of tourists you’d expect from a big city; I’m glad we eased into it by visiting my husband’s family in the north first! That said, this city is well worth a visit.
The first thing that struck me about Bangkok is its airport; there are potted orchids and other tropical plants everywhere. So much beautiful vegetation was a welcome sight after a snowy winter in Kazakhstan. There are also many reasonable transportation options into the city from the airport (taxi, bus, shuttles, etc.), but we opted to reserve a private car pick up through our hotel and save ourselves the headache for once. Most hotels throughout the city are also reasonably priced and of high quality. In addition to its high rating, our hotel had an attentive staff, pool, spa, bar, and restaurant on the grounds and our room had its own balcony and jacuzzi for around ~$50 a night (which is on the more expensive side of things there); it was insane luxury. As far as things to do/see, we quickly learned that the well-known attractions, like national monuments and museums, are closed on Mondays (one of our two days in Bangkok!) and many of the other public spaces are either still closed in mourning for the Thai king who died last year or require one to dress modestly in all black or all white clothing, none of which we had. This did not deter us from taking in as much of the city as we could.
As we do when visiting most places for the first time, my husband and I opted to walk around for a few days and see what’s what. The Chao Phraya River, flowing through the middle of Bangkok, divides the city into eastern and western sides. We planned a tentative route that would have us cross to the western side and walk south to visit some well-known wats and come back over to the eastern side to see some open-air monuments and parks (one big circle essentially).
Water taxis/shuttles zigzag back and forth along the river offering a short respite from the heat as well as a different view of the dense city. The western side is less touristy and more residential; no one tries to sell you things or get you in their taxi. The people here are friendly and wave, say “hello,” or smile as we pass. In addition to the meandering streets one must navigate to get to the various wats, canals feeding the main river disrupt the route and offer some Venice-esque images of Bangkok while traversing the footbridges. Little shops form the foundations of most apartment buildings and telephone poles weighed down in every direction by dense wires somehow manage to stay upright. The occasional stray cat struts on by seeking shelter from the sun and heat. I liked this part of town best.
Of the wats we visited in Bangkok, I found Wat Arun, or the Temple of Dawn, to be the most impressive. The structures in the temple grounds are covered from top to bottom in glazed ceramic tiles and dishes. It is worth getting close and inspecting the details; no nook or cranny is left undecorated.
Crossing back to the eastern side of the river, we passed through the Pak Khlong Talad Flower Market, which was a delight for the senses! Here florists were busy arranging traditional bouquets for offering in the temples. Large marigolds, deep red roses, and verdant palms caught the eye easily and their scents were distinguishable while passing different stalls. Seeking shelter from the sun, we stopped in the nearby Saranrom Park, which used to be part of the old palace gardens and has some lovely old Victorian-style garden buildings. My husband’s cousin, who’s studying in Bangkok, met us and we took a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled motorized vehicle) ride across the city.
We spent the next day with my husband’s uncle from Chiang Mai and cousin and together we visited Bangkok’s Art and Culture Center, Chinatown, and the Jim Thompson House. The story of the house’s architect and owner would make for an intriguing movie—he participated in World War II, returned to Thailand, revived the country’s silk industry, and disappeared in the jungle while on holiday. He was also a collector and had some unique statues from ancient temples as well as an historic collection of vibrant ceramics.
Aside from the intense heat that forced us to find shade regularly and reapply sunscreen several times a day, Bangkok was an exciting city with a mix of the old and modern. It certainly has a lot to offer; we saw only a small fraction of it…which is a good excuse to go back as soon as possible!
Stay tuned for Part 3 which will be dedicated exclusively to food! And if you missed Part 1 describing our time in Chiang Mai, be sure to check it out!