A few days in Bangkok and its nearby provinces are all you need to be completely charmed by Thailand's people, culture and cuisine.Sarah MacDonald recently visited the Southeast Asian capital and discovered a city that immediately touched her heart
How can you miss a country you haven't even left yet? This question popped into my mind while driving through the rural Thailand province of Ratchaburi, a couple of hours west of Bangkok. Prawn farms, coconut trees, rice fields, custard apple orchards and other fields flashed by the windows as we sped along the narrow, winding road. I'd only been in Thailand for a couple of days, yet already a sense of nostalgia was building in my heart. The friendly smiles, the cheeky teenage girl bartering with me in the floating market, the patient drivers who rarely seem to honk regardless of how much traffic there is, the fresh, fragrant and flavourful food...I knew I would miss it all.
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My first explorations of Bangkok took me right into the heart of its history, culture and Buddhist faith. Lek, my tour guide from the Tourism Authority of Thailand who became not just a guide but a dear friend, took me to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew). The Grand Palace was the historic home of the King of Thailand and is still used for official ceremonies. Building began on the Grand Palace in 1782. Many of the buildings, walls and courts were built in a traditional Thai style, with multiple ornamented roof tiers, Buddhist and Hindu icons, and breathtaking details in glittering gold, coloured glass and painted tiles. Some of the newer buildings, built in the early 20th century, were a fusion of East and West, with 19th century European architecture strongly influencing the Thai designs. The tranquil temple, in the middle of the palace grounds, holds a solid nephrite jade Buddha, the colour of emerald. Wandering through the grounds was a visual adventure, and around each corner was another photograph waiting to be taken.
We left the palace grounds and walked about 100m through a street market to a pier along the Chao Phraya River, which runs through the city, where we boarded a boat that took us to the Supatra River House, an award-winning restaurant on the riverbank across from the Grand Palace. We savoured spicy Tom Yum soup with giant prawns, chilli and lemongrass, succulent roasted duck, and stir-fried vegetables, before finishing off the meal with refreshing ice creams made from coconut milk and custard apples. I was in culinary heaven!
After lunch the boat took us back across the river, where we visited Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. One of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok, it features over 1,000 Buddha images, including the main attraction, the giant reclining Buddha. Measuring a staggering 46m long and 15m high, the gleaming golden Buddha is stretched out on its side with its head resting on its hand, propped up on an elbow. Its feet are decorated with mother-of-pearl designs, and behind it are a 108 bronze bowls — representing Buddha's 108 auspicious characteristics — into which Buddhists drop coins to bring good fortune and support the monks. The grounds outside the main hall are home to many smaller Buddha images and a traditional Thai massage school.
That evening I went to Siam Naramit, for an extravagant performance that blends music, dancing, fighting, water, lights, and even some elephants, goats and roosters, to explain Thailand's history, culture, mythology and folklore. Featuring more than 100 dancers in exquisite costumes, special effects to make the stage come alive with rain, smoke, rivers and steam, the 80-minute show explained Thai history, took the audience to Buddhist heaven and hell, and shared local festivals, such as Loy Krathong, the festival of lights in which decorative floating lanterns are placed on water. Not only was the show spectacular, but the venue also housed a traditional Thai village which we wandered through. I got to see open-air houses, watch a woman spinning silk, and got a lesson in playing the phin, a type of Thai lute.
The next day Lek took me on a day trip to some provinces west of Bangkok. Our first stop was the Maeklong district of Samut Songkhram Province. We visited the Maeklong Railway Market, or Talad Rom Hoop, as it's called in Thai. Talad Rom Hoop roughly means to close an umbrella or awning. Like most Thai markets, there is a mix of produce, fish and seafood, meat, clothes, flowers and other things to buy, but what makes it unique is that it's set up along train tracks. The vendors place their goods right along and even on top of the tracks, and the shoppers walk along the track buying from stalls on either side. Awnings stretched overhead keep it shaded and cool. But of course, since it's on a train track, business is interrupted several times a day.
The market becomes a flurry of activity as the train approaches. The vendors jump into action, pulling their boxes of fish and clams and pieces of cardboard covered in cabbages, chillies, lychees and other produce off the tracks. The awnings are rolled or folded back. The entire process takes just a couple of minutes, with the last bits and pieces being pulled off the rails with seconds to spare as the train rolls into the station. Once the train passes, the whirlwind begins again, with the goods going back onto the tracks, the awnings covering the market again, and the vendors getting back to business. It was quite an exciting sight to see, and the cheap fresh fruit and sweet coconut water were also worth the stop.
We drove from Maeklong to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in Ratchaburi province. Upon hiring a small motorboat with a driver, we were taken through a series of canals bordered by homes, temples, restaurants, schools and shops that make up the little town. The boat soon entered a busier canal and pulled up at a wharf where tourists were sipping fresh drinks and browsing through stalls of silk clothes, spices, jewellery and other items. While you can buy all sorts of things from the market adjacent to the canals, I was much more interested in hiring another boat, this time one that paddled by hand, which slowly made its way through the canals. We could shop directly from other boats, or from vendors whose shops were almost at water level. I was delighted with the many boats that doubled as kitchens, with grilled duck, chicken satay, or mango sticky rice ready to be served. While the market was utterly charming, I must admit I wondered what it was like decades ago, before Thailand was such a popular tourist destination, and wished I could have been there back then, camera in hand.
Following a lunch of fresh fish and seafood at a restaurant along a river, we made our way to the Samphran Elephant Ground and Zoo, located about an hour's drive west of Bangkok in Nakhon Prathom province, to see an elephant show. These animals, among the largest and most intelligent mammals on land, showed off their tricks and revealed a bit about Thai history. The elephants and their trainers explained how elephants were caught and tamed in the past, how they were used in battle, and how they were used for work. Now used for entertainment, too, the elephants played football, danced, and posed for photos, some even wrapping their trunks around the waists of their fans in friendly hugs. The zoo also has a collection of macaque monkeys, crocodiles, a couple of tigers, and lovely flower gardens. The conditions in which some of the animals were held bothered me a bit, as the cages weren't too big and the tigers were heavily chained, but for people who aren't concerned about animal rights it would be an interesting attraction.
After our long day trip, we opted for a relaxing dinner at the five-star Plaza Athenée, a Meridien Hotel downtown. The glamorous venue is a popular place for fancy dinners, as it has seven restaurants with a range of cuisines to choose from, including Thai, Chinese, Japanese and French. We had dinner at The Rain Tree Cafe, which had a vast seafood buffet, including freshly grilled lobster, and Thai specialties like Tom Yam soup, spicy seafood salad, and steamed fish with lime and cilantro sauce.
The following day was all about silk, shopping and spas. Our first stop was the Jim Thompson House, a museum in central Bangkok. Jim Thompson was an American man who fought in Thailand in World War II, and then made it his home. He collected a lot of Asian art and displayed it in his home, which was made from six traditional Thai-style houses brought to Bangkok from around the country. He also made major contributions to the Thai silk industry with his company, now a high end brand name in silk. Jim Thompson mysteriously disappeared in 1967 while on holiday in Malaysia, but his legacy lives on with the museum and company, which made for an interesting visit.
Though most of my money was spent on Jim Thompson silk, Lek thought I should see one of the most popular shopping malls in Bangkok, MBK. The seven floors of shops, restaurants and cafes, salons and spas, cinemas and more offer enough entertainment and shopping to keep some tourists happy for days. Not being much of a shopper, I was content to stop at the grocery store to buy some ingredients to make Thai food, and then have a coffee and people-watch before heading off to a local restaurant, Naj Exquisite Thai, a few blocks away, for mouth-watering curries, pineapple rice, and mango sticky rice.
Of course, no trip to Thailand would be complete without a massage. Throughout Bangkok you can find little shops offering foot massages or the famous Thai massages, or for something a little more upscale there are many spas to choose from. I visited the Health Land Spa in downtown Bangkok. With nine locations around the city and in Pattaya, Health Land Spas offer a variety of treatments, from massages and reflexology to body polishes and facials. It's easy to escape into a world of complete relaxation and bliss for a few hours as the therapists soothe your tired muscles and rub your troubles away. I almost fell asleep a few times during the massage, thanks to how relaxing the experience was. It was a lovely ending to three fabulous days immersed in Thai culture. My trip was a short, sweet introduction to the Southeast Asian kingdom — its people, culture, food, and architecture. As the plane took off the next afternoon, I gazed down at city and the fields below, and wondered when I would return to see more of Bangkok and beyond, a place I already missed.