In the middle of Bangkok’s maze of concrete buildings, polluted roads and constant clamour of people trying to sell you, well, anything – tuk tuk drivers suggesting the best sightseeing tour; shopkeepers insisting that you need a suit; traders with their pushcarts dragging you to the side to see their assorted meats crawling with flies – it seemed impossible to relax. But, believe it or not, we found the calm amongst the chaos.
The Grand Palace, guarded by armed military, and packed with loud tourists being herded through bag checks, was not for us. We had to cover up even in the outer courtyard where there was no rest from the sun and the shoving. Before handing over 400 Baht each (£8 – admittedly not much) we bailed.
Instead, we turned the corner and entered Wat Pho for 100 Baht each (£2). Our first taste of traditional Thai architecture and bright colours, I was so excited, I couldn’t stop taking photos. Although still busy, everyone was respectfully quiet.
The temple complex – consisting of stupas, shrines, halls, pavilions, gardens, and a museum – housed a history of medical remedies and the walls were full of labled, anotomical drawings. The many rooves were different colours depending on their importance and under which king they’d been built. There were mosaics, fountains, statues guarding the gates, and monks in bright orange robes (some of the younger ones taking a break from learning to play football).
The Reclining Buddha
Wat Pho also housed the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand, including its main attraction, the 46m long reclining Buddha. This is where they insisted we take off our shoes, and cover our shoulders and knees, handing out fetching, bright green robes.
Every aspect of the temple was decorated in so much detail with walls, pillars, ceiling and shutters depicting patterns and images in gold leaf. The gilded statue with pearl inlay feet, built in 1832, barely fit in the room. Buddha’s posture represented his entry into Nirvana, while the mother-of-pearl soles displayed symbols by which he can be identified, such as flowers, tigers and white elephants.
In the area of town with shiny, glass buildings, we visited Lumphini Park. Once through the smoke and heat of the market outside the gates, we were in the serenity of the park. With its palm trees, bright green lawns, and massive lake with sparkling fountains, the only sign that we were still in Bangkok were the buildings on the skyline.
There was a running track and outdoor gym (although how anyone was working out in that heat, I don’t know). There were pedalos for rent and fish-food for sale. And there was a ton of wildlife. Long-legged birds fished in the shallows, terrapins hid amongst the plants, and then we caught our first glimpse of a monitor lizard.
Becoming tourist stereotypes, we crept slowly closer, taking pictures. But soon we realised why we were the only ones who paid it any attention – they were very common and that one was only a baby. We saw lizards that were 2 meters long sunbathing, and the most Attenborough moment of all, a lizard polishing out the inside of a terrapin’s shell for his lunch.
The National Museum
Hanging around town with some spare time on our hands, we found the National Museum – the first public museum in Thailand, and the largest museum in Southeast Asia. Occupying the former palace of the vice king, it expanded over several buildings with more amazing examples of Thai architecture. It housed Thai art and history, collected since 1874 but dating back thousands of years, including a registered UNESCO artifact – The King Ram Khamhaeng Inscription.
Unfortunately, a couple of exhibits were closed for refurbishment, but there was a temporary exhibit on fashion and textiles in honour of the queen and her work in the field. It took us several hours to walk around and a guide would have been useful as a lot of time we didn’t know what we were looking at. An added bonus though was the air conditioning when it was too hot to do anything else.
Although we didn’t want to stay in the tourist trap that was Khao San Road, we did want to visit. We stopped by as it was getting dark (and before it got too busy), and nowhere else in Asia did we see such a high concentration of Western culture – KFC, Boots, Starbucks. However, the road was also lined with massage parlours, cheap clothes and bikinis, henna stalls and fried bugs. Without even trying, we haggled the price down to 150 Baht (£3) for a replica All Blacks shirt.
Finally, in the floating market, where the floorboards were unevenly cobbled together to show the water beneath, we ate at what became my favourite restaurant – if you can call it that. With friendly staff and very low prices, it didn’t matter that the tables were collapsible, or that a fan had been hastily tied to a tree. For 50 Baht (£1) I had the best noodles I’ve ever eaten.