During the first leg of our trip we stayed in Sukumvhit, one of the newer parts of the city, chock full of expats, international hotels, and lots and lots of ongoing development. It doesn’t have as much character as some other neighborhoods, but it does have all of the modern day conveniences one could ask for, like easy access to the Skytrain and Metro, world class restaurants in any flavor you desire, swanky shopping centers and $8 massage parlors on every corner.
We had a couple of days in Bangkok on our own, so we took advantage of this time to take care of some necessary business, like securing our visa for Vietnam. We also visited the seedier side of Bangkok (namely, the Patpong District) that our parents wouldn’t want to see. Patpong was once the center of Thailand’s busy sex trade, but is now is more of a circus-like atmosphere with a bustling night market and go go bars advertising ridiculous “shows” that would make your mother blush. You can’t help but feel a bit more depraved after walking around here, but it’s a sad reality in most big cities of South East Asia that this type of work provides much greater economic opportunity for women than any other.
The rest of our time in Bangkok (Thailand, really) was spent with either Gil’s mom or Jen’s parents , who lined up back to back vacations here. It was an unexpected treat to see family after all this time and we cannot even begin to express how much we appreciate them having made such a long and arduous trip to visit us! They proved to be great travel companions and made our time in this part of the world extra special. We even got to celebrate Gil’s mom’s belated birthday with a delicious seafood dinner and a mango and sticky rice complete with candle.
With family in tow, we hit up all the major tourist destinations, beginning with the classic Siam-style home of Jim Thompson, an American silk magnate who spent his life in Bangkok, and continuing on to Siam Square, the fashionable commercial center beloved by Bangkok’s hipster youth. In the small lanes that line the Square you can find hundreds of emerging local designers selling their creations for a pittance. Unfortunately, if you are taller than 5’ 6”, weigh over 120 pounds or have feet larger than a size 7 (yes to all of the above) you have a slim chance of finding something that fits. The saving grace is that a face massage at one of the trendy spas here comes in one size fits all!
We also spent time in Bangkok’s Chinatown, which, like San Francisco’s Chinatown, is known for bargain basement prices on all manner of things you don’t need and infuriating traffic jams. It’s a very lively place, packed with throngs of shoppers during the day and lit up by an endless sea of neon at night.
A few ferry stops up river from Chinatown, you reach the old city where all of the big ticket attractions are found. The Grand Palace is no longer the primary residence of the King, but its classic European-inspired buildings give you an idea of the grandeur of this historic kingdom that lives on to the present day. The importance of the royal family to the Thai people is obvious in the reverential pictures you find displayed in homes and businesses big and small, but this reverence really showed through to us when we saw hundreds of Thais dressed in black and making a pilgrimage to the palace to pay their respects to the late Princess (the sister of the King) who passed away in 2007. The mourning period will continue throughout the next year and we came across flower-draped memorials to her in nearly every town.
Within the grounds of the Grand Palace is Wat Phrakaew, one of the most ornately decorated temples in all of Thailand. Millions of tiny mirrors and gold filigree sparkle in the sun like jewels, serving as a fitting showcase for the Emerald Buddha housed inside. The Emerald Buddha (which is apparently really made of jasper) has a long history, having traveled from Chiang Rai to Laos and finally to Bangkok, and is one of the most revered images in the country. The image even has different outfits that the king personaly changes each season (he was donning both his winter and rain-weather gear when we visited).
The courtyard surrounding Wat Phrakaew is quite interesting as well. There are several other beautiful buildings, a model of Angkor Wat, and hundreds of protective or lucky figures standing guard in gilded or mosaic dress. There is also a detailed mural circling the area that depicts the Thai-version of the Ramayana, a very colorful story indeed!
Nearby Wat Pho is another treasure of Bangkok. The main temple holds the largest Buddha image in the country, reclining on his side in relaxation. The golden image is barely contained by the walls that surround it and you are truly awe struck by the size when walking its perimeter. Wat Pho also has the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand and some beautiful chedi that look like a little like frosting-covered wedding cakes. It is also home to a traditional massage school, evidenced by the peculiar sculptures depicting various yoga poses and massage techniques scattered amongst the temple structures.
No visit to Bangkok would be complete without spending hours upon hours shopping in the city’s many markets. From the tiny amulet market, where people go to purchase protective trinkets to ward off evil, to the Chatuchak weekend market, with over 15,000 mind-boggling stalls, there is something for everyone here – even if you just want to gape wide-jawed at the newborn parrots or freakish fish in the pet section.
We spent our final days in Bangkok at a market of a different type, the “farang” (foreigner) ghetto of Khao San Road. It’s a great place to replenish your travel wardrobe, buy a plate of pad thai for 50 cents, grab a 2 for 1 bucket cocktail at a make-shift street side bar or check out a cheesy Thai cover band. It’s not for everyone and not necessarily representative of Thai society, but it is a cultural oddity in its own right and certainly worth a peak if you want to inside scoop on the backpacker scene. We’re not sure if it scared our parents more or gave them comfort that we’re not the only crazy people trying to get out there and see the world.