Mad, loud and congested, Bangkok takes some getting used to. Like all great cities, though, there are many layers to Bangkok, and like a sultry seductress, the city does not give up her secrets easily. We spent a short three days there over Christmas, squeezing in as much as we could, including a daytrip out to the train market, floating market, an elephant camp and the Bridge over the River Kwai.
Bangkok’s manic traffic ensnares us with her claws and we sit in a couple of hours, inching along like a snail from the airport towards our hotel. Motorbikes zoom in between cars, riding on the edge of danger. School children walk home in herds. On every other corner there is a shrine, brightly coloured, draped in flowers, set with offerings. Finally we reach Siam Kempinski, our base in Bangkok, a welcome oasis of luxury and peace.
Our first stop is the newly developed Asiatique, where old warehouses and docks have been converted into waterfront shops and restaurants. I dip my feet into a fish spa, squealing as the fish swarm towards my toes. After 15 minutes, my feet emerge, the skin new and soft.
We’ve booked a dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya for our first night. The docks are swarmed with people. There is a huge press of tourists, and everyone is tired of standing around, and hungry from waiting for the boats. There are no signs, no order. We stand and wait while our guide looks out for us. Finally, she gestures, and we fight our way through the crowds.
The boat itself is well maintained and clean, the food edible, the cruise smooth sailing. The experience, however, is spoilt by the live entertainment – a singer and her band with a questionable repertoire. We enjoy the sights – the palaces and temples along the bank of the river are splendidly lit up, especially Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn – but the cruise itself is overrated, and we wouldn’t do it again.
We have booked a full daytrip for our second day with Tour with Tong, whom I highly recommend. Our guide for the day is Nina, effable, professional, friendly. She brings us first to the market at Maeklong Railway Station. The market is spread out along the train tracks, the produce precariously displayed right by the grooves in the ground. When the train pulls into the station, a sort of magic happens as vendors pull in their shutters and wares. See it for yourself.
Our next stop is the floating market of Damneon Saduak. Nina takes us in a slow boat, away from the main thoroughfares. The market used to be a local spot where villagers would come to buy and sell produce, but these days it’s far more tourist oriented, hawking souvenirs instead of spices. We buy food instead – sticky rice and mango, a delicious bowl of noodle soup, fresh coconuts, deep fried seafood. Nina seems to know most of the locals who live along the quieter canals, their houses raised on stilts, always with a spare boat sitting in a shed. By the time we return to the main sections of the market, the engine-driven boats are filling the air with noise and exhaust. We are pleased to leave by then.
I’ve asked to visit an elephant camp, and on our way there, we stop to buy fruits and vegetables as a treat for the animals. It is a conflicted decision – tourist demand for elephant rides mean there will always be those who see profit in poaching baby elephants to break in, or “crush”, a traumatic, horrible experience designed to break the animals’ spirit – but without tourist demand, retired adult elephants and their mahouts would be out of a living. It’s a tough conundrum.
We didn’t want a long ride on an elephant – we wanted the opportunity for interaction. Nina gave us Full Moon’s history. A retired circus elephant, a particular trick which involved standing on her head had caused injury. She was sold to the elephant camp, where she and her mahout recovered. Because of her back injury, Full Moon cannot carry the heavy saddles for rides, so instead, she gives tourists water fights instead. We spend almost an hour with her, feeding her bananas, stroking her tough skin, playing with her in the water. We do ride her, for about 10 minutes, seated double and bare back behind her ears, coaxing her along with bananas as she trudges back towards the other elephants.
For more information, click on: Choosing an ethical elephant experience.
We’ve saved the best of Bangkok to last. Bangkok was once a royal capital, and the elaborate temples and palaces are testimony to the rich history of the city. We visit the Royal Grand Palace, a sprawling complex of halls, throne rooms and private apartments, where kings and their families have lived out their lives. On the grounds are splendid buildings decorated with brightly coloured mosaic, tiles from Chinese trading ships, sparkling mirrors, glittering gilded statues. The Palace throngs with tourists, even at 9am. Had we known how busy it would get, we would perhaps have been at the gates as soon as it opened, at 8am. Go early and pack spades of patience. The crowds know no courtesy.
We visit Wat Pho, a working temple housing the Emerald Buddha, a colossal reclining Buddha, 43m long and gilded all in gold. Fences stop visitors from touching the Buddha. The smell of incense and the sound of clinking coins hang in the air. Buddhists drop coins in the 108 coin pots that line one side of the building, each bronze bowl representing one of Buddha’s auspicious traits. The money is given as donation to the temple, a way of making merit.
3 days in Bangkok is just enough to get a taste of the highlights of this mad, bad city. The traffic and the heat takes some getting used to, and needs to be factored into your planning. There was much we didn’t have a chance to see – Jim Thompson’s House, the forgotten khlongs, a cocktail at one of Bangkok’s swish skky bars – but the best thing about Bangkok is that the city is always moving, always shifting. There is always something new to see. We’ll be back, Bangkok.