Early morning in the backstreets of Bangkok
Pak Khlong Talad, a huge flower market in the middle of Bangkok, is filled with the smell of exotic flowers. Buckets of bright roses are crammed onto the tables and succulents, cacti and orchids line the footpaths where tiny Thai women with furrowed brows and toothless smiles nod their heads as they string garlands of marigold and jasmine. Unlike in India there are also covered areas inside where the flowers fade into food and fresh fish is sold from baskets and steel vessels. Women leave their stalls halfway through their early morning shift and gather together for a Zumba class to what I can only imagine is Thai pop music.
Walking along the flower market, you can make your way slowly to Sanam Luang, a large oval ground close to the Grand Palace. Along the way you can buy snacks or drinks from any of the shops and stalls starting to open early selling chicken kebabs and cocktail sausages on skewers. Whilst locals from smaller cities are happy to help, my experience at least was that locals in Bangkok were not as welcoming and did not have the time to help me with directions.
I suppose that is true of all busy cities though. By and large, older men were much more willing to pore over my well-marked tourist map and point me in the right direction than young Thai people who seemed insulted that I knew absolutely no Thai. In hindsight, having a few words and phrases in the national language handy goes a long way in encouraging someone to help you. Once you get closer to Sanam Luang you’ll find that there are many signposts for tourist attractions in English, with tourist maps showing all the nearby attractions and walking times. I managed to find my way around Bangkok with a tourist map and street signs, without phone data. Walking is truly the best way to get to know the city.
Sanam Luang and surrounding Temples
Following Sanam Chai road, you’ll soon find yourself at Wat Mahathat. Built in the 1700s, the Wat’s wihan and bot were both rebuilt between 1844 and 1851. A distinctive feature is the mondop that has a cruciform roof, which is rarely found in Bangkok. Close by is the National Museum and Buddhaisawan Chapel where you can see the 15th Century Phra Buddha Sihing, one of the most venerated Buddha images in Thailand after the Emerald Buddha. The chapel is famous for its paintings depicting the life of Buddha which are the oldest murals in Bangkok. The National Museum has some amazing royal funeral chariots and gilded teak chariots. Some of which are at the Royal Barge Museum near Wat Arun if you want to see more when on the other side of the Chao Phraya River. Continuing along Sanam Luang, is the National Gallery on Chao Fa Road which was established in 1977. It contains modern Thai and International art. Although it was featured in many of the tourist guides to Thailand I thought it was passable but if you are interested in modern Thai art its right at the top of Sanam Luang so it’s easy to make a quick stop.
From backpacker district to the Golden Mount
Retracing my footsteps at the North end of Sanam Luang, I walked up past Khao San Road, the famous backpacker district where travellers live in budget accommodation with cheap beer and street food making it a lively magnet for young tourists at night, to Wat Bowonniwet on 248 Phra Sumen Road. Hidden in quiet tree filled grounds, this temple is known for its Chinese influence. It’s a little bit hard to find but I think definitely worth it. Back on Maha Chai road, I walked past the Democracy monument designed by Silpa Birasi, an Italian Sculptor and went to Wat Rachanadda, a huge temple that pretty much exhausted me. Its best known for Loha Prasat, a multi-tiered temple with 37 spires symbolising the 37 qualities one must attain before enlightenment.
If you’re following this plan you’re probably dehydrated by this point so I’d suggest buying some fresh bags of fruit like mango and dragon fruit from the vendors on the street. They’re about 15 – 30 baht and so refreshing. Chicken skewers are about the same price and if you’re feeling adventurous you can try some of the dubious looking shrimp ball skewers and the sausage on a stick. Walking through the Wat Rachanadda along the road, I crossed a tiny river to Wat Saket and the Golden Mount. Built by Rama I in the late 18th Century, it is one of the oldest temples in Bangkok. It was rebuilt to create the mythical Mount Meru seen today. The artificial hill is topped with a golden tower within the grounds. Along the way are manmade waterfalls that look somewhat like a grotto in a church, with statues of Buddha that locals venerate. I couldn’t find the Monks bowl village, I will leave that for another trip but if you have time I could encourage you to go there. If you keep walking along Bamrung Muang road you will find yourself at a busy intersection. Ask the policemen patrolling the area if you need help to cross as it is a junction of five main roads. From there you can continue on to Wat Suthat and the Giang Swing. Banmrung Muang Road was one of Thailand’s first paved roads. Along the road are shops selling religious paraphernalia, monks robes and Buddha images.
The Giant Swing, Museums…and you guessed it even more Temples!
Wat Suthat has the largest wihan in Bangkok. The central Buddha is 26 feet high, one of the largest surviving Sukhothai Bronzes. The teak doors to the wihaan are carved in five delicate layers and stand 18 feet high. The cloister around the outside of the wihaan is lined with 156 golden Buddha images. The square in front of Wat Suthat used to feature the giant swing, that were originally used for a Brahmin ceremony.
If you’re not too tired, you can explore Wat Rachabophit on Fuang Nakhon Road. It blends east and west styles of architecture as construction began under King Chulalongkom, the boy prince in the movie The King and I. The whole complex is decorated with porcelain tiles, the focal point is the central Sri Lankan style chedi. It is an unusual layout for a Thai wat. Next I went to Wat Rachapradit on Saran Rom Road and then the Museum of Siam which was a cool relief from the hot humid day. It had great interactive exhibits about Thai history and culture. The building was designed by Milanese Mario Tamagno.
Time for a massage for those aching feet…
This is where I called it a day by 3pm and decided to go Silom Market and get a foot massage and check out MBK Mall but for those of you who want to power through and keep sightseeing there is plenty more to see. You can easily spend the afternoon at the air-conditioned malls in Siam Square or MBK Mall. In the evening you can explore the Patpong markets on Silom Road and checking out the local karaoke, food stalls with an entire rice and curry/stew meals for 20baht.
A nice way to end the day is a visit a fish spa where fish will eat the dead skin off your feet. You could also go for a lady-boy show at the markets which you should experience before you leave Thailand. If you do decide to continue on, check out my post on the other attractions in Bangkok! There is plenty to see in this bustling city.