Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bangkok - where to stay, places to visit, things to do

During the recent one-week school holiday, ACE spent five days in Bangkok, Thailand. Thailand is a country rich in history, culture, and nature. It is also a place where you can find good street food, cheap shopping, nice beaches and islands. Bangkok is the capital and largest city of the country and within Bangkok itself and nearby areas, there are many things to do and see. We tried to see and do what we could in those five short days.

Thailand (picture extracted from Wikipedia)
With the Internet, making travel arrangements are so much easier these days. We no longer need to depend on travel agencies to book our flight tickets or arrange accommodation and tours for us. We did almost everything through the internet. We bought our plane tickets online. We made reservations at a guesthouse online. We researched online on places to visit and things to do there. And while we were there, we relied on Wifi for further details, maps, directions, etc. We downloaded applications  which were useful in helping us get around and decide where to go and what to do. In other words, we could plan our outings to cater to our needs and timing. We did not have to follow a strict schedule like if you were to join a tour group and get herded from one place to another.
There are a number of airlines that go to Bangkok from Malaysia. We chose to fly budget as it takes only two hours to get there and three hours back (time difference - Thailand is one hour behind Malaysia). At the time of checking out flight tickets, we discovered Jetstar was cheaper than AirAsia. The catch, however, was a five-hour difference. Jetstar had a stopover somewhere which made total flight time from KL to Bangkok seven hours! So we decided to pay a little more and spend only two hours flying.
Of course budget airlines are not luxury travel so we had to put up with little things like crowded open boarding terminals scented with food odour and a visit or two from several houseflies. Then, depending on where your boarding gate is, you might have to walk a bit more outdoors along the open walkway on the tarmac to get to your plane. Inside the plane, other than your seat, all else, like food and drinks, are at extra cost. Don't expect spacious leg room or the attendants to clean up your seats or tables if you have spilled anything on it. You can find sticky table tops, food crumbs on the carpeted floor, used tissue paper stuffed inside the seat pocket, torn and crumpled magazines or flight safety info manuals. And a few houseflies also joined us inside the plane on the journey back. Wonder if they were Malaysians or Thais.
Bangkok, being a tourists' destination, has plenty of choices when it comes to accommodation -- many-star hotels, budget hotels, guesthouses, hostels, backpackers' lodges, holiday apartments, you name it. We stayed in a guesthouse we found on Tripadvisor as we didn't want to waste money on a four or five-star hotel which facilities we didn't need. We also wanted a different experience. It turned out to be a good and worthy choice. Check it out here.
C testing the mattress in our room.
The walls in this guesthouse are brightly decorated with handpainted murals.
Organic breakfast at the guesthouse

Below is a list of the places we visited and things we did, besides walking a lot and taking lots of pictures. I shall not write in detail about each place/activity as you can find the information on the Net.
Chinatown -- you can obviously find all things Chinese here -- food, people, culture....and shark's fins!
 Many roadside stalls offering street food in Chinatown
 Busy Chinatown by night
Shark's fins displayed outside a restaurant
Read here for awareness about protecting sharks.

 One of many street stalls selling pomegranates and juice
How did the Chinese get to Thailand? Wikipedia, though not a 100% reliable source, gives some general info here.

Asiatique -- a large, new tourist pedestrian 'mall' by the riverside, made up of refurbished warehouses housing small shops selling curios and souvenirs, and an international food arena, open only in the evening. Read here for some history in brief.
 An open courtyard area in Asiatique
 View from the shuttle boat approaching Asiatique (Asitaique provides free shuttle service to/from a pier of the Chao Phraya Express - can't remember which pier)

Shops inside one of the refurbished warehouses

Wat Arun -- also known as the Temple of Dawn, steeped in history and amazing handcrafted structures, the main stupa has a steep staircase which you can climb to the top for a good view of Bangkok as far as your eyes can see.
The iconic structure at Wat Arun

A steep climb

Wat Pho -- the temple features a large Reclining Golden Buddha and various smaller temples within its grounds.

Grand Palace -- a complex of various buildings, temples, pavilions, including the official residence of the King of Thailand since 1782, unfortunately we could not cover the entire area as we were too tired and the weather was extremely hot that day. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is located here.
 Gold flecks on rooftop
 Phra Mondop, the library built by King Rama I
 The Emerald Buddha
Phra Thinang Chakri Maha (a complex of various buildings housing throne rooms, grand halls, etc)
Prathunam wholesale market -- a shopping haven for ladies, a labyrinth of little shops selling clothes and fashion accessories at wholesale prices. And despite it being 'wholesale', minimum purchase is usually only three pieces. Imagine KL's Petaling Street but 10 times narrower and 100 times larger.
...and accessories galore at Prathunam market.

Malls - Platinum, Siam Paragon, MBK, River City -- Platinum Fashion Mall is located right across the road from Prathunam market. It is the aircon version of Prathunam, which I believe KL's Kenanga City Wholesale Mall is modeled after. Siam Paragon is the equivalent of KL's Pavilion while MBK made me feel like I was walking inside Sungai Wang Plaza. River City is a small mall housing high-end antique furniture and crafts, located along the riverside.
Entrance to Siam Paragon

Fountain outside River City

Khlong river/canal tour -- you can hire a long boat to take a tour of the Chao Phraya river and the various canals to get a view of life by the riverside. You can see the backyards of many houses built along the riverside, many temples in the various neighbourhoods, pass under the Rama VIII Bridge, and view the various landmarks from the river. At the end, you can tell the boatman where to drop you off. We got off at the private pier of Wat Arun so that we could visit that temple.
 Rama VIII Bridge
 Large and small boats ply the river (orange-coloured thing atop boat roof is a tv satellite dish!)
Where the Royal Barges are housed (The Royal Barge Museum)
Read here for more information about the barges.

A typical house by, or on, the river
Transportation/rides - Chao Phraya Express boat, public bus, BTS train, Airport Rail Link, tuk tuk, taxi -- our main transportation was the Chao Phraya Express boats which took us to the various piers from which we walked to our destinations. It is a cheap and traffic jam-free way of getting around Bangkok. But be prepared to stand and get sandwiched like sardines during peak hour. Tickets can be purchased from a seller at a desk at the pier, or you can pay the conductor on board who comes around shaking her metal cylinder containing coins and tickets.
Crowd getting on board the Chao Phraya Express
Our experience with the public bus service was relatively good as we didn't have to walk too far to the bus stop or wait long. There are aircon and non aircon buses. A conductor in the bus will come to you to collect the fare. Thai people are very helpful. They will vacate their seat on the boat or bus for you if they see you need it more. A lady even offered her lap for C to sit on during a crowded and bumpy boat ride. A man seated behind us on the bus helped us determine when we should get off to go where we wanted.
 Inside the public bus
 The BTS train near Siam Paragon
The BTS train is like our LRT or monorail. Efficient and fast. The Airport Rail Link gets you out of the airport quickly. The Express Link gets you directly, without any stops, to Paya Thai station where you can catch a BTS, taxi or tuk tuk to wherever you want to go.
Tuk tuks are many on the roads of Bangkok. The drivers usually try to 'cut your throat' by demanding exorbitant fares so it's best to ask the locals how much it should cost and haggle with the dirver before getting into one. Some might try to fleece you also by offering you tour guide services and take you to places where they are in cahoots with to rip off tourists. You can hail a taxi from any roadside but before you get in, check with the driver if he is using the metre. Once they know you are tourists, they will try not to use the metre and use the traffic jam as an excuse to demand and exorbitant flat rate. We avoided taking the taxi unless we didn't have a choice and haggled for a rate that we felt worth paying (even if it was higher than the norm). If you queue at a taxi stand outside a mall that is manned by the mall attendant/guards, you are better assured of getting one that uses the metre. It is best to take note of the taxi association's hotline number, taxi registration plate number and the driver's name when you get into one so that you can report them for any problems you encounter. In the event you leave anything behind in the taxi, you can also call them  to retrieve your belongings.
A few other places to visit, and things to do around and outside Bangkok if you have the time:
Take a guided coach tour to Ayuthaya, returning on a cruise boat - see temple ruins, statues and learn about the history of the ancient capital Ayuthaya.
Take a train from Thonburi station in Bangkok to Kanchanaburi - this would be a day trip where you can visit the various war cemeteries and museums related to WWII, and the famous Bridge on the River Kwai, waterfalls and a national park.
Chatuchak Market - a huge (that's understated) market where you can find thousands of stalls selling everything and anything. It is open only on weekends.
Night markets - there are various night markets in Bangkok in various locations selling things from vintage stuff to clothes, street food, etc.
Floating Market - it is only open on weekends where you can see and buy things from vegetables to food and souvenirs and you can see vendors selling their ware out of their sampans on the river too.
Siam Ocean World - if you have kids and want to see some marine creatures, this is the place to go. It is located at the basement level of Siam Paragon mall.
Madame Tussauds Bangkok - Another one of the famed wax museum of historical and celebrity figures. It is located in Siam Discovery which is just right next door to Siam Paragon.
Crocodile farm, snake farm, Dusit Zoo in Bangkok.....and I'm sure there are many more places to visit.
On the whole, ACE enjoyed the short trip. It was a good change of scenery and a break from our daily routine.
Thailand is very rich in history and culture. It is not just a place full of Buddhist temples, red light areas, beaches, tomyum and green curry. Even the temples have their story and history. If you have the time and have interest in history, it's a good place to visit. The Grand Palace has lots of stories behind each building. There are free guided tours which take you through parts of the Grand Palace for about an hour, with the guide sharing interesting facts about each place, right down to how much each piece of mosaic that covers a structure cost the kingdom when they were imported from Italy centuries ago.
This was personally my second visit to Bangkok after the first about 20 years ago. Much has changed and I believe I saw more this time around compared to the arranged packaged tour back then.

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