Travel Diary - Many faces of Bangkok
The pretty air hostess on the Thai Airways flight to Bangkok was wearing a long and elegant sarong like silk skirt, when she welcomed us on board. I was surprised to see that by the end of the flight just as we were about to land she had changed into a short, smart western skirt suit and was all smiles since she was going home to her family. Bangkok is the same - a quick easy change and a stark and surprising combination of the East and the West!
Bangkok , the capital city of Thailand is one of the most popular destinations in the east and when we planned to visit Bangkok we also decided to rope in Phuket and Phi Phi islands since they were all close to one another and when we book together we get a better travel deal. Bangkok is a spirited city full of activity and bustling by the day and night.
It is also a double faced city like I mentioned before - there are the golden Buddhas on the one side and the glittering shopping plazas on the other, the magnificent highways and flyovers on the one side and the flowing canals on the other side. The city also has extremely smart and sophisticated women on one side and the subjugated but brave and fighting against odds wives on the other. The city has a booming economy mainly due to tourism and its silk trade, also has its ghosts and spirit shrines, palmists and astrologers all out to cash in during the good times. In the two weeks that we spent there we were constantly surprised by the city and by the time it was time to leave we developed a great liking and built rapport with it and its immensely likeable people.
Understanding the city
We were talking to an American tourist who was combining work with pleasure of travel and according to him even after having come there several times and lived there for six months it was hard for him to reach the base and understand Thai people and their culture. Like for instance in India we follow a certain life style and have a definite identity as Hindus, Christians or Muslims which is not there in Thai people, at least not in Bangkok. Instead of muddling over this complicated issue let us get on with Bangkok and its many charms.
For tourists Bangkok has more than enough to offer. The glitzy sights to ensure that one has an event filled holiday, which is why Bangkok is one of the most popular tourist destinations of South East Asia. However, for a start we were advised by the same American to visit the office of the Thai Tourism Authority located on Bamrang Muang Road, which we did on the very next day after landing there. They have an enormous amount of information and material on every facet of the city. In fact it was their directory on the hotels of Bangkok that helped us to understand about the variety in price, range and location of the numerous hotels and restaurants in Bangkok.
It came as a surprise to us that there are more number of hotels and guest houses than there are people, which is why tourist is a master here and everything revolves around tourism and the comfort of tourists.
Some of the magnificent hotels in Bangkok
I feel that I have to write about some of the lovely hotels located in Bangkok. They even have a tour of the top hotels in Bangkok which we did take , just to see how the very rich and the very famous lived when they travelled to other places. Some of the places we visted were lusciously attractive like for example the Mandarin Oriental Hotel ( it is considered one of the best hotels in the world) which is located on the banks of Chao Praya river and looks majestic it stands tall and glittering.
Next we were shown Dusit Thani Hotel which has a lovely lovely waterfall amidst lush greenery and a distinctive tower at the top, again very posh and classy, with a matching price tag for everything ! Then it was Sukhothai Hotel which was spectacular with very traditional Thai style interiors, also Royal Orchid Sheraton, again very very luxurious and beautiful to look at with its river side shopping market...A few more equally impressive ones and at the end of the tour we were given a 50% discount coupon offer on one of the hotels , Dusit Thani at Pattaya if we happen to visit there within the next two months, which we did !
Temples and Shrines of Bangkok
Bangkok has more than 400 shrines I am told ! The first one we visited was when we went on the hotel tour - The Grand Erewon Hyatt hotel, also had Brahma shrine in front of it. We were surprised since as far I know we don't have any shrine for Brahma, unless there is one close to Brahmaputra river or in that region. The four faced Brahma at the shrine here is supposed to answer all prayers and people come from all over the world for a 'Darshan'. It was amusing to see businessmen in 3 piece suits and women in micro mini skirts making offerings of everything from incense sticks, flowers and sweets to eggs !
In fact we realised that these offerings are common to all the temples of Bangkok. For someone who loves history, architecture and sculpture there is nothing to beat the magnificent Buddhist temples with their golden domes, tiered roofs, gilded walls and of course the lovely figurines.
The Grand Palace - this is the most well known and the most beautiful of all the shrines. Within its historical precincts lies the famous 'Emerald Buddha', a tiny 30 inch statue made of green jasper, which is the most revered statue in the city. The walls are lined with painted scenes of Ram Kien, which is the Thai version of Ramayana, which in turn is the subject for most of the dances in the country. I must make a mention here of a spectacular dance drama called Khon, which is based on Ramayana and we got to see it . At the Grand Palace , the entry fee of 120 baht (Rs 220/) includes a visit to the Viman mek museum, the world’s largest museum made of wood – a fabulous pleasure resort of former kings, containing all their exquisite art and jewelry collections, and set in beautifully landscaped gardens.
Reclining Buddha – The other temple not to be missed is one with the Reclining Buddha – A huge image covered with gold leaf, 50 feet high and 56 feet long, whose feet are inlaid with mother of pearl and also inscribed with the 108 symbols of Buddha and Buddhism.
Golden Mount temple and others -We also visited the Golden Mount temple, once considered the highest temple in Bangkok. We had to climb more than 300 steps to see the relics of Buddha and also a panoramic view of the city. Another temple that was also on a hill was Wat Arun temple, which we had to take a boat to reach. The marble temple with its white carrara marble walls and many images of Buddha, not to mention the chanting monks ( if you go there in the morning), is well worth a visit.
In fact, the canals are a very cheap mode of transport in Bangkok except that they don’t ply everywhere. We picked some excellent T shirts at throwaway prices at the base of the Wat Arun temple.
For those who love history and ancient architecture, Bangkok’s National museum , with its thousands of artefacts, is an absolute must. It is one of the largest museums in South East Asia.
Some of the other attractions include Lumpini Park , Dusit Zoo and a snake park which is close to it and Magic park, which is an amusement park with rides that the youngsters are very fond of. Some of the ones I sat on were stomach churning , so, I decided to watch my family have fun while I had my fun staying away and watching them.
Ayutthya ( sounds like ayodhya , doesnt it?) which is the old and ancient city and capital of Thailand is a place not to be missed if you have a day or two to spare. It has some magnificent ruins and old temples and also the fabulous Bangpa -In floating palace. The place is really beautiful. We took a bus to Ayutthya and came back on a luxury liner through the canal. It was really worth it since the launch that we took offered us a superb lunch and four hour touristy ride through Bangkok by water of course !
Another must see sights is the floating market at damnun Saduak which is at a distance of about 90 kms from bangkok, where one goes by boat through the canal a little like Venice, with houses and markets on the sides. the trips included a visit to some of the interesting craft centers on the way and we also got to see the famed rose garden, lunch at a floating restaurant, complete with the usual cultural show.It was a lovely day and a great trip filled with color and gaiety and we all enjoyed it thoroughly !
Pattaya beach is at a distance of about 100 ms from Bangkok and most people make it a point to visit the place since there are many beach activities and adventure games available and we enjoyed it a lot . In fact driving out of Bangkok gave us a chance to see the country side, the fiels, orchid farms and the many beautiful waterfalls.there are ever so many of them.
There is also the sleazy and notorious side of Bangkok which is mainly the Patpong area filled with bars, dance shows and many other things. There are various sex shows meant for tourists and many Western and other tourists flock to this place. Bangkok is notorious for its sex trade and even the fear of AIDS and other related diseases doesn’t seem to have reduced the crowds in such areas.
Bangkok is known as a shopper’s paradise and it offers a chain of shopping complexes. There are all the big International departmental stores like Robinsons, Sogo and Central and the plazas like Manboonkrong, Peninsula, Siam Center and World Trade center which stock quality goods ( household gadgets, clothes, furniture, crockery) at fixed prices. There are also 711 shops that are open until late hours and many Thai housewives depend on them for their shopping after their work at late hours.
The cheaper markets, which are a tourists delight, are , of course, the ones on Pratunam Road ( Indira market), Sukumvit Road and Silom road. Bangkok is not really cheap as one would imagine, and bargaining is common. The important rule to follow is never be rude or demanding while bargaining. The Thai are a polite and friendly people and it is expected that all communications are made with mutual respect .No one raises their voice or pick up a fight like we often see in our market places, everything is done in a very civilised manner. In fact Indian shoppers are looked down upon, a fact I came to know from a shop keeper, because they ask price of every item possible and then ask for one tenth of the prices and finally leave without buying anything !
So while in bangkok, tourists especially Indian tourists must realise that they cannot go around being impolite or loud and ask for price only if you are interested in buying. Even if you don’t buy, make sure that you don’t open out the clothes and leave them messed up.. Indira market is huge and one can spend an entire day there like we did and one can get really nice stuff. But I felt that India was better for cotton clothing whereas cheese cotton and synthetics are better at Bangkok. Thai silks are beautiful with rich colors but expensive. I bought a silk scarf that cost Rs 1200/..
One can find different shapes and sizes of Buddha heads and they come in various materials as well like wood, bronze, jade, marble etc.
The Thais and the tourists who visit Thailand love to eat. Tourists will have a field day at Bangkok where food is concerned. The numerous roadside food stalls are cheap and healthy also clean. Apparently most Thai working couple find it cheaper to eat out, than cook dinner at home. The huge soups filled with meats, vegetables, noodles and flavorings are a meal by themselves and there is steamed rice and any of the curries that can be selected and noodles in many combinations. One can eat for as little as 25 baht ( Rs 46/) .
Other than that there is an incredible variety of fruits too – Guavas Mangosteen, Rambutan, Durian ( if you have the stomach for it, since it has a very strong flavor) and lichis other than the usual mangoes, apples, oranges and bananas. I must make a special mention of the many varieties of melons we get there- so colorful, juicy and tasty.
However, the restaurants are more expensive, but honestly what a variety there was ! We visited the huge open air restaurant called Tam-en-Thai, known as one of the biggest restaurant in the world. The waitresses are on roller skates serving the food because of its size. They also have a Thai cultural dance in the evenings and it is an amazing experience to watch it along with the delicious thai food.
Another very popular and great place to eat is Ban-Khun-Phor, which is a smaller restaurant, but always packed with customers and one needs to book in advance even during week days. The place is beautiful with soothing music, green foliage and superb food. I used to wonder how restaurants can be full in Bangkok when there are so many of them. Cuisine of every kind is available here – Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, French, Greek, Russian, Indian..In fact we had a meal at Holiday Inns Tandoor restaurant and the kababs and the kulfi was even better than what I have eaten back home.
Sea food is in great variety here although it is not spicy like in India. The remarkable thing about thai food is that it involves more sauces than spices and oil which is actually much healthier and is very easy on the stomach and figure.
Women are generally very pretty and attractive in Thailand. I have never seen such slim women as in Bangkok and I am told that they work for it. I have realised that good looks and clothes are an obsession in Thailand, and they like well dressed tourists and make it a point to give you the once over, since it has become a habit with them. It is strange to think that although Thailand was the only country not to have been colonised, there is an incredible Western hang up and American style skirts and trousers are easily accepted everywhere, whereas any other style of dressing would only place you.
When Thai women wear skirts they wear the right accessories too, the trousers ,the right cut and matching hand bag and shoes as well. They have beautiful skin and hair and take excellent care of it and make a pretty picture when they are dressed in their traditional silk sarongs or even in western outfits. Women are quite liberated and are in the forefront as far as running the family and earning is concerned. You find women everywhere, in shops, markets, restaurants and in the various offices, ever smiling and pleasant and very efficient too.
Culture and Society
Bangkok as we all know has been heavily influenced by the ancient Hindu culture and civilization , but later it also turned to Buddhism . As of now more than 95% of people follow Buddhism and Islam is the second largest religious group.
Although there is a lot of ancient culture in the history of Thailand one finds very little of Artistic leanings or activities except the few dance drama shows which are again more a form of entertainment for the tourists, keeping their taste in mind. The feeling is - the Western tourists , who form the majority want color and something exotic and they definitely would not know the difference between Ancient Eastern art and a modern version of it. So the thai dances that we saw, though beautiful were not actually authentic nor were they pure like our Bharatnatyam , Kathak or other classical forms of dancing. There are many westernised steps incorporated into it .
Such is the craze for western life style that Bangkok has a heavy cocktail and party circuit and the newspapers devote a whole page covering the events with photographs ,write ups and the juicy tidbits. Entertainment is a big part of Bangkok’s night life and the hotels hire international artistes on a regular basis. There are pubs and discos too and the hard rock cafes which is where most of the city’s youngsters and tourists hang out.
Indian community in Bangkok
There is quite a large Indian community in Bangkok and most of them from what I got to see were in business , mainly textile, gems and real estate . Some of them have become very successful and one of the hotels we visited on the hotel tour namely Holiday Inn Crown Plaza was owned by an Indian called Sura Chansrichawla. There are other big hotel owners like Jaspal Singh and Bajajs who also have many other business interests as well.
There are also a considerable number of South Indians who have been living for generations .Many of them were brought by the British in the 18th century to Malaysia to work in the rubber estates , who later migrated to Thailand and have made it their home.
Travel and other details
The thai version of auto rickshaw is called tuk-tuk and the drivers are very helpful and knowledgeable regarding places. The rates are negotiable and should be fixed before one sets out. However the best way to travel within Bangkok is by Taxi since they are safe, luxurious and quite cheap ( the minimum charge is 45 baht which is Rs 80). Language sometimes could be a problem and we sorted this out by asking our hotel receptionist to write the destination in thai on a piece of paper , which we were showing the drivers and it worked fine most of the time.
The one negative asoect of Bangkok is its traffic and the many traffic jams. You have to leave at least an hour earlier to reach anywhere within a 10 kms radius. The only ones who ae able to zip through all that traffic are the two wheelers. In fact one can take a motor cycle ride and the helmeted and jacketed drivers wait at every corner and when in a hurry, it is the best mode of transport. My hubby after taking one such ride said that he was feeling weak at the knees and heart and needs a day to recoover - since the driver slid almost under the traffic, swerved over the bridges and pavements and was there at the destination in a jiffy.
The Buses are cheap and well maintained and they also have special tourist buses which are the best bet when you want to tour the city and see the popular destinations.
My thoughts about the place
We all had a mixed feeling about Bangkok at the end of our tour. On the one hand one sees a polite, helpful, hard working people in the shopping areas and smaller restaurants and also there is permissiveness at its worst here. At the same time drug peddlers and users really have to watch out since the punishment is death penalty.The court and the law is notorious when such things get detected and in a bid to clean up the system like they do in Singapore they have been going overboard with their zealousness where capital punishment is concerned.
We were given pamphlets which urged us ( tourists) to dress and behave decently and apparently there are strong censorship laws against art forms and I was told that films were cut even more than they did in India. Excellent films like Schindlers list and The Piano get mauled by the censors and on the other hand the bars and the hostesses in the bars carry on with their doings quite openly without any care in the world. It seems very contradictory.
This is the dichotomy of the country - the land of smiles as many tourists call it has a lot to offer to the tourists, if they are careful and follow rules, the city is full of delights and. Bangkok offers many things to many people and you will miss out on a great experience if you fail to visit this lovely country.
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