As the capital of Thailand, Bangkok is a city of extremes. From the ultra-conservative wats to the raunchy sex shows, Bangkok has it all.
Most of the historic areas in Bangkok are situated along the Chao Phraya River. We used a ‘hop-on, hop-off’ ferry which was a cheap way to get to most of them. The ferries are large, sometimes carrying over 200 passengers, but some of the skippers are very young and inexperienced. The skipper for this first trip was an awful driver. He would speed to the pier and then force into reverse to try to stop, but never did and would float past the pier. He would then try to steer in reverse to get to the pier, but was never able. Twice he had to circle around to try again. When he finally reached each pier, the ferry slammed into the pier so hard we were rocked in our seats. We made it to our stop, the fourth pier, but in double the time as scheduled. We were glad to never see this captain again.
The main attraction in Bangkok for Thai’s and other tourists is the Grand Palace and its temple, Wat Phra Kaew. You first enter the temple grounds and are over whelmed by its opulence. You are immediately surrounded by hundreds of stupas, towers and chapels that are entirely covered in glittery gold, emeralds, diamonds and other precious jewels. There are so many glistening structures in a small area that you don’t know where to look.
Inside the main temple, is the Emerald Buddha that is very important in Thai culture.
Next to the wat complex is the Grand Palace. Not nearly as ornate, but still an impressive display of wealth and power.
Just in front of the grounds, right on the river, are homes that are dilapidated sheds. The contrast is startling.
Another important temple, down the street from the palace is Wat Pho. Instead of stupas and towers adorned with jewels, these are covered in delicate porcelain flowers. For us it is a much prettier temple without the gaudiness of Wat Phro Kaew. The main draw is a massive golden reclining Buddha. Its 46 m long, so almost half a football field.
The wat is also the site of Thailand’s first university with records from the 1700 that indicate the teaching of medicine and massage. It is still an active temple. We were lucky to see a chanting ceremony performed by monks.
A third temple complex is across the river. Wat Arun is a much simpler temple and its main feature is an 82m high prang (tower). The tower is also decorated in porcelain but instead of flowers it has small Buddhas and geometric designs. It is located directly on the river so has a beautiful setting.
Further along the river is a museum of Royal Barges. They date back to the 1500s, so some are before Bangkok was the capital. The barges are as ornate as the temples we visited.
A few kilometers away is a temple that houses the world’s largest solid gold Buddha. It weighs 5.5 tons and is from the 13th century. It was moved to Bangkok from it’s original sight in the ruins of the former capital, Sukhothai (watch for more on the ruins of Sukhothai in an upcoming blog).
The three main sites in Bangkok have a strict dress code. Women are required to wear long skirts, men to wear pants and neither are allowed to wear sleeveless shirts, tight or revealing clothing.
In complete contrast to the conservative dress code of the day, at night we went to Pat Pong Street. It started during the Vietnam war when US GIs came to Bangkok for their leave. Now this ‘street’ has grown to 3 streets and is famous for strip clubs and drag shows. The bars have interesting names such as Fetish Bar-Bar, Strip A Go-Go, and Screwboys… There are scantily clad ladies at the door enticing you in, and sleazy men on the street trying to get you to go to their ‘ping pong’ show. It was definitely an interesting contrast to our morning and a great place to observe the other side of Bangkok.