Bangkok, Thailand – Travel Review
City of Angels… Land of Smiles
by David Leck
Twenty-three years on, I remember it vividly. The sauna-like heat. The mass of humanity furiously scuttling around. Streets in gridlock. And the unique, evocative smells.
The Land of Smiles – and its capital city – didn’t figure majorly on the tourist trail in 1987. Thailand was the ‘mystical east’. A place that conjured up images of gold-laden temples, graceful, charming people, and that infamous post-Vietnam war nightlife all played out – in my imagination anyway – to a soundtrack of Murray Head’s ‘One Night in Bangkok’.
In the intervening years I’ve been back to this most engaging of South East Asian capitals on numerous occasions. More often than not they’ve been passing visits, en route to other places in the region. Or as the (perfect) stopover when heading down under.
If Singapore is five-star sterile, and Hong Kong a blend of retail overload and that often charmless Chinese brusqueness, then Bangkok is the inventive, resourceful enigma. A city that embraces much that is modern without ever sacrificing its unique character.
So what is it that captivates me – and countless others – about the City of Angels? Where to start? The food is astoundingly good. The people every bit as delightful as the stereotypes would have you believe. And the hotels are among the best in the world… Oh – and those temples!
“Great for a snap shot of local life”
Traffic congestion has improved over the years in Bangkok. Helped in part by the city’s superb Skytrain (clean, cheap and guaranteed to have British public transport hanging its head in shame), and the even-newer subway system. Now, neither of these is in any way authentic. But as a means of cutting the journey time from A to B they are hard to beat.
The tourist boat – a steal for around £1 a day – stops at a dozen or so piers. It provides access to many of the city’s highlights, including the iconic temple of Wat Arun, Chinatown, the backpacker haunts of the famed Khao San Road, and the imposing, majestic Grand Palace.
It is the last of these that, for many, provides an enduring image of Bangkok. The vast area comprises over 100 buildings. It was the official residence of Thai kings from 1782 to 1946. The absence of the Royal Family in residence has done little to diminish its standing and it continues to assume huge importance as the setting for royal weddings, funerals and other state occasions.
Guided tours are available (shorts and bare-shoulders forbidden), but it’s an experience also savoured by picking up a map and simply wandering the alleys, corridors and manicured lawns. The complex boasts a number of real delights. The Dusit Throne Hall and Aphonphimok Pavilion among the most memorable.
“One of the most impressive watering holes anywhere”
A ticket to the Grand Palace also includes admission to nearby Vimanmek Mansion. Visitors often overlook it in preference for its more famous counterpart. Vimanmek is well worth an hour or two of your time. Not only is it the world’s largest golden teakwood mansion, its beautifully kept grounds provide a delightful oasis from which to escape the city’s frenetic pace.
Bangkok transforms at nightfall. The heat of day eases, roadside traders lay out their stalls in a feat of quantity and choice over space, restaurants that rank alongside anything London or New York have to offer prepare to impress. Chi-chi bars, hotel lounges and nightclubs give any self-respecting style metropolis a run for its money.
Take the ear-popping express lift to the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel. You’ll emerge from a somewhat unprepossessing stairwell and be greeted by what surely has to be one of the most impressive watering holes anywhere. Vertigo stretches before you like the deck of an ocean liner. Below, Bangkok sparkles and preens. Pull up a stool at the bar, grab an ice-cold Singha beer and feel the excitement of a city that really does know how to impress.
There is a saying in Thailand that translates as ‘same, same, but different’. No one can quite tell you exactly what it means. But it does seem to perfectly capture this most individual and fascinating of cities.
Bangkok: Why go now?
Songkran – Thai New Year – is celebrated between April 13 and 15 and is marked in typical Thai style with a nod to the mischievous and a sense of fun. Traditionally a time to pay respects to family, friends and neighbours, Songkran today is perhaps most famous for the throwing of water.
Believed to bring prosperity and good luck, people take to the streets armed with containers, water guns or hosepipes to drench themselves and any passersby. The water, which is sometimes mixed with fragrances or mentholated talc, is also used when cleansing Buddha images at home or visiting monasteries to pray.
Bangkok is a big city with a wealth of things to keep the visitor engaged. Here is our list of some things you should try and include:
1. The Grand Palace – if you do only one thing, this should probably be it.
2. Wat Arun – possibly the most iconic symbol on the Bangkok skyline, the Temple of Dawn is a unique blend of Khmer and Thai styles.
3. The Chao Phraya River Tourist Boat – one of the best ways to see the city and a real bargain.
4. Thai Food – whether it’s a roadside stall or one of its many classy eateries, Bangkok offers some of the world’s great dining.
5. Shopping – from fakes to designer labels, wonderful boutiques to fabulous arts and crafts this is probably the best retail experience in the Far East.
6. The River Kwai – if your schedule allows, take the day trip out of the city on route to the site of the notorious World War II ‘death railway’.
7. The Klongs – or canals – are Bangkok’s arteries and provide a wonderful snap shot of city life.
8. Cocktails – Bangkok has a couple of truly stunning rooftop bars. Head for the 61st floor Vertigo at the Banyan Tree Hotel or the 52nd floor bar and Asian seafood restaurant at The Dome at State Tower.
9. Vimanmek Mansion – the largest teak-constructed building in the world, boasting an impressive collection of Royal artefacts and set in beautiful gardens.
10. Jim Thompson’s House – this impressive collection of beautiful Thai buildings explains the life and work of the American who reinvigorated the Thai silk industry.
Silk Steps (01278 722460; silksteps.co.uk) has a 12-day trip to Thailand featuring three nights in Bangkok, three in the north of the country at Chiang Mai and four nights on the island of Phuket. The cost is from £1595 per person (based on two people travelling). It includes international flights with (Thai Airways or BA), domestic flights, transfers and accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis in superior/deluxe rooms. Thai (thaiair.com), BA (ba.com) and Qantas (qantas.com) all operate daily non-stop services to Bangkok. Fares start from around £600.