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Fabulous temples, great food and thunderstorms: an introduction to Bangkok


BANGKOK – Being on the 32nd floor of a hotel overlooking the Chao Phraya river in this city is a pretty cool place to watch a thunderstorm.

Kinda ruined my shot at dining outdoors at the luscious-looking Thai restaurant here (see photo of the  IMG_9849 seating area by the river) at the Peninsula Hotel, but I’ll try tomorrow for a drink anyway.

It’s my first visit to Thailand and, naturally, first to Bangkok. So far, so good. I had fabulous and spicy Tom Yum Goong soup at the outdoor café here overlooking the river, as well as a dish of minced chicken that I wasn’t quite so hot on. But there was good lime soda and a fabulous salad with chicken, lemongrass, greens and tiny, tasty sun-dried tomatoes.

After that I went on what was supposed to be a 40-minute boat ride on the river, which was going to be followed by a walk through the city. But I didn’t understand the directions I was given and the kid on the boat didn’t speak English, not that I expected him to, and I didn’t realize the boat I was on didn’t go four or six water taxi stops and then turn around but instead went halfway to Burma. We didn’t turn around until more than an hour had gone, but I did get to say some pretty cool stuff along the way; towering hotels and fancy condos with acres of trees and flowering bougainvillea hard by corrugated tin shacks lining the river, as well as one nicely-decorated spot called River View Massage. IMG_9967

You also go past several beautiful wats, or temples, and you get pretty good views from the river of the Golden Palace; a real icon of Bangkok that I’m supposed to get a look at on Saturday.

There are tons of boats of all shapes and sizes; fast, low-slung ones for folks in a hurry, the express boat that I was on with stops every half kilometer or so, tour boats done up a bit like a Chinese junk, and small tugs pulling boats laden with tires and all sorts of mystery packages. The express ships have spaces set aside for monks and a couple time I was shooed out of a good spot so a monk in a bright orange robe would get the good view, and no complaints about that, either. Kinda cool, I think.

The city is quite the contrast. Not like I found India to be, no sir. But still quite the experience.

I snuck into the spa at the Peninsula for a treatment to help keep me awake and fight the jet lag. It’s an ESPA, which is based in Europe I think, and it’s absolutely tremendous. The most beautiful lighting I’ve ever seen and fabulous treatments, with tons of great-smelling oils and a bit of a facial, too; another first for me.

A GREAT TOUR

I had a morning this past weekend doing a walking tour of some of the dozens of sights of this capital city. My tour guide, the very likeable and knowledgable Kay from Bangkok Private Tours, showed me around the funky Banglamphu neighbourhood and gave me a tour of two magnificent temples: Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho.

IMG_0079 Wat Phra Kaew has the Emerald Buddha, which actually is jade but looks emerald, Kay told me. The grounds simply took my breath away; stunning spires of gold and deep blue tiles and colourful statues of deities and the Emerald Buddha itself, which is fairly small but sits high atop a mantle of gold and is given robes for different seasons, not that Bangkok has anything we’d call winter.

It’s a magnificent structure, filled with renderings of Buddha’s life and thousands of tiny paintings in surrounding structures. I really hadn’t done enough research, but it was one of those times I was glad I didn’t as it gave me a chance to be truly taken aback.

Wat Phra Kaew is the Mecca for Thai Buddhists, Kay told me; a place all Thais want to see at some point in their life. It’s only a few bucks to get in, and an absolute gem of a place in a city that, for many North Americans, is known mostly for nightlife, food and, yes, sex.

We also toured Wat Pho with the massive, gold Reclining Buddha. It’s another temple filled with gorgeous towers and colourful tiles, as well as miniature gardens with amusing statuary; some that  IMG_0266 looked like something out of “Where the Wild Things Are” and others causing teenage boys to laugh hilariously; most notably one with a man on his back and a woman helping him stretch his legs (I think) while resting her bum just under his chin.

The Reclining Buddha is 45 meters long, and is said to be the third longest reclining Buddha in the world or something like that. I’m not so great with numbers and who really cares if it’s 1 or 2 or 17;  it’s a remarkable piece of work that’s 17 meters high and shows the  Buddha slipping into nirvana, otherwise known as the Canadian Senate.

Following a dynamite lunch on the waterfront, Kay suggested I ease my curiousity about the canals that split off from the Chao  Phraya river and drop 60 bucks of the Star’s money on a “James Bond” boat trip.

We quickly jumped into a long, narrow boat with a high (very high) prow and an outboard motor off the back that looked to be the size of a baby elephant. Certainly not a contender for the eco-friendly tourism award, but it’s a great way to get around the canals when you have only a limited time.

We kept it slow most of the time to keep the wake down, and passed a wonderful parade of waterside homes, broken-down shacks, colourful floral displays, tiny corner markets, men fishing with their sons or daughters, teens perched on overhead road crossings while smoking cigarettes and small kids pushing one another into the murky waters. It was, in other words, an absolute delight and something I would put near the top of my list for anyone visiting this wonderful city.

Also awesome iIMG_9666s dinner outside in Chinatown, perched on narrow, long picnic tables on the edge of choking traffic and under the basking glow of a million neon lights and a three-quarter moon. I’ll tell you more about it in the Star later, but suffice to say it was cheap and great food and tons of fun.

We followed that with a tour of the nighttime flower and vegetable market, thanks to Scott Coates, the Canadian businessman who helped start the hugely successful Smiling Albino travel company, which specializes in Southeast Asia. And then drinks at a fabulous, outdoor bar on the river directly across from Wat Arun, which is beautiful to behold at night.

It was only 48 hours or so, but it really made me want to go back to Bangkok. Let alone Chiang Mai and any of the dozens of cool-looking islands.

Friendly people, and I mean that sincerely, great food, warm weather, tons of cultural sights; it’s a city that rightfully deserves to be near the top of anyone’s list.

 

 

 

 

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