In the eight years we've been in Asia, this is only our third visit to Bangkok. Given all that it has to offer, I have to wonder why we haven't been more often. Too many other places got to the front of the line I suspect.
Bangkok began life as a 15th century trading post in the Chao Phraya River Delta and the river itself curves its way through town. Its history has the usual palace intrigue until King Mongut took a somewhat more enlightened view. This King of Siam (Thailand was Siam) was the enlightened monarch who hired the English widow Anna Leonowens to give his 82 children a Western education. From the book of that experience was born 'The King and I' broadway musical and movie with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. But, Mongut did more than that. In 1863 he commissioned the first paved road in Bangkok running 6.7 km's from the palace towards the rising sun that linked the key business, diplomatic and religious districts of the city. Here were the foreign embassies, the great trading companies, churches and temples, and the first great hotel - The Mandarin Oriental.
Bangkok today has surpassed Paris as the most visited tourist destination in the world. This, despite its somewhat haphazard infrastructure that has delivered, among other things, some of the worst traffic we've seen anywhere, maybe Jakarta. Despite money being poured into public transit it seems just as bad now as on our first visit 8 years ago with every taxi ride taking two or three times as long as it should. Factor that for every trip, or learn to use the sky train like a local.
The Great Hotels
Bangkok seems to have more than its share of great hotels. The Sukothai, the Metropolitan by Como Group, the charming Eugenia are just a few of the smaller, boutiques that we love. This trip we tried the newish 'Sofitel So Bangkok' on Lumphini Park. This is Accor Hotel Group's attempt for a more 'W' like offering and they come pretty close. Being on the Park is nice as Bangkok is notorious for having less green space than almost any city its size. The hotel has lovely rooms, a charming infinity pool/bar on the 10th floor and the ubiquitous Bangkok roof terrace and fine restaurant on the 29th floor with stunning views. A very good if not great hotel. Great is reserved for the venerable Mandarin Oriental. This place is the Grande Dame of Bangkok hotels since its opening in 1876. It is an enormous jumble of buildings, on both sides of the river, with gorgeous gardens, pools, fountains and 9 different bars and restaurants. Its shopping areas have the most gorgeous (and expensive) goods in town from jewelry, to art, to antiquities. It even has its own Jim Thompson store. A story of intrigue and mystery, Jim Thompson was the American ex-military intelligence expat who saved the Thai silk business from near extinction before walking into the Malaysian jungle on an afternoon visit in 1967 and never seen again. The search involved hundreds of police and military and found not one single piece of evidence in weeks of combing the jungle. Jim Thompson House in Bangkok is a stunning museum (with an excellent restaurant) where you can see where and how he lived as a collector of fantastic antiques and entire houses he brought to the property from the oldest parts of Thailand.
No visit to Bangkok would be complete without a visit to Chatuchak Weekend Market. The place is enormous, the largest weekend market in the world, covering 37 acres and containing 15,000 stalls in 27 sections. It is also notorious for its ongoing trade in endangered species. A habit the Thais seem reluctant to break. Our taxi takes us to the North West corner which, unfortunately, is the the 'pet' section; if your idea of a pet is a 10 foot python. We are stunned to see hundreds of puppies, squirrels, rabbits, snakes, lizards and some creatures we don't recognize at all. There are dozens and dozens of stalls selling tropical fish, many with as many as 30 large clear bags of fish laid on on the floor. It is wet, sticky (they partially covered it in 1995 which just made it hotter) smelly and we have to step over a beggar crawling through the mud with one twitching leg. Fortunately, a map is offered and we are able to get to a less disconcerting part of the market where we look for beads, silver and something to remember Bangkok by. I find an 18 inch tall brass Buddha head with an expression I like. Not old, totally fake and all of a rather poorly negotiated 700 Baht or $28.00. The other must see market in Bangkok is the Taiing Floating Market, made famous in one of the James Bond movies. I think the rather bad one with Roger Moore. From here you can go out into the canals in a rented sampan and, as we have done before; sample Pad Thai cooked over an open flame in a tinier boat than ours. That was an excellent experience until we realized she was cooking and cleaning with river water. No harm done, that time anyway. We found another market this trip. The Amulet Market.
The Amulet Market
Slightly bizarre is too kind. What looks like a normal, junky flea market has a lot of twists and turns as you wander the alleys. Amulets play an important role for Buddhists, Hindu's and even Animists. They come in all shapes and sizes, they are made from clay or metal or bone and they protect the wearer from all manner of things. There are amulets for great sex, for good luck, for protection from car crashes or sea voyages. They can come with an embedded fish bone that provides special powers and the cheapest of all is the two headed baby zombie that works better if you feed it during the day. How you feed a 200 Baht piece of cheap clay with two skulls wasn't explained. Buddha wrote that amulets were useless trinkets with no powers and should be avoided but that doesn't seem to be followed here. And, It seems once you can carve cheap amulets you can do dentures as well. There are lots of roadside denture stalls where you can have your upper plate made or adjusted by hand grinding it to fit. We didn't stay around this place very long.
We learn that the Festival of Loy Krathong is Sunday night. This event involves the floating of a Krathong offering with a lit candle in the river (or the pool if you are at the Sofitel So) that symbolizes letting go of all your hatred and anger. Always in the 12th lunar month (November) under the full moon, Krathongs are now required to be biodegradable since people started using styrofoam as it floated better. Now, they are organic and made from palm leaves or even bread that the fish eat. While all this is going on people are lighting Khom Loi lanterns that float by the hundreds into the air. We decide the best place for this is the Mandarin Oriental as I don't want to dip my Krathong in somebodies pool. 8,000 Baht later we have a reservation. We are now acclimatized enough to know we have to leave early for our 7:30 rez but, not early enough it seems. A 6:00 PM departure for a 15 minute trip stretches to an hour stopped dead. Our taxi driver wisely does a u-turn and we sneak down another road until we are completely blocked by the police. He pulls into an alley and explains ( in Thai ) that we are at Soi 32 and must walk to Soi 40 ( all streets are 'Soi' and all are numbered ). Off we go and he is 100% accurate, we are at the Oriental in minutes. The hotel is packed and we are hustled on to one of their boats as our dinner is on the huge terrace in front of their spa. The hotel sends many lighted boats out in the river in front of us and someone is floating hundreds of Khom Loi from a rooftop. Dinner is a giant and quite spectacular buffet with no less than 8 stage acts of Thai dancers acting out Loy Krathong scenes. This ends at 11:00 pm with a big fireworks display and a boat ride back to the other shore. After a near punch up with some European trying to scoop my taxi we are home in less than 20 minutes.
And that was our weekend in Bangkok. Yes, this trip we missed Khaosan and Patpong Road with all the Khatoeys (lady boys) and bar girls that have imaginative ways to fire a ping pong ball at your head. Been there and done that. There are fabulous temples like Wat Pho and Wat Arun, the beautiful flower market where they make thousands of garlands and offerings every morning. But, we are back in March for a 40th birthday fete when I am sure there will be an attempt at imitating 'Hangover 3'. Look for an update in the blog section.