Many people either start or finish their holiday in Bangkok. Some actually skip it altogether and fly straight to the beaches in the south or the mountains in the north. However, I think that the city has a lot to offer. What I am going to briefly describe for you today is a basic one day tour that you can easily do yourself. No need to pay for tour guides or rent a driver for the day. This is the tour that I did with my brother when he came to visit. It was his first time in Thailand. This is my summary of a good introduction to Bangkok for day one.
We started our tour at Siam Square. It is a good central area with plenty of shopping malls and hotels. When I stay in Bangkok I quite often stay at the Asia Hotel as it has a direct link to the sky train. It is only one stop away from Siam Square. From here our first destination was the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Traffic was light and we made good progress by taxi. Whenever taking a taxi in Bangkok, never take a taxi waiting in front of your hotel or a shopping mall and always make sure that he turns on the meter. This should start at 35 baht. The Thai word for meter is the same so just say “bert meter” if he hasn’t turned it on. Don’t take a tuk tuk. They will try and cheat you.
It was about 10.30 a.m. when we arrived at the Grand Palace. The taxi dropped us off at the main entrance. Make sure you are dressed suitably which means long trousers and shoes with a closed heal. If you are wearing shorts you can borrow a wraparound at the entrance. The entrance fee for the Grand Palace is 500 baht. It is free if you are Thai. We first went into the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew). This place is simply stunning and should be a must if you are visiting Bangkok. Next door to the temple is the Grand Palace. The King no longer lives here but you can admire the architecture and watch the changing of the guard. We were just over an hour here though during my previous visit I was there more than two hours.
We then exited the Grand Palace and turned left walking towards the river and Chang Pier. Our intention was to rent a long-tailed boat for an hour to explore the Thonburi canals on the other side of the river. Even before we reached the pier we were met by touts who wanted to sell their tours. The last time I had done a boat tour must have been four years ago and it cost 600 boat to rent a boat. The first tout wanted 1,200 baht each! I told him we weren’t interested and kept walking. We eventually found the counter for the tour boats. Unfortunately, even though he was cheaper, he still wanted 1,700 baht for the two of us. I told him I wasn’t interested as it was way too expensive. As we were walking out, one of the earlier touts came running up to us and said 1,200 baht for the two of us. Still expensive but this is the price the Bangkok Tourist office had told me that they now charge.
Bangkok used to be known as the Venice of the East. Unfortunately most of the canals have been filled in now to create new roads. However, on the opposite side of the river, in Thonburi, there is still an opportunity to see how Bangkok people have lived for generations. The boat we rented was a long-tailed boat much like the one pictured above. We started on the mighty Chao Phraya River and soon entered the much quieter canals on the other side. In less than ten minutes, we had left the city and were literally in a jungle. All of the houses were single stories and either side were banana trees and palm trees. There aren’t any roads here and the postman and other essential services all come by boat. Along the way you will see river life in action as well as some real floating markets. Our tour was about one hour. You can choose to take longer tours. There are a number of places that you can stop at along the way such as the Royal Barges Museum. For myself, one hour is more than enough.
Before we left on our boat tour, I told them that we wanted to finish at Wat Arun (The Temple of Dawn) which is on the opposite side of the river to the Grand Palace and a bit further south. This saved us on fees for transport to our next stop. As this had a private landing, we had to pay a fee of 20 baht for the boat to stop here. Wat Arun has a 82 metre high prang which is decorated with broken Chinese porcelain. This was quite common at the time as the Chinese used it as ballast in their trading junks. For their return journey there was no need for the ballast. Other unwanted ballast included the statues which can be found at many of the Bangkok temples. When we arrived at the temple we walked to the far end first where there is a small market. We walked through this for a while until we found a small entrance. Temples are free for Thai people and Buddhist to visit. This one is 50 baht for foreigners or free if you use the same entrance as we did. There are donation boxes if you want to help with the renovation of the temple.
From the public pier, we used the ferry to cross the river to the opposite bank. This was only 3 baht each. Looking back we had some fine views of Wat Arun so don’t forget to take some pictures. Once we arrived on the other side we walked straight out to the main road. To our left was the boundary wall of the Grand Palace. To our right was the buildings belonging to Wat Pho. We used the nearest entrance and as soon as we were inside the temple we turned right. To our left was the big building which housed the Reclining Buddha. But, I wanted to leave that to last as it is the highlight. I first wanted to explore the other areas. Wat Pho is considered the center of traditional Thai massage. Indeed, the temple is also known as Thailand’s first university. Instruction was given by paintings on the wall and the statues of different yoga positions. In one of the cloisters you will find a large collection of Buddha images. The three large chedis commemorate the first three Chakri kings. This temple is actually much older than them as it predates the founding of Bangkok. The temple dates back more than 300 years. In one of the temples, the ashes of King Rama I are kept under the main Buddha image. I forgot to say before that the ashes of King Rama II are under the principle Buddha image at Wat Arun.
The Reclining Buddha is of course the highlight of any visit to this temple. That is why we decided to save it for last. As we were going into this building, I noticed a side entrance where people were charging foreigners 100 baht to enter. Again, we had mistakenly come in through the wrong entrance. Never mind, there are donation boxes where you can help with the upkeep of the temple. The Reclining Buddha is absolutely stunning. You really need a wide angle lens to get it all in your picture. The length is 43 meters and the feet are covered in mother of pearl. Some guidebooks call this the longest Reclining Buddha in Thailand. But, it is the third longest that I have seen. The longest one is in Bang Phli in Samut Prakan. However, I think there will be longer one in the future in Suphan Buri. Before you leave this building, you can make a donation to buy a bowl of pennies. You then drop these into a long row of bowls for good luck.
By this time it was already after two o’clock and we were in need of a break and some lunch. Don’t forget, with the heat in Thailand you not only need to use sun protection, but also drink plenty of water. If you don’t you will regret it later. Bottled water should be about 10 baht but they might charge you more in tourist areas. We decided to catch a taxi back to our starting point and have a late lunch at the MBK shopping mall. The taxi ride back was 80 baht. The shopping mall is air-conditioned and so it was a welcome relief form the heat. It is a good idea to spend the middle of the day in one of the shopping malls. On the 6th floor of MBK you will find the large food court. You have to buy coupons first. We bought 100 baht of coupons which was just enough. It doesn’t matter if you buy too much as you can get them refunded after the meal. We bought a choice of two curries on rice for 40 baht. Water was 10 baht per bottle.
Our next destination was Jim Thompson’s House. This is within easy walking distance of MBK. We took the exit to the National Stadium sky train station and crossed to the other side of the road. Here we turned left and kept waking to the far end of the sky train station. Near here we saw a sign that directed us to turn right down a small lane. The house is at the far end just before a canal. For people who don’t know, Jim Thomposn is largely responsible for the revival of the Thai silk industry and for propelling it onto the international stage. But, we didn’t come here for the silk. Jim lived in a group of Thai traditional houses which today is opened as a museum containing many of his art collections. If you want to see traditional Thai houses then this is a good place for you to come. The cost is only 100 baht per person. You have to join the tours that take you around the garden and through the house. You are allowed to take pictures outside but not inside the house.
By this time it was starting to be a long day for us. We were hot and our feet were beginning to ache. But, we had one more stop. We walked back to the main road where we rode an escalator up to the sky train platform above the road. We wanted to do one final stop. This was the Erawan Shrine near Chit Lom station. From the National Stadium we had to go one stop to Siam and then change tracks and then go one more stop to Chit Lom. This is the station for several big shopping malls including Central World. The Erawan Shrine was full of local and foreign merit makers. People come here to wish for good luck. If their wish comes true then they offer the spirit things like wooden elephants and food. They also pay for traditional Thai dancers to perform for the spirits. This is a great place to sit and watch the activity for a while. It is also a great place to enjoy Thai dancing for free!
Well, that was the end of our day long tour. I don’t think you would want to do much more than that. Maybe spend the rest of the day in one of the local shopping malls like Central World or Siam Paragon. Maybe even watch a movie. If you are up to it, you could go and watch Muay Thai at one of the boxing stadiums. Over the coming weeks I will give you some more ideas of places you can visit in Bangkok. But, I think today is a good tour of some of the highlights.