After arriving at our hostel at midnight after being awake for almost twenty-four hours we weren’t quite sure what to expect from our first day in Bangkok. The guidebook promised loads of interesting sites but we’d heard some pretty bad reviews of Bangkok from family and friends who had been here (or who knew someone who’d been here). The reviews were of a disgusting noisy city filled with touts and pickpockets. I’m glad we didn’t listen to the naysayers because that’s not the Bangkok we found.
We set out from the hostel at around 10am after I spent a few hours working. We are staying close to the river near the junction of China Town and Downtown. We decided to set off on foot towards Wat Pho and the Old Town district. We have these new Garmin Vivofit watches that tell us how many steps we’ve taken so we were keen to get some runs on the board. So we politely refused the many tuk tuk drivers, including those who refused to take “no” for an answer and wound our way along lanes and alleys. We came across many small markets where vegetables and prepared foods were sold. My favourite market was the flower market in China Town where flowers were stored on ice to keep them fresh. My poor partner discovered that being over six foot tall in Bangkok places you at risk of losing your head to all sorts of obstacles, such as the umbrellas that are balanced over walkways as shade coverings.
During our 23km walk (that’s right, we walked 14 miles) around the city, we came across many green spaces. There are pot plants and small gardens everywhere. Flowers are blooming red, purple and white while leaves of all shapes and textures abound. It almost feels like there is a little bit of country on every city street. While the city is crowded and old, it would be unfair to say it is disgusting or filthy. There are certainly a lot of cats around though. There are pretty black cats, big fat ginger cats, painted cats with missing tails and everything in between. There are dishes with cat food tucked under bridges, showing that at least some of Bangkok’s citizens are feeding the cats. The river seems to be at the heart of the city. Boats rocked on the waves churned up on its brown waters as they raced to their destinations. The sound of water slapping the concrete banks was almost constant. The traffic on the roads was constant too but not as chaotic as it was in Indonesia. The cars all stayed in their lanes and the volume of motorbikes was moderate. The traffic was certainly more chaotic and heavy than at home but it was nothing like what I had been told to expect.
Let me be clear though, there are touts and fraudsters at work all over Bangkok. In fact, I would say they are worse here than they were in Shanghai where I got stung going to a tea ceremony many years ago. The touts and fraudsters here play on the fact that foreigners view Thai culture as friendly and kind. Do not be fooled – if you are in a tourist area like Old Town Bangkok and someone starts to talk with you, they are not trying to help you. They have ulterior motives. Yes, you may enter Wat Pho and the Palace if you are not wearing trousers because you will be given the free loan of a robe or sarong. No, Wat Pho and the Palace do not close on Saturdays or Sundays or mornings before 2pm or afternoons after 1pm or whatever excuse the tout will give. And yes, you can walk down the street without a guide or tuk tuk driver. The touts were terrible around the tourist areas but disappeared as soon as we walked a block or two further away. These criminals are not just trying to make a living. They are endangering the tourist trade and the reputation of all Thai people. But don’t let them ruin your holiday … anticipate, be firm and politely ignore anyone who approaches you near a tourist area or who tries to dissuade you from going to a certain destination. So far the hot spots we have found include: Wat Pho, the Palace, Silom Road and Lumphini Park. If in doubt, ask yourself “why would this stranger want to be so helpful when I haven’t asked for advice”? And for heaven’s sake – do not carry your map out in public. Upload Google maps and use that because you can pretend you are updating Facebook instead of reading a map.
Naturally, we visited many temples during our first day in Bangkok. I was quite taken by the gold. There was just so much of it everywhere in the temples. The roofs shone in the sun, the windows glittered and the Buddha statues shone. Over the course of the day we must have visited six or seven different temples. Wat Pho was as beautiful as expected. The laying Buddha was spectacularly huge and the temple complex was massive. My favourite section was the tiny garden with the fountain in it. This was a peaceful place in a heavily touristed place. I would definitely try to come here early before the tour groups arrive if I came again.
My favourite temple was on the opposite bank of the river. Here you could climb steep steps to the top of an old Buddhist structure that reminded me a little bit of the Borobudur in Indonesia except that this was far steeper, smaller and more ornate. But the style was similar in that it was a tiered structure with steep steps and carved reliefs. The view from the top was spectacular and worth the climb. Though I do wonder whether the people who built it were short like the Thais because even my six foot tall partner found the height of the steps a challenge.
On the way home we came across a garden with a lake and island. The garden was a reproduction of an ancient sacred mountain temple. It was the kind of place that isn’t mentioned in the guide books that you stumble across when you walk around taking side alleys. It was a small but magnificent place and we probably spent almost half an hour there.
We ended the day with a full body Thai massage and a healthy street restaurant dinner complete with two serves of vegetables. I’d never had a Thai massage before so was a little shocked when I realised the masseuse was going to walk on my back (though it felt amazing) and when she dug her fingers painfully into muscles I never knew I had. And, with all due respect to every masseuse and physio who has ever treated me at home, I have never walked away from a massage feeling so good. I have chronic back pain and after this massage I felt as right as rain.