“Bangkok: the New York City of Thailand” is the 3rd in a series on Thailand by my cousin, Ron Clinkenbeard. If you’re just joining us, be sure to read Thailand: Chiang Mai Adventure and Thailand: Discovering Phuket. (Click on any photo to enlarge or to read caption)
On the final leg of my travel I flew from Phuket to Bangkok, a city with 8 million residents. A short one-hour flight revealed Bangkok’s characteristics vividly contrasting its developing status and its modern conveniences.
Transportation in Bangkok
Within Bangkok I used a variety of transportation methods which highlight the distinctive character of the city and of Thailand. The Chao Phraya River bisects the city and has a network of boats that carry passengers quickly up and downstream on both sides of the river.
Bus routes are numerous and inexpensive. Taxis and tuk-tuks can also be found in most parts of the city, particularly around commercial neighborhoods and tourist attractions. There is also a high speed and air-conditioned elevated train system that connects several modern business districts and the international airport.
Exploring the City
Bangkok is the Thai equivalent to New York City in that it bustles 24 hours a day, traffic is horrible, and has few places to find solitude. But it also has no end of neighborhoods to explore, foods to eat and sights to see.
I focused on visiting areas close to the river as it was an easy ‘landmark’ with which to get and maintain my bearings. I chose to spend one day exploring several regions in town, that near the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, transiting Chinatown, and the area surrounding Wat Phra Kheo and the Grand Palace.
The Mandarin Hotel was the first which catered to foreign business interests and met western style tastes and standards. The lobby is still noted as a place for doing business over drinks while classical music is performed on the grand piano. Once built, it became the anchor for other western-aided development which ultimately led to other hotels, skyscrapers and luxury housing.
Yet in close proximity to this are small open markets where trucks are loaded and unloaded by bare chested men; adjacent stalls might contain dried fish and Sanyo radios, and many of the proprietors live above the market place. The neighborhood is home to Assumption Cathedral, a 100-year old Romanesque Catholic church which was undergoing extensive renovation to its Rococo style interior. This was also an area in which you could have a tailored suit made in 24 hours.
I traveled through Chinatown, another distinctive district that displays its heritage through signage, shops, and restaurants tailored toward Chinese tastes. The flower market was bustling, beautiful, and fragrant beyond what I had anticipated.
Grand Palace Complex
The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kheo are highlighted in most travel books as ‘THE’ main attraction in Bangkok and I had to agree, due to their scope and magnificence. The grounds within the walls incorporate numerous buildings that have religious and civic importance and use. Though many of the buildings allowed no entry, the palace and temple structures themselves are artistic works that parallel the craftsmanship and works of devotion reflected in the great cathedrals of the Western world.
There were gifts to the king on display in several places including a scale model of Angkor Wat presented by the people of Cambodia.
There were also several small themed museums (armaments, cultural artifacts, decorative arts) which offered air-conditioned respite from the heat! Adjacent to the palace grounds is another temple, Wat Pho, which contains the largest reclining Buddha in the world and houses a renowned traditional medicine center and its Institute of Massage.
Bridge on the River Kwai
I escaped Bangkok proper for a day trip to see the Bridge on the River Kwai near Kanchanaburi, approximately 60 miles away. I went for the adventure of it, riding the vintage Thai Railways System train complete with wooden seats and wide open windows, enjoying the evaporative cooling effects in the sweltering heat and humidity.
At many stops along the way, industrious vendors would board the train to offer snacks and drinks – fresh mango, toffee nuts, curry and rice, and Coca-Cola. If the train left before they got off… well, they would get off at the next station and return via bus or the next train – which only ran twice daily. The train trip took about two hours and you can either get off in town or at the bridge, both places worthy of exploration.
The story of the bridge, given notoriety and literary license by the David Lean movie, was repeatedly built, damaged and rebuilt in World War II by prisoner and slave labor.
There is a cemetery and a museum in town which tell the true story and provide a gripping context to the harrowing aspects of the war.
I also walked across the current train bridge and took pictures, as there are only two trains crossing it daily, and then returned to the commercial area for a street food lunch and awaited my return train. It came, one hour late, and was greeted on arrival at the small Bangkok station by a torrential downpour and no taxis. It was all about adventure!
There were several other worthwhile explorations in Bangkok. Dusit Park is home to Vimanmek Mansion and the SUPPORT museum. This golden teak mansion was a retreat home for King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and relocated from a location on the Gulf of Thailand in 1901. Constructed without nails, it was the first building in Thailand to have electricity and an indoor bathroom. The mansion contains many beautiful artifacts ranging from exotic furniture to hunting trophies.
The SUPPORT museum converted a formerly used throne hall into a glorious exhibit of Thai artistry and crafts. There were amazing displays of beetle wing tapestries and ceremonial clothing, inlaid wood and enormous carved panels. Also gold and silver-work, weaving, embroidery and silk creations.
I later took a whirlwind stroll around the central lake in Lumphini Park which felt like New York’s Central Park (complete with surrounding skyscrapers) except for the water monitor lizards patrolling and protecting their individual territories. I made one additional stop for a tour through Jim Thompson’s House. He was an American businessman and art collector who launched the modern silk industry by establishing markets in the West. That he disappeared under mysterious circumstances adds to his legendary status.
As I prepared to leave Thailand behind, I reflected a little on the significant experiences that will remain in my memories. Places of beauty will be tucked away and are preserved by photos. Great memories of people are preserved in my journal. The tuk-tuk driver who gave us a lesson in Thai economics. The kindness of our Chiang Mai hotel attendant…the “Queen of Curry”…and Ning and her cat “Chicken”. And as I mentioned in the beginning of this report, the surprise of variance from expectation. There was the magic of lighting our paper lanterns and launching our krathongs during the festical. And observing the incongruities of life in this developing country — monks taking selfies, satellite dishes on huts with no plumbing, reliable cell service in the jungle. Who knew? I would happily go back to Thailand – but I know that it wouldn’t be the same.
- Chao Phraya Express Boat
- Mandarin Oriental Hotel gallery
- Assumption Cathedral
- The Grand Palace information and history
- Wat Pho temple and Institute of Massage
- How to get to the Bridge on the River Kwai
- Vimanmek Mansion
- Lumpini Park
- Jim Thompson House
Stay tuned for Ron’s next post, Faces of Thailand, a photo essay & stories of the people he met in Thailand