I have been to Bangkok half a dozen times but hardly know the place. My nephew, Wai Leuk and niece, Wai Yan are on summer holiday in Hong Kong and I decided to give them a treat. We took a 4-day package to Bangkok. What have we done in 60 hours in Bangkok?
My nephew and niece, Wai Leuk and Wai Yan, are on summer holiday and stay with me in Hong Kong. I found a reasonable 4-day package to Bangkok at a Travel Expo and decided to give them a treat. We were joined by a friend, Regina and her son, Nixon who is of the same age as Wai Yan. We just wanted to spend a nice weekend and had no itinerary in mind.
The Indochina peninsula had been inhabited by various animistic communities prior to the migration of Tai people from southwestern part of China. They began to migrate first to Dien Bien Phu in modern Vietnam around 700 AD. From there, they radiated into northern highlands and founded the cities of Luang Prabang in present day Laos and Chiang Saen in northern Thailand.
The country has existed in some form since the 13th century. Thai city-states gradually became independent from the weakened Khmer Empire and Sukhotkhai established the first Thai kingdom in 1239 AD. The second kingdom began with its first ruler King Ramathibodi in 1351. But the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was ended in 1767 when its capital was invaded and burnt down by the Burmese armies. General Taksin who reunited the country became Rama I in 1782 as the first king of the Chakri dynasty that continues to now. He also founded the new capital city at Bangkok.
Thailand is the only country in South-east Asia that has not been colonized in its history. However, Thailand has weathered many political crises. Following the Siamese Revolution of 1932, the government was transformed from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy under a parliamentary democracy. The country was renamed Thailand in 1949.
The military has been playing an active role. Military rule was imposed after the 6 October 1976 Massacre and from 1991 to 1992. Thaksin Shinawatra who led the populist Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party came to power in 2001. He was popular with urban, suburban and rural poor. Thaksin’s rise has accelerated the ongoing political struggle. Thaksin Shinawatra won the election in 2005 but was ousted in bloodless coup in September 2006.
Thailand has gone through a dramatic and turbulent period in 2008-09. Followers of Thaksin dress in red shirts and those from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and others dress in yellow shirts. PAD saw the government acting as a proxy for the deposed Prime Minister Thaksin. Massive protests led by PAD began in 2008 opposing government’s proposal to amend the 2007 constitution. A state of emergency was declared in Bangkok in September 2008. Armed PAD forces surrounded the Parliament leading to violent crash. On November 25, a convoy of armed PAD members dressed in yellow blocked the entrance to the terminal building of Suvarnabhumi and the government declared a state of emergency around two occupied airports. No flights with passengers were allowed for eight days leaving thousands of travellers stranded at the airport and in Thailand. Following the dissolution of the coalition government, PAD declared victory and ended the protest with flights resuming on December 4.
In July 2011, the opposition party led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of the former Prime Minister Thaksin won the election. She has since become Thailand’s first female and youngest ever to occupy the position.
Thailand known for its hospitability, colourful tribes, awesome and unique style of architecture, beautiful mountains and beaches has been a popular tourism destination. It also boosts five World Heritage Sites (WHS) including two natural and three cultural sites. Over 19 million international tourists visited Thailand last year. With a land area of over 510,000 sq. km, a coastline of 3,129 km and a population of about 68 million ( 2012 est.). The GDP at official exchange rate was US$346 billion. But the GDP (purchasing power parity) reached UD$601 billion (2011 est.) resulting in a GDP per capita (PPP) at US$9,700. Thailand has however been severely hit by the Asian Financial Crisis.
Day 1: Hong Kong – Bangkok
The Kenyan flight scheduled for departure for over an hour. We did not leave Hong Kong till 11pm. As the Bangkok Airport was congested, the plane could not land till 1pm (Bangkok is one hour behind Hong Kong). The Bangkok Airport is large but not as organised as the Hong Kong airport. The immigration service is slow. Though we only had hand luggage and did not need to wait for our luggage, we still could not leave the airport till almost 2am. By the time we checked in at the hotel at Sukhumvit 22, it was almost 3am.
Day 2: Bangkok
We did not get up till 9am. The buffet breakfast had plenty of fruit and vegetables. We took a taxi to see the Grand Palace. The taxi driver begged us to visit a gem factory so that he could earn 5 litres of petrol for free whether we bought any goods or not. In order to help him, we went to the factory. Regina did spend about HK$600 on two sets of necklaces and bracelets for her two daughters.
As visitors need to cover their knees, Wai Leuk, Wai Yan and Nixon, all in shorts, had to queue for over 20 minutes to get change. By the time we could enter the Palace complex, it was already 12:30pm.
The Palace Complex
The palace was first built by King Rama I when he ascended to the throne in 1782. The Grand Palace complex covers an area of 218,000 square metres and is surrounded by four walls measuring 1900 metres in length. The complex consists of the royal residence and the throne hall, the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha and a number of government offices. The Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall and the Phra Monthian Dharma are the two structures erected.
We first visited the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha which is an architectural gem. The upper terrace consists of four main monuments namely a reliquary in the shape of a golden chedi, the Mondop, a repository for Buddhist sacred scriptures inscribed on palm leaves, a miniature Angkor Wat and the Royal Pantheon.
Wat Prakeaw, is one of the most venerated sites in Thailand contains the sacred Buddha image carved from a single block of jade which was first discovered in Chiang Rai.
The galleries encompass the grounds of the Royal Monastery. The walls are meticulously painted with scenes from the Ramakien.
We followed the trail and visited the Chakri group of buildings which was completed in 1882, the year of centenary celebration of Bangkok. Visitors can only visit the glittering Central Throne Hall. I find the grandiose building with an elegant blend of Thai and western architecture. There are two small but well-presented museums on weapons. One is showing fire-arms (revolvers, guns, riffle etc.) and the other showing old ones including the trident, pike etc.
Our third stop was the Wat Phra Kaeo Museum. There are a lot of display on the history and restoration of the temple and precious Buddha images.
Our last stop was the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. The building has been most beautifully restored and opened since this spring. Thailand’s first museum dedicated to textile conservation. The exhibits including the collection of dresses worn by Queen Sirikit on a 6-month travel to Europe and the States, the layout and illustration and the videos are fantastic and first class.
Visitors can easily spend a day in the complex. As we were hungry and were eager to find Regina and Nixon who had gone missing at the Royal Monastery, we quickly finished our tour of the complex and reached the entrance around 3pm. There was no sight of Regina and Nixon. I sent Regina a SMS and got a swift reply. They were already on their way back to the hotel.
Wai Leuk, Wai Yan and I had a bowl of noodle for 50bahts and took an hour-canal boat ride for 900 bahts. I did a similar trip to the floating market almost thirty years ago. The water in the canal is still smelly, murky and filthy. Anyway, it gave us a chance to sit and enjoy the changing skyline along the busy Chao Phraya.
The boat dropped us off at the TakSin Bridge. It only took us a few minutes to reach the sky train station on foot. It was almost 5pm and the platform was full of commuters. We changed at CEN and finally got off at E5-Phrom Phong station. The trip cost us 40bahts each. It was our first ride on the sky train which is comfortable and efficient. If possible, I prefer to take the mass transit instead of taxi.
In the evening, five of us went to a newly opened shopping mall called Terminal 21 for dinner. This mall uses the airport theme, which is why it is called Terminal 21. Whenever going up an escalator, there is a sign that says departure or arrival at a certain city. The different floors represent different cities, and there were many famous monuments, like the Golden Gate Bridge. We first ate Thai food in a restaurant. The quantity was small and we decided to have a second meal at the food court. The food was good and reasonable. They even tasted better than the Thai restaurant on the same floor. We were all tired and slept before midnight.
Day 3: Bangkok – Ayutthaya – Bangkok
We hired a car for 3500 baht and set off at 9:30am for Ayutthaya which was second capital of Siam. The driver took the toll road and we had to pay another 400bahts in total. As it was Saturday, there was not much traffic on the road. We reached Ayutthaya in an hour’s time.
The kingdom of Ayutthaya was founded in 1351 by Phra Chao U-Thong, who ascended the throne as King Ramathibodi. The capital city situated on an island surrounded by the Chaopraraya River and the Pasak River was once a centre of regional and international trade. It reached its golden era during the reign of King Narai (1656 to 1658). The historical centre and ruins at Ayutthaya are now a WHS.
Our driver took us to an elephant village instead. I wanted to see the main ruins namely the iconic Wat Chaiwaitthanaram built by King Prasatthong in 1690 AD. He complained it was far but finally agreed to take us there. Obviously, he did not know the way and we asked many times. After visiting Wat Chaiwaitthanaram, we went to the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum which is small but well presented. The exquisite gold treasure discovered at Wat Mahathat and Wat Rajaburana is on display.
After a quick lunch, we visited the Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit (a temple) and Wat Phra Si Sanphet. I walked past the impressive Wat Phra Ram (just behind the museum) on the way back to the car. I asked him to take us to see the Wat Lokayasutharam (a Buddha image lying on his side). His face turned black and he pressed us to return to Bangkok. I ignored him and proceeded to Wat Mahathat and Wat Rajaburana for a quick look. He drove fast and dropped five of us off in Central Bangkok at 5pm.
My friend, Curtis whom I met in New York is now working in a university in Bangkok. Wai Leuk and Wai Yan have a Thai friend whom they met in Kunming and want to meet up with her parents (Mr. and Mrs. Givannon). As a result, a dinner for two turned into a dinner for seven. We walked to a nearby restaurant called The Terrace hidden away in a big department store. We had a sumptuous dinner for only 1900bahts. Great food and value!
The Thai couple suggested a visit to the famous Chatuchak night market which is supposed to be a must-see place. There are many street stalls some selling old and used stuff. We tried some local deserts which are cheap and nice. I do not find any goods of interest. We spent an hour and tried to get a taxi back to the hotel. But no taxi would go to at Sukhumvit. Finally, we took the sky train to E4-Asoka (where Terminal 21 is) and walked back to the hotel.
Day 4: Bangkok – Hong Kong
As we had to leave the hotel at 11am, there was not much time to do anything. I had an early breakfast and took a Thai massage for 250bahts at a local massage parlor. I originally intended to take expensive one at the spa in the Imperial Queen Hotel opposite our hotel. But it was already fully booked!
On our way to the airport, our car had a minor accident when another car cut lane hitting our car. No one was hurt. But the driver had to spend over half an hour to take photos for insurance purposes. We finally arrived at the airport after midday. The plane departed on time. We arrived in Hong Kong before 7pm and were home around 8pm.
I must have been to Bangkok half a dozen times. My last accidental visit to Bangkok was in 1997 when a typhoon in Hong Kong prevented us from landing and the plane from Maldives was forced to land in Bangkok. I spent one night there and went to the night market. I also spent one night at the airport hotel last year on my way to Bhutan. But I did not have a real feel about the city other than its chaotic traffic.
The metro and the sky train, the first line of which commenced operation in 1999, have transformed the city. Bangkok is now a livable city as one can move around easily. I find Bangkok vibrant, smarter and more affluent.
Wai Leuk and Wan Yan enjoyed the short trip and like the Thai food. We all find the Palace complex interesting and are impressed by the Museum of Textiles. The day trip to Ayutthaya is worthwhile. If we had a more cooperative driver who knows the ruins, we should have been able to see all the major attractions in a day. Anyway, Thailand is accessible and affordable. On my next visit, I hope to visit the ruins of the Kingdom of Sukhotkhai which is also a WHS and take a tall ship cruise in southern Thailand.