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The Silk Route Jackson Travels

Thailand: Bangkok
August 2004

The Reclining Buddha

Hot and humid but full of wonderful temples and markets, with amazing Buddha images and ornate Royal Barges and the busy Chao Phraya River binding it all together.

Plus some really excellent food - from riverside walk-ins to first rate Thai fusion.

Bangkok

Bangkok fort
Phra Sumane Fort
sky  train tickets
Sky Train 1 and 3 day passes

Arriving on time we were very efficiently met by a hotel driver and taken to our hotel: the Sofitel Silom. There was a slight mix-up on check-in so we didn't actually get to move into our Club Room until the following day but too tired to care! We had an excellent dinner in the hotel Chinese restaurant at the top of the tall building while a storm raged outside! We had some very good meals in the hotel during our stay, including a Thai Tasting Tree one evening in V9. Room service was memorable: a crisp, white table-cothed table set up for us in front of our room window, everything beautifully laid out - for excellent hamburger and fries! The breakfasts are excellent too - superb eggs benedict.

Bangkok was very, very hot and very, very humid. Going out was like walking into a sauna - coming back was one of the blissful moments of the day, to walk into the Silom's air conditioned coolness.

 

Bangkok was created when King Phrajai (who reigned from 1534 to 1546) diverted the course of the Chao Phraya River 76km south of the then capital Ayuthaya, and created Thonburi on the west bank and Bang Makok on the east.

Our first day in the city we took the Sky Train down to the Chao Phraya River area where we could get a river boat. We bought one day river passes so we could hop on and off and discover the waterfront areas.

Bangkok
On the west side of the river, a food seller;
the heat gets to everyone!

To begin with we stayed on the boat all the way up to Pier 13 - Phra Arthit Pier - and took a look at Phra Sumane Fort. This is one of the 14 city fortresses built in the eighteenth century to guard against naval invasion. It is rather an attractive octagonal shape and stuccoed white with very decorative battlements.

At Phra Arthit Pier, right on the river. we had an excellent lunch of beer and an array of local appetizers, though we had the staff hurrying to advise us when we attempted to eat the leaves in which some of it was wrapped!

After lunch we took the ferry to the other side of the river and walked around a domestic area. It looked very poor by our standards but everyone was very friendly and smiling.

Wat Pho: the Reclining Buddha

Bangkok Reclining Buddha

Bangkok Reclining Buddha
Bangkok Reclining Buddha


Bangkok Reclining Buddha

Later on our first day we visited Wat Pho, not to see the whole temple complex which we'll return to, as it's very large, but just to see the Reclining Buddha.

Bangkok Reclining Buddha

This beautiful statue was created in the nineteenth century during the reign of Rama III and represents the pose the Buddha adopted attaining nirvana.

It is 46m long, 15m high and covered in gold leaf. It is truly amazing, very beautiful, the head and feet particularly so. The eyes and feet are adorned with mother-of-pearl, the feet displaying 108 laksana - characteristics of Buddha. The toes are even decorated with "toe-prints" - beautiful symmetric whorls.

Bangkok Reclining Buddha

It's a stunning piece of work and a great way to end our first day in Bangkok.

Bangkok Reclining Buddha

Wat Pho

Bangkok Wat Pho

Bangkok Wat Pho

Bangkok Wat Pho

Bangkok Wat Pho

Bangkok Wat Pho

Bangkok Wat Pho

Bangkok Wat Pho

This is the oldest and largest temple ("wat" is a temple) complex in Thailand. Its most impressive single attraction is the Reclining Buddha, described above, and we returned here on a second day to really explore.

Bangkok Wat Pho

Bangkok Wat Pho

Bangkok Wat Pho

Bangkok Wat Pho

Bangkok Wat Pho

Bangkok Wat Pho

Although it dates back to the sixteenth century the original monastery was completely rebuilt in 1781.

The complex is divided into two walled areas by a road. The north complex has temple buildings and the reclining Buddha while the south is a working monastery.

Rama III wanted the monastery to be a centre of education and this ideal is obviously still being upheld if the number of schoolchildren visiting is anything to go by. We were politely asked several times if we would answer their questionnaires on our occupations, salaries, travelling experiences, etc.

Bangkok Wat Pho

Apart from the magnificent reclining Buddha it contains 91 chedis which are pagoda-like monuments housing relics of the Buddha or revered teachers, or memorial shrines. It also has the largest collection of images of Buddha in Thailand - mostly behind glass.

Bangkok Wat Pho

The colourful and exotic architecture, the ceramic decoration on the buildings, the beautiful plants and trees create a stunning scene. There are wonderful decorative details such as ceramic dragons on roof lines - in fact no roof line is left unadorned in some way.

Bangkok Wat Pho

Some of the gable ends of the roofs have carved gilded figures depicting a scene, perhaps a sacred story.

Bangkok Wat Pho

There are really wonderful stone statues usually at entrances to courtyards - guardians of the monastery; even on the backs of these there is great attention to detail.

Bangkok Wat Pho


Bangkok Wat Pho

 

Bangkok Wat Pho
Bangkok Wat Pho

The enormous chedis on either side of the entrance on the photographs left, right and below are completely covered with wonderfully colourful ceramics.

Bangkok Wat Pho

Jim Thompson House

Jim Thompson House

The Jim Thompson house is quite different from all the fantastically decorated temples and palace buildings in the city.

Jim Thompson was an American, born in Delaware in 1906. He volunteered in World War Two but the war ended before he saw action. He was then, however, posted to Bangkok as a military intelligence officer and after leaving the service decided to move here permanently.

An architect before the war he was also a gifted designer and colourist. He was a great admirer of traditional Thai hand-woven silk, a cottage industry, and he supported and promoted the craft worldwide.

Jim Thompson House

However, it is his wonderful home for which he is best remembered. Constructed from six teak buildings, most over 200 years old, which were dismantled and brought to the current location. He was committed to the traditional way of building so his house is elevated one storey above ground level - a practical precaution against flooding - and the roof tiles were fired in Ayuthaya with a traditional design.

He moved in in 1959 and opened the house to the public when he saw how much interest there was - all income was donated to Thai charities and heritage projects. He disappeared in Malaysia in 1967, never to be seen again.

The house is beautiful and peaceful, surrounded by greenery and fish pools.

The Grand Palace: Wat Phra Kaeo - the Temple of the Emerald Buddha

wat phra kaeo
Thotkhirithon, a giant demon

wat phra kaeo

wat phra kaeo
Curious face of a mythical creature

wat phra kaeo



wat phra kaeo



wat phra kaeo
Can't resist a photograph
with an elephant or two!
wat phra kaeo
The statue of the Hermit Doctor, father of herbal Thai medicine, just inside the entrance. Behind is an entrance to the ubosoth containing the Emerald Buddha.


Phra Si Rattana Chedi
Phra Si Rattana Chedi



wat phra kaeo


wat phra kaeo
A kinaree, half human-half bird.


wat phra kaeo

An enormous complex contains both the royal residence, government offices and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

The Emerald Buddha is actually made from a single block of green jade and only about 60cm high and set high above the floor of the temple. Photography is forbidden inside the temple. The Buddha's robe is changed three times a year by the King of Thailand: a diamond encrusted robe for the hot season, a solid gold robe for the cold season and a gilded monk's robe in the rainy season.

The Royal Palace is, apart from the roofs, much more European in appearance than the temple buildings. Though this area, too, has some beautiful buildings with richly decorated roofs, the supporting structures usually white walls or pillars. The royal residence and government buildings are not open to the public.

wat phra kaeo

There are over 100 buildings in the complex which was built in 1782 when Rama I ascended to the throne. It covers 218,000 square meters so needs plenty of time to explore.

Practically the first thing to be seen at this most sacred of Thai temples, and impossible to miss, is the huge golden Phra Si Rattana Chedi on the upper terrace. Also here is the Mondop which holds sacred Buddhist scriptures inscribed on palm leaves and contained in a mother-of-pearl cabinet.

wat phra kaeo
Mondop with Royal Pantheon behind

The Royal Pantheon is also located on the upper terrace - it houses statues of past kings of the ruling Chakri dynasty and is only open on April 6th, the anniversary of the founding of the dynasty.

Galleries around the monastery are decorated with murals depicting scenes from the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian Ramayama.

wat phra kaeo
One example of the small envelopes which come with Sky Train tickets. These show an image from the Ramakien murals.

It is an epic story of an exiled prince. Rama, who, with the aid of his brother and the monkey god Hanuman, enlist the help of two monkey kings and their large armies to rescue Rama's wife Sita who had been kidnapped by a demon.

Originally painted in the reign of Rama I in 1783, the murals have undergone numerous restorations.

I was fascinated by the fantastic statues within this complex - these are of animals and demons, often very large and usually acting as guards at entrances and exits, and mythological creatures, many completely gilded.

There are also lots of statues and other representations of elephants here. These are said to represent the white elephants acquired by the kings of Thailand.

Elephants traditionally work with the Thai people on farms and logging and have been an important mode of transport. Increasing urbanisation has had a big impact on this way of life, however, and the number of elephants has reduced dramatically. When logging was banned in 1989 mahouts began to appear with their elephants in Bangkok, looking for ways to earn a living. Cities are not, of course, great places for elephants to live.

3 July 2009: a possible solution to the problem is elephant adoption - half of the city's elephants have been relocated to a countryside reserve which is great news for the animals. News Story

The temple buildings were in the final stages of restoration when we visited so everything was pristine, glittering and very brightly coloured.

wat phra kaeo
Demons in the process of restoration

Chinatown

Chinatown

Chinatown
Chinatown

Probably the most authentic Chinatown we've seen - and absolutely huge. The streets are crowded but very atmospheric and colourful. Tuk-tuks and bicycles but not much else can get into the narrow lanes.

Chinatown

There are loads of shops, from small to massive, selling all kinds of things at very cheap prices. In particular there seems to be lots of jewellery stores selling huge ranges of goods, especially necklaces.

There are also lots of food sellers on the streets and many fairly basic-looking places to eat. Very few tourists seem to make it this far.

Chinatown

Wat Traimit

Wat Traimit


Wat Traimit


Walking away from the bustle of Chinatown's market streets, down roads lined with shops selling gold, one comes to Wat Traimit. It's a very appropriate location for the impressive major attraction at this temple: the 5.5m solid gold Buddha - said to be the largest golden Buddha image in the world. It was made in the Sukhothai style in the thirteenth century - Sukhothai was a northern Thai kingdom which existed for about 200 years from 1238. The Buddha is in the mara conquering attitude, a typical style at the time of the Sukhothai kingdom.

The Buddha was later covered in stucco to protect it from eighteenth century invaders.

The gold Buddha was only rediscovered in1955 when being moved to a new building - either by workmen seeing gold beneath cracks in the stucco or it being dropped!

Wat Traimit tickets

Two Excellent Restaurants

We found that the hot and humid conditions suppressed our appetite during the day. We enjoyed the Silom breakfasts but were happy with drinks and appetisers at lunch time - a great way to sample a wide variety of Thai food. In the evening, however, appetite returned and we had some great meals, several at the Silom from Thai to Chinese via burger and fries! Others at two memorable restaurants: the Blue Elephant and the Mahanaga.

The Blue Elephant

Blue Elephant symbol

We had heard good things about this restaurant before we arrived in Bangkok so were keen to eat here. One Wednesday evening we just dropped in and were lucky to get a table. The Blue Elephant in Bangkok is one of a string of Thai restaurants around the world. Curiously it was not the first to be established, that honour belongs to the Blue Elephant in Brussels, opened in 1980 by a Thai woman with a passion for her homeland cooking. The Bangkok restaurant opened in 2002. It is housed in an old colonial style mansion opposite a Sky Train stop so very convenient too.

On this first visit we had buffalo satay, lamb curry and various other dishes - all excellent. We enjoyed it so much we reserved a table for the following Saturday. We had the Royal Thai Banquet on our second visit which was good but a little too much on the fishy side for our tastes. Felt we were better off choosing individual dishes, though the banquets do give you an opportunity to taste a good range of traditional dishes.

Mahanaga

Mahanaga card

Mahanaga is a fantastic place. We checked it out first to make sure we could find it and had beers and excellent satay in the colonial style bar and reserved a table for dinner.

It's a beautiful restaurant, set around a romantically lit courtyard, and styling itself as Thai fusion. Andrew had satay followed by Australian lamb with mango sauce. I had prawns in crispy batter and plum sauce followed by duck in peanut curry sauce. Desserts were rum and raisin and coconut ice cream. Our most enjoyable meal of the holiday.

Before our meals we had a Mahanaga Cocktail and a Gin Fizz, well, it seemed the thing to do!

Wat Arun - Temple of Dawn

Wat Arun

Wat Arun
Notice the ladder on the
left hand side!

Wat Arun



Wat Arun is named for Aruna, the god of dawn. It is on the Thonburi side of the river and close to the river's edge and its central tall prang (Khmer style tower) catches the early morning light. Rama II and Rama III reconstructed and enlarged the wat from the original 17th century temple of King Taksin.

Wat Arun

Wat Arun
Wat Arun
Small porcelain dishes used as decoration on the walls of the temple.

The temple is covered with colourful pieces of porcelain which was used at ballast by ships coming to Bangkok from China. Much of the porcelain is broken but the effect is still very colourful.

The Emerald Buddha was housed here before being moved to Wat Phra Kaeo on the other side of the river.

Wat Arun
Wat Arun

 

It's a vertiginous edifice with statues high up in niches and the lower levels defended by fierce demons and dwarf-like guardians.

The Phra Prang - the large central prang - has wonderful statues of the god Indra on his three-headed elephant Erawan.

Chao Phraya River

Chao Phraya River

Chao Phraya River

Chao Phraya River

The river is a fascinating place and as a working river there are not just ferries but barges transporting goods backwards and forwards.


Chao Phraya River
The Grand Palace

Chao Phraya River
Chao Phraya River
Above: Wat Rakang
Below: Wat Arun

Chao Phraya River
Chao Phraya River

Chao Phraya River

 

As the traditional "highway" there are settlements along its banks, as well as temples and eating places, and ferries and water taxis carrying people to and fro.

Travelling on ferries allows you to see all kinds of things in a very relaxing way.

On the four hour return trip from Ayuthaya there was rarely a stretch of the river when there wasn't something interesting to look at.

On our final day in Bangkok we again bought one day river passes and went up and down the river. We made a special visit across to the Thonburi side, just to wander among the places where people live. We had to ask an official for the correct ferry and he didn't seem too keen for us to go. Maybe it was because the area we saw was very poor indeed. People were living in wooden shacks perched just above the water, connected by wooden walkways. No way would I take photographs here, it would have been far too intrusive. People were lying languidly in doorways and it was impossible not to walk close to them and it was obvious that we were tourists. It was a very uncomfortable feeling but perhaps a glimpse of how some people still live in this otherwise wonderful city.

Chao Phraya River

Chatuchak Weekend Market and other shopping experiences.

We're not much for shopping but Chatuchak had been recommended for its spectacle and it really is quite amazing. We visited one Sunday morning, travelling by Sky Train, to this immense covered market of around 9000 stalls, though some of the shops are really quite large and couldn't be called stalls. Anything and everything can be bought here. There are many clothing and crafts outlets but also furniture, kitchen equipment, animals - from cockerels to snakes (we were being careful for this was the time of bird flu scares!), electrical goods. I bought a couple of tops but really we were just taken by the sights and atmosphere. It was immensely hot so two hours was enough for us, but it's well worth going.

We were looking out for a new camera so also visited MBK (Mah Boon Krong) shopping centre - eight floors and 2000 shops - ridiculously large. Hundreds of "stalls" sell the same item - for instance the choice of mobiles was staggering. There is incredibly cheap software - we assumed pirated. Cameras weren't the bargain we'd hoped so we didn't linger. We also briefly tried the more upmarket Siam Centre but without buying anything. Probably more diligent shoppers could find great bargains.

Markets are everywhere in Bangkok, colourful night markets are particularly interesting not just for the array of stalls, many being food of one sort or another, but also because everyone seems to come out in the evenings and eat, though an awful lot on offer looked very strange to us!

The Royal Barges National Museum

Royal Barges
Anantanagaraj

Royal Barges
Garuda on an escort barge
Royal Barges
Suphannahong

Royal Barges
Asura Vayupak - half bird half ogre

A must if you're not lucky enough to be here when the barges are put onto the river. Up to 50m long with rowing crews of 50 men, these are the ornate boats of kings and their entourage - the Rolls Royces of kingly transport in their day. And, yes, those are cannon on the bows, harking back to their origin as warships.

The Suphannahong (Golden Swan) boat was King Rama VI's, first used in 1911, has on the prow the golden swan or hamsa, the mythical animal on which the the Hindu God Brahma rode. Made from a single piece of timber it is the largest dugout in the world.

Royal Barges
Narai Song Suban H.M. King Rama IX

The Narai Song Suban H.M. King Rama IX is the most recent, having been launched in 1966, and carries Vishnu on Garuda at the prow.

The most impressive, in my opinion, is the Anantanagaraj with a seven-headed naga serpent (sea dragon) on the prow.

Even if you do get to see the barges in action, it's worth coming here to see them up close - the detailed decoration is fabulous.