Thailand has so much to see with so little time. Why not begin in Bangkok, a fast, busy, smokey and smothering city, with thousands of restaurants, shopping meccas and hotels that rank from ultra cheap to ultra extravagant. Start in ‘Bangers’ as it is known to Expats and experience the hustle and bustle; head on down to Khao San Road and experience the haggling among the street vendors.
Bangkok holds the record for the longest place name! In Thai, Bangkok is known as Krung Thep; and over time has been referred to as ‘The City Of Angels’ and enmasse Thailand as ‘the Land of the Smiles’ (as it’s citizens have that famous enduring smile). Why not also head north-west to Kanchanaburi City – where Australian, British, Dutch and American soldiers endured years of torment and hardship building the Thai-Burma Railway for the Japanese Imperial Army in 1942-5. Whilst there visit the Tiger Temple, Sai Yok Waterfall or drive to Sangklaburi and visit the Mon people on the border of Thailand and Burma. There is so much to see and do.
The Grand Palace in Bangkok is pure opulence; Thai and western style buildings share the opulent rai’s (acres) and are utilised for ceremonial and administrative purposes alike. The gold leaf tiles and attention to every minor detail in design is exceptional – the man hours that are invested here is incredible, something a westerner could not probably fully understand nor would our unions allow. Guards stand out the front and are not permitted to move – the heat and humidity must be so oppressive standing to attention in all their regalia. There is a lot to see at the Grand Palace for your 200 baht entry cost, the palace has an area of 218,400 square metres, the length of the four walls totals 1900 metres where construction began in 1782. There is a group of canons that is worth a look as well as swords and weapons of a bygone era. You can visit an active Wat (temple) inside one of the Thai style temples and see how the locals pray and are humbled by their god – Lord Buddha. It is interesting to note that even Thai teenagers and younger Thai adults also participate in the religious homage in all of these and many other Thai Wats.
Wat Phra Kaeo is situated within the grounds of the Palace; it is a two storey Wat with many antiques and valuables to see; including scale models of the Palace grounds today and of a century ago – you can see how it has progressed over the years by the many influences of the Kings.
Wat Phra Kaeo houses the most revered Buddha image in all of Thailand – the Emerald Buddha (known in Thai as Phra Kaeo Morakot) it is carved from a large piece of Jade. The Emerald Buddha is 48.3cm in width across the lap and 66cm in height, the three seasonal costumes for the Emerald Buddha consist of those for the hot and rainy seasons donated by King Rama I and one for the cold season donated by King Rama III.
Pra-Tu-Nam is an excellent market and one you can easily get lost in – but this is a good thing right? It is basically below the Bai Yoke Sky Hotel and the silk, clothing, watches, and all other nick nacks etc are very cheap compared with other more ‘touristy’ venues, a lot of locals shop here so you know it is good value. For a side trip whilst at Pra-Tu-Nam, visit the Bai Yoke Sky Hotel and their observation deck on level 78 (cost 120 baht), there is an inside and outside deck with one revolving – the cityscape continues up there as far as the eye can see.
Silk products, especially silk in rolls for dressmaking etc can be purchased cheaply at ‘Porn Phaisal’ 288/6 Rajprarop Road, Opposite Golden Gate Plaza, Pra-Tu-Nam. On the way to Pra-Tu-Nam is a shopping centre called Panthip Plaza – this is a popular multi level shopping centre for all your electronic and computer related needs, including software and accessories, digital camera memory is very cheap here. Remember to haggle prices and keep receipts. The big daddy of all the tourist markets is of course Patpong Night Market. The name Patpong comes from the family who owns it, a must visit in Bangkok and whilst it caters for the tourists who flock here some bargains can be found but generally it is way overpriced. There are two alleys known as Soi’s dedicated for the market and it gets packed full of tourists on most nights especially weekends. Stop off at the Tip Top Restaurant (in the middle of Patpong 1) if the ambience of the market becomes too smothering, remember to haggle and offer a smile. Have a beer in a ‘bar’ there and you will see some interesting sites.
Allied Prisoners of War were utilised as forced labour by the Japanese Army and sent by ship, train and marched to Kanchanaburi and beyond to begin the Thai-Burma Railway in 1942, to create a rail link from occupied Thailand to current day Myanmar – to feed supplies to the Japanese fighting in Burma. As a consequence 2,710 Australians died all along the railway and as one writer has said – ‘A Life for Every Sleeper.’ If it wasn’t for the Australian tenacity, mateship and medical legends such as Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop and Sir Albert Coates, many more of our soldiers would have perished. Kanchanaburi is two hours by bus from Bangkok (from the Southern Bus Terminal), there is the Don Rak War Cemetery to see – the southern cemetery for the railway with approximately 7,000 war dead including 1,362 Australians. Adjacent the cemetery is the Thai-Burma Railway Centre, a museum on the railway with many wall panels etc describing events on the railway plus a cafeteria overlooking the cemetery. Two kilometres north is the Bridge Over the River Kwai – built by POWs and destroyed in 1945 by United States Air Force B24’s on a bombing mission. Next door to the bridge is a floating restaurant, spend a night having dinner here and have the famous bridge as a backdrop and toast the men who are still there. Another 80 kms north following the Kwai Noi River is the infamous Konyu Cutting or Hellfire Pass. It is said it got it’s name from POW’s standing at the top of the cutting looking down during the night with the bamboo bonfires and oil lamps burning with hundreds of men toiling in the balmy night and their captors ready to pounce with a bamboo stick at the ready – men likened this ‘to the jaws of hell’ where it subsequently became known as Hellfire Pass. It took three months to cut a way through this solid rock and it has been said cost some 700 lives. Without men of this calibre, tenacity and spirit we certainly could be speaking ‘A Different Brand Of English’.
‘Prik’ and ‘Phed’ or hot and spicy, that’s the way Bangkok food has been since the traders introduced chilli some centuries ago. One top restaurant among hundreds is the Nipa Thai Restaurant on level three inside the Landmark Hotel near Soi 5. Attention to detail at the Nipa Thai is to be commended; the Thai decorations down to the carpet make for a pleasant and classy surrounding. For AUD$50, two can dine until stuffed like a Christmas turkey, with several lagers to wash down the well presented and flavorsome Thai (aharn) food. This restaurant would make a small fortune if nestled in uptown Collins Place; this is one where any good Aussie Shiraz or Merlot would dazzle the palate against the spices of the Bangkok cooking. For starters try ‘Toon Ngern Yuang’ or Fried Minced Pork and Prawns wrapped in a Bean Curd Pastry’, these little packets come with plum or sweet and sour sauce for dipping and tantalize the taste buds, they are certainly equal to South Melbourne Market’s ‘Cricket Ball Dimmy’ only a smaller size but equal on taste. This restaurant out does itself with ‘Kao Ob Sabprarod’ or Fried Rice served in Pineapple, the half pineapple is finely cut by the chef and beautifully produced with other delicately sliced vegetables including carrots that resemble an award winning ‘David Austin Rose’ and finely shaped cucumber and tomato, perfectly laid out on a presentation Thai style plate with accompanying dipping sauces – perfect. These dishes alone would overprice such treats in Melbourne with all the time taken to present them with their intricately cut vegetables and service staff that hover like on-ballers at the centre bounce at the MCG. Don’t forget Thailand’s favourites like the Green Chicken Curry, the Panang and Musaman curries – delish.
If you enjoyed your dining experience and fell in love with the ‘Prik’ and ‘Phed’ of Thai aharn, then try the cooking course offered by this restaurant. You can choose the one day or full week of cooking all types of popular Thai cuisine, both fun and rewarding; where else could you cook, consume and learn without having to do the dishes? (Landmark Hotel at 138 Sukhumvit Road Bangkok, 10110, Thailand, Tel: (662) 254 0404).
The Montien Hotel Bangkok is a four star hotel and was opened in 1967 by Queen Sirikit, inside it has been lovingly renovated and cared for – the grand staircase is golden, long and made of marble, it sweeps up to the business floor area adjacent the bar where they serve expensive but delicious cocktails. The doorman wears a white military style suite and pith helmet and the majestic lobby borrows the stately name ‘Montien’ meaning Royal Residence. This hotel has everything from an inviting pool to a bakery, Chinese Restaurant, all you can eat buffet breakfast which has all types of dishes from salmon to fresh local fruits and bacon – lots of bacon, Club 54 to it’s cigar bar and karaoke booths. It is a five minute walk to the Skytrain and is directly across the road from the market of Patpong – I mean you could throw a stone and hit a tout in the head (don’t get any ideas!) Travel brochures all mention the real estate catch phrase for this hotel: ‘location, location, location.’ This is the hotel that you can spend time in, swimming, smoking a cigar, having a smooth ‘Jack and Coke’ at the lobby bar listening to the ‘Tinglish’ piano singer whilst the Pong people set up their wares ready for you to start with your bargaining skills. This is relaxing!
When on the expressway heading for the airport, don’t look back; planning for your next Thailand adventure starts there – on that fast expressway home. Was it all an action packed dream? Mai Pen Rai (She’ll be right).
Andrew Mason is author of a published travel guide for Thailand, titled, ‘A Different Brand of English’ and is available at: www.poseidonbooks.com/a_different_brand_of_english.htm.
Full of security tips, travel advice and staying safe in Thailand and Singapore. It has what the other travel guides miss – heart & history.