What not to see is as important when it comes to travel advice as what you do need to see.
A friend who is planning his first visit to Bangkok recently asked me for my recommendations on what he should do and see during the ten days he will be there. Not being the sharpest crayon in the box, he’d done lots of research on the internet first, and had quite an extensive list that he’d culled off of the ubiquitous Bangkok Top Ten lists that every travel site, blogger, and guide book seems to feel the need to publish. Nine times out of ten they list Jim Thompson’s House, which should give you a clue to how in-touch they are with the pulse of the city. Not that Jim’s place isn’t nice. But if you are counting off the top ten best places to see or things to do, a farang’s house/silk store really doesn’t cut it. I can easily think of ten things to see in Bangkok that would be more memorable. The Erawan Museum (the three-headed elephant building) should certainly be considered before Jim’s house. Unless you are an 80-year-old.
There are sites, then there are experiences. Anytime you can combine the two you have a winner. So that’s one of my criteria in recommending where you should go in Bangkok, and just as importantly, what you should do. There is a lot you can cram into a ten day visit too. Which is the worst possible idea. You can not experience a place you visit when you are busy running from one spot to the next must-see place on your list. So that too is a factor in what I would suggest for an itinerary – not overloading the day to the point that all you can remember from your trip was that you were exhausted.
Just as important as seeing everything a place has to offer, is doing nothing. Sitting idly and soaking up the ambience of any place is one of the best ways you can spend an afternoon. So almost every suggestion I make includes ample vegetating time. The one thing that I can’t add to my top ten list would be at least five of them. Because I haven’t a clue what they would be. Getting lost – which sounds more productive than wandering aimlessly – is one of the best ways to experience somewhere you’ve never been before. Sure, it’s not like you are gonna stumble across anything as regally magnificent as the Grand Palace, but you will find you will appreciate even more the little things that you do see.
This is Wat Arun. You’ve now seen it and can check it off your list.
Lastly, in case you haven’t already skipped to the actual list, I seldom recommend a singular site. So, for example, the #1 experience on my list is actually two. Three if you go on the right day. Or four if you do it at the right time of the day. Five if you count seeing one of the sites almost all lists include, though on mine it’s only in passing. And ‘cuz I’m an American and don’t do the metric system, my #1 recommendation can easily be six things, which ensures your body, soul, stomach, and mind have all been equally pampered.
Lastly, you might have noticed this post’s title says Part One. That’s ‘cuz I’m, not gonna give you all ten of Bangkok’s top experiences at one time. Y’all are too easily confused. So I’m keeping this simple and dragging out the info over ten posts. That also allows me to add links at the bottom that further cover the places I’ll mention. That way I don’t have to bog you down with details now. If you are interested in more info, those other posts will fill in the gaps. And so we’re off . . .
Yes, the Grand Palace is grand. And well worth a visit. You can use it as an excuse to come back to Bangkok again. Ten days isn’t long enough to see everything there is to see in Bangkok, and one day is not long enough to see both the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Which is what most people try to do and end up not fully experiencing either. It’s a holiday, not a check-list. So skip the Grand Palace and do Wat Pho instead. The Reclining Buddha is more impressive than the Emerald Buddha (which, if it really was made of emerald would make a difference). Wat Pho is also interactive, so you’ll have more fun. And you can get a real Thai massage, possibly the best non-happy ending one in Bangkok.
Seeing street food in Bangkok is not an experience. Eating it is.
Take one of the express boats up the Chao Phraya River to get to Wat Pho. That is an experience in itself. And you’ll get to see Wat Arun along the way, which if you are following my advice you won’t be otherwise visiting. At Wat Pho do not just dash in for a quick look at the Reclining Buddha. Take at least an hour to wander through the entire complex. And then stop and get a massage before you leave.
When you are done with the wat, head toward the Grand Palace but walk along the riverside of the street. There is a small street market along the path, bigger on weekends, but worth a slow stroll any day of the week. When you get to Tha Chang Pier, stop and have lunch. Or at least a snack. You can not say you’ve experienced Bangkok if you have not tried some street food and there are enough vendors at the pier offering a wide enough variety of food that you’ll find something you’ll like. But don’t over do it. You have more walking to do.
After lunch head back out to the main road and turn left. Pat yourself on the back as you do ‘cuz you get to ignore all the local touts who want to tell you the Grand Palace is closed. You aren’t headed there anyway. Your destination is the Mahathat amulet market, which starts as soon as you turn left and proceed on your journey. During the week there may only be a few street vendors, but all of the stores in the old shop houses will be open. On weekends the street is lined with temporary vendors offering every possible thing a good Buddhist needs for a happy life, and more on top of that. You will be fascinated. And occasionally repulsed. Watch for the large piles of amulets, they run about 5 baht each and make for a great, cheap, souvenir.
Even downtime can be productive. Especially when it is in a covered pedestrian mall cooled by river breezes.
On the opposite side of the street for most of your walk will be the wall and occasional gate for Wat Mahathat. And no, you won’t be seeing that wat either. But where the wall ends, watch for a small lane on your side of the street leading toward the river. This is Trok Phra Chan Klang. It’s a shady, cool little covered arcade where you can stop and have a nonalcoholic drink. Even better, you can have your fortune told. Thais take fortune telling quit seriously, and even if you are not a believer you will be suitably impressed with the wealth of information about you and your future that you get for about $3.00. You may also discover that you need a specific amulet or talisman to ward off some of the bad luck the fortune teller saw coming your way. No problemo. You’re gonna have to backtrack through the amulet market to get to the riverboats again and with a shopping list you’ll have something to do.
You’ll be re-boarding the express boats from the same pier you disembarked at several hours ago. Yes, you could get on at the Tha Chang Pier instead, but then you’d miss one of the most important parts of today’s outing. Just before Tha Tien Pier (the one you want) there is a riverside park. It’s not impressive as parks go, mostly a few walkways, a lawn area or two, some flower beds – in case you need a photograph of a lotus – and a handful of concrete benches. But that’s cool. You are not there to be impressed. You are there to do what a holiday is all about: nothing. Pick a spot, kick back, and just enjoy life. The traffic on the river will keep your attention, and the people watching along the river’s bank ain’t bad either.
A full day’s outing – which you do not have to jump out of bed at some ungodly hour for – this is my #1 recommendation for your first full day in town. It’ll give you a great overview of the people of Bangkok, and you’ll get to sneak in some culture without having to visit some stuffy museum. Better yet, it’s cheap. Admission fees, massage, feeding satang into alms bowls, lunch, a cheap souvenir, having your fortune told, refreshments, and transpo along the river will set you back less than $25.00 per person. And that’s a good thing. ‘Cuz your #2 Bangkok experience ain’t gonna be cheap . . .
Bangkokians take their religious amulet purchases seriously. And, seriously, you should pick up a cheap one as a souvenir of your day’s outing too.
Related Posts You Might Enjoy:
Rolling On The River: The Chao Phraya Riverboats
In Search Of Love, Money, Or A Big Dick
Bangkok’s Wat Pho and the Reclining Buddha