Bangkok, a city of sparkling palaces and home to some of the finest hotels in the world, will leave you transfixed with its intriguing culture and its undying love for luxury living.
In the sweltering midday heat, I pause to admire some chillies. These fine specimens are blood red and glow like rubies, strewn carelessly over a mint green banana leaf. I soon learn that this particular batch isn’t for sale–instead, these are spliced and sold with marinated clams. It’s quite literally a hot local favorite! As I join the jostling crowds at Meaklong Market, an hour’s drive in bumper to bumper traffic from Bangkok, I am wooed by vendors of salted fish, rainbow colored mussel shells and even dried grasshoppers (which an adventurous friend of mine insists tastes like potato chips and wood fired pizza). Being vegetarian, I greet the burst of mint green vegetables with a familiar kind of relief. But I am not here to buy. People watching has become my favorite pastime and the streets of Bangkok provide the ideal fodder. I watch in amazement (and not a little horror) as a banana yellow freight train bursts onto the scene (slicing right into the middle of the market).
Vendors on either side uproot the roof of their stalls with practiced ease. And it’s all snatched away in a flash-spring onions, salted fish and pickled frogs, expensive saffron and cheap, gaily colored scarves-only to be whisked out again moments later. It’s rather like a magic act, I think as I watch in awe at the split second efficiency in which these space starved vendors operate. I am told this happens several times a day. I marvel at the fact that there is no safety gate, nothing to indicate that a train will soon come careening out of the horizon, nothing except the sound of long siren. It is this that I have come to see, for seeing is believing.
As the crowds swirl around me, I realize that this isn’t the only quaint market in Bangkok. Not by a long shot. Another early morning excursion sees me greeting the dawn at the infamous rural floating market of Damnoen Saduak, situated 110 kilometers west of the capital.
My family is soon ushered into a waiting boat. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. Boat after boat filled with fresh produce floats past us as we glide our way through the chaotic water market. There’s even an ATM in this wilderness! The greenbacks do tend to fly when you’re surrounded stunning paintings, handmade parchment, exquisite stationary, hand woven baskets, toys and baby clothes.
As the sun gently kisses my face, I am in this floating canoe and we pass into a narrow canal choked with traders on boats, wearing long brimmed straw hats and furiously peddling their wares. Little alcoves filled to the brim with the most colorful knick-knacks I’ve ever seen, surrounded by adults and children leaning out of boats, laughing, bargaining and pointing excitedly.
But beyond these vibrant marketplaces, lies a city that practically throbs with modernity as well as historical importance.
A cruise along the clear waters of the Chao Phraya river in the heart of Bangkok, past the stunning business districts with their towering skyscrapers and luxury hotels, will take you to the utterly gorgeous Grand Palace. You can see its golden spires glinting in the sunlight miles away. The palace has been the official residence of the royal family for centuries. However, the current monarch resides in another palace and this one is used for official ceremonies. Entering the palace was overwhelming. It has vast open spaces filled with greenery at every turn. Built in 1782, some guides say the massive palace is around 2,350,000 square feet! That’s a lot of ground to cover and it takes us through numerous state buildings, long halls, decorated archways, impressive pavilions and intricately carved statues, brandishing swords.
The architecture is breathtaking quite simply because all that glitters here is definitely gold! Solid gold. From heavy domes to delicate filigree work on the walls of the temples, the sparkle is mesmerizing. And so is the rich blue, red and green enamel work that mingles with the gold. Glowing gold leaf paintings depicting scenes from the Indian epic, the Ramayana jump out at you, making you realize how alike the Indian and Thai cultures are.
The star attraction here is undoubtedly the temple of the Emerald Buddha, called the Wat Phra Kaew. Made out of solid shimmering jade, it’s the most beautiful statue of Buddha I’ve ever seen and it’s considered the most sacred temple in Thailand. No one except the Thai king is allowedto touch the statue. Interestingly, the king himself is required to change the Buddha’s garments three times a year—during the onset of the rainy season, winter and summer. A ritual is performed for the good fortune of the country every time there’s a change of season and dress. When we saw it, the idol was dressed in solid gold clothes!
One of Southeast Asia’s biggest aquariums is housed in Siam Ocean world. Interestingly, the water in the tanks is mixed with salt that is imported all the way from the Red Sea! The acrylic panels of the tanks are 6 inches thick and enclose a rich variety of sea creatures—including octopus, sea urchins sharks and tropical fish. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, view the aquarium from the inside with their Ocean walker experience. Wearing a helmet and diving outfit, you can take a leisurely stroll inside the tank!
For the luxury traveler, Bangkok is a paradise full of glittering experiences. Here, you can create memories that you’ll always treasure. Book a dinner cruise along the luxury schooners that line the Chao Phraya River and you’ll be guaranteed one of the most glamourous dining venues, replete with stunning views of the historical city.
Most cruise ships are fitted for luxury travel and are equipped with plush seats, dance flooring, marble decked interiors, sweeping staircases and intriguing mood lighting. Sit back and relax or take a turn on the dance floor as you are serenaded with live jazz and pop music. Guests can choose from delectable buffet of Thai and international cuisine.
The Blue Elephant Cooking School and Restaurant can give you a culinary experience unlike any other. It is practically an institution in Bangkok. Enjoy the many luxuriant flavors of Thai cuisine at its best here as top chefs turn teachers instructing both amateur and professional chefs in secrets of ancient Thai cooking. There’s a food festival in August and September each year. www.blueelephant.com/bangkok
If you’re looking for novelty dining, where the atmosphere is as intriguing as the food, Bangkok has no dearth of creative concepts. Try the DID – Dine in the dark (ground floor of Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit Hotel). Here, you can eat a delicious four-course meal in complete and utter darkness. You’re served by blind waiters and it’s a surreal experience, but one that will also bring awareness of the countless issues facing sightless people every day. If you’re looking for exquisite fresh cuisine, then don’t miss Paris Bangkok which specialises in steak and seafood (www.parisbangkok. com). Established by a French entrepreneur, it’s especially renowned for its live lobsters and fresh oysters that are flown in from France! They also have an exclusive Cuban cigar collection and an impressive array of liquor.
Luxury shopping should feature high on your holiday to-do list in Bangkok. You can shop your heart desires at Central World, the largest lifestyle-shopping complex in Southeast Asia. If you’re looking for collectibles that make unique souvenirs and gifts, head out to Baan Baat (Bamrungmuang Road, South of Wat Saket). Translated literally, Baan Baat means ‘monk’s alms bowl’. This is the only place in the city that still hammers out by hand, the unique brass bowl that monks take with them in the age-old tradition of asking for alms.
If it is action and bright lights you seek, head over to the Asiatique shopping mall, the unique waterfront night bazaar with over 1000 boutiques. These shops are brimming over with attractive souvenirs and fashionable high street brands.
Whether you’re exploring beaches around the city in the blazing sun, soaking in the culture of its glittering palaces, sampling delicacies at its many markets, admiring its towering monuments, Bangkok will be sure to leave you entranced with its golden memories.
WHERE TO STAY
Luxury hotels dot the city and there are plenty of options to choose from.
It is right on the waterfront, making it an ideal location for a gorgeous view and easy to get around. A tropical retreat equipped with an incredible signature spa, it houses some world class restaurants. The Next 2 café serves buffets by the riverside and has a diverse menu filled with regional, Asian and continental delights. There are dance performances at Salathip restaurant and you’ll love the creative range of luscious chocolates, beverages and pastries at The Chocolate Boutique.
Home to best caviar in Bangkok, the hotel has its own private pier and luxury speed boat, ideal for those sunset cruises. They offer cooking classes, a Muay Thai boxing ring, tai chi sessions, an infinity pool, even a library and cinema.
Peninsula Bangkok is renowned for its lavish, classic décor. Guests are greeted with its fleet of Rolls Royce, Silver Spur and BMW 7 series. The hotel even comes equipped with a helipad for those quick and easy airport transfers. The multifaceted wellness program at the spa attracts a slew of international guests and is renowned for its healthy meal plans, body wraps and fabulous foot massages.
The hotel is renowned for its stylish roof top bar restaurant, aptly called Vertigo. Its pristine white tables offer diners a breathtaking view of the city. The Banyan Tree is an urban oasis with plush rooms that are fitted with their own personal aromatherapy burners, an array of pillows (you can make your choice from several fillings such as double curved foam to goose feather down) and luxuriant bathtubs filled with blooms. They offer several activities that you’ll enjoy—like biking and cooking classes for couples.
WHEN TO GO
November-April is a good season to visit Bangkok. It’s not as blisteringly hot and you’ll avoid the rains.
River boats and ferries, You’ll have no trouble at all getting around in Bangkok if you go by the river route. If you chose the roads, then be prepared to face some of the most daunting traffic jams, often lasting for an hour or more. You’ll find the river easy to navigate as five public boat lines, all operated by the Chao Phraya Express Boat company, ply the 21 kilometer route. Be prepared to hop on and hop off. Check out the Express Boat Tourist guide for more information. www.chaophrayaexpressboat.com/en/tourist