Sightseeing in Downtown Bangkok
Sightseeing in downtown Bangkok is a definite must for any visitor. Crowds are plentiful, so make sure to pay attention to your surroundings. Also, be sure not to believe any person that tries to tell you that a certain temple or palace is closed. We had one person on the street try to tell us that the Grand Palace wasn’t open until 11:30am that day. We decided to press on, and he was completely wrong. Other tourists said the same thing happened to them too. So unless you’ve seen the closed ticket office, soldier on. We visited 3 main sights that day, and had a lengthy lunch on the river. You could easily cram in more sights to your day than we did by starting out a little earlier.
Our first stop was the Grand Palace. Don’t let the name fool you. It’s a large complex started in 1782 that has several ceremonial halls, a temple, government offices and residences that covers 218,000 square meters. As you enter the gates, the ticket booth signs are clearly marked. They are quite strict about appropriate dress. Your shoulders must be covered (no tank tops) as well as your legs (almost to the ankle). I carried a light sarong for the occasion, but my friend’s capri pants were too short. You can rent a sarong for 200 baht, but the clothing rental place is quite a distance from the entrance, so plan ahead. We also purchased the audio headset tour, but I wouldn’t recommend it. They hand out a free brochure (in English) at the entrance to the main areas that covers enough information. Unless you are a major Thailand history buff, most of it will be over your head anyway.
What stuck with me are the materials. I was awed by the golden chedis (dome with spire), mother of pearl details, gilded wooden thrones, handprinted murals, amazing tile work, statues, and even a miniature Angkor Wat.
The crown jewel (so to speak) is The Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha or Wat Phra Kaew. You must remove your shoes each time you enter a buddhist temple (Wat), so skip the tennis shoes and wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off those days. Photos are not allowed in the temple with the Emerald Buddha, but are allowed just about everywhere else in the Grand Palace. This Wat houses a jade Buddha that sits enshrined on a wooden throne 3/4 of the way up to the ceiling. He wears one of 3 seasonal costumes (summer, rainy, and winter). It just looked like he had on a gold mesh v-neck coat from down below.
I was amazed each time we entered a temple (Wat) that was visited by so many tourists. The reverence that is still observed amidst the chaos is somewhat inspiring. The Thai people were still making offerings and sitting in quiet contemplation, as well as the familiar monks in their orange robes. My friend and I sat quietly for a long time in order to pay respect and take our time looking at the many details inside. If you sit, remember not to extend the soles of your feet towards the Buddha. It is considered disrespectful, which is why so many sit with their legs crossed or up on their knees. There were murals covering the walls, gilded statues, jeweled ceilings, just to name a few. It’s in those silent moments that I feel so grateful to be able to travel and for family and friendships all over the world.
After the temple, we walked by many of the other buildings including a residence where the Queen of England and President Clinton both stayed. Not together, of course. We also made a quick stop in their Emerald Buddha Museum to see the other seasonal costumes he wears. The King of Thailand changes the Emerald Buddha’s robes in a ceremony three times a year. Since we were there in winter, it was fun to see the other costumes.
Our next stop was one block over at Wat Pho. This much less crowded temple and grounds was only 100 baht to enter and came with a free bottle of water. That water was much appreciated in the noonday sun. What Pho is home to the Reclining Buddha. Once again, our shoes were left at the door. The temple barely contains the giant gold structure, as the pointed hat (?) actually pokes a hole in the interior roof. The minute I stepped into the temple, all I could say was, wow! The feet have an amazing mother of pearl detail as well. Along the back side, one wall is lined with what seemed like 50 bowls to make monetary offerings. The plink plink sound of each coin dropping in offering was almost like a wind chime. Outside the temple grounds are beautiful fountains and also houses a massage school at the far end. Our stomachs were growling too much to take part in a massage, so we headed off to lunch.
Our last stop for the day was the Jim Thompson House. If you think that sounds like an American name, you’d be right. The short story goes something like this: Jim Thompson visits Thailand in the early 1950s and falls in love with the culture and it’s people. He decides he loves Thailand more than his wife, leaves her in the United States and moves to Thailand. He recognizes the dying silk trade in Thailand. He visits some influential friends back in the states and impresses them with the Thai silk quality and helps revive the silk trade in Thailand while starting his own company. In 1967 he went for a short hike (indicated by leaving his asthma inhaler behind) in the Malaysian highlands and was never seen or heard from again. I’m sort of surprised Hollywood hasn’t made a movie out of his story and mysterious disappearance, aren’t you?
Over the two decades Jim Thompson lived in Bangkok, he had a very interesting house on the Klong waterway. As an educated architect, he purchased traditional Thai homes, and pieced them together to create a large home and complex. By connecting many of the houses together and adding modern conveniences like bathrooms, it took about a year to complete. Since very few traditional Thai houses exist today, it is a great example of Thai culture even though it is modified. The antiques and collectibles that he had in his home are staggering. It was a little weird to take off your shoes to protect the floors, but walk by a tapestry from the 1300’s hanging on a wall without climate control or even glass to keep grubby hands at bay.
The only way to gain entrance to the home is by taking part in a tour that lasts about an hour. There is no need to book ahead, just pay 100 baht and sign up for the next tour in your language of choice. We only had to wait about 20 minutes for ours to start. The trees and garden like feel to the outside of the home makes you forget that you are smack dab in the middle of Bangkok with 14 million other people. The Jim Thompson silk company still exists today, and of course they have a store on the grounds of the house. It was the nicest shop we visited while in Thailand by far. I did purchase several scarves for myself and a tie for Hubby.
Although the tour was mainly about the house, Jim Thompson and the antiques within, it was lacking in one area. I would have like to learn a little bit more about the silk trade. Like how silk is made, and if it is the same today as it was when Jim Thompson was still alive…or missing? They did have some Thai dressed in traditional clothing spinning silk from the cocoons and then onto a wheel for the thread. But it seemed a little forced without explanation. Still, I wouldn’t miss this opportunity to visit a modified traditional Thai house. We didn’t see another example throughout our entire trip.
The Jim Thompson House also has a restaurant and wine bar. While we had heard great things about it, and the setting was great, we did not have time to stay and try it out. Look out for an upcoming post on my favorite restaurants in Thailand, and even an incredible Thai cooking class! Stay Tuned!!