Returning to Bangkok after a month in Vietnam (and several more in Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos) was a bit of a shock. Everything seemed so modern and cosmopolitan, fashionable and brightly-lit. We spent Christmas eve (thanks to more points) in the Renaissance executive lounge, drinking wine and singing carols with Thai Santa and some pretty elven helpers. Two days later, we were at the airport welcoming Heather’s Dad to the city. It was of course great to see family (the first time since Donny’s Mom visited Phuket in September) and also fun to see the city from a first-time visitor’s perspective. We had left a couple of main tourist sites for his visit, so we were seeing plenty for the first time ourselves too.
We shared two Thai favorites time and time again, good food and conversation. Dad was keen on trying anything new, from street vendor coffee to pork buns in Chinatown to papaya salads and the many flavorful colors of Thai curry. We were more than happy to facilitate. Our Happy New Year dinner at Lek Seafood was so good we went back the next night. The place is small, half-hidden in an alley near the Chong Nonsi train station, not far from the red-light district of Patpong. Favorite dishes included grilled oysters with garlic and butter, grilled squid and oyster “omelette” (a bubbling hotplate of goodness), all perfectly paired with a few fine bottles of Tiger.
For the first few days we stayed just north of the “old” part of town, traveling downriver on the Chao Phraya by boat and taking in the main sightseeing areas of Ko Ratanakosin and Chinatown. Dad was in awe of the vast numbers of vendors everywhere, selling any imaginable item. We had a great walk through the flower and food market near Memorial Bridge on the way to the Royal Palace.
Wat Phra Kaew, which houses the Emerald Buddha (actually jade), is within the same grounds as the palace. The bright oranges, blues, golds and greens of the rooftops and stupas outside are dazzling. We were especially fascinated by the murals on the inside walls of the temple compound, depicting Ramakian (the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana tale). It was exciting to recognize characters and scenes we learned about at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and in Indonesia. The main buildings of the Grand Palace itself are closed to the public, but some of the buildings in the back have exhibits of old weapons and armor. We also got to see the changing of the guard. The best part was the outgoing soldier adjusting the uniform of the soldier coming on duty. Nearby Wat Pho holds the enormous reclining Buddha, over 120 feet long! His sandals alone are amazing, with exquisite mother of pearl inlay.
Kanchanaburi was the destination of a daytrip to visit the war memorials, museums and ride the Death Railway. The limestone mountains, waterfalls and green rice fields are a soothing break from Bangkok’s chaos. The book and movie Bridge over the River Kwai made this location of the WWII prisoner of war camp famous. POWs, along with thousands of conscripted laborers from Burma and Malaysia built a 415 kilometer section of railway the Japanese hoped would connect Burma to Bangkok for military transport. The men worked under horrible conditions, and an estimated 100,000 or more died in the construction process. The bridge was destroyed by the Allies in1945.
The following day we moved from our hostel to a modern, boutique hotel in the “new” city, dominated by skyscrapers, malls, and a slick public transport system. It’s easier to get around this part of the city by train, and we made good use of that option. A highlight was Jim Thompson’s House, former residence of the famous American businessman who made Thailand his home and brought the beauty of Thai silk to the world market. The traditional architecture and antiques in the compound are beautiful. We especially liked the chamber pot for the girls in the shape of a frog!
One whole afternoon was dedicated to exploring massive Chatuchak market, north of the city. Here, there are thousands and thousands of stalls, in different zones, selling everything from clothes and handicrafts to pets and incense. We stopped frequently to refresh with bubble tea, grass jelly, fried noodles, springrolls, fresh juices or an Ovaltine shake!
On New Year’s Day we were lucky to be able to see hundreds of local families and individuals visiting Erawan Shrine, dedicated to Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. In an atmosphere of quiet thanks-giving in gold, yellow and orange, traditional musicians and colorful dancers performed their rituals while the faithful lit candles, received blessings, gave thanks for prayers answered and sought good fortune for the coming year. We sent up our own little prayers, and considered it a fortuitous start to 2012.
Photos can be seen HERE.