Bangkok: From the Perspective of the First Time Visitor 16-Feb-05
Story by Shelly Pfeifer, photos by Troy Pfeifer & Shelly Pfeifer
To the first time visitor, Bangkok can come across as many things: noisy, exotic, dirty, scary, obnoxious, religious, cheap, mysterious and exciting! At first glance, one might mistake it for any other huge, foreign city. But once you stop to get a really good look at Bangkok, you will see this city offers everything from famous name brand shopping to tours of snake farms to canal tours to taxi rides on the back of a motorcycle.
Bangkok has a wide variety of transportation available to locals and tourists alike. The city has everything from the traditional subway to a Sky Train (a subway above the cars in the street) to noisy public buses and car taxis. What sets Bangkok’s mode of transportation apart from other big cities is they also offer motorcycle taxis. They have two variety’s of motorcycle taxis: they have a two wheel and three wheel variety. The three wheel type, called a tuk tuk (pronounced toot with a “k”) are relatively safe. They seat 2-3 people, depending on the size of the people, but I wouldn’t dare ride the 2 wheel motorcycle taxis. Even though the driver gives the passenger a helmet, I still thought it was a crazy idea to ride on one with the way they weave in and out of the traffic at high speeds. What I found to be most interesting about the 2 wheel motorcycle taxis is the local girls ride them side saddle. How they don’t fall off is a mystery to me!
A full day alone could be spent seeking out and touring the 300 temples, called wats, and all the countless shrines in Bangkok. You can find shrines on almost every corner in this bustling city. Because of the Thais devotion to Buddhism, crime is relatively low. As one local gentlemen explained to me, Buddhists believe in reincarnation. They don’t want to do anything bad in this lifetime, because “they don’t want to come back reincarnated as a flea on the anus of a dog.” On one corner, there are three shrines, including the one directly in front of my hotel. Diagonal from our hotel on the congested corner of Ploenchit and Rajdamri roads is one of Bangkok’s more popular shrines. It is the Erawan Shrine and is devoted to Brahma, a Hindu god, and his elephant, Erawan. Many locals come here to pray and bring offerings making it a very busy site. Devotees also hire classical dancers to perform the offertory routines. This is such a popular shrine that as city buses pass locals pray from their window seats as they drive by.
Bangkok is known for it’s multitude of winding canals known as Klongs. Until roads and cars were introduced here, boats on the Klongs were the primary source of transportation. Today local people still use the Klongs as their choice of transportation. As you tour through the canals you will occasionally come across an elderly woman slowly paddling her boat along the water. She could either be on her way to the market or maybe she herself is a market selling anything from fresh cut flowers to fresh cut meat to a lunch time meal. The Klongs also have floating hospitals to take the sick or injured to the nearest medical facility and floating banks where locals can take care of minor financial transactions.
One way to tour the Klongs is to hire a guide and to take a long tail boat. This is a long, skinny boat that sits very low in the water and holds 10-12 people. It has become recognizable as one of the boats used in the James Bond movie “The Man With the Golden Gun”. The long tail boats are powered by car engines that are about the loudest thing you have ever heard. Unless your guide is screaming in your ear, you can’t hear anything other then the tremendous roar of the engine. One amazing sight is to watch the drivers of the boats maneuver these long boats in and out of the tightest boat jams.
A “must see” stop along the Klongs is at the Wat Arun or Temple of Dawn which is located on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. This temple is extremely important because it is considered to be the royal temple of King Rama II. This temple is absolutely stunning from the shore. But as you get very close to the temple, you will notice that the decoration making the temple beautiful is far from perfect. The word that comes to my mind is “sloppy.” Until it was pointed out to me, I didn’t realize that a majority of the colored decoration on the temples surface is porcelain such as dinner plates, bowls, saucers and the bottoms of cups. I was a little stunned at this visual discovery until my guide told me the unusual story behind the sloppiness of the décor. The porcelain was used as a ballast on a ship coming from China. Evidently the ship wrecked and the porcelain was used to decorate the temple. It is absolutely fascinating looking at this incredible building and seeing dishes decorating it. Bottoms of cups or bowls are arranged to make a simple flower or pieces of dinner plates are cut to form even more intricate flowers. The temple took on a whole new level interest for me once the dishes were pointed out to me by my guide.
If one has time, a visit to the Royal Barges Museum is worth a stop. This museum (easily accessed by water) houses 8 of the 50 royal barges used for special occasions by the King. The King’s personal barge was built in 1911 from a single piece of teak wood and measures 46 meters long. The barges are so long and heavy, they take over 50 oarsmen to move each vessel. The barges at one time were used for military purposes but now are only used for special occasions. The last occasion the barges were used was in October, 2003 for the APEC ministry meeting. I know the word “barge” is normally associated with trash or hauling junk from one place to another, but these barges are far from their modern day ancestors. These ornately decorated boats have intricate carvings of mythical figures on the bow and are decorated with colorful pieces of glass. From a short distance, they even look to be coated with gold. The museum charges an entrance fee of 30 Baht and an additional 100 Baht for still photos or 200 Baht for video. To capture these gorgeous barges on film is well worth the additional minimal charge.
Bangkok is famous for their floating markets and is a popular tourist site for visitors. The Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is located about an hours drive outside of Bangkok and is where the local people do their shopping. Actually, in my opinion, it used to be where the locals did their shopping. Nowadays, it is tourists in boats watching other tourists in boats buying souvenirs. Occasionally a boat would glide by carrying an old woman selling fresh fruits and vegetables or maybe soup with a side of fried bananas. The local people don’t use special pricing or giveaways or unusual products to get you to stop at their stall. They use a long pole with a hook and pull your boat over. You really have no say in the matter, you just have to go along for the ride. If you don’t want to buy anything, the last thing you want to do is point at anything. It’s like in glass stores with the sign at the entrance “You break it, you buy it.” Here it’s “You point at it, you buy it!” While on this tour, we came to the conclusion that the local people still do their shopping in boats along the canals, it’s just in a secret location, completely isolated from tourists.
Tours are either a half or full day. Unfortunately, because Bangkok traffic is so bad, even though you may sign up for a half day tour, it normally ends up being a full day because it takes so long to get through the traffic to get you back to your hotel. Your half tour will also become a full day tour because additional stops are made that is not listed on your itinerary. These additional stops are made because the tour guide gets paid commission for everything the people in her group buys. So even though you might sign up to go to just the Floating Market, be prepared to end up going to a Snake Farm, a paper and wood carving mill, a sugar cane mill and a precious gems store where you can buy jewelry of all designs. A word of advice is to not make plans for the second half of your day.
Bangkok definitely has its good and bad side. But this diversity is what adds to its charm. You can go to cities like Tokyo and have things run exactly like clockwork and to have everything happen as you expect. But to travel to Bangkok is to fly by the seat of your pants. Hopefully you just won’t do it on the back of a motorcycle taxi!