Bangkok – A rollercoaster ride through a sweaty city
The driver weaved his way in and out of the traffic liked a crazed Formula One driver.
Alton Towers and various other theme parks may think they have the market cornered on thrill seeking rides, but package up the white knuckle, gut wrenching feel of a Bangkok tuk-tuk and you would be a rich man.
Guide books warn that tuk-tuk drivers are often little more than con artists.
I was warned that some will drive off with your luggage or tell you certain attractions are closed in order to take you to jewellery shops and tailors instead.
I was even warned they have a lucrative relationship with purveyors of the ‘skin industry’ and if you hear words like ‘free’, ‘sexy’ or ‘massage’ it is time to end the journey.
Fortunately, aside from his dubious driving skills, my man kept to most of my instructions – and I’d wanted to buy a cheap suit anyway.
My first stop was the site of the Lucky Buddha. Japanese soldiers had hidden at the site and prayed to Buddha during American bombings in World War Two. All the bombs had missed and the ornate statue of Buddha had gained a mythical reputation for good luck passed on to anyone who touched it. I duly did.
After the obligatory visit to a Thai suit shop – tuk-tuk drivers get commission from various suit and souvenir shops if they bring tourists in – I visited the Golden Mount.
The Golden Mount – or Wat Saket – is an artificial hill topped with a gilded pagoda. It soars 80 metres high and was formerly the tallest point of the city. It presented a fantastic view over Bangkok and the golden ball on top of it was spectacular.
Wat Pho is another Bangkok must see, a site of great richness filled with more gold than I had ever seen before. The oldest and largest temple in the city, Wat Pho – or Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimol Mangklaram Rajwora Mahaaviharn as it is known in full – was built during the Ayutthaya period between 1688 and 1703 to house the Buddha Saiyat or Reclining Buddha.
This is the second biggest Buddha in Thailand, 46 metres in length and 15 high, and widely acknowledged as the most beautiful. Its most outstanding feature is a pearl-ornamented foot made up of 108 separate pictures.
The Reclining Buddha was massive – it took five minutes to walk around – while the rest of Wat Pho was generally spectacular; one giant memorial to Buddha.
After this – and by now on foot – I visited Wat Phra Kaew, which shares its grounds with the Grand Palace. After negotiating entrances manned by soldiers with AK47s, I found this second temple to be even more spectacular.
The Grand Palace was more than fit for a king, while the temple was full of gold, artistry and even more images of Buddha of every shape and size. Huge stone guards stand at every entrance and each pinnacle is higher than the one before.
Wat Phra is the temple of the Emerald Buddha, initially the Royal Chapel of the Chakri Dynasty of Thai kings.
This Buddha was discovered in 1434, when lightning scattered a chedi (pagoda) in the northern city of Chiang Rai. An abbot found a stucco Buddha inside, underneath which was the Emerald Buddha.
The image stayed in Lampang until 1468, before being stolen and taken to Laos, where it remained for 214 years before General Chao Phraya Chakri captured Vientiane and reclaimed the statue.
King Rama I built Wat Phra Kaew as a permanent home for the Buddha in 1782.
If the Emerald Buddha is to be revered, the Sao Ching Cha, or Giant Swing, was bizarre.
Homed in Wat Suthat – which also houses Thailand’s largest cast-bronze Buddha – the Giant Swing is down in all the city’s guidebooks as a point of interest.
In reality it was unspectacular, although it does boast a bizarre story revolving around Brahmin priests who tried to catch 25m suspended gold pancakes in their mouths, but ended up dead as a result.
Eventually King Rama VII passed a law prohibiting this ritual.
By this time I was pretty hot and sweaty. Bangkok’s dirtiness gets to you after a while and a day in the city leaves you dreaming of a bath, clean drinking water and fresh clothes.
The pollution in the city is another tiresome companion, while the heat is inescapable.
But if heat, hustle and bustle is your thing the insalubrious, but strangely attractive, Koh Sang Road might be just what you’ve been waiting for.
Busy and bizarre, this tourist Mecca boasts a host of stalls selling cheap t-shirts, fake Levis and street food.
My guidebook summed the whole experience of Koh Sang up as, ‘about as un-Thai an experience as can be imagined in Thailand, it is full of faring, who haggle with Thai’s for overpriced imitation designer clothing and swap travel stories over banana pancakes’.
The nearby Phra Suman Fort area is a much more worthwhile experience.
Based on the banks of the Chao Phraya river, it is home to the Thai National Gallery and Museum.
The National Museum is the largest in Southeast Asia, having been started in 1874 by King Rama V. This beloved king, who ruled from 1868 to 1910, is best remembered for abolishing slavery, fending off power-hungry British and French colonialists and modernising Thai society by introducing indoor bathrooms.
He opened the museum as a public showroom inside the Grand Palace to exhibit collections from the reign of his father, Rama IV.
If, like me, you choose to walk long distances in Bangkok it is a hot activity, but the sights, particularly the contrast between the rich temples and the surrounding poverty of the city, are a worthwhile reward.
And if that’s not enough, you can always try the
> Picture shows Wat Arun at Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, Thailand.
This is a file produced under Wikimedia Commons, under the copyright of Rolf Heinrich, Köln