“Pow!” A roasting chestnut exploded right as I walked by, throwing white bits of shredded nut skyward. Startled, I stumbled back in astonishment, my mind spinning in an attempt to comprehend what had just happened. Dusting myself off, my face reddened as I hurried on along my way, noting to myself that a walk down the street in Bangkok, the colorful capital of the Kingdom of Thailand can be quite the experience, and one that on occasion requires quick reflexes to dodge the occasional errant flying foodstuffs.
My travels around the world have taken me to the capital of the “Land of Smiles” twice already, once in January 2011 and again in January 2013, and each time I was blown away by this thriving metropolis.
Let me tell you thing…exploring Bangkok is not necessarily for the faint-hearted. It can get very hot and humid in the city notorious as the setting for ‘Hangover 2.’ The cacophony of noises, sights, and smells can overwhelm many, and the city is as more crowded than most westerners will be used to. But for those like myself seeking adventure, this is one of the world’s greatest cities to do it in, and Bangkok does not disappoint in terms of experiences. So, without further ado, here is my own personal list of the top seven experiences that must be had in Bangkok!
7. Hang on for Dear Life in a Speeding Tuk Tuk
There’s nothing that says transportation in Bangkok quite like a ‘tuk tuk.’ These hybrids are part motorcycle, part rickshaw, and all deathtrap, which makes the particularly fun to race through the crowded streets of Bangkok in.
To be fair, they are the most efficient mode of short distance transportation in the city, and you can find them anywhere. Be prepared to negotiate price in advance, however, as you won’t find a meter running on any of these bad boys.
6. Visit the World’s Largest Gold Statue at Wat Traimit
Who would have thought that the largest pure gold statue in the world stands at 3 meters tall and weight 5.5 tons? Not only is the Golden Buddha of Bangkok the largest gold statue in the world, it also has a fascinating history of being effectively forgotten for over 200 years. In an attempt to avoid it being stolen, it was plastered over with stucco in advance of a Burmese invasion. Whoever plastered over the statue forgot to tell anyone, however, and it was only a mishap during the transport of what was believed to be an ordinary plaster statue in 1954 that eventually exposed the gold that was hidden underneath.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the gold alone in the statue would be worth over $250,000,000 dollars at todays ‘melt’ price, an unbelievable sum. A new temple near Chinatown called Wat Traimit houses the statue today, and just being able to see this immense statue is worth the price of admission.
5. Relax with the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
On the banks of the Chao Phraya River and immediately adjacent to the Thai Grand Palace is a temple complex known as Wat Pho. Now, by itself, Wat Pho is a gorgeous series of grand and beautiful temples that also happens to be one of the oldest wats in Bangkok. But what really makes this place special is the gold-leaf painted 15 meter tall and 43 meter long reclining statue of Buddha housed in one of the temples here.
Now just imagine if this one was made out of pure gold too?
Wat Pho has plenty to offer, as does the massive Grand Palace complex next door. A trip to Bangkok isn’t complete without a lazy afternoon spent wandering through the temples and contemplating the gigantic toes on the beautifully ornate Buddha.
4. Explore the Sounds (and Smells) of Chinatown
It may seem odd, at least to Westerners, that a very large percentage of residents of Bangkok are not Thai at all, but are instead ethnically Chinese. Indeed, at one point in time almost three fourths of the entire city was Chinese! The traditional location for citizens of Chinese ancestry is Yaowarat Road, and this part of town is referred to simply as Chinatown. One of the older parts of Bangkok, it is also one of the more interesting, and traditional Chinese temples and food can be found in this neighborhood. It’s also a great location to grab a bite to eat at the many food stalls or to shop for electronics and pretty much everything else.
3. Take to the Water with a Canal Tour
Yes, I know it’s touristy, and yes, I know you’ll get ripped off (relatively speaking,) but taking a boat ride through the canals of Bangkok is simply a requirement if you really want to get a feel for the aquatic nature of the city itself.
The tours follow a common path that takes you on a loop through the major canals in the city. It is fascinating to see how the majority of the houses on the route are still common domiciles used by everyday Thai folk. It’s even more flabbergasting to catch a glimpse of a massive monitor lizard sunning himself along the banks of the canals immediately after seeing local school children swimming in the canal downstream. And I thought my childhood was tough!
2. Climb the Steep Stairs at Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn)
On the other side of the Chao Phraya River from the Golden Palace and Wat Pho lies an even more impressive temple known as Wat Arun, or the Temple of Dawn. One of the main features of this impressive temple is the enormous tower that is encrusted with colorful porcelain and intricate figures.
But the real joy with Wat Arun is the climb up the steep and narrow steps up the tower to the viewing platform midway to the top, a trip that is not recommended for anyone with vertigo or a fear of plunging to a painful death. That said, the view from on top is simply wonderful, and you can see the city of Bangkok and all of its temples spread out to the horizon.
It’s quite simple to shuttle back and forth between Wat Arun and Wat Pho / the Golden Palace simply by taking the water ferry that runs in between the two locations. Don’t bother with the hired ones, simply look for the public ferry, which will set you back a total of around 50 cents.
1. Be Brave and Sample the Street Food!
You have not lived until you have tried some of the tasty treats that are created right in front of you on the grimy streets of this Southeast Asian city. I’m sure you’ve heard of foodborne illnesses, have been warned by your family, and might even be turned off by the thought of ingesting creatures that are still looking back at you when you consume them, but you simply need to put all of that aside and eat some of the street food in Bangkok; it is simply that good.
My only guidance would be to look for food carts that are frequented by locals…they know where the good stuff is. And if you have a very sensitive stomach, stick to boiled or fried foods, which will typically kill any nasties which may linger around.
One last word of advice…don’t bother taking a taxi from the airport to the city…instead take the very convenient train that leaves immediately from the airport. In fifteen minutes time the fast train will take you all the way to Phaya Thai station, very near to the center of the city. From there you can easily grab a tuk tuk (See #7) to any of the other locations mentioned above.
Enjoy Bangkok! I certainly look forward to any opportunity I can get to return to this amazing multicultural hub of Southeast Asia!