January 21 – 24, 2012
What’s a good destination over the Chinese New Year break? For many Hongkongers Bangkok is an obvious choice. While the Thai capital has a reputation as a hotspot for sex-related tourism (note Patpong and its notorious ping pong shows), the city also caters to the casual tourist by offering relative good value on a diverse range of dining and entertainment options that fit all tastes and all ages. Best of all, its weather is reliably warm even in January.
On the other hand, a flip side to this well-oiled machine is a noticeable absence of the kind of congeniality and charm I had experienced in other stops across Southeast Asia. With its surprisingly high hassle factor, I was never truly comfortable in Bangkok.
Those expecting Bangkok to be the capital of the Land of a Thousand Smiles might come away disappointed. Remember, Bangkok is a metropolis of almost 10 million people. And just like most developed city of such size, most people in Bangkok, as they are not employed in the tourism industry, have no incentive to reinforce any tourism advertisement. They busily go on with their lives in a relatively fast-paced setting. In comparison, I found the citizens of the similarly-sized but less developed Ho Chi Minh City, although not as widely known for their hospitality, to be generally more friendly and laid back.
The traffic is some of the worst I have seen and regrettably destinations like the Grand Palace are not well-covered by the BTS Skytrain. Almost all tuc-tuc and taxi drivers try hard to scam the unsuspecting tourist. Knowing better, I avoided tuc-tuc and demanded taxi drivers to use their meters. Most would just ignore me and look for other customers. The rare ones who agreed to turn on the meter weren’t necessarily more honest; they often detoured long distances to jack up the fare.
Yes, Thailand has lost some of its luster after the Asian Financial Crisis. The country’s status as the leading power in ASEAN has been overtaken by Indonesia, due as much to Indonesia’s growth as Thailand’s bitter political divide ever since the exile of Thaksin Shinawatra. Last year’s massive flood only reinforced the sense of misery. However, given its undeniable qualities, spending a few casual days in Bangkok is still very much a no-lose proposition. This sprawling behemoth of a city excels at providing good value; for the duration of our stay we remained entertained and well-fed while paying reasonable prices.
My female companions on this trip all love to shop, so our itinerary invariably was packed with visits to markets and shopping malls. Most of these places were a huge bore, but even a non-shopper like myself found Chatuchak Weekend Market to be a good place for people watching, though some areas could get very stuffy. The market is enormous, totaling more than 35 acres and 5,000 stalls and receiving more than 200,000 visitors each opening day. We didn’t go out of our way to the notorious live animal section; what we encountered instead were mostly clothing and accessory retailers. Some people could spend an entire day there, but we reached our threshold of aimless wandering in the 30ºC heat at the three-hour mark.
Back in the town centre, Siam is undisputedly the foremost shopping district. Of all the malls in Siam my wife swears by the Platinum Fashion Mall, which she says offers the city’s most competitive price but looks as generic as any other mall across Asia in my eyes. After being trapped there for an afternoon I told my wife she should invite her female friends as companion next time she wants to visit Bangkok.
Day trip to Ayutthaya
Between shopping, swimming, eating and having massages, very little amount of time was left for sightseeing. My wife and I split from the rest of the group for a half-day trip to Ayutthaya – a much needed relief for me after spending days at shopping malls.
Located 85 km north of Bangkok, from the 14th century to the 18th century Ayutthaya and its namesake kingdom supplanted Angkor as the regional power of Southeast Asia. At its peak the kingdom ruled over much of present-day Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and part of eastern Burma.
Our first stop was at Wat Chai Wattanaram, arguably the most iconic of all of Ayutthaya’s ruins. This temple complex, along with more than 100 historic monuments in the area, was submerged by water up to three meters during the great flood of 2011 for over a month. Vendors were selling postcards of the drenched complex, but any sign of the flood, except for the buildings being fenced off, was long gone by the time we visited.
Wat Chai Wattanaram, constructed in 1630 in the Khmer style under the reign of king Prasat Thong, was a royal temple where members of the ruling family were buried. The central tower, Prang Prathan, represents the mountain Meru, the central axis of the entire universe in Buddhism. The four surrounding smaller prangs symbolize the four continents of the metaphysical worlds, one of which is where humans reside.
The temple, along with most of Ayutthaya, was severely damaged when the Burmese invaded the capital in 1767. Widespread looting followed. Angkor could very well have suffered the same fate if it hadn’t been engulfed by forest for centuries after the decline of the Khmer Empire.
Crossing the Chao Phraya River we entered the island where the heart of the ancient capital was located. This island has been turned into a historic park and is designated as a World Heritage Site. We visited three sites:
- Wat Phra Mahathat, site of the famous Buddha head entwined by tree roots and lots of headless Buddhas.
- Wat Lokaya Sutha, home to a 42 m wide, 8 m tall reclining Buddha commissioned in the 16th century.
- Wat Phanan Choeng, a Buddhist temple built 26 years before the founding of the city of Ayutthaya. A large congregation of Thai-Chinese gathered to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Many bought gold leaves to decorate the temple’s numerous Buddha statues as tribute.
Ayutthaya is not particularly interesting, especially when Angkor is just a short flight away from Bangkok. For a more in depth look of the traditional side of Thailand, I was advised to head north to Chiang Mai.