UPDATE 01 Jun 2016: Well, it’s pretty clear now that the Tiger Temple in Bangkok were pretty much dealing in illegal business. I wrote this post a number of years back and have not edited the original content, but to make it clear, I do NOT support the Tiger Temple. Please, please, PLEASE join me in this and ensure you do not support the Tiger Temple in any way. You can read more about the why here.
I was very apprehensive about visiting Bangkok but it was a necessary evil as the capital city is the main point of travel to the rest of the country, whether you intend to head north or south. Reasons for my hesitation?
- Recent political instability, protests and more worryingly, a bombing that killed two people
- Its reputation for being a major backpacker destination, particularly of the partying kind
- Most of the “tourist highlights” I had heard of seemed to revolve around ping pong shows, encounters with prostitutes (both intentional and not) and thai massages – all of which do not float my boat
To my pleasant surprise, I was wrong!
- Protest areas are concentrated in specific areas and it is easy to keep well away from those sites. The government has also contained the protesters and in fact, saw fit to reopen a lot of the main roads which had been shut up until the day before I arrived.
- Yes, there were a fair few backpackers of the partying sort, but they tend to congregate in the backpacker area around Khao San road.
- Simply not true. Clearly need to get some new friends / informants!
The other aspect of Bangkok that I found surprising was just how easy it was to meet other travellers. Instead of remembering Bangkok for its sights, I will be associating the sights with the people I met.
It started immediately upon my arrival at my hostel.
Claire and Khao San Road
Claire was my sole roommate in a 6 bed female dorm for my first night in Bangkok. We got to chatting, found we got on well and thus decided to head out for dinner near Khao San Road aka backpacker central (our hostel was located one street away). As Claire had already been there for 2 days, she showed me round the area and as a bonus, introduced me to a couple of her mates (Canadians who are travelling around SE Asia). Deciding to start an impromptu “Chubbs Club”, we proceeded to follow dinner with coconut ice-cream, mango sticky rice and drinks after. I love hanging out with other people who love food as much as I do!
Claire is a Scottish lady who left her job to go teach English and travel in Asia. She is currently starting her 3rd year on the road.
P and P and the Grand Palace
P and P are not new friends, but old university mates who I haven’t seen for at least 3 years. Though they didn’t actually visit the Grand Palace with me (some people do have to work I guess!), I will remember having to rush through the palace grounds just to keep my lunch appointment with these guys, only to discover that they were stuck in traffic and arrived 45 minutes later than planned. I had forgotten about good old Thai time!
P and P are both Thai nationals. They left the UK to return home after university ended and we’ve barely seen each other since. They are however, the sort of friends you can leave without contact for years, then meet and get on with like no time at all has passed.
Luca, Wat Arun and the canals of Chao Phraya
After lunch with P and P somewhere near Lumphini Park, I made my way back to the west to continue my cultural tour of Bangkok. My intention was to visit the famous Wat Pho and Wat Arun, but traffic jams meant that I would only have enough time to visit one or the other. I chose Wat Arun, as its location on the other side of the river meant that I would also be able to take in the sights of the Chao Phraya River as I made the short journey across it. It was on this 5 minute ferry crossing that I started talking to Luca and continued walking with him once we arrive on the west bank.
Wat Arun aka Temple of Dawn, is one of Thailand’s best known landmarks and apparently the most photographed temple in all the land. This temple is so named because its spire, decorated with small pieces of Chinese porcelain and coloured glass, glimmers in the early morning dawn light to a brilliant effect.
This temple is well worth a visit as it is quite different in design from the other wats in Bangkok, in addition to offering some beautiful views of the winding Chao Phraya River if you dare to climb the central prang to the top! (It is ridiculously steep and rather scary, especially on the way down!)
After descending Wat Arun, Luca and I decided on a whim, to take a wooden boat cruise through some of the canals leading off of the Chao Phraya river. We motored past lines of wooden houses and shops, which really, wasn’t anything special, especially if you’re going to be checking out some of the floating markets near Bangkok. A wooden boat costs THB1000 to charter, and you can pack in about 8-10 people per boat. We had luckily managed to share the costs with 2 other couples.
Just something to note, beware of the boaters’ dubious practice of dropping passengers off on the east bank at one of the unofficial “piers”, as locals there then try to charge THB30 per person just to exit the pier! It’s completely ridiculous as the official ferry crossing only costs THB3. The 6 of us refused to pay and tried reasoning with the Thai man blocking our way. We eventually settled on THB40 for our total group. Try demanding to be brought back to the starting point on the west bank if this happens to you.
Luca is a 32 year old Italian who’s travelling solo in Thailand for 2 weeks. He saved me money by suggesting I watch muay thai kickboxing in Chiang Mai instead of Bangkok, where I managed to get tickets for a third of the price! 🙂
Matthias, Julia and Chinatown
One of the other couples on the canal cruise with Luca and myself was Matthias and Julia. We got to talking and decided to walk to Chinatown together, since all of us were yet to check out the scene there. Poorly designed maps and a lack of clearly signposted streets meant that we kept getting lost en-route to Yaowarat Road. By the time we reached our desired destination, the majority of the shops had closed for the day so we didn’t manage to see Chinatown in all its bustling glory.
The main streets in the area were well-lit and filled with food stalls though, so we spent our time following our noses to see all that Chinatown had to offer after sunset. This area seems to be particularly famous for noodle soups and fresh seafood.
Unfortunately, none of my companions were in the mood to sample any of local cuisine on offer by the road side, a shame as I was well up for it! Still, I can’t blame them as they’ve only just arrived in Thailand and it does take a while before one gets comfortable with the hygiene standards (or lack thereof) of these street stalls. 🙂 We headed back to the perceived safety of the restaurants of Khao San road instead, for a cheap and simple dinner of Thai curry.
Matthias and Julia are a couple from Germany who are travelling around Thailand for 3 weeks. This is their first time backpacking AND their first time in Asia!
Julian, Damnoen Saduak floating market, River Kwai and Tiger Temple
For my second full day in Bangkok, I decided to take a group tour out of the city to see some of the other famous attractions nearby. The itinerary for the day started with a 90 minute drive to the floating market of Damnoen Saduak, followed by visits to the bridge over the River Kwai and the Tiger Temple.
Keeping me company for the day was Julian, who despite speaking practically no English, turned out to be a rather entertaining companion. It was particularly fun having to bargain with the old Thai women on their floating boats on behalf of Julian, who seemed interested in everything on sale but could not communicate fast enough to buy what he wanted before our boat floated away to the next stall.
The museum at the River Kwai was a more sombre affair, as we studied the WW2 photos and exhibits quietly by ourselves, before heading out to the river and taking our obligatory photos of the infamous bridge over the River Kwai.
The Tiger Temple was a special event, where visitors are able to get up close and personal with uncaged tigers. Visitors are able to get their photos taken with these beautiful big cats (you can actually touch them!) who seem happy to pose for photos after they are fed and feeling lazy in the heat.
This temple is run by monks, who started first with rescued tigers, before proceeding to breed them in-house in recent times. It is clear that they have a very special relationship with the tigers, taking them for walks and feeding them milk from bottles without fear from both sides.
Other animals also live within the temple grounds, including water buffaloes and wild deer.
I have to say that I have conflicting feelings about the Tiger Temple and what it stands for, but that’s one for another post. All I will say at this point is that the tigers seem to be treated well and they do not appear to be drugged. Perhaps consider doing your own research into this attraction before deciding whether it’s one for you.
Julian is a Spanish traveller on a 6 month trip around Australia and SE Asia. He speaks almost no English – I am in awe at how he’s managed so far! Kudos! I communicated with him through the use of sign language, very limited French on both sides and a good guess from my side of Spanish! Julian has lived in South America and Africa in the past, besides of course Europe! This is his first time visiting Asia.