July 07, 2009
I am sitting here in the Krungthep Wing of the Shangri-La for afternoon tea after a morning of sightseeing in Bangkok. Have you been to this town before? Are you thinking of visiting? If so, I have collected a few tips that will make your visit much easier and far more enjoyable.
The first tip is by far the easiest and the least stressful method to see a great Asian city in about a day. You are probably here because you want to see temples, people doing their daily activities, and eat some wonderful Asian food. Get up early, because your day is going to be packed. At the beginning of the day, take a taxi to the airport, fly to Singapore, and take a tour that leaves from the airport right at the end of the terminal. They will show you so many wonderful things during your day-long excursion and you will even have some time for shopping and people-watching along Orchard, relaxing on the beach at Sentosa, and dinner at Jumbo’s. Its really the best way to see a fantastic Asian city with the least possible aggravation.
But if you are the type of person who really wants to see Bangkok and don’t mind a few headaches, keep on reading because some of the most useful tips are still ahead. There are two main ways of seeing this town. You could either join a tour from your hotel, or you could personalize your tour using your own two feet, tuk tuks, taxis, and boats. Both ways have their advantages and disadvantages. For one thing, the first option is going to be much more expensive. A hotel tour could cost you 20, 30, or maybe even 50 USD. That’s probably more than a tuk tuk driver makes in a month, so you may be tempted to go the second route. But there is a big advantage to the organized, professionally managed tours.
Lets say that you have a few specific things that you want to see in Bangkok. Wat Pho and Wat Arun are probably high on your list. The Royal Palace is up there too as is the Golden Mountain, the Marble Temple, and the Teak Palace. They are all things that I wanted to see today and luckily they are close enough together that seeing them all in a single day should be possible. With an organized tour there is a 100% chance that you will see all of those during the day. You might even get to see a few other sites and there will probably be an air-conditioned coach taking you between each location. With your self-organised viewing of the city, you will definitely see the first place on your list, but then the tuk tuk driver will get a bit distracted. He knows that you have an agenda, but his agenda is much more important. The one thing on his mind is how to get free gas.
You probably don’t care about him getting free gas, but you should because your entire day is going to revolve around his quest for it. That means visits to gem stores, tailors, and more. Every Westerner through their doors means free gas for the tuk tuk driver. Why do they need free gas? So they can find more tourists who will get them more free gas. Its a never ending loop that you can be a part of. Now if you remind them a few times every minute of what is most important to you, you may have a chance of seeing that second thing on your list, but don’t count on it.
We had met up with a tuk tuk driver last night and arranged for a 50 Baht/hour tour of the town. We started at 10 and planned to see all the things I listed above. At the first temple we met a local school teacher who mentioned that our next stop, the Grand Palace, was going to be closed to Westerners until 2PM due to the Kings visit. We mentioned this to our driver but he didn’t seem to understand, so we had the teacher explain it to him. When everyone agreed, the driver started taking us on our way to the next place: Golden Mountain…or so we thought.
On the way to our next stop, our driver offered to take us to 2 other wonderful places: a gem shop and a tailor. We refused since we weren’t in on the secret yet. Although he seemed a bit upset at our refusal to see the real highlights of this country, he made it sound like we would continue to the Golden Mountain. We pointed to it several times on the map and he agreed. 10 minutes of racing through the city’s streets later, we arrived at the Grand Palace. Our tuk tuk driver insisted that despite being told that the place was closed and that we wanted to go elsewhere, this was the place to see next. And apparently this was the end of our tour. So we paid him his 50 Baht since we had only been gone for 1 hour and walked up to the entrance.
Guess what happened. The guy at the gate said the palace was closed and wouldn’t open until about 1:30. He suggested that we see the Lucky Buddha and come back at 1:30. “Can I see your map?” He grabbed my map, unfolded it and started scribbling his directions. He wrote the hours of the palace, circled it and the Lucky Buddha, and said come back at 1:30. He was a bit upset that the concierge had also written on our map, but was generally OK with it. He even found a tuk tuk driver and arranged a fare for us: 20 baht round trip. Perfect.
The driver took us on a fairly direct route to the Lucky Buddha and we were met at the entrance by another teacher. Apparently Thailand is trying to eliminate the image of angry rioters in its streets and has opened all of its temples to foreigners. It has also made all teachers into free tour guides in exchange for the government paying for school supplies. Sounds good, right? Almost. Our teacher showed us around the temple and then directed us to the hall of Lucky Buddhas. We wandered a bit on our own, taking photos of the Buddha in various poses from different times. When we returned to our instructor/guide he was completely freaking out.
Another group of tourists looked inside the temple and decided to continue on. He was begging us to explain to them that it was OK to go in. This guy was going absolutely insane: “why are they so scared, tell them its OK” was his plea. If I had seen him for the first time like this, I probably would have moved on too, it was totally bizarre. For the rest of our walk around the temple, we listened to the teacher ask why the other tourists were so scared, that it was OK, and that they need to see a calm Thailand. I hope he gets over it. We made it to our tuk tuk and continued on to the Golden Mountain.
Well, that was the plan. Our driver offered to take us to two wonderful places: a gem shop and a tailor. He then explained why we wanted to go there and clued us into the free gas. So we allowed him to take us to the gem shop. A 5 minute visit was all that was required for free gas for him, so we did our browsing and made it out to the driver. Now we were off to the Golden Mountain. “Boat Ride?” No, Golden Mountain. 5 minutes later we find ourselves at the pier to get a boat ride. This was apparently the end of our tour.
The boat driver wanted about 50 dollars for a one hour ride around the canals. This is absolutely ridiculous, so when we suggested a more reasonable price he refused and our tuk tuk driver was disgusted too. We decided to go to the Golden Mountain instead. Everyone agreed and we were on our way. A few minutes later and we were at a different pier asking a different boat driver for a price. Ugh, no Golden Mountain. This time the boat ride was a bit more reasonable so we caved in and went on our tour. I think the tuk tuk was eager to get rid of us since we didn’t want to visit a tailor.
When you start your day in Bangkok, you might want to be nice to the other tourists that you meet, even introducing yourselves to them. Certainly do not be hateful to them because you will be seeing a lot of each other during the day. Apparently all the tuk tuk drivers have the same agenda and know that they need to visit the same places at the same prescribed times. We saw the same “scared” tourists at the Lucky Buddha, a gem shop, and on a different boat. We would probably have seen them at the tailor if we had added that to our tour.
One of the mistakes I made at the beginning of the day was that I only got a single map from the concierge. I should have collected a dozen or so instead. Throughout your day, you will meet many local Thais and they are all eager to give you advice: where to go, when to go, and what to wear. And they all want to write out their instructions on your map. And they all take offense at not being the first person to write on your map. If you only have one, then there will be markings all over your map in different handwriting using different pens and inks and none of it will make sense.
After our boat tour, we made our way to the Grand Palace. Remember this is where we were a few hours before but they told us to come back at 1:30. Well, the guy at the gate this time said that if we had come earlier we could have gone in but the Palace closed at 1 so our best bet is to come back tomorrow. Luckily, he had some suggestions for how we could spend our time. “Do you have a map?” He took my map but looked a bit flustered when he saw that others had already written on the large sheet. “Have you been to the Lucky Buddha?” We had, but not to the one he circled. He flagged down a tuk tuk to take us there but we refused, deciding to walk around the edge of the palace instead.
On our stroll through the flea market across from the palace walls, we had at least a half dozen people look at my bare lower legs (I was wearing shorts because it is stinking hot), nod their heads in disgust, then ask if we had a map so they could point us to the Lucky Buddha. It was getting a bit annoying. After a while we reached another entrance with a sign in front that read: Be Careful of Wily Strangers. Hmmm, good advice, though I am not sure what they gained by writing on our map. Maybe the ink is some kind of drug and they get high from rubbing their hands on it. A woman in front again warned us that we would not be allowed in because it was too late and asked for the map.
I said no, you cannot see my map. I didn’t want to know about any damned Lucky Buddha, just tell me the rules about getting into the Palace. She was confused. If I come any other day, will it be open? Yes, I was told. But bring pants because I won’t be allowed in without them. Now we knew the rules so we continued until we could find a taxi.
Then we found what must have been one of the main entrances to the palace. Guess what? There were throngs of tourists in shorts flowing in and out of the place. It was about 2:30 and it was definitely open. For those of us in shorts, one can rent some nasty trousers to wear on top to cover up. It had been an exhausting day already and I had no desire to wear someone else’s lice-infested pants, so we decided to come back another day.
We had a choice of returning to the hotel in a tuk tuk or a taxi. We figured our chances of actually getting to the hotel were much higher in a taxi so we looked for a taxi queue. There was one a bit in the distance, but as we got closer so did the police and it disappeared as it wasn’t a legal queue. So we walked back and the same thing happened again. Eventually we just found a lone taxi and ran to it. Ahhh, air-conditioned comfort, all the way back.
So that’s what you are in for if you decide to take on Bangkok on your own. Looking back, the 50 dollar tour might have been a bargain. If you really want to see some of Thailand and skip the aggravation, go to the Jim Thompson House. You can take the SkyTrain there which probably has a stop near your hotel. Ours was across a street from a stop and we took it to National Stadium, then walked a few blocks to the House. It was easy. And the house is absolutely beautiful. You really should come here and visit. But this is the time you can skip the organized tour.
Unfortunately we did this yesterday around noon. As we walked towards JT’s place, a concerned Thai told us it was closed for lunch. He asked us for our map (I didn’t understand the map writing fetish Thais have at this point), and drew out where we needed to go. One block over was the Gem Production facilities. Great, just what my sister needs, more shiny things. She says she can walk into these places without buying anything but I don’t believe her. After a good hour of looking at EVERYTHING, she narrows down the selection to 3 items. Couldn’t decide so she took the lot. Rummaging around her bag she realised she left her wallet and credit cards at the hotel. So guess who had to pay for them…Damn you, Jim Thompson.