December 24, 2019: A Local’s Perspective
Today, my business school friend Por showed me around Bangkok. He is a lifelong Bangkok resident so it was truly a treat to get the hometown tour.
Our first stop was Chinatown- a hectic neighborhood full of markets and narrow alleys. We visited the largest Chinese temple in the area and then got breakfast at a famous restaurant that only serves goose. Normally you have to “book your goose” 3 days in advance but if you show up at 9:30 AM sharp, you can get one of the spare geese. It was delicious.
We then went to a most unusual temple called Losa Prahat that was 5 levels tall and felt like a maze. We were rewarded with city views and got to see relics of the Buddha (so many places have them so at this point I have no idea what that means).
After a lunch break where I met up with a honeymooning high school friend, we visited Rattanakosin Exhibit Hall, Bangkok’s history museum. This museum- presented as a guided tour- gave a vast overview of Thai culture. I learned about the history of Bangkok, the history and customs of the royal family, traditional dance, Bangkok landmarks, you name it it was there. This was one of the best museums I have seen in Southeast Asia.
We visited a temple made of marble and then to a large statue of King Rama V. The Thai people truly love the king- especially the last king Rama IX who ruled for nearly 70 years. He was beloved because he tried very hard to improve the lives of the Thai people especially in rural communities. You will never hear it -especially because it is illegal to say bad things about the monarchy- but I get the feeling that a lot of people do not care as much for the current king. I heard from a few sources that there are far fewer portraits of this king around than the last one.
After being rejected by multiple times by taxis (they greatly prefer to rip off tourists than to take Thai people at the honest rate) we took a Grab to Siam Square- a popular spot for malls.
Asia loves their malls and Bangkok is no exception. In Siam Square we walked through 4 ginormous malls right next to each other. Every chain store: luxury to medium priced was there. Many brands definitely had multiple stores in Siam Square- maybe even multiple stores in the same mall. Despite being a Buddhist country, the Thai malls really like Christmas. They were all decorated up for the holidays and pop versions of Christmas songs were playing in every store and corridor.
For dinner we met up with Por’s girlfriend Pei. They took me to a very authentic Thai restaurant. I knew it was good because I was the only white person there and it was crowded. All the dishes were incredible and spicy. Most of the dishes I’ve never had before except for the tom yum soup. This was probably the best Thai meal I’ve ever had.
We then said goodbye and I headed back to the hostel. It was Christmas Eve and the hotel organized a huge party. Everyone had Santa hats on. It was a fun international experience that can only exist in backpacker-land.
December 25, 2019: The Biggest and Best Sights
This was my final full day in Thailand. I saved the biggest and best sights in Thailand for today.
My first stop was the Grand Palace. Officially, this is the home of the king, but he actually lives elsewhere in Bangkok. This was by far the most popular attraction I have seen in Thailand. The crowds to get in were crazy, but the palace was more than ready to handle the crowds. It also cost 500 baht- at least 10x as much as any other admission ticket I have paid. That must be where the king gets all his money.
The grand palace is a multi-part attraction. The first and main part is a complex of temples. All of these temples were covered in gold and jewels in a level far beyond anything I have seen thus far. I cannot imagine buildings more ornate.
The centerpiece of this complex is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the most important and famous statue in all of Thailand. Back in Chiang Rai, I visited the temple where the statue was discovered. The statue has three different season costumes. Only king and crown prince can change the costume on Buddha. Currently, the Buddha was wearing winter robes (despite the 85-degree weather) so it appeared that only the head was emerald.
In addition to the temples you can see the outside of what appears to be a large residential building where an old king might have lived or where the king hosts receptions. Unfortunately, that building and the rest of the complex is off limits to the public. Sort of hidden, there is also a wonderful museum about the king’s mother- the old queen.
While the Grand Palace was undoubtedly spectacular, the attraction was an extremely poor value. The part that is open to the public is not that large and it is 10 times the price of any other attraction in Bangkok.
Next to the grand palace is Wat Pho, another famous temple. This one was only 50 baht AND includes a free bottle of water! Wat Pho is known for its gigantic reclining Buddha. The statue is so big I have no idea how it fit in the building. My guess is that the building was built around the statue. Wat Pho also has a famous Thai massage school sponsored by the king.
Across the river accessible by ferry is another temple, Wat Arun. This one looked different from the others- way less gold but a more unusual shape. While walking in I ran into a college friend on his honeymoon! Wild.
I then took a ferry to the largest mall in all of Southeast Asia: ICONSIAM. This mall was built in 2018 at the cost of 1.5 billion euros making it one of the most expensive malls ever built. I’ve never ever seen a mall like ICONSIAM and I’ve been to some epic malls. ICONSIA is 11 gigantic floors: double the size of the Mall of America. Everything was fancy and super clean.
The most noteworthy thing in the mall was the food court. It was built as a miniature of Thailand- each of the 4 main areas of Thailand: south, central, north and northeast all had themed lands where you could buy safe, upscale street food. On a fake floating village, vendors sold food out of stationary boats. What struck me about this was how I could tell the difference between the many regions of Thailand. Visiting the north and northeast made me nostalgic of all the regional foods I had while on my trip.
At the top of the mall I looked out on the gigantic and overwhelming city of Bangkok. Tall buildings as far as the eye can see in all directions. This moment to me felt like the perfect culmination of the trip. Having seen the country, I got to see the largest palace, the largest temple and the largest mall on the final day. My trip perfectly built itself up to this moment.
Bangkok, while the most popular landing point in Thailand, is actually a very tricky city to get right. Sin is everywhere. The prices are cheap compared to the West. A flood of backpackers and a well-developed tourist infrastructure steer tourists towards very specific sights and experiences including the biggest temples and institutions in the country.
By dropping right into this megalopolis, most tourists have no sense of scale, pricing, and culture to truly appreciate Bangkok or avoid scams. $3 for a beer might sound like a bargain for an American, but in reality, the market price for a beer is 50 cents. The Grand Palace has incredible temples, but by viewing it first, all other temples will seem small and unimpressive. The pad thai sold on Khao San Road is obviously Thai, but is made bland for the mass palates of the tourists.
Therefore, I would highly recommend visiting other Thai cities first before going to Bangkok. That way you will have the cultural knowledge to find the real Bangkok. Additionally by starting small, you will continue to be amazed as you work towards the grand finale.