Bangkok has a pretty manageable list of must-sees. The Grand Palace is probably top of the top, but everything I’d read said to get there before it opens to avoid the massive crowds and highest heat. We were tired after our drive from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok (and a first-night-in-Bangkok stop at a brewpub David had to check out), so we really didn’t want to get up that early on our first morning in the capital of Thailand. Number two on my list was Wat Pho and its famous reclining Buddha. We knew it would be hot and crowded, too, but heat and crowds are pretty much a given for Bangkok and we weren’t going to miss the city hiding out in the air conditioning.
One of the many selling points of our AirBnB condo is its closeness to both the Skylink overhead railway and the main Sathorn water taxi station. The express boats (water buses) that ply the Chao Phrya River run from Sathorn to Wat Pho and the Grand Palace (side-by-side on the same side of the river) along with many other stops. There’s a tourist boat that costs several multiples of the regular boats, but is still a bargain. We opted instead for an express boat that’s ridiculously cheap at 14 baht (40 cents). There’s an express boat pier, Tha Tien, just in front of Wat Pho. Unfortunately, it is closed for renovations. That meant we needed to ride one stop further to the Tha Chang pier that sits in front of the Grand Palace, and walk back to Wat Pho.
The express boats are identified by colored flags. We’d read to get on the orange flag express boat, but staff at the pier told us to go ahead and get on a blue flag boat (the first to dock after we arrived) that would also stop at the Grand Palace for the same price. Boats pull in and out frequently, never stopping long. The tourist boat docked just next to the other express boats. There’s a private boat offering tours, but we ignored those touts, who were asking much more. There are also water taxis and long tail boats. The Chao Phrya is a busy river, teeming with water craft of all types.
The boat ride itself is fun and a great way to see the city. It’s actually fairly cool, too, since it makes a breeze, you’re in the shade and on the water. In less than half an hour, our boat dropped us off at the Tha Chang pier where we walked past stalls of vendors set up in a covered market to exit by the white walls of the Grand Palace. Since the palace wasn’t our destination for the day, we turned right, putting the walls of the palace to our left and walked along a sidewalk lined with stalls offering free food and ice water. All this is part of the on-going mourning period for King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The generosity of the Thai people and camaraderie in their grief is touching. We assumed the refreshment was primarily for Thais journeying to the capitol to pay their respects to their king who lies in state in the Grand Palace. As foreigners, we were hesitant to accept the offered food and drink, but were repeatedly urged to do so by the Thais (who, of course, couldn’t help but see our obvious otherness). We gratefully accepted icy bottles of water as our walk to Wat Pho was long, hot and getting hotter.
At Wat Pho, we paid our 100 baht ($2.86) per person entrance fee, then pulled on the long pants we’d brought to wear over our shorts to comply with the temple dress code. As expected, the temple housing the famous reclining Buddha was a mob scene. The temple is long with two relatively narrow halls that run down either side of the Buddha. Large square columns separate the halls from the statue, which is so large, it’s hard to take in as you can only see parts at a time except for when he is viewed from one end or the other.
At 150 feet long, the Buddha is gigantic, but the detail work on his face and mother-of-pearl inlaid feet is equally impressive.
Beyond the temple housing the reclining Buddha, many other stupa, temples and shrines dot the grounds of Wat Pho. We wandered in the shimmering heat, admiring the dramatic lines of the structures and the ornate ceramic, paint and mosaic work that covered nearly every inch of some of them. Clearly, Thais love bling and are big believers in more is more!
Reaching the far side of the temple complex, we happily accepted more free ice water in cups. I gulped some and splashed the rest on my face, neck and arms. David and I both peeled out of our long over-pants. We needed a break from the heat! A quick search on our phones turned up an air-conditioned restaurant not far away. I’d had some slight misgivings about the restaurant since it was located in a small hotel–usually not a great sign–, but the restaurant at Inn a Day turned out to be stylish, cool, and serving really great iced coffee and good food. Happiness!
Refreshed by our break, we headed back towards the Tha Chang boat pier, detouring to explore a fish market tucked behind the pretty colonial era buildings that line the road in this part of town.
Exiting the fish market and strolling back along the cafés and shops in the colonial buildings, we made a serendipitous detour into a covered market that turned out to lead to one of the many ferry piers along the river. For 3.5 baht (10 cents), we hopped a ferry to the far side of the river and Wat Arun.
Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn) is famous for its massive, beautifully-decorated stupa. The entire structure is now covered in scaffolding with a temporary structure at its very top that is unfortunately reminiscent of an outhouse. Needless to say, we were less-than-blown-away by the stupa, although the glimpses of it through the scaffolding hinted at the hidden beauty. The rest of the temple complex is lovely, though, and we admired the pastel flowers covering the walls of one temple and the blingy gold and mosaic work of the building’s trim that wouldn’t be out of place on a Mardi Gras float.
Having enough of the heat, we hopped another boat bound for Sathorn Pier and home. Upon debarking, we made a slight detour to explore the riverfront Wat Yannawa, a temple with a unique boat-shaped shrine that we could see from our condo balcony. Stalls were set up on the temple grounds and the place bustled with activity that hinted at more to come. Later, hearing broadcast announcements that wafted up to our condo and seeing throngs from our condo balcony at Wat Yannawa, we realized it was Loi Krathong, a holiday famous for its floating lantern offerings. Candles, flowers (and fingernail and hair cuttings) are placed on banana leaf (or sometimes bread) holders and set afloat upon the water at night. In Chiang Mai, Loi Krathong is occasion for the famous flocks of floating lanterns released into the sky.
Looking beyond Wat Yannawa, we got a good view of the 49-story derelict and supposedly haunted Sathorn Unique building. We could see the other side of the Unique from our condo along with an adjacent parking garage with overgrown ponds on the roof and had been curious about the story behind the abandoned buildings. It turns out that the building is one of a dozen-plus such derelict skyscrapers in Bangkok, forlorn remnants of the Asian financial crash. At one time, there were reportedly more than 300 unfinished high-rises in Bangkok. Apparently the Sathorn Unique was 80-90% completed when the crash hit and work was halted, so it’s structurally sound, but a wreck inside, and now a destination for urban explorers. The rumors of the Unique being “haunted” or cursed in some way arise from claims it was built on an ancient burial ground and that it casts a shadow on Wat Yannawa. In any case, it’s a strange and strangely intriguing structure.