To most Westerners, the name Bangkok evokes images of ramshackle urban landscapes and sleazy massage parlors. Sure, you can still find it if you go looking for them, but today Bangkok is a surprisingly modern city with all the amenities we’re used to, plus a whole lot of exotic flavor of which we’re not. My own stay was limited to only two nights some ten years ago, but in that short time it became evident that this fascinating city in Southeast Asia is just as exotic as its name sounds.
First of all, for any potential visitors I have to say this: It is going to be hot. And not just hot—steamy, sultry, to the point that if you are coming from a more temperate clime, you should exercise caution so that you don’t suffer heat exhaustion before becoming acclimated. That said, you’re ready to explore a city unlike any other.
Like many major metropolises, Bangkok lines the banks of a river—in this case the Chao Phraya. There are numerous water taxis waiting to take you to various points along the bustling riverside lined with luxury hotels and ancient temples. One such complex, just south of the impressive Grand Palace, is Wat Pho. Here you will see an astounding display of Thai architecture as well as a monolithic 45 meter long reclining Buddha. Still not impressed? Look up at the ornate carvings and colors found in the eaves and above the doorways. It’s not the kind of thing you’ll see everyday, unless of course, you’re already a Buddhist monk, in which case you probably shouldn’t be impressed with that stuff anyway.
For those looking for more modern experiences, trendy Siam Square will make you feel right at home with its Western chain stores and American restaurants. No trip to Thailand would be complete without an authentic massage, and the good news is that there are plenty of reputable places to be found without a trip to the red light district. The even better news is that an hour foot massage with a little work on the shoulders and neck will run you about $5 US. To be honest, I would have paid that just to sit in the air conditioning.
Another memorable and rewarding experience in Bangkok is shopping, and the best place to do it in by far is the sprawling Chatuchak Market. This enormous bazaar holds over 7000 stalls selling everything from the mundane to the highly exotic. Great bargains are to be found—and haggled for—on everything from silk textiles to ornate carvings to bric-a-brac of all sorts. Again, you’d be amazed at how far $5 will get you.
Also coming in at about $5, you can get a round trip bus or train ride some 50 miles north to the town and ancient ruins of Ayutthaya—a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former capital of Siam until it was sacked by the Burmese in centuries past. Climbing over the crumbling ruins and looking up at towering spires of stone rising out of the lush greenery leaves no doubt that you are definitely not in Kansas anymore. For an authentic experience, rent a tuk-tuk—a tiny open-backed truck—to take you from site to site. This may be a bit more expensive, like say, maybe $10, but hey, when are you going to be in Thailand again?
So if you have a taste for the Far East yet don’t want to leave the comforts of modern civilization, consider a stay in Bangkok. And whether you’re cruising down the river, receiving a rubdown, or enjoying the warmth of smiling Thais, remember where you heard about this fabulous secret, and bring an extra twenty to live it up—if only for the air conditioning.