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Thailand: Bangkok, Erawan National Park, Kanchanaburi, Tiger Temple

Bangkok, Thailand: Of temples & royalty
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief

Grand Palace, Bangkok

If you have only 8 hours of day time in Bangkok, I would suggest a Chao Phraya river cruise with a visit to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. The time will give you more than a glimpse. Of course 8 hours of night time could well be something else all together. Will try and cover that when I get the opportunity to go up close to shoot pictures!

Taling Chan Floating Market, Bangkok By the time I reached my hotel in Bangkok it was 9 PM. The drive from Kanchanaburi was OK; what killed the time was the city traffic. Despite wide roads and clusters of flyovers, one can only crawl especially during the rush hours. I admire the patience of drivers - they never seem to get frustrated. Passengers from some other countries definitely will. I have seen Bangkok change dramatically over the last few years. The skyline has innumerable skyscrapers and the streets are getting busier with fancy cars, hawkers and of course humanity.

I checked into Hotel Royal Benja on Soi 5 on the Sukhimvit Road. It's a good hotel and is priced sensibly - as most of the Bangkok hotels are. I was lucky to get a room on the 23rd floor. The upper floors have been recently refurbished. If you happen to opt for this property, make sure you get a room on the higher floors. On both sides of Sukhimvit Road are hotels, shopping malls, street shopping, massage parlours, night clubs and restaurants offering cuisine from all around the world. It's a neighboourhood that hardly sleeps and I am sure, it is the most popular one for visitors to Bangkok.

I had my flight the next evening. That gave me about 8 hours to explore Bangkok. After breakfast I took a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the Grand Palace. I was surprised when the driver informed me that the Grand Palace would open late because of the weekend. He suggested that I spend some time at the Golden Buddha, visit an artifact factory and then proceed to the Palace. Smelling something fishy, I excused myself and got off. My suspicion was right. The Grand Palace is open on all days of the week from 8 AM to 4 PM. Later in the day, a Tuk Tuk (a 3-wheeler rickshaw) driver attempted the same trick on me when I asked to be dropped to Wat Poh. This driver had the same ideas as the one in the morning had! It's obvious that the drivers were looking to earn some extra from the detour as well as the commissions from the artifact stores. When on business, I never experienced this before. Looks like when foreigners ask for tourist destinations, the pitch changes. Be careful. And insist the driver to flag the meter down. Taxis aren't expensive. Minimum charge is Thai Baht 35. At the time of writing USD 1 fetched THB 34. Tuk Tuks don't run on meter. Use them if you have good negotiation skills. Of course, Tuk Tuk wins.

Wat Arun, Bangkok After leaving the taxi alone, I decided to take the BTS. Bangkok has excellent network of trains that run on elevated tracks. They are clean, comfortable & fast. I walked up to Nana station to catch the train. After studying the route map, I thought it would be a good idea to alight at Saphan Taksin (costs only THB 25) and take the cruise on Chao Phraya River in a long tail boat, visit the floating market and alight at the Grand Palace.

The pier is just below the station. There are many tour operators that offer the river cruise. I opted for a one hour cruise for THB 600. Though there were other cruises of longer duration, I think, one hour on the river shows you all. The weather in Bangkok is hot and humid. It's a good idea to remain amply hydrated. I recommend a bottle of water and a hat as essentials in your backpack.

Grand Palace, Bangkok Chao Phraya is a mighty river. It meets with the sea about 50 kms away. Numerous canals make for an awesome network of water transportation system. No wonder, the city is lovingly called Venice of the East - albeit not as clean but indeed inexpensive. To the residents along the banks, waterways are the only source to move around. Even the postman delivers the mail by boat. And does so regularly.

Canals that lead to and from the river have gates. The level of water in the canals is much lower than the general level of the river. Thus, the boats are taken into a gated enclosure. Water is discharged till the boats reach the level of water in the canal. Likewise, water is filled so that the boats rise to the level of the river on the way back. The enclosure has the capacity to hold 6 long tail boats. A wait of 10 to 15 minutes at the gates is considered normal.

On both sides of the canals were homes built on stilts. Not an inch of space was available between two structures. Only a few of the structures were home to the wealthy. Going by the upkeep of the homes, I guess, most of the residents along the bank had limited incomes. Due to flooding, residents in some homes were using only the upper floors. We cruised for about 30 minutes to reach the Taling Chan Floating Market. We were allowed 30 minutes to explore the market. I was amazed to see the arrangements. Vendors, mainly selling sea food, had their kitchens on their boats which were anchored on the banks that had seating arrangements. Customers ordered their food which was cooked and served fresh by the vendors. Just so you know, this market is open only on Saturdays and Sundays. Other floating markets do exist, but they are much away from the city centre.

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok We turned back to reach the river. The river bank is home to Bangkok's finest and the most expensive hotels, the King's boat hanger, Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn), Grand Palace, Chinese Temples to name a few. I was dropped at a pier which was only a short walk away (through slippery & crowded alleys) form the Grand Palace.

There's an entry fee of THB 350 for foreigners to visit the Grand Palace. Worth every Baht I would say. It's a huge complex with spaces designated for temples, ceremonial halls, residences, gardens and corridors. The premises are a fine display of Thai architecture and art. Roof tops painted in gold, red and green make for an awesome sight. Large paintings adore the walls. Stautes in stone and metal dot the palace grounds. Doorways and columns with intricate inlay work are equally awe inspiring. The highlight of the trip is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The King no longer lives in this Palace, but the ritual of changing of the guards still continues. One can easily spend a day exploring the Grand Palace. However, I spent about 90 minutes and then made my way to Wat Pho.

Wat Pho, Bangkok Another 15 minute walk took me to the other end of the Grand Palace - to Wat Poh - Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Foreigners pay THB 50 to visit the sanctum sanctorum. The statue of the Reclining Buddha is over 43 metere. After paying respects, I spent about 30 more minutes in the Wat Poh premises. There were ceremonial rooms, scores of elegant stupas and a centre that offers traditional Thai massage to tourists. Wat Pho is believed to be the first school to develop and impart training to students wanting to learn the art of traditional Thai massage. I was tempted to try one of the many therapies but avoided as time was short.

It was already 2 PM. From Wat Pho, I took a taxi (cost THB 70 by meter) to reach MBK Complex. A very popular, and must do, destination. It's a 7 storey building for value shopping, food courts and cinemas. I headed straight up to the food court on the 6th floor at my favourite joint serving great tepanyaki cuisine. After a good meal, I took the BTS from the National Stadium station adjoining to MBK, changed tracks at Siam station and reached Nana station which was only 3 stations and THB 25 away.

I picked up my bags from the hotel's concierge and headed to Suvarnbhumai International Airport for my flight to Hong Kong. The taxi ride from Sukhumvit Road (Soi 5) takes about 45 minutes and costs around THB 250. Toll way charge of THB 70 is in addition.

Business in Hong Kong was waiting.

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