Beguiling Bangkok

Sampling the temples and palaces along the city’s waterways

By: Jonathan Siskin

Referred to by natives as Krungthep (City of Angels), Thailand’s frenetic capital is currently one of the hottest destinations on the map. In a little more than two centuries of existence, it has rapidly evolved from a nondescript fishing outpost into one of the most prosperous cities in Southeast Asia.

With each passing year, tourism plays an increasingly vital role in Bangkok’s economic growth, and clients have plenty to choose from with the city’s top-of-the-line hotels, quality restaurants and shopping centers. Bangkok’s rich cultural and artistic heritage is strongly linked to Buddhism; more than 90 percent of the population are Buddhists, and groups of saffron-clad monks are a familiar sight everywhere you go.

There are over 400 wats (Buddhist temples) in a city where Buddha images are held sacred, and the number of Buddhas found in Bangkok and throughout Thailand far outnumber the country’s population of 62 million. Buddha images come in sizes from miniature to immense and are crafted from materials ranging from wood and metal to stucco, ivory and precious stones. The friendly, hospitable Thais greet each other as well as visitors with the traditional Buddhist wai, a gesture in which the palms of the hands are pressed together in front of the chest.

A River Runs Through It

The most efficient way to get around Bangkok and to avoid its frequent traffic jams is on the water as the city is crisscrossed by an elaborate network of canals, or klongs, which provide an excellent vantage point from which to observe the most important temples and other sites. Many of the canals connect to the mighty Chao Phrya River that runs through the center of the city. It was here on the banks of the Chao Phrya that the Chakri Dynasty relocated the capital in 1782 when Rami I began constructing a city that would become known as the “Venice of the East.”

Nowadays, Bangkok’s main waterway teems with activity day and night, as barges transport rice and other produce up and down the river, while ferries shuttle passengers from one bank to the other. Motorized water buses and river taxis also transport passengers to landing areas on the Chao Phrya, while vendors sell their wares from small sampans (boats) bumping along the river or paddling slowly through the narrow canals.

The most splendid sight on the riverbank is the extraordinary Grand Palace encompassing an entire square mile of palaces and temples adorned with spires and multi-tiered roofs gilded in gold. Both the King’s Palace and Wat Phra Keo, the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand, are located here. The Grand Palace was built by Rama I, the first monarch of the Chakri Dynasty, and members of this dynasty have continued to rule Thailand until the present day. The king’s official residence until 1946, the King’s Palace, is now used only for ceremonial functions and also serves as the royal guesthouse, housing visiting dignitaries.

Wat Phra Keo attracts large contingents of visitors coming to view the revered emerald Buddha, a priceless 22-inch-high image carved from a single piece of green jasper, resting on a gold altar. Believed to have originated in Ceylon more than 1,000 years ago, this tiny Buddha is the most sacred object in all of Thailand. Only the king is permitted to change the robes that clothe the Buddha on three occasions every year the Buddha wears a blue robe in the rainy season, gold in the cool season and a diamond-studded robe in the hot season. Protocol is very strict at this temple; no photographs are permitted inside, and pointing one’s feet at the Buddha is forbidden.

A short distance south of the Grand Palace is Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), which contains a gigantic 148-foot-long, 50-foot-high gold-plated Lord Buddha resting on his side, representing his entry into Nirvana. The soles of his feet are covered in mother-of-pearl, and the 108 bronze bowls located in a line behind the Buddha represent previous incarnations of the Lord. Visitors to the temple deposit coins in these bowls for good luck.

As Good as Gold

Another spectacular landmark situated directly across the river from the Grand Palace is Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn). Covered with millions of pieces of porcelain and glass, it glistens magically when the temples’ five golden spires one more than 250 feet high are illuminated by the rising and setting sun.

More gold can be found at Wat Tramit (Temple of the Golden Buddha), which houses an incredible 700-year-old solid-gold seated Buddha image composed of 5½ tons of gold. Originally covered in plaster, the Buddha’s true composition was discovered accidentally when it slipped from a crane while in transit, chipping off part of its coating to reveal the gold beneath.

Many river tours depart from the dock near the famous Oriental Hotel. The Chao Phraya dinner cruise provides terrific views of the major temples. This is an especially memorable experience as the water reflects the flickering lights of the city while passengers partake of delicious Thai cuisine.


Tourism Authority of Thailand

EVA Air, which serves Bangkok, has improved the online service that enables its passengers to order meals in advance of their flights. Passengers can now order meals 21 days in advance instead of 14. In addition, EVA has added new healthy menu options. EVA’s Super First, Business and Premium Laurel passengers can choose their main courses as late as 24 hours before the scheduled departure.