Thursday was my first full day in Bangkok, so I felt that I should celebrate by heading to some of the main cannot-miss attractions. There are several of them, but I decided on the Grand Palace as the first. The Grand Palace complex includes the temple complex that houses the Emerald Buddha, so I visited that first. Not that I had much of a choice – the entrance line funnels the mobs into the temple complex as the first point of entry.
I had been worried that heading over to the Grand Palace might be difficult by public transportation, but in fact it’s quite simple. You take the BTS Skytrain to the Saphan Taksin stop by the river, get out and head to the pier following the signs for the Chao Phraya Express Boat. Buy your ticket for this tourist boat run by the transit company (it’s quite affordable) and simply wait for the boat to appear. The Grand Palace is “pier number nine”, so I got to see a bit of the sights of Bangkok from the river on the way. The tourist boats have a guide on each who points out sights. Some are more successfully understood than others, and not just due to the varying levels of accents. The varying microphone quality can’t be easy for them to work with.
The first pier you pass is the Oriental Pier, next to the famed (and pricey) Oriental Hotel that Conrad and Somerset Maugham stayed at, amongst other famous writers. Depending on the state of my finances when I return to Bangkok before heading home, I might go have high tea in the Author’s Wing, the original old building of the hotel. (There are a couple of modern additions that may add to the quality of the rooms but certainly detract from the quality of the ambiance, at least from the river view.) Of course, I’m not sure that I have dressy enough clothes for that – I’m rather one of the hoi polloi right now.
Taking the boat gives you a chance to appreciate the river, seeing sights you otherwise couldn’t see (at least not without a long bus ride). I enjoyed everything except getting river water in my face – it’s not exactly the cleanest water, although I did see living things in it, surprisingly (a crane or similar bird).
We passed a number of colorful longtail boats. I think these are the boats which go on the canal tours, which sound like fun.
We made it to the pier and exited through a market with some incredible looking street food (and I mean “incredible” in multiple ways – I’m not sure that I’d want to eat all or even most of it, but the variety was astounding!) Once you exit through the market, you can see a great big, white wall that surrounds the palace. Taking our lives in our hands, we crossed. (I say “we” here because I always try to cross with a tour group. They hold up traffic so nicely, you see!) Signs posted along the wall warn of the scams of “wily strangers”. Apparently it’s quite common for someone to try to tell you the site is closed for the day and then to take you on either a gem selling scam or simply a shopping-and-the-driver-gets-commissions scam.
With all the tour groups around, I didn’t notice any wily strangers. I did manage to get into the site, despite the mobs of people.The entrance is stunning, surrounded by these two-storey high statues of what I assume are some kind of guardian.
I wandered through the temple complex, seeing the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Buddha is jade, I believe, not really emerald, and spent some time in its history in Laos when Thailand had a king of Laotian origin who returned to Laos. From my guidebook reading, I think the Laotians are still quite bitter the Thais took it back, so I may hear some more of the tale from a Laotian part of view when I get there.
The heat and humidity were pretty bad, so I was happy to take advantage of a stand selling actual mango juice (as opposed to mango nectar), which I haven’t had in years.
I then wandered through the Grand Palace courtyard, admiring various buildings.
It was starting to drizzle towards the end, so I popped into the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum, which is also part of the Grand Palace complex. There are some beautiful examples of Thai traditional dress in there. Apparently “modern traditional dress” was invented by the queen and her advisors in the late 1950s in preparation for the royal State visit to Europe and the US in 1960. Thai dress became heavily influenced by Western clothing in the 19th century, so traditional court dress no longer existed.
I spent a long time in the palace complex and museums, so was more than ready for lunch when I exited. I decided to head to the National Museum, which I wanted to see and which was supposed to have a decent restaurant. I had my first real Thai meal for the whopping price of 45 baht ($1.50)!
The National Museum is this really interesting hodgepodge of items, from a former queen’s dollhouse to Buddhas from the Sukhothai period to ornate bookcases and a life-sized model elephant. It was a great way to kill the rest of the afternoon.