A Little Time in the Big City: Bangkok, Thailand

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The Reclining Buddha.

Bangkok was, for the most part, a place I passed through to reach other cities in Thailand and Cambodia.  For my two weeks of travel, I chose to only fly in and out of Bangkok (the most inexpensive flight into the region from Jakarta), and to use buses (to and from Siem Reap) and trains (to and from Chiang Mai) for the rest of my travel.  Though buses and trains are slower, there are a much more environmentally friendly option.  When traveling in Indonesia, because it is a country of islands, I usually have to fly.  When presented with other transportation options, I of course took them.

I had considered spending more time in Bangkok, but many familiar with the region told me that Bangkok was essentially the equivalent of Jakarta.  Because any trip I take is usually to escape Jakarta, I decided to only give myself one day in Bangkok, to see some of the main tourist attractions, before moving on.  Later on, I had a morning to explore a bit of Jakarta again, prior to boarding my afternoon flight back to Jakarta.

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You find these shrines with pictures of the king around every corner in Thailand.

I have to note, that I do not agree with the assessment that Bangkok is just like Jakarta.  I can certainly see the similarities: both are large, crowded, SouthEast Asian mega-cities, accosting the senses at every turn with the honking of horns, the smell of street food, and the chatter of throngs of predominantly friendly faces.  However, I found Bangkok generally far less polluted, far more organized, and far less traffic-y than Jakarta.  Talking to the folks who ran the various hostels I stayed in, they claimed the city owed these differences largely to the MRT, the underground system in Bangkok, which they said drastically changed the city, and for the better.  Jakarta is currently building its own underground, and I can only hope its completion has a similar effect.

I began my full day in Bangkok by visiting the National Museum.  Much of the museum was closed during my visit, as they were restoring many of the rooms and exhibits.  (This was a bit of a bummer for me, but I really don’t want to complain, because I think the upkeep of historical sites and places like museums is so important.)  The exhibits that were open were quite impressive, and the many of the placards with longer explanations gave good insight into the history of Thailand and the larger region.  I do think it is better to have some understanding of Thai history and culture before going to the National Museum, as it doesn’t necessarily always act as an introduction, per say, but even with my own very basic understanding of Thailand I was able to learn a lot from spending time there.  The museum is also on the grounds of what used to be a viceroy’s residence, and so the buildings and grounds themselves are truly incredible.

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The National Museum.

My next stop was to the Grand Palace, which was an overwhelming and magnificent stop.  It is a somewhat large complex, and it was quite crowded when I went.  (I do think this was in large part due to the recent passing of the Thai king, as many Thai citizens, dressed in black mourning clothes, were coming to pay their respects.)  Every surface of the elegant and intricate buildings of the Grand Palace was covered with colorful, complex tiling, and I spent my time there mostly trying to decide if it was better to stand back and try to take in a building as a whole, or to get up close and personal with the details.  I certainly did not have time to do either thoroughly, as I am certain it would take days to truly explore the Grand Palace and all its wonders.

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The Grand Palace.

I ended my day of Exploring Bangkok at Wat Pho (the full name of which is Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn, so I can see why people shortened it), the royal temple probably most famous for the Reclining Buddha (Phra Buddha Saiwas).  This was my favorite stop in all of Bangkok.  I am not sure if it is because I was there in the heat of the afternoon (I confess I spent a lot of time seeking out shade during my visit to Wat Pho), or if the temple is generally less crowded than the other tourist attractions in the area, but I found Wat Pho to be quite peaceful, a word I rarely find myself able to use in such a large city.  It was humbling to stand before the Reclining Buddha, which is somehow so much larger in real life than in pictures.  And I was especially fond of The Great Pagodas of the Four Kings (Phra Maha Chedi Si Rajakarn), as I found the almost-simplicity of their structures, combined with the beautiful pastel tiling decorating their surface to be a calming sort of beautiful.

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Wat Pho.  The Great Pagodas of the Four Kinds are in the photo on the far left.  The smaller pagodas around Wat Pho seem to echo their style.

On my last day in Thailand, I visited the Temple of the Golden Buddha, as it was within walking distance of my hostel.  It was an impressive temple, but I was even more intrigued by the two museum exhibits you could opt to visit as part of your tour, which gave insights into the history of the Chinese-Thai citizens of Bangkok, as well as the process of how the Golden Buddha was created, found, and transferred to its current location.  It was certainly a wonderful place to spend my last morning in Thailand.

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Temple of the Golden Buddha.

Of course, in between visits to austere temples and palaces, I wandered the main streets and back streets of the areas of Bangkok in which I found myself, hoping I would not get lost (and usually getting lost anyway), and eating excessive amounts of delicious Thai food.  While I am glad that I spent most of my time in smaller cities, I am also glad that I took the time to visit Bangkok, and see a little of what this city has to offer.

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