Rough Guide: Green curries, golden Buddhas and orange monks
Lucy Ridout, author of the 'Rough Guide to Bangkok', found a city bursting with colour
Sunday 20 December 1998
Bangkok looks great in the early morning. The dawn light glints beautifully on the many gold-leaf stupas (Buddhist shrines), the air is cool and not yet clogged with fumes, and the streets are enlivened by groups of saffron- robed monks collecting their daily alms from generous neighbours. At Wat Benjamabophit temple, this morning ritual is reversed, and the generous neighbours come to them. Every day between 6am and 7.30am the Benjamabophit monks line up outside their temple gate, their begging bowls ready to receive donations of curry and rice, lotus buds, incense, even toilet paper and Coca-Cola. It's quite acceptable for tourists to turn up and observe this traditional start to the day, and it is a sight well worth getting up early for.
Most ideal home
One of Bangkok's most famous expats was Jim Thompson, an American adventurer, entrepreneur and art collector who mysteriously disappeared in 1967. He lived on the banks of a canal in what is now one of Bangkok's smarter residential districts and his house - preserved as a museum - was designed as a perfect blend of Asian elegance and Western comfort. Artfully assembled from six traditional teak houses, it is a rare chance to see how wealthy Bangkokians used to live before tower-block chic took over. It is set in a pretty tropical garden and is still furnished with the antiques that Thompson collected on his travels around South-east Asia.
Bangkok is full of mega-sized statues of Buddha - including one five- and-a half-ton beauty made of solid gold, and another less attractive concrete giant which towers 32 metres from head to toe. But the image that really sticks in the memory is the 45-metre-long Reclining Buddha at Wat Po temple. Its beaming five-metre smile is a cheerful sight, but its finest features are the extra-large feet, complete with beautifully lacquered soles which are delicately inlaid with dozens of little mother- of-pearl designs.
May Kaidee's is down an alley running off Tanao Road. She serves food every day until about 9pm, selling cheap but scrumptious veggie meals to her customers. She has established her little alleyway "restaurant" - three tables and a gas burner - literally on her front doorstep, and likes to sit down for a chat with customers if she has the time. Her piece de resistance is a fiery green curry with tofu and coconut, although she likes to think that one day she will convert tourists to the delights of sticky black-rice pudding.
Forget the go-go bars and strip clubs of the notorious Patpong district. For a really sensual after-dark experience, there is nothing better than a 3am visit to the Pak Khlong Talat wholesale flower market. This is when the capital's choosiest hoteliers and florists arrive to buy their freshly picked blooms, and the market halls are awash with the purples, pinks and oranges of sweet-scented tropical beauties.
Taking a bus from one end of Bangkok to the other really is a nightmare, and it's often a nightmare that lasts a good three hours. City authorities are addressing the problem, but their much-awaited solution, a combination of elevated expressways and underground train networks, is currently making traffic congestion even worse. Meanwhile, the most pleasant way to get from one place to another is by boat. Bangkok used to be known as the "Venice of the East" because of its network of canals and rivers and many of these are still served by ferries and longtail boats. It's a cooler, calmer and more scenic way to travel - and you can cross from the eastern suburbs to the western edge of the city in less than 60 minutes.
Quest Worldwide (tel: 0181-547 3322) offers return flights from London to Bangkok from pounds 350.
What to experience
Jim Thompson's house is just off Siam Square at 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road. It opens Monday to Saturday from 9am-4.30pm and costs Bt100 (about pounds 1.65), including a compulsory guided tour.
May Kaidee's foodstall is in Banglamphu, down an alley which runs off the Tanao Road. She serves food every day until about 9pm.
The Chao Phraya Express ferries ply several kilometres of the Chao Phraya River at 15 minute intervals in both directions, and have useful stops at the Oriental Hotel, the central post office, the Grand Palace, Wat Po and Banglamphu.
Chatuchak Market operates every Saturday and Sunday between 7am-6pm. It is about an hour's bus ride north of Banglamphu or Sukhumvit on air-conditioned buses, numbers 2, 3, 9, 10 or 13.
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