Do You Know Bangkok ?

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A stroll down any    of   Bangkok’s for  thousands   of   sprawling   and   labyrinthine alleyways can bring untold adventures for visitors   who   are   keen   to   unearth   the real Thailand.      First-time    visitors  are   often amazed      by   central   Bangkok’s    glittering modernity, and at the same time, delighted by   the   treasures   found   amid   the   grungi-ness   of   ramshackle   back   streets;   it’s  very easy    to  stumble    across  hidden    markets,museums,       or  spectacular    temples.    This chapter presents the main highlights of the city’s sights plus a final section detailing a few worthy side trips from Bangkok. Each section will give you an idea of the scope of   things   to   do.   “Bangkok’s   Waterways”gives   you   the   ins   and   outs   of  the city’scanals;    “Bangkok’s    Top    Historical   Trea- sures & Wats” covers the city’s magnificent palaces,    charming     traditional  residences, and    fascinating    museums. “Cultural   & Wellness   Pursuits”   lets   you   in   on   unique local   experiences,   and   “Staying   Active”   is sports   people—both   participants   and observers. The   “Shopping”   section   gives   you   the lowdown on what to buy and where, and “Bangkok       After  Dark”    details  the   city’s unending   entertainments,   such   as   dance, theater, and nightclubs. Bangkok is famous for being just as vibrant after dark as in the day.   Many    of  its  largest  boulevards    are swathed in fairy lights, and a bevy of swish rooftop bars all offer fantastic night views. Admittedly, things aren’t as crazy as roughly a   decade   ago,   when   the   party   scene   ran nonstop   until   dawn,   and   alcohol   flowed day   or   night.   Under   laws   imposed   under ex–Prime   Minister   Thaksin,   all   bars   and clubs must now close at 1am (though don’t be surprised if you find the odd exception). That     said,  Bangkok    has   many    markets, bars, and clubs open until at least midnight, plus   the   big   department   stores   and   malls don’t    close   until   around    9pm—which should sate even the hardiest shopaholic.

BANGKOK ’S  WATERWAYS

The key to Bangkok’s rise lies in the Chao Phraya River, which courses stealthily throughits center, feeding a complex network of canals and locks that, until relatively recently,were the focus of city life. Lying just a few miles from the Gulf of Thailand, the river was a major conduit for trade, and the main reason behind its rapid growth. Today, nothing much has changed: Great black barges filled with rice, coal, or sand are towed up and down the river by small yellow tugs; at any time of the day you might spot grey Royal Naval vessels, police on Port Authority jet skis, stout wooden sampans, and even blue barges stacked with Pepsi-Cola bottles, all plying these waters.In   the   late   18th   century, Thailand’s   first   monarch   of   the   Chakri   dynasty,   Rama   I,moved the capital eastward from Thonburi (a suburb of today’s Bangkok) across the river to the district that became known as Rattanakosin Island, so-called due to the man-made canals that surrounded this entire area. Like medieval moats, these canals (klongs) acted as a defensive barrier. Other canals were soon added, channeling the waters of the Chao.

     Phraya into peripheral communities, feeding fish ponds or rice paddies, and nurturing the city’s many tropical fruit orchards. These waterways fast became the aquatic boule-vards and avenues of this low-lying, swampy city. Apart from structures built for royalty,ordinary Bangkok residents lived on water, in bamboo raft homes, or on boats. As foreigndiplomats, missionaries, and writers traveled to Bangkok, they drew parallels with theItalian city of Venice and renamed it the “Venice of the East.” Not until the early 1800swere nonroyal houses built on dry land.

    Due to the health hazards posed by these open klongs, and the gradual need for morestable land with the advent of vehicular transport, many of the canals were paved over inthe last century. By the late 1970s, most of the city’s paddy fields had disappeared. In fact,   much   of  today’s   Bangkok   has   been   reclaimed   from   former   marshland.   Fears   are growing as global warming raises sea levels and the effects of seasonal flooding on the city  are becoming more drastic.

   For a glimpse of traditional Thai life, schedule a few hours to explore the waterways. You’ll see people using the river to bathe, wash their clothes, and even brush their teeth  & at water’s edge (not recommended). Floating kitchens occupy small motorized canoes from which the pilot-cum-chef serves rice and noodles to the occupants on other boats. Men, wrapped in nothing more than a loincloth, tiptoe across floating carpets of logs en route to the lumber mills; ramshackle huts on stilts adorned with 100-year-old fretwork tumble down into klongs; while at low tide, the rib cages of sunken boats appear out of  the oozing mud.

   Opportunities abound for exploring Bangkok’s small klong networks and river arteries.The most frequently seen boat on the river is the longtail, a needle-shaped craft driven by a raucous outboard engine and covered in a striped awning. These act as river taxis for tourists and locals alike. Private longtails congregate at Maharaj, Chang, and Si Phya public piers and at River City (       02235-3108). If you are confident of your haggling          skills, you can try to charter a longtail yourself for about 1,000B an hour—be sure to agree on the charge before you get in the boat. Note: Beware of independent boat opera-tors who offer to take you to souvenir or gem shops.

   Otherwise,   if   you   head   to   the   riverside   exit   of   Saphan Taksin   BTS,   there’s   also   an official kiosk down on the riverfront, with tour information, including tickets for the hop-on,   hop-off  Chao   Phraya   Express  (     02623-6001). This   runs   every   half-hour,daily from 9:30am to 4pm, and is a more comfortable option than the (more cramped)longtails or tatty wooden express boats that act as the city’s river taxis.

     You can also go on a formal tour of the klongs. The following operators can arrange itineraries, with 2-hour tours costing about 1,300B per person, including an English-speaking   guide:  World   Travel   (& 02233-5900),  Sea   Tours   (& 02216-5783),   and Diethelm Travel (& 02660-7000; www.diethelmtravel.com). Any hotel concierge canalso make arrangements.

   However   you   tour   the  klongs,   take   the   time   to   explore  Klong   Bangkok   Noi   and Klong Bangkok Yai. Also stop at the Royal Barge Museum (see “Bangkok’s Top His- torical Treasures   &   Wats,”   below),   a   wonderful   riverside   hangar   crammed   with   long, narrow vessels covered in gilt carvings, brought out only to commemorate rare events such as a milestone in the monarch’s reign or the visit of a dignitary.Many visitors are disappointed by the hugely commercial (some may say overrated) floating market at Damnoen Saduak, about 80km (50 miles) southwest of Bangkok, inRatchaburi   Province.   A   better   and   more   authentic   experience   is   to   head   upstream   to picturesque Ko Kret; see “Side Trips from Bangkok,”