Within 24 hours of landing in Bangkok, the reason for the abundance of people wearing face masks became apparent.
“Region Braces for Another Bad Air Day” screamed the headline from the front page of that morning’s edition of the Bangkok Post. Thailand’s capital was in the vice-like grip of a hazardous pollution “epidemic”. The blame was being firmly laid at the feet of the expansion of the city’s creaking transport infrastructure, which was generating fine dust particles.
The previous day, Bangkok had been rated the 9th most polluted city in the world for air quality (if you’re interested, Delhi held the number one spot). Suddenly, my hotel upgrade to a balcony room overlooking the Chao Phraya river didn’t seem like such a gift after all. Clearly, there would be no lingering on the balcony, G&T in hand, on this visit.
This was my third visit to Bangkok and it’s safe to say that I didn’t exactly fall in love with it on previous visits. It is an enormous, sprawling city: 600 sq. miles housing over ten million people. As a result of its limited, largely unintegrated public transport infrastructure, its roads are clogged with traffic, spewing out fumes. It takes an age to get anywhere by road.
Green space is a rarity, just 3 sq. meters per inhabitant compared with London’s 38 sq. meters. Moreover, to me, Bangkok lacked a real heart and distinctiveness, compared with other Asian cities, for example, Yangon or Hanoi.
But, to be fair, I hadn’t spent much time there on previous visits, and maybe I hadn’t given Bangkok a decent chance. 2019 was the year to right that wrong, on a bigger budget and at a more relaxed pace. Perhaps spending the time to get to know the city would make me like it more?
And what better way to get to know Bangkok present than exploring Bangkok past? Better still, visiting its key historical sites is easy to do on a DIY Bangkok boat tour.
A short history of Bangkok
Formally a quiet trading and farming community, Bangkok grew in importance in the 15th and 16th centuries, with the development of a new waterway, easing the passage of ships up the river.
After the sacking of Ayutthaya, in 1782, Bangkok became the capital of Siam, as Thailand was known up until 1939, After a brief stay across the Chao Phraya River in Thonburi, King Rama I finally settled on the island of Ratanakosin, chosen for its strategic location at the mouth of the river.
Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo
Let’s start our historical journey where it all began, on the island of Ratanakosin. Here you will find the Grand Palace and the royal temple, Wat Phra Kaeo. As a homage to its predecessor, King Rama imitated Ayutthaya’s architecture and layout, even going as far as using the ruins of the old capital to build the new one.
Wat Phra Kaeo looks like something that my seven-year-old niece would build if she was let loose with a fantasy bling set of Lego. It is overwhelming in all senses of the word. Its buildings hang together in a melange of contrasting shapes and colours; it shouldn’t work but it does.
Once through the entrance, 6 m-tall demons (yaksha) loom over you, guarding the Emerald Buddha and warding off evil spirits. The prayer room, or bot, houses the tiny Emerald Buddha, reputed to have spiritual powers, which attracts visitors from across Thailand. The bot itself assaults the senses, but not always in a good way.
The crowds, the heat and the sensory overload made this a challenging visit, and I was glad that I hadn’t tagged it on the end of a busy day. I lasted an hour there, so pace yourself.
Visiting the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo
- Alight the riverboat at Tha Chang (N9), from where it is a circuitous 15-minute walk.
- Opening hours 8.30 – 3.30.
- Admission fee is 500 THB (£12).
- Dress appropriately. This is Thailand’s most sacred site so no shorts, vests or flip-flops. If you haven’t dressed suitably, you can borrow a cover-up from the office, just inside the entrance, for a small deposit.
Founded in the 16th Century, Wat Pho predates the city of Bangkok. It is famed for its enormous Reclining Buddha, which measures 46 meters long.
However, avoid the temptation to just gawp at the Reclining Buddha and leave. It is worth taking time to wander around the temple complex, which I preferred to Wat Phra Kaeo.
Look out for the stone giants, standing guard at the monumental gates of the main compound. Many of these are Westerners, comical-looking with their wide-brimmed hats, and were used as ballast by ships exporting rice to China.
I loved the lines of Buddha statues from different parts of Thailand and the intricate murals covering the Wat Pho’s walkways.
If you are in need of a therapeutic massage, you have come to the right place. Wat Pho is famous for massage sessions and courses. Just look for the signposts.
Visiting Wat Pho
- At the time of writing, the riverboat stop for Wat Pho was closed for renovation. It’s a 15-minute walk from the Grand Palace. Alternatively, alight the riverboat on the opposite bank at Wat Arun, and then take the cross-river ferry.
- Opening hours 8.30 – 6.30.
- Admission fee is 200 THB (£5). This includes a free bottle of drinking water.
- As before, dress appropriately.
On the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, the elegant Wat Arun – or Temple of Dawn – shimmers and gleams like a mirage. For my money, it the most beautiful of Bangkok’s temples.
Climb the central prang – said to represent Mount Meru, the centre of the universe – for views across the river to Wat Pho and the Grand Palace.
Visiting Wat Arun
- Alight the riverboat at Na Thien (N8).
- Opening hours 8.30 – 6.00.
- Admission fee is 50 (£1).
- As before, dress appropriately.
Visiting the historic sites using Bangkok riverboats
Visiting these sites using river boats is by far the most convenient way to see them. You also benefit from a cooling river breeze.
You have two choices: the regular boats that plough along the Chao Phraya River or the hop on-hop off tourist boat. In the interests of research, I tried both of them. Broadly speaking, both boats serve the same stops, which are helpfully numbered.
Navigating the riverboat transport options can be confusing. But with a little patience and foreknowledge, it is not that difficult. The starting point for both services is Sathorn Pier, in front of the BTS Skytrain station Saphin Taksin.
The regular Bangkok riverboat
- The regular boat costs 15- 20 THB (50p) per ride. The ladies at a table at Sathorn Pier will hand over a ticket in exchange for your cash. I found that just handing over a 20 baht note worked. Go for an orange flag boat.
- Boarding is organised chaos but it does work. There are shouty staff; they are efficient but not rude.
- Boats run every 15 minutes.
Chao Phraya Tourist Boat
- Tourists are encouraged to use the Chao Phraya hop on – hop off tourist boat, so much so that you have to run the gauntlet of enthusiastic ticket vendors, dressed in their distinctive blue uniforms, at Sathorn Pier. These boats fly blue flags
- A day pass (9.00 – 17.30) costs 200 THB (£5); 60 THB for a single journey. Other passes are available. Boats run every 30 minutes.
Although the tourist boat was less crowded and less chaotic, the main difference that I could see between this and the regular boat is that you get a tinny-sounding commentary on the Chao Phraya Tourist Boat. I would argue that this is not worth the extra cost.
Do I now like Bangkok?
Sorry Bangkok, but not really.
You are a congested, chaotic, concrete jungle and I struggle to understand why you are so popular. Whilst visiting these temples has made a few days in your company worthwhile, I don’t think I will be rekindling our relationship any time soon.
But am I missing something?