Floating Markets, fabulous seafood, vegetables and fruit, the world’s best massages for under $10, Buddhas everywhere – we must be in Bangkok!
I have to be honest, I was nervous about flying to Thailand. Not just about being cramped in a metal tube for hours on end, but because I had never been to Asia, and for some reason, it frightened me.
Of course, travel guru brother Johnny scoffed at my fears and told me that it was ridiculous. But I was still fearful. I talked to another veteran travel writer (and actor), Andrew McCarthy, and he too thought I was being silly, but reassured me that I was going to well-traveled places and not only would I be fine, but it would change my life!
So, I got up at 2 a.m. and convinced my husband, Cam, to drive me the four hours to Boston’s Logan Airport (we live in central Vermont). Next, I boarded a Jet Blue nonstop flight to LAX, only it took 8 and a half hours due to an unscheduled fuel refill because of heavy head winds, and an extra half an hour to deal with a misbehaved sixty year old traveler who was so irate about the stopover that he pulled his seat apart and got thrown off the plane!
By the time I got to LA, I was seriously considering letting my nerves and fear get the better of me. I went to Johnny’s apartment, slept a bit, took a walk on the pier, and received a pep talk from JohnnyJet who told me I could go home, but he was certain I would seriously miss out on something special- so I rallied!
Thai Airways 17 and a half hour flight was actually much easier than the Jet blue flight from Boston to LA. The Airbus was so quiet, I actually did not realize that we had taken off and were in the air! The flight hostesses are so interested in pleasing that I really felt I had “time warped” back several decades to the beginning of commercial air travel when everyone was treated like a celebrity. Their colorful costumes change during the flight and matched the bright fuchsia and lavender interior of the jumbo jet. The three Thai style meals onboard were actually good. In premium economy (which sometimes does not cost a great deal more than economy), the foot rest elevates and there is ample room. The personal entertainment center has a wide selection of American, European and Asian films.
Arriving at the new Suvarnabhumi (pronounced SuVarNaBum) International Airport was a delightful surprise. It is mammoth in height and size, light filled and airy because of domed glass ceilings, and only 40 minutes from downtown Bangkok.
I was impressed by the rooms, facilities, and most notably, the service of the two different hotels I stayed at and the other two I visited while in Bangkok.
The Renaissance Hotel was new, modern, and chic with a bathtub in the bathroom that could be part of the main room, or with a flick of a switch, partitioned off. Breakfasts were abundant with traditional Thai foods, fruits, juices and smoothies, pizza, and eggs cooked to order. Not to mention Thai iced teas and coffees, Italian lattes, Japanese green tea, and Danish pastries! The pool was on top floor, beautiful, long, and modern and partially open to the outside with views of the city way down below. The fitness center and spa is also located on the same floor. I had some wifi trouble and a young Thai man, the “hotel techie,” came to my room to fix it, but first took off his shoes before entering!
I visited the Four Seasons Hotel. Their traditional old world lobby with its colorful hand-painted ceiling in an Indian motif on the second level is a great place to meet for drinks, and the restaurants on the ground floor are unrivaled. You can choose from Spice Market /Thai, Biscotti/Italian, Madison/Steak house, Shintaro/Japanese Sushi, or Bistro Aqua in the garden courtyard – the place to be seen! We decided to eat at Spice Market for a Thai extravaganza and French champagne! We ate Tom Yam Kung – the delectable spicy shrimp soup and pepper leaves rolled around shrimp, chilies, lemongrass, green curry, coconut, and peanuts, and a Red Coconut Curry.
The Four Seasons Hotel is located on the same street, Rajadamri Road, and close to the Spa Rarin Jinda where I went later for a Thai massage. Of course, The Four Seasons has their own wonderful spa and their outdoor pool is surrounded by palm trees and other lush tropical plants making you forget you are in the middle of a busy city!
The five star flagship Centara Grand Hotel opened in 2008 and is contemporary and tres chic. The rooftop pool on the 26th floor was empty on the steamy November day. Up there the bartenders serve the most wonderful natural cocktails made with hand pulverized fruit such as passionfruit. The hotel has an incredible rooftop open-air bar, on the 55th floor called The Red Sky Bar where 20 wines are available by the glass as well as creative Martinis. The lobby is on the 23rd floor and there are many other restaurants within the hotel including a 24-hour business lounge on the 51st Floor which serves food and drinks around the clock. Access to the Center World Shopping Mall is via a connecting sky bridge.
I also spent an evening at the newly opened Anantara Hotel on the Chao Phraya River. Some rooms have original costumes from the Broadway production of “The King and I” displayed in shadow boxes. At their “Trader Vic’s” bar, head bartender James made his mango Mai Tais and Thai Tans (dark rum, Pernod and house made sour mix) while a Philippino band rocked eighties tunes.
GET READY TO BE SPOILED
The two-hour Thai Massage at Rarin Jinda Wellness Spa was like nothing I had ever had before! The spa is in The Grande Centre Point Hotel on Rajadamri Road in Bangkok near the Four Seasons Hotel. I had never experienced a true Thai Massage, which is done over loose clothes. Nobody does it like the Thai people who have been studying meridians on the body for two thousand years! A pair of loose fitting silk pajamas are worn and the feet cleansed in a bowl of warm ginger water and pampered with a guava foot scrub.
Next, the client is escorted into a room with two soft twin size mattresses covered in silk lying on the floor. Traditionally two people are massaged in the same room. At first, I thought this was strange and felt a bit uncomfortable, but soon, I was no longer aware of my “roommate”!
I was lost in sensations coming from the powerful masseuse, who was slight in size but packed a powerful touch. At times it was a bit painful, as the aching muscles really needed the kneading after the long plane ride. After 1 and a half hours, hot compresses are placed strategically on certain muscles and when it is all over, you are a bowl of jelly. The massage ends with the client being led to a small, quiet room and served lemongrass tea, dried fruits, nuts, and mango sticky rice. It is pure heaven, and costs about $45!
The Cenvaree Spa located in Centara Hotel is known as one of the best in Bangkok. My 2-hour facial included a Thai shoulder and back massage and cost around $50 USD and was maybe the best that I experienced in Thailand.
I got around easily by the safe, above-ground metro – the BTS sky train, and even easier in a van with an English speaking guide named Tippy. I can’t emphasize enough how important and pleasant it was to have a knowledgeable person to translate and show you around.
My friend, fellow travel writer Elina Fuhrman and I, decided to venture away from the safe confines of our van and have an adventure! We had no idea that it would start the moment we got into a random cab that had just dropped someone off at the Centara Hotel we were staying! A big problem is the language barrier and the culture barrier. Our cab driver didn’t quite understand the directions even though they were translated to him by our doorman and didn’t want to admit it, either. We ended up being driven around for two hours!
I am quite sure he was trying to get us there and not beefing up his fare (it would have been only 200 baht, less than six dollars for two hours!). Since we were holding up an entire boat, one of us lost our temper (which is something you cannot do with Thai people), so he left us stranded at the Radisson Hotel while we were in there asking again for directions. This is a good reason to have a mobile phone with you. It is best to have the hotel call you a cab or car service, which the Radisson staff so kindly did. Within minutes we were whisked to our destination on the other side of the river (only 10 minutes away from the original starting point!). Elina was first to “walk the plank” onto the boat while all the other guests looked at us, wondering who it was that held them up for an hour!
That evening, we left the Anantara Hotel dock onboard The Manohra, a Thai style river boat, and finally relaxed with a glass of champagne while enjoying the two hour dinner cruise and some fantastic Thai food. The view from the Chao Phraya River, also known as the River of Kings, is most spectacular at night. The blend of lit up ancient holy sanctuaries such as The Temple of Dawn and Holy Rosary Church, along with the famous Mandarin Oriental Hotel and super modern Taksin glowed against the black backdrop.
In Siam Paragon shopping mall there is also Siam Ocean World, an interesting and excellent aquarium for adults as well as children. The humane and unusual displays have animals that I had never seen before and you could get quite close. One tank is located on the ceiling while nurse sharks suck the glass floor above your head! Weird underwater newts, sea horses, and moray eels scare and enchant, and crazy penguins coexisting with water rats, swim by in a frenzy. Maybe it’s the water rats!
The evening’s entertainment was provided by “lady boys” who put on an amazing act – interweaving broadway musicals with calypso, amidst a smoky background. The negligee’d men really look like women. We all had a good time and took photos with them afterwards. The Calypso Cabaret is at the Asia Hotel. It was campy and highly entertaining!
Thai people are tolerant of sexual orientation and that may be why there are so many feminine men referred to as “lady boys.” It is not uncommon to see soft spoken males wearing mascara working in the hotels and some go through operations to add and eliminate sexual features. I honestly didn’t see much of the widely reported prostitution Bangkok was known for, but I did wonder if many of the beautiful heavily made-up Thai women that I saw were actually men!
Siam Paragon shopping mall has the trendiest boutiques. The inexpensive and delicious food court there is where I first had Tom Yam Kung, the classic Thai hot and sour (and spicy!) shrimp soup, which I could not get enough of and had every day! The combination of chilies, galangal (Thai ginger), lemongrass, and lime juice is aromatic and delicious. Of course there are many other ingredients, but surprisingly easy and fast to make. (I learned how at a cooking school in Chiang Mai, in my next article).
Unbelievable bargains are to be found shopping at the night markets where colleague Brandon Li bought his entire wardrobe for two weeks for under $100! The night market is easily reached by BTS sky train.
Mind boggling food markets like the train market ( set up right next to working train tracks) offer cooked local specialties as well unusually delicious fruits like dragon fruit, mangosteen that are only found in the Far East.
Thai people are true believers in karma, and for that reason do not pick pocket. However, there are many new immigrants without the same honor system so one should be on guard in the markets.
Thai people are tolerant of many different religions – Buddhism, Christianity, Muslim and Hinduism are all practiced here, and often. In Bangkok there are Buddhist temples everywhere, many out-of-doors and people can be seen worshiping all the time. It is not uncommon to be in the middle of a crowded city street and see a square devoted to prayer with statues of Buddhas or Hindu gods.
One example is the Erawan Shrine also known as the Four Faced Buddha, a sanctuary in the middle of chaos. It is across from Erawan Bangkok Shopping Mall and under a BTS overpass! People stop what they are doing to worship by kneeling and praying, buying offerings such as flowers, dances and songs, and large wooden elephants.
Offerings included little birds in cages which are released to bring good luck, but not for the birds. I found one with a damaged wing and caught it easily. Later I brought it to the Royal Palace and released it among the bushes in the beautiful gardens, hoping it would be able to heal and be free from the bird catcher in the city.
Temple Wat Pho or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha is near the Chao Phraya River. Western visitors are given instructions on what to wear (no bare arms or legs), and if necessary, fabric wraps are available for purchase. Visitors must also remove their shoes. The cool marble floor was a relief to my hot feet and the Buddha, which is 46 meters long and 15 meters high, was amazing and mysteriously calming.
Close by is The Royal Grand Palace, still used for dignitaries and ceremonies, and decorated in semiprecious stones and golden Buddha’s. Giant stone guards – hundreds of years old and several meters high, stand as sentinels at the entrance. The peacefulness of the park permeates your soul even though are were many visitors. I glimpsed the Emerald Buddha from the outside, because the interior was closed that day for a Royal event. I could have spent the entire week going to temples, and would have enjoyed it as long as I could stop for Tom Yam Kung!
On my very first night, I walked out of the Central World Mall with some friends and stumbled upon a Hindu festival celebrated on the patio right outside. People were praying, buying and offering bouquets of roses, lighting incense, and chanting in the middle of a busy shopping street. My group joined the worshippers and became immersed into the rituals. It was fun and other-worldly and I am glad we were there. There was a four piece band singing Indian songs. The large Elephant god, “Ganesha”, was the one being sung to and honored that night.
Bangkok’s Vimanmek Mansion was built in 1900 by King Rama fourth and was once used as his personal residence. Renovated in 1985, it is now a Teak Museum, and is beautiful, reminding me a bit of Victorian houses in Florida. Everyone checks their bags in a locker and removes their shoes (like everywhere in Thailand) before entering. There are polite female and male guards everywhere, protecting the palace, and pictures are not permitted. It is on the grounds of the Dusit Palace.
Next door in the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall is the Arts of the Kingdom Museum. Amazing handcrafts commissioned by the Queen are on display. A gold embossed royal howdah (elephant saddle) studded with diamonds, once used to carry the king on the back of a royal elephant were on display, as well as wall hangings depicting the flora and fauna of Thailand in an array of gorgeous colored silk thread. Also, beautiful gilded dragon boats encrusted with jewels, teak carved panels, and tapestries woven with silk and actual iridescent green and purple beetle wings will definitely blow your mind! Note: no giant beetles were harmed in the making of the royal fabrics. Really! The beautiful iridescent purple and green or blue wings are harvested from the large beetles after they die naturally and unbelievably woven into silk to impart their iridescence in the fabric. I have never seen anything like it in my life!
As you can see, my world was turned upside down and all around after visiting Thailand and I have to admit, Little Brother- you were right!
- http://www.Vimanmek.com (golden teak museum)
About the Author: Hi, I am Georgette, a writer and artist based in Connecticut and Vermont. I am also Johnny Jet’s older sister, who quite possibly ignited his first spark of interest in traveling to exotic places, when at the impressionable age of 14, he saw my two-week trip to Australia last four years! Whether skiing in the mountains, snorkeling in the tropics, or exploring faraway cities, I am always game for traveling and the privilege of writing for my baby brother’s website JohnnyJet.com. Of course, coming home to my husband Cam, our dog Baci, and my cat Ace – is great, too! Visit my website at www.georgettepaintings.com.
This trip was sponsored in part by Thai Tourism and Thai Airways.