I really did have only one night in Bangkok. We arrived in the city around noon, after a two-hour taxi ride from the port of Laem Chabang, where we just wrapped up a cruise to Vietnam aboard the Crystal Symphony. With temperatures hovering near 100 and the car's air-conditioning on the fritz, by the time we got to Bangkok, we were more than eager to find our hotel and unwind. If only our driver could find it. As he drove in circles, we wiped the sweat from our brows and kept pointing to the map and repeating F-o-u-r S-e-a-s-o-n-s F-o-u-r S-e-a-s-o-n-s.
All attempts at communication came to a halt when our driver rear-ended the car in front of us. A minor fender bender, he tried to pretend it didn't happen and press on. Nice try. Soon both parties were standing in the middle of the street bickering over what to do next. We had to face the facts; this guy wasn't going to get us to our hotel -- ever. Our ex-driver half-heartedly tried to get us another taxi as we stood on the roadside with our giant suitcases, trying not to get run over. We decided to throw caution to the wind and soon found ourselves waiving down a tuk-tuk. These souped-up golf carts rattle around the city jostling for fares along side Pepto-Bismol pink taxis, tinny buses, motorcyclists and pedestrians. Somehow we managed to squeeze our bags and ample western arses into the thing and were soon on our way. Our sighs of relief were soon stifled by a mouthful of fumes. We discovered that Bangkok's traffic jams aren't so pleasant in an open-air low-to-the-ground motorcycle rickshaw, our faces conveniently at exhaust pipe level.
All ordeals eventually come to an end, and our three-wheeler finally rumbled into the driveway of the Four Seasons (155 Rajadamri Road; www.fourseasons.com/bangkok), weaving between shiny sedans and sports cars before sputtering to a full stop at the feet of a smiling bell hop. He pressed his hands together in the traditional Thai greeting, and in an instant, the tide had turned. We were entering another side of the Bangkok experience: the luxury hotel.
After climbing out of the tuk-tuk, we composed ourselves and were soon following a gracious staff member inside. We walked into the spacious lobby and took in the white-washed splendor of the classy hotel. Vaguely Colonial with thick columns and dark wood furniture, this restrained elegance is the backdrop to the rich red, gold and blue hand-painted Thai silk panels that cover the ceiling.
The hotel's calm and relaxed vibe belies its large-ish size. Some 353 rooms are spread across the U-shaped low-rise building. Nice-sized rooms mirror the lobby décor. Jim Thompson silk fabrics in yellowy green and gold, or in reds and oranges, along with Thai silk wall murals, add splashes of color to the otherwise understated surroundings. Granite bathrooms have a separate tub and shower, and are stocked with oversized bath towels. A nice touch is the complimentary coffee and tea that comes along with a morning wake-up call.
Other amenities, which we unfortunately didn't have time to sample during our whirlwind stay, include a fitness center, steam rooms, outdoor lap pool (claimed as Bangkok's largest) and a spa. A wide range of treatments includes facials, wraps, scrubs and of course the traditional Thai massage (90 minutes goes for about $100) as well as Oriental foot massages (an hour goes for about $70). Spa villas with private plunge pools are also available.
We sampled two of the many dining venues, lunching at the casual Spice Market on green curry chicken and pad Thai. After a long day of touring, we came back to the comfort of our hotel cocoon and relaxed in the open-air courtyard of Aqua, sipping cocktails and nibbling on a plate of satay, Vietnamese spring rolls and a medley of Middle Eastern dips. The next morning, we were back there for the ample breakfast buffet of both eastern and western specialties. The hotel's restaurant choices also include Italian and Japanese venues as well as an American-style steakhouse.
Assuming all this Four Seasons luxury is out of your league? Think again.
"The Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok is the best five-star value in the world and in Asia," a hotel spokesperson told me, adding "Bangkok is the only metropolitan city that can afford to do this." It's true. With rates that dip as low as $150 to $175 a night, it's a treat too good to pass up.
Attracting business and leisure guests, the hotel is a retreat from the frenetic pace of Bangkok just beyond its doors, though of course the point of being there is to sightsee. Before venturing out, we stopped by the concierge desk for a map. The friendly staff circled the top sights and handed us a pile of FS business cards with the hotel's address written in Thai for the taxi drivers, many of whom speak little if any English.
On that first afternoon, we got into the hotel's taxi queue and lucked out by climbing into one with a friendly English-speaking driver who knew his way around. In no time we had negotiated a 5-hour tour of the city for 500 Bhat (or about $15 US). Mr. Niwat Homsantea called himself Nick (tel. 081251-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org), and he was an amiable honest man who answered our questions, took us where we asked to go and told us about a few places we didn't know about. It worked out great. There's also an elevated railway in Bangkok called the Sky Train that hits some of the city's central points; definitely worth a try during rush hour.
24 hours in Bangkok
Royal Grand Palace (near the Chao Phraya River on Na Phra Lan Rd. near Sanam Luang)
There are a few sights in the world that are truly jaw droppingly amazing and a million times more spectacular in person. There's the Taj Mahal, for instance, and the Grand Canyon too. And add to that list, Bangkok's Royal Palace. Construction on the now 60-acre complex started in 1782 and was finished in time for the coronation of Rama I. For about 150 years, it was the home of the King and his court as well as important government departments. It's been said that Anna, tutor to the son of Rama IV and the central figure in the story The King and I, lived here as well.
You could spend days here, but even an hour or two will give you a wonderful taste of Thailand's historical splendor. We meandered through the maze of ornate-ness in awe of the brilliant gold leaf spires, domes, prangs (tall thin towers), multi-layered rooflines, bell towers, and mythical demon guards, much of it covered in mirror work and brightly painted glass and ceramic tiles. It's all a mind-blowing mix of traditional Thai and European design. We followed signs to some of the more noteworthy attractions within the Royal Palace, including Wat Phrakaew, where the Emerald Buddha resides.
Just across the Chao Phraya River from the Royal Palace is Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn). You can't miss the sky-piercing Khmer-style 260-foot-tall prang and the four spires surrounding it. The prangs are covered with thousands of bits of Chinese porcelain and glazed ceramic tiles.
Because of congestion, the drive from the hotel to the Palace could take you anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes. Be Zen about it. The Royal Palace closes for the day mid-afternoon, so don't show up too late. Admission is 250 Bhat (that's about US$8). Remember, temple etiquette here calls for legs, stomachs and shoulders to be covered (there's a good chance you'll be turned away if you try and "skirt" the issue). Shoes must be removed before entering temples.
Wat Po (Maharat Rd., near the river and less than a mile from the Grand Palace)
More popularly known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, this 16th century Buddhist temple complex is the oldest and largest in Bangkok. The main attraction here is the enormous Reclining Buddha, covered in gold leaf and stretching more than 140 feet long and 50 feet high. It was built during the mid-19th-century reign of Rama III. The soles of the three-foot-long feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl illustrations of 108 auspicious laksanas (characteristics) of the Buddha. For less than $1, buy a small cup of coins and follow the queue shuffling along the spine of the Buddha where there is a long row of black begging bowls. For good luck and good karma, place one coin in each bowl.
Thailand is famous for shopping, so hitting a market is mandatory. The Suan Lum Night Market (just east of Lumpini Park, near Silom Road) is close to the hotel. Newer and more mod than the city's other night markets, the treasures and trinkets here are under covered walkways linked to a few bars and restaurants, and a sprawling food court. The Chatuchak Weekend Market is a little further way (15 minutes by taxi from the hotel on a good day; it's adjacent to the Mo Chit BTS stop at the northern terminus of the skytrain), but worth a trip. Remember: bargain, bargain, bargain. Rows and rows of stalls sell goods ranging from Thai silk scarves that go for $5 to $10 a piece (depending on how good a haggler you are) and make excellent gifts, to clothes, cushion covers, carvings, jewelry, condiments, plants, t-shirts and a ton of other stuff.
Jim Thompson (intersection of Surawong and Rama IV roads)
Ok, its spic and span high-gloss interior reeks of a store in some suburban mall, but there's just no denying the stuff makes good gifts. Pick up good quality silk make-up bags, frames, ties, purses, clothes and tons more. Despite its glossy corporate image today, the store's origins are fascinating. Founder Jim Thompson was an American architect from New York who served in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, now the CIA) in Thailand during World War II and afterward settled in Bangkok. Thompson is credited with reviving Thailand's native silk industry. He mysteriously disappeared while on vacation in the jungles of Malaysia in 1967 and was never seen again. If you have time, check out Jim Thompson's teak and theng (a wood even harder than teak) traditional Thai house on 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road. Inside is an impressive collection of Khmer sculpture, Chinese porcelain, Burmese carving, and antique Thai scroll paintings.
Sky Bar (Sirocco Hotel, Silom Road).
This mod bar sits on a disc that juts out from the 64th floor of the State Tower building. The only thing separating you from the rest of Bangkok, some 820 feet below, is a relatively low transparent railing. Yikes -- acrophobes stay clear! Of course the drink prices are super high at this touristy spot, but it's worth spending $20 on a sauvignon blanc for these thrill-seeker views.
Sadly, I had no time for this -- but do try to squeeze one in. The true Thai massage involves acupressure, stretching, kneading and an overall firm touch. If you opt for a Thai massage outside of the hotel's expensive spa (I'm referring to the legitimate kind, not the ubiquitous massage parlors that sell sex), you'll pay just $5 to $10 an hour at places in tourist areas along Sukhumvit, Silom and Surawong roads, between Thaniya and Patpong. Outdoor massages are offered at Wat Pho, Bangkok's largest temple and home to the country's leading Thai massage school.
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