Story and photos by Nick Ross
Ayutthaya photo courtesy TAT
In tropical climes there are certain times of day
When all the citizens retire
To tear their clothes off and perspire.
It's one of those rules that the greatest fools obey,
Because the sun is much too sultry
And one must avoid its ultra-violet ray.
...Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
The Japanese don't care to,
the Chinese wouldn't dare to,
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one...
...At twelve noon
The natives swoon
And no further work is done.
But mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun...
...In Bangkok at twelve o'clock
They foam at the mouth and run,
But, mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun...
Nöel Coward (Mad Dogs and Englishmen)
Bangkok is a city you might not want to permanently reside in, but it is definitively a city well worth a visit. Imagine a town, halved by a river, without a formal street grid and with traffic so brutal that, when asking for distances, the locals will say twenty minutes to two hours, depending on the traffic. Driving in Bangkok requires nerves of steel as traffic regulations are more often ignored than observed, and hiring a car with driver or using a taxi or even a tuk-tuk -- colorful, much cheaper but not particularly safe -- is highly recommended.
There are three seasons: hot, hotter and hottest and almost always extremely humid. Travelers not used to tropical heat and humidity find the need to shower two or three times a day, even during the milder season. Bangkok being Thailand’s capital, has everything, from super luxury hotels to open-air floating markets, from palaces to earthen-floor houses. The Thai people I met are all, without exception, very friendly, patient and tolerant. They greet you with a “wai” a small bow and pressing the palms together at chin level in a prayer-like gesture. Everyone smiles, because it is considered very bad form not to.
The hotel restaurants in Bangkok offer delicious international and local dishes but, if you want to really taste the local cuisine try the restaurants in or near Bangkok’s Chinatown. One of the better ones is Odean, a very clean, rather discreet restaurant behind Wat Traimit in a street near the Odeon circle gate in Chinatown. The best of their dishes, in my opinion, is their noodle soup with a delicious crab claw served on top. When ordering, you need to specify the price you wish to pay, as the cost of the dish depends on the size of the claw; the larger the claw the more the dish costs.
Another good restaurant to try is Madam Saranair, located at 139 Sukhumvit 21| Khlongtoey Nua, Wattana, Bangkok 10110. When I last visited, I flew in to Bangkok from Taipei. I was hoping to find a good restaurant near the hotel as I’m very partial to good Thai food and the hotel’s restaurant was serving mostly Occidental dishes with very few Thai thrown in for good measure. Luckily, the concierge recommended Madam Saranair’s. We ordered shrimp cakes, shrimp soup (Tom Yum Koong), pork dumplings, crab curry, and refreshing fresh fruit drinks; the service was friendly, and everything was at reasonable prices.
Images of a very ancient culture still survive in and around Bangkok. The early capital, Ayutthaya, is about 45 miles away and can be reached by car, bus and train; though the boat trips organized by the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, using their own luxury boats up the Chao Phraya river, are most convenient and least taxing. For over 400 years, from 1350 to 1767, Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam and seat of 33 kings from various dynasties. Ayutthaya was a great metropolis and a cultural and trading center for the entire Southeast Asia, with links from Europe and the Atlantic to Japan and the Pacific. Bang-Pa-In, nearby, was the summer retreat of the royal family, a fairy-tale palace in the middle of the jungle set in a broad basin by the Chao Phraya river. During the king’s residence there gilded gondolas carrying the King’s wives glided up and down the mirror-smooth lake.
In Bangkok, the magnificence of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo -- the Temple of the Emerald Buddha -- offers to visitors a panorama of Thailand’s last 250 years of history. Each of the complexes in this walled city is an expression of the architectural style of the period and the King who reigned at the time and was responsible for its construction.
Entering through the Gate of Wonderful Victory one sees at the end of the wide street leading through the outer courtyard, the Great Maha Chakri Palace, the center point of the Chakri Complex. The palace was occupied by the kings and queens of Siam, as the country was known in earlier times. The kings occupied the east wing, the queens the west. The Audience Chamber with the silver throne under a nine-tiered umbrella is sometimes still used on special occasions, when the king receives ambassadors.
Most of the buildings, gables, courtyards and entrances, are gilded and richly decorated with murals and brightly hued carvings, statues of mythical creatures and demigods, pillars with lotus capitals and glazed earthenware tiles.
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