"How do I get the Grand Palace?" I asked the clerk at a
hotel in Bangkok, the bustling capital of Thailand. We had two free days from our tour, and I wanted to explore a number of the important tourist sites in the city. He stared at me, apparently not understanding a word. "The Temple of the Emerald Buddha," I continued. He shook his head, motioning a young lady to come over. I repeated my question and again drew a blank. As I was walking away, Whan, our guide, passed by. I tapped him on the shoulder. "How do I get to see the Grand Palace? No one here seems to understand what I am saying." He smiled and
wrote something in Thai script on a piece of paper. "Give this to a taxi driver, and he will take you there. No problem!"
The taxi driver did not know a word of English, but when I gave him the paper, he grinned and we were on our way - sort of. Ahead was a solid mass of autos as far as the eye could see. At every turn, autos, buses and limousines competed for space with trucks, three-wheeled scooters and motorcycles. The traffic was terrible, and the smog was so thick that some policemen and street vendors wore masks. I believed what Whan had told me, "The city's transportation is so congested that portable urine bottles are on sale for those stuck in their vehicles."
In an hour, we finally reached the Grand Palace, Bangkok's main attraction. At the first sight of golden, sparkling Phra Si Ratana Chedi, I forgot the din of motor vehicles and their contamination of the air. The crush of the modern life was now in the past.
Entering the palace grounds, a visitor notices the richness of the artwork on every structure. The highly decorated architectural detail leaves one amazed at the creative skill and devotion of the artisans who fashioned the fantastic collection of gold domes, spires and temples, each building a superb example of their art.
The truly important structure in the complex is the Royal Chapel, Wat Phra Kaeo, housing the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred Buddha image in Thailand. Exquisitely carved from a block of jade, it is considered to be the protector of the kingdom and an object of national veneration. When the Chapel is open to the public, crowds come to pay respect to the memory of the Buddha whose image sits high up on an altar of gold.
The Grand Palace is actually a complex of buildings that served as the official residence of the Kings of Thailand from the 18th century onwards. Construction of the Palace began in 1782, during the reign of King Rama I, when he moved the capital across the river from Thonburi to Bangkok. The Palace has been constantly expanded and many additional structures were added over time. The present King of Thailand resides at the Chitralada Palace.
I did not have any trouble returning back to the hotel, since I had the hotel's card and the name of the hotel was in the Thai script. There, I discussed my communication troubles with Peter and Ling, two Malaysian Chinese who were members of our tour. They both spoke broken English, but could get around without much trouble since they usually found someone who spoke Chinese. Thailand has a large Chinese community, mostly living in Bangkok.
I soon forgot the mind-boggling traffic and pollution. Only the beautiful Grand Palace and its serene atmosphere lingered in my mind, a calming oasis from the negative characteristics
of our 21st century.
Facts About Bangkok
Habeeb Salloum has authored numerous books, his latest: Arab Cooking On A Saskatchewan Homestead: Recipes And Recollections - winner of the Cuisine Canada and The University of Guelph's Silver Canadian Culinary Book Awards in Winnipeg in 2006. He contributes to Forever Young (Oakville), Contemporary Review (Oxford, UK), Canadian World Traveller (Quebec) and the Toronto Star.
Metered taxis are the best mode of transportation in the city. Most fares in Bangkok average $3. There are also other types of taxis, but one must bargain before getting in the cab. Also, tuk tuks (three-wheeled vehicles) can be hired, but fares must be negotiated. The best way to get around Bangkok is by BTS Skytrain - cost for a day pass: 120 BAHT.
- The best way to see the Grand Palace is to join tour groups. Very few people speak English and all signs are in the Thai script. Grand Palace and Temple Tour costs around $35.00 for a half-day tour.
- Most foreign currencies and traveller cheques are easily changed at banks, hotels or moneychangers. All major credit cards are widely accepted throughout Thailand - 35 Thai baht = $1 U.S.
- Bangkok is full of shopping plazas, but, for tourists, the best place to shop is the gigantic Chatuchak Weekend Market located on the way to the airport - open only on weekends. The largest weekend market in the world, this market extraordinaire offers in its 15,000 shops and stalls almost everything under the sun.
- Besides the temples in the Grand Palace there are some 400 others in the city of Bangkok alone - 30,000 in the whole country. Some of the most important are: Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) - the city's supreme landmarks; Wat Pho, the home of the 36 m (118 ft) long statue of the Reclining Buddha - within walking distance of the Grand Palace; Wat Traimit, home of the 3 m (10 ft) high solid gold statue of the Golden Buddha; and Wat Indravihan with its huge 32 m (109 ft) high Buddha - the largest in Bangkok.
- When travelling around Bangkok, watch your belongings. According to guides, there are many unemployed in the city and much petty crime.
- The best time to travel to Bangkok is during the cool season (December to February) when the weather is comfortable - temperatures averaging about 26C/80F.
- Thai food is internationally famous, tasty and delightful. The country's cuisine is essentially a marriage of centuries-old Eastern and Western influences harmoniously combined.
- There is a departure tax of 700 baht ($21.) for all those departing on flights leaving Thailand.
If you go
Tourism Authority of Thailand, 1600 New Phetchaburi Road, Makkasan, Ratchathewi, Bangkok 10400, Thailand.
Tel: 6602 250 5500. Fax: 6602 250 5511.
E-mail Address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Website: http://www.tourismthailand.org or
Tourism Authority of Thailand, New York 61 Broadway, Suite #2805, New York, N.Y.10222.
Tel: 212-231-0433, Fax: 212-269-2588,
Tourism Authority of Thailand, Los Angeles, 611 North Larchmont Blvd., 1st Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90004.
Tel: 213-461-9814, Fax: 213-461-9834,
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