"Is this not better than suffering in the pollution and traffic-clogged streets of Bangkok?" Ling, one of our group of five, seemed quite content as the invigorating Chao Phraya River breezes, carrying drops of water, soothed our bodies, and I wholeheartedly agreed, deeply breathing in the fresh-cool air.
We hired one of the many-docked hang yaos (curved-tailed water taxis) - riverboats powered by noisy engines. Our point of departure was the Oriental Hotel pier from where we were sailing up the Chao Phraya to Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) - the river's ultimate landmark. I sat back enjoying the exhilarating sense of speed and the refreshing moist-air spray produced by the rooster-tails of our hang yaos.
The Chao Phraya, (Supreme Commander) on which we were sailing, is Thailand's main river, meandering from the Himalayan Mountains, crossing the rice bowl of Asia, and ending its journey, flowing through Bangkok to the Gulf of Thailand.
Teeming with life, the river always hums with never-ending activity. For centuries, it has been Bangkok's main highway and throbbing heart. A good number of hotels and most of the cultural, historical and commercial structures are located only a short distance from its banks.
In between these landmarks, rise both eye-catching temples and run-down shacks. The Chao Phraya once was criss-crossed by klongs (river canals), but now hardly any remain, most reclaimed and converted into streets.
On both banks and in the sluggish water, there was a panorama of action. People fished and washed clothing and dishes from steps leading to the river. Children bathed and splashed, while a short distance away, some dumped their refuse. Around us, boats transported inhabitants and visitors back and forth on rough-splashy rides.
It was early morning, and the sun dramatically illuminated the Temple of the Dawn when we reached its pier. It glittered brilliantly, casting colourful reflection upon the river. Our timing was good. The hang yao's owner said that the temple is at the epitome of its magnificence when viewed from across the Chao Phraya at dawn or when lit-up in the evenings during public holidays.
Although dwarfed by the city's modern skyscrapers, Wat Arun lies across the river from the Grand Palace - an impressive temple-complex of awe-inspiring size and unusual architecture. Called by a number of travellers, the "Eiffel Tower of Bangkok," it is considered one of the city's most striking structures.
Named after Aruna, the Indian god of dawn, Wat Arun is an extraordinary piece of religious architecture whose history goes back almost two hundred years. Constructed of brick, it is covered with millions of pieces of broken-coloured Chinese pottery, cemented in the bed of stucco covering the brick. Cups and plates of all kinds are fragmented and affixed to the plaster in flower patterns of various sizes and shapes, creating a unique look of charm and beauty.
The main part of the temple is a 86 m (282 ft) high central prang. The tallest prang in Asia, representing Mount Meru, the Buddhist centre of the globe, it is surrounded by four smaller prangs, symbolizing the oceans of the world. Each one of these prangs is surmounted by a trident and rests on a number of terraces, supported by countless angels and demons.
We climbed halfway up the central prang's very narrow and steep staircase. From this height, there was a fine view of Bangkok and the nearby glimmering roofs of the Grand Palace. It was a memorable and picturesque finale to an exciting river tour - sailing Bangkok's Chao Phraya to the Temple of the Dawn.
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.
- Hang yaos are available for hire along every pier of the Chao Phraya River. They rent for around $15. per hour. Also, the Chao Phraya Express operates up and down the river and fares average about 10 baht - a more comfortable River Tourist Boat - 100 baht.
- From the airport to the heart of the city, a taxi or limousine costs $12 to $15.
- 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.
- Most foreign currencies and traveller cheques are easily changed at banks, hotels or money-changers. 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 and Wat Arun, there are 400 others in the city of Bangkok alone - 30,000 in the whole country. Some of the most important are: 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, guard your belongings. According to guides, there are many unemployed in the city, and there is 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 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: email@example.com
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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