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Bangkok offers amazing sights and food

Posted: 01/11/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0


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Heading for Southeast Asia? Thailand should be the country you think of first.

Reasonable prices, great food, amazing sights, a rapidly improving infrastructure and English spoken virtually everywhere complement the fact this is a genuinely welcoming land.

Of course, there's always room for upgrades.

Auto traffic remains formidable, and visitors are wise not to rent cars. But within the capital, the air-conditioned, elevated overhead SkyTrain and swift underground Metro make getting around the city significantly easier.

Bangkok is also the ideal gateway for neighbouring country visits. Canadians heading for Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma) or Cambodia will find connections particularly easy once their trans-Pacific carrier lands in Bangkok.

First-time Bangkok visitors will certainly want to experience the city's most famous attractions. These include the glorious Grand Palace and the home of Wat Phra Kaew, the legendary Emerald Buddha.

Other must-sees are the 46-metre-long gold-leaf-covered reclining Buddha statue called Wat Pho; the Wat Arun or Temple of Dawn, the soaring riverside Buddhist temple decorated with broken crockery; and the Royal Barges Museum. Everyone should ride along the dynamic Chao Phraya River and wend through the klongs, a dense network of canals feeding into the river. Here, thousands live on or directly above the water. The best way to experience the klongs is to board a wooden, powered dragon boat.

Beyond sightseeing, Bangkok is famous for its shopping. But don't just focus on shopping malls that are primarily filled with international goods. Rather, wander among the many streetside shops purveying fashion, antiques and souvenirs.

One favourite choice is the Jim Thompson stores, including a main centre and locations within major hotels, where quality silks are the main draw. A main store is at Surawong, near legendary Patpong, Bangkok's most famous red-light district. You can also visit Thompson's former home, now a veritable museum. It's filled with artifacts he acquired during years of promoting Thailand's international silk trade. A fine restaurant and retail outlet are also on site.

For a total change of pace, take a weekend SkyTrain to the Chatuchak market, Thailand's largest, featuring more than 6,000 stalls. While you cannot possibly see everything in the market, do check out the amazing pet section, which includes Siamese fighting fish, live coral in filtered water tanks, astounding fluorescent and iridescent sea creatures and fearsome lizards. Also find antiques, artifacts, textiles, fresh seafood and an astounding array of fresh vegetables.

Since Chatuchak exists primarily for Thais, you can see an amazing cross-section of not only the country's goods but also its people. Arrive early to avoid the heat and the crowds, both of which increase as the day wears on.

There are many other fascinating Bangkok destinations, some of which require hiring a driver or booking a tour. One of these is the intriguing Prasart Museum, a private architectural and decorative arts collection requiring advance reservations for weekend visits. Somewhat near the airport but extremely difficult to reach on one's own, Prasart is the brainchild of a Thai real-estate mogul and features works the owner acquired during the past half-century.

On site are temples, pavilions, libraries, altars, lintels and all manner of decorative arts including woodcarvings, furniture, sculptures, Buddha statues and jewelry. Much is housed in traditionally designed buildings erected to showcase the treasures.

Then there is Ayutthaya, Thailand's capital city for more than four centuries before it was moved in the late 1700s near -- and ultimately to -- present-day Bangkok. Roughly an hour's drive north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya is most easily reached via day trips starting at most major hotels. These usually feature a morning bus trip to the site, lunch and a leisurely afternoon return to Bangkok via the Chao Phraya River.

Highlights include the brick remnants of Buddhist stupas, many of which were broken open by invaders who incorrectly thought vast gold stores were hidden inside.

Other must-sees include the 14th-century Wat Phra Mahathat palaces and pavilions built by traders who returned to the city after the conquering Burmese left soon after their 1767 invasion; and the treasure-packed Chao Sam Phraya National Museum. It's filled with extraordinary remnants of Ayutthaya's glory days, including copious gold artifacts and a jewel-encrusted sword and scabbard.


-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 E5

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