Beautiful Bangkok: An unforgettable sun-kissed city

by Shane Dillon

Bangkok’s snaking Chao Phraya is a busy working river

Bangkok’s snaking Chao Phraya is a busy working river

Part of the Wat Yannawa complex

YOU know that half-frozen feeling we get after battling through another Irish summer?
This year, I resolved to head off somewhere far-flung for a better, longer, hotter dose of that big yellow thing in the sky, and Bangkok seemed as good a place as any to do so.
Some time later, and I was getting all the heat that someone who breaks out their trusty, moth-eaten shorts at the first sight of 15C could hope for – and then some.
Sun- and heat-lovers will get more than their fill of both in the capital of Thailand, where temperatures hovered around 36C during my week there, as I got moments of blessed relief from anywhere with some working air-con.
It’s a place and culture that knows all about blessed things – the city is rightfully world-famous for its spectacularly ornate temples and shrines, and the deeply held religious beliefs that many Thais have.
Buddhism and a Buddhist outlook permeates many aspects of modern Thai culture, making it a tangibly real presence in the city’s life.
You can hardly round a corner or traipse down a sun-baked street without seeing yet another ornate, beautiful Buddhist temple, finding a shrine decorated in flowers and offerings, or spotting a monk drifting about in their bright orange robes.
Such sights provide much to reflect on, reminding visitors of a very different outlook in this part of the world.
But back to more earthly matters, and to soaring up, up and away to some of the ‘sky bars’ that Bangkok is famous for – and where better than the aptly-named Sky Bar (in the State Tower, off Silom Road) that many tourists know of, not least for its role in The Hangover 2?
High above the streets below, such sky bars provide a picturesque watering-hole haven for smartly-dressed locals and tourists alike, as well as affording some terrific views across Bangkok’s sprawl, whether at night or, best of all, as sunset sets in.
Speaking of ‘affording’ – alas, Bangkok’s most famous sky bar sent my spirits crashing back to earth within minutes, as the sky-high bill for my small cocktail was as breathtaking as the view.
Back down on terra firma – and terra cheapa – and Bangkok’s sprawl can be intimidating to take in.
There’s a giant and loosely defined city centre here, but the city’s arbitrary transport links (and infamous traffic jams) can make getting around a challenge – and that’s without the wall of heat and humidity keeping pace at every step.
Luckily, most of the main attractions are straightforward to reach, whether by (deep breath) Skytrain, metro, taxi, tuk-tuk, bicycle, scooter, motorbike, ferry, speedboat or your trusty old feet. Phew!
Zipping up and down the wide, rolling river on a speeding boat or rolling ferry is a breeze, and they’re also an effective (and cooling) way of easily getting to some of the city’s famous temples, as well as enjoying a refreshing waterside view of old and new Bangkok.
However you get to them, the city’s main temples and religious sites are absolute must-visits, as Bangkok’s fabulously ornate complexes are a feast for the eyes, and invigorating for the mind.
Whether taking in their banks of Buddhas or scrutinising the intricate carvings and elaborate designs you’ll invariably find, such spots hold a spiritual appeal that overcomes the ebb and flow of any gawping tourists and praying locals passing through.
For those who worship at more modern ‘temples’, you’ll be well catered for in Bangkok, which has ultramodern shopping centres scattered about the city.
The biggest of these – Central World – makes our own giant shopping centres look like corner shops by comparison, with shoppers there treated to a dizzying range of all the biggest Western brands alongside the biggest Thai and Eastern brands, too.
While temples, sightseeing and shopping are just some of the things that Bangkok is famous for, foodies have also been drawn to her busy streets for centuries – not for nothing is the city famed for its street vendors, in particular.
Change is afoot, with the Thai authorities beginning to crack down on the vendors and stalls in key areas, apparently seeking to mimic a little of Singapore’s tightly controlled (but sterile, fun-free) street environments.
However, wherever you roam, you won’t be too far from someone sizzling something under the sun.
If there’s an element of pot luck as to whether you’ve struck culinary gold or McAverage fare, well, that’s half the fun of reaching out and tucking in on your travels!
As you’d expect, Bangkok is a melting pot of dining delights, presenting a fusion of the best of a wide range of Eastern cuisine – not just Thai – alongside Western staples, with several excellent restaurants all over the city alongside the multitude of small places frequented by locals, as well as the roadside vendors.
Alternatively, you could also tuck in or relax with a cooling drink beside a pool full of orange and golden carp over at Jim Thompson House, which again offers diners a great mix of Eastern and Western fare.
JTH is one of Bangkok’s top tourist attractions, and it’s not hard to see why, as the antique-filled house and setting provides an unexpected oasis of calm in the heart of the city.
Jim was a gentleman who fell in love with Thai culture and heritage, assembled his own western-style house by fusing traditional Thai wooden houses together, helped make beautiful Thai silks famous and became a big exporter of them, and then one day went for a walk in the jungle –
And that’s the last anyone knows about Jim, as he was never seen or found again. (Sorry, Jim.)
Today, decades later, his stunning house and its small but carefully managed grounds are a haven from the surrounding city, with its smart, upmarket gift shop also the perfect place to get a beautiful, authentic Thai silk scarf or purse for yourself (or for the mammy back home).
For those looking to orient themselves with the Orient, Bangkok may be a great introduction.
She’s a city of contrasts and extremes, but there’s something invigorating and refreshing about a place that’s looking to the future, yet continues to honour her past.
The heat and humidity are a challenge, but I’d challenge you to find somewhere that doesn’t make such a powerful first impression, and to inspire you to look at life a little differently …

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