It’s a two-hour drive from the port city of Laem Chabang to Bangkok. The reason for the long trek isn’t so much the miles between the two cities as it is the traffic. “We have the worst traffic in the world!” our guide tells us as we reach the edge of the city. This is Herb’s and my first visit to Thailand’s capital, and we’ve signed on for a “Bangkok in a Day” tour – a famous temple, the Grand Palace and a boat ride on the Chao Phraya River.
The scenes out my window reveal a modern, vertically sprawling city, with high-rise commercial and residential buildings lining both sides of the highway. It seems as if the city’s architects try to outdo one another with their designs. For a moment, I’m transported to Dubai, another place in this world of ours where modern architecture leaves a lasting impression.
Chao Phraya River Cruise
We reach the river and board a wooden sightseeing boat that feels more “old world” than the modern architecture surrounding us. The Chao Phraya is one of Thailand’s major rivers, flowing from the country’s central plains to Bangkok before spilling into the Gulf of Thailand. In Bangkok, it serves as a major transportation line for river buses, cross-river ferries and water taxis.
There is no narration on the tour. Our guide occasionally points out important sites and structures, but most of the time we glide along, taking in the scenes of the city. About halfway through our cruise, the boat turns around and heads back the way we came. But before completely retracing our route, we pull up to the dock at our first stop of the day, Wat Arun.
Bangkok’s Temple of Dawn is a spectacular sight from the river. Dedicated to the Hindu god Aruna – personified as radiations of the rising sun – the Buddhist temple is anchored by a spire-like tower called a prang that soars more than 250 feet skyward. Four smaller prangs surround the main tower, laid out in perfect symmetry and dedicated to four guardian spirits. Although the central prang wasn’t constructed until the early 19th century, it is believed that a temple has existed on this site since the late 16th century.
From a distance, the prangs appear to be decorated in a precision-like application of materials, but as you get closer, the extraordinary hand work reveals itself. Intricate carvings, beautiful porcelain tiles and pieces of colored glass create whimsical floral patterns and exquisite designs. It’s a feast of color and imagination and pure joy – and a place that is mean to be explored.
After lunch at the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel – a place that would become our home away from home in several days – we head to the Grand Palace, where royal ceremonies and official state functions are held. The palace was the official residence of Thailand’s kings from 1782 until 1925 and served as headquarters for all government agencies until 1932. Today it remains a working palace, with only a portion of the complex’s buildings and sections open to the public.
Just as we found at many other sites in Southeast Asia and Japan, visitors must have their shoulders and knees covered in order to enter the Grand Palace. The difference here is that the policy is strictly enforced. Visitors who are not dressed appropriately are given the option of purchasing cover-ups for about five U.S. dollars – sarong-like skirts or pajama-like “elephant pants” named for the elephants that decorate the fabric.
Inside, the palace is awash in gold. Gold-topped buildings, golden columns, gold-decorated statues, golden bells. Even the tiles seem to shimmer. It’s a place that speaks loudly, living up to its “grand” name and royal reputation.
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, also known as Wat Phra Kaew, is considered the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand. Housed near the Grand Palace entrance, it was once the private chapel of the kings of Thailand and members of the court. The Buddha is carved from a semi-precious green stone thought to be jade or jasper, rather than emerald.
On our visit, a special event was being held at the Temple, and we were not allowed to go inside. One of the doors was open a bit, and I managed to get a peek at the Buddha. And although photography of the Emerald Buddha is not permitted inside the Temple, this was one of those serendipitous moments when visitors had a chance to take photos at a distance through the partially open door.
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We arrived back at the ship early in the evening, with just enough time to have dinner and finish packing. Herb and I had to be off the ship at six the next morning to catch a plane to Cambodia. We packed our carry-ons and sent the rest of our luggage with the ship’s transport to our hotel in Bangkok, where we would pick it up in several days. Until then, we were ready for one more adventure. Angkor Wat here we come!