Thursday, May 10, 2012

Spirit City: An Introduction

This summer, my family and I decided to fly to Bangkok, the Land of Smiles. It seemed like a natural choice for us because we like to shop for good finds at bargain prices. Aside from the commercial aspect of visiting Thailand, I was excited to experience the rich cultural heritage of the country. I immensely enjoyed my trip to Shanghai last summer but it lacked the personality I'm sure Thailand is overflowing with.

Bangkok is exactly like what people say - and more. It's beautiful, warm (literally and figuratively), busy, and a seamless mix of old and new, east and west. It's exactly like the Philippines, if the Philippines had a better tourism program.

Before flying, I read a Thailand guidebook and was surprised at the caveat for the first-time tourist, warning him of "primitive" ways. But the author did not have the Filipino tourist in mind, who is used to practically anything. I was initially nervous but immediately enjoyed it. It was like experiencing a different kind of Manila, the familiar sights, sounds, and smells mixed with the unsettling feeling of being in another land.

Bangkok has something for everyone: the foodie, the adventurer, the fasyown, and the pleasure-seeker, and the city is ready to give it to you in maximum overdrive. And if you're like me, a lover of life, you will love Bangkok in all its aspects, and as you leave, your only thought is when you're coming back.

Spirit City: Arrival and accomodations

The airport's exteriors, taken from here

We arrived in Bangkok on May 2, a few minutes shy of midnight at the Suvarnabhumi Airport. Like most airports, it was grey and large but what differed the airport from the ones I've been to is the industrial interiors. Unpainted cement was liberally mixed with steel, giving it an unfinished sheen that I particularly liked. Plants and purple lounge seats were scattered around the airport, the pop of colors giving it a refreshing twist. The airport also featured local decorations, personalizing it and giving it a distinct flavor. It's perhaps the most beautiful airport I've been to.

Some trivia about Suvarnabhumi Airport: it has the world's tallest free-standing control tower, has the 4th world's largest terminal, is the 6th busiest airport in Asia, and is the second most popular place where Instagram photos were taken in 2011.

We checked in at the Indra Regent Hotel, some 30 minutes away from the airport. It's in an area called Pratu Nam, which I believe is their version of Little India, considering the restaurants and money changers. The hotel is surrounded by various markets selling all sorts of things (it looked like the Baclaran market), usually the same stuff you'd see in established markets at a cheaper price.

Our not-so-stellar view from the window, but I like it because it has character

Despite the market feel of the hotel's surroundings, Indra Regent was surprisingly luxurious. It markets itself as a budget hotel but the rooms are clean and spacious, and though my brother found a baby cockroach and killed it, I did not find anything to complain about.

The breakfast area

The view from the breakfast area 

The spa 

The inviting pool, I had to dive in on our third day

The amenities were okay. The pool was beautiful and the food at the hotel restaurant was standard, but my favorite feature was the breakfast buffet they offered in the morning. The food didn't change much but there was variety: from fried rice, noodles, pastries, fruits, and an omelette station where you'd dictate the ingredients included. My favorite was this soft roll where I'd slather on pineapple jam, and bael herb juice. My mother found bael tea in Chatuchak and bought me a pack. I love that woman.

I would highly recommend Indra Regent. It's a lot cheaper than five-star hotels, which I'm not a big fan of unless someone else is paying. It's comfortable and the accessibility to markets (right outside) is ideal, especially if you get the sudden urge to splurge. It's a bit out of the way for the de rigeur tourist spots but tuktuks, cabs (which cost roughly the same as tuktuks), and the train are good ways to get around the city.

Spirit City: Grand Palace, Wat Arun, Wat Po

A trip to Thailand wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Grand Palace, the Wat Arun, and Wat Po. The three are some of Thailand's most important cultural sights, a look into the country's beautiful past and amazing heritage. The three locations are near each other so a day trip for these wonders are ideal, with enough time to go elsewhere after.

The Grand Palace is a large complex in Bangkok which served as the official residence of the King of Thailand since from 1782 to 1925. It is an opulent masterpiece with turrets, statues, and temples, in the most fascinating colors and designs. Standing in the palace grounds where the kings of the country once roamed overwhelmed me that I felt like passing out. It could have been Stendhal Syndrome, but also possibly the heat.

The Grand Palace is partially open to the public because the King has relocated, but even the accessible parts of the land were huge. It was amazing to see such beautiful architecture and design, and I was happy that the government has taken steps to maintain the grandeur and history of the place.

Visiting the Grand Palace is like stepping into the past, a mini-city of decadence and luxury in Southeast Asia. Words cannot describe just how beautiful and breathtaking the place is, all I could say is that the Grand Palace should be on a culture vulture's list of places to visit in Thailand.

I also got to pray to the Buddha and pay my respects (through a triple obeisance, or three bows), as well as perform a wai phra, a traditional way of making an offering to the Buddha. Counteracted any positive effect it could have on me by giving in to consumerism and purchasing a copy of What The Buddha Taught. Ah, well.

The Wat Arun is one of Thailand's most recognizable landmarks, what may be Bangkok's version of the Eiffel Tower (according to me, at least). It is located along the Chao Phraya River, what many consider the Venice of the East, or the river responsible for last year's devastating flood. We reached the Wat Arun via a klong, an Asian version of Venice's gondolas.

Basically, a wat is a temple and the Wat Arun was founded by King Rama I, the first king of Thailand, in the 19th century. The Buddha image at the inner temple serves as the focal point and is said to have been moulded by King Rama II, whose ashes are buried beneath the image.

Personally, the most memorable part of Wat Arun is the climb to the middle prang. The view is spectacular and the climb is incredibly steep, making the ascent a really heart-wrenching experience. I had to tightly grip the handlebars (thank you, Thai government) while I made my way up. Going down was just as scary, but my brother and I made it down safely.

We also got to meet several monks (my mother insisted on having our pictures taken with them), who were incredibly nice. I wonder what it must be like to be a monk, giving up all material things. I've always been interested in Buddhism, but I don't think I'm ready for the steps necessary to achieve enlightenment.

The same day, we also got to visit the Wat Po, where the famous Thai massage was invented. It's not as grand or revered as the Wat Arun, but it has its place by holding one of the largest single Buddha image and being the birthplace of Thai massage. It doesn't have much visitors, which is just as well because you could get a quiet massage in the temple. It's a bit pricey compared to massages outside and not as good, but the experience of having one in the place where it was invented was something worth remembering.

A trip to these three places is highly recommended because it shows Thailand in the way it's supposed to be seen, a unique culture with magnificent architecture, a far cry from the cosmopolitan areas of Bangkok. It gives it character, a sense of identity, in a world where cities are starting to look the same, losing its pride, its individuality, and its soul.

Spirit City: Ayutthaya

One of the most memorable parts of my visit to Thailand is my trip to Ayutthaya, the country's capital until 1767. It was restored in 1969 and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991, after its unique history of 35 kings ruling the kingdom since 1350.

The place was extremely beautiful and reeked of culture and history, something I've been craving for since I started travelling. It's mostly composed of ruined buildings, walls, temples, and this one structure that resembled a pyramid that almost moved me to tears.

My mother and brother didn't accompany me on the trip as they preferred to go to the Chatuchak market. I went alone and joined a group of girls, who were to my surprise, Filipino. They're best friends who decided to go to Bangkok for their graduation and I was immensely impressed at the thought of young girls choosing to go to Ayutthaya instead of commercial-oriented places aka malls. They were really nice and welcomed me to the group. In fact, we have some common friends! I'm friends with two of them on Facebook and we're talking about getting together in Manila.

I like going on trips alone. It makes me appreciate the beauty of the place, item, or experience all the more and I was able to soak in the old wonders of Thailand.

We went on a day trip so we got to visit other sites, such as the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace, a vast complex used by kings for leisure and entertainment. It houses mansions and towers done in various architectural styles from Italian to Chinese. We roamed the palace in a golf cart and being an architecture fanatic, it was a bit schizophrenic seeing different movements in one location. It was pretty much like walking around The Bund in Shanghai.

We also got to visit Wat Chaimongkol, home to some of the most majestic temples I've seen on my entire trip. There were smaller temples with different methods of attaining good luck. Our first stroke was getting a proactive tour guide (a little too much, if you ask me) who eagerly explained the steps in the rituals. At the rate we performed, we're bound to be the luckiest people in the world.

A day trip to Ayutthaya shouldn't be missed!
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