Bangkok is home to some of the world’s most versatile and colorful market places, the most agonizing traffic jams and the most breathtaking sculptural legacies. A marriage of legendary history and stunning architecture, in Bangkok a thriving commerce intermingles with life and tourism along Chao Phraya River …
In the sweltering mid-day heat, I pause to admire some chillies. These fine specimens are blood red and glow like rubies, strewn carelessly over a mint green banana leaf. I soon learn that this particular batch isn’t for sale—instead, these are spliced and sold with marinated clams. It’s, quite literally, a hot local favorite!
As I join the jostling crowds at Meaklong Market, an hour’s drive in bumper to bumper traffic from Bangkok, I am wooed by vendors of salted fish, rainbow colored mussel shells and even dried grasshoppers (which an adventurous friend of mine insists tastes like potato chips and wood fired pizza). Being vegetarian, I greet the burst of mint green vegetables with a familiar kind of relief. But I am not here to buy. People-watching has become my favorite pastime and the streets of Bangkok provide the ideal fodder. I watch in amazement (and not a little horror) as a banana yellow freight train bursts onto the scene (slicing right into the middle of the market).
Vendors on either side uproot the roof of their stalls with practiced ease. And it’s all snatched away in a flash—spring onions, salted fish and pickled frogs, expensive saffron and cheap, gaily coloured scarves—only to be whisked out again moments later. It’s rather like a magic act, I think as I watch in awe at the split-second efficiency in which these space-starved vendors operate. I am told this happens up to eight times a day. I marvel at the fact that there is no safety gate, nothing to indicate that a train will soon come careening out of the horizon, nothing except the sound of a long siren. It is this that I have come to see, for seeing is believing.As the crowds swirl around me, I realize that this isn’t the only quaint market in Bangkok. Not by a long shot. Another early morning excursion sees me greeting the dawn at the infamous rural floating market of Damnoen Saduak, situated 110 kilometers (69 miles) west of the capital.
A,24-0124After counting out the entrance fee, (cash is king here and they don’t accept credit cards), my daughter and I are ushered into a waiting boat.
It’s an experience I’ll never forget. Boat after boat filled with fresh produce floats past us as we glide our way through the chaotic water market. There’s even an ATM in this wilderness! My boatman heads there first, since we’ve run out of cash in just fifteen minutes. And who can blame us? The greenbacks do tend to fly when you’re surrounded by stunning paintings, handmade parchment, exquisite stationary, hand woven baskets, toys and baby clothes. But what I truly found incredible were the smart knock-offs of Louis Vuitton handbags being peddled for fifty dollars apiece (less if you have good bargaining skills). I’m willing to bet the designer himself would have had trouble telling them apart! There’s also a lot of tacky plastic, the usual touristy mugs, key chains and T-shirts-—the kind of cheap souvenirs you can buy practically anywhere. It’s the experience I valued most—the floating market experience for me will always bring to mind a canal choked with traders on boats, wearing long brimmed straw hats and furiously peddling their wares. Little alcoves filled to the brim with the most colorful knick-knacks I’ve ever seen, surrounded by adults and children leaning out of boats, laughing, bargaining and pointing excitedly.
But beyond these vibrant marketplaces, lies a city that practically throbs with modernity as well as historical importance. A cruise along the clear waters of the Chao Phraya river in the heart of Bangkok, past the stunning business districts with their towering skyscrapers and luxury hotels, will take you to the utterly gorgeous Grand Palace. You can see its golden spires glinting in the sunlight miles away. The palace has been the official residence of the royal family for centuries. However, the current monarch resides in another palace and this one is used for official ceremonies.
Entering the palace is overwhelming. It has vast open spaces filled with greenery at every turn. Built in 1782, some guides say the massive palace is around 2,350,000 square feet! That’s a lot of ground to cover and it takes us through numerous state buildings, long halls, decorated archways, impressive pavilions and intricately carved statues, brandishing swords.
The architecture is breathtaking quite simply because all that glitters here is definitely gold! Solid gold. From heavy domes to delicate filigree work on the walls of the temples, the sparkle is mesmerizing. And so is the rich blue, red and green enamel work that mingles with the gold. Glowing gold leaf paintings depicting scenes from the Ramayana jump out at you, making you realize how alike the Indian and Thai cultures are. The star attraction here is undoubtedly the temple of the Emerald Buddha, called the Wat Phra Kaew. Made out of solid shimmering jade, it’s the most beautiful statue of Buddha I’ve ever seen and it’s considered the most sacred temple in Thailand. No one except the Thai king is allowed to touch the statue. Interestingly, the king himself is required to change the Buddha’s garments three times a year—during the onset of the rainy season, winter and summer. A ritual is performed for the good fortune of the country every time there’s a change of season and dress. When we saw it, the idol was dressed in solid gold clothes! Golden memories those!
Kamala Thiagarajan writes on travel, health and lifestyle topics for a global audience. She has been widely published in over ten countries.