Friday, June 16, 2006

What We Did and Where


This being my fourth trip to Bangkok and HM's second, sightseeing wasn't on top of our agenda. HM in particular was not keen to visit "yet another wat". However the last time we had been armed with a film camera; all my photographs were in print. This time, I had a digital camera on hand and so HM humoured me by agreeing to visit one wat or temple.

Wat Phra Kaew
(or Temple of the Emerald Buddha)

The Temple of the Emerald Buddha was the obvious choice, not just for its significance to the Thai people, or the beauty of the architecture within its compound, but also for the opportunity to travel up and down the Chao Phraya on the river express! (To do the latter, take the Skytrain to Saphan Taksin station. From there, take one of the river boats to a pier near the Wat Phra Kaew/Grand Palace complex. the nearest being Tha Thien pier.)

the grandeur and splendour

glistening in the sun

mythical guardians

admiring the intricate craftsmanship

Our last visit had coincided with some ceremony that had limited the amount of time tourists and worshippers could spend inside the hall housing the Emerald Buddha. Then, we were all ushered quickly into the hall, allowed to squint briefly at the tiny statue perched high on the dais, and just as quickly ushered out. On this visit, we could even sit down respectfully on the floor and take our time to admire the murals lining the hall.

One of our favourite features of the Wat Phra Kaew complex is the series of murals lining the inside walls of the outer corridor. These murals depict the Ramayana epic as presented in the Thai tradition.

one of the most familiar images from these murals

legendary whimsy

Walking along the dim and cool corridors as the legend unfolds is always a pleasure, and this time we were doubly pleased to chance across some restoration work being done. It was a rare opportunity to watch real craftsmen and artists at work.

bringing the murals back to life

a labour of love

As always, the place was soon overrun by tourists by the busload so we had to beat a hasty retreat. Avaunt, alas, alack!

Jim Thompson's House

Visiting Jim Thompson's house wasn't so much part of our planned itinerary as much as it was a serendipitous move. We were on a Skytrain to Mahboonkrong Shopping Centre when we realised that the tourist attraction was located very close to that station, National Stadium. Indeed it was a hop, skip and jump away, down a quiet lane, right at the end near the river. We would never have guessed that a major tourist attraction was located in that soi if there hadn't been thoughtfully placed signs indicating the way and the odd tourist carrying a map wandering along.

As it turned out, it wasn't a house - it was five teak houses which Jim Thompson, CIA agent, architect and entrepreneur extraordinaire, had taken apart, transported from all over Thailand and reconstructed to form his own palatial complex within lush tropical grounds. In addition to singlehandedly resurrecting the Thai silk industry, Mr Thompson had apparently spent his days acquiring many an antique and artifact, putting together a noteworthy collection that was now on display.

We were taken for a 30-min tour around the compound and inside the various buildings.

a peek at the architecture

the story of Jim Thompson's life re-told

Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photographs inside. Suffice it to say that the interiors had been lovingly designed, by Mr Thompson himself, to blend the exotica of Eastern art with the comfort of Western function. The dining room, for example, housed a beautiful teak table for dining in the Western style, whereas in traditional Thai style, there would have been no need for any furniture as diners would have sat on the floor surrounding the dishes. This was no doubt a concession for stiff limbs and inflexible backs.

walking through the grounds

from porcelain to wooden carvings

the oldest Buddha in the collection

harnessing natural beauty

of course there would have to be a shop...

For 100B (SGD $4), it was rather a pleasant way to spend a moment or two on a hot afternoon.


That Bangkok is a shopping paradise is undeniable. Since our last visit five years ago, its shopping centres have become increasingly hip and gone ever so upmarket. Siam Discovery Centre for example was the height of designer chic. Everything including the toilets was uber-cool.

even the loos had a high hip quotient

In addition, all the major international brands were represented, as were all the Thai designers who were currently in vogue. And of course the newly opened Siam Paragon is a temple to consumerism bar none, with floor after floor of luxury brands. Where else would one be able to pick up a Ferrari or a Lamborghini while doing some Sunday shopping? It was certainly gawk-worthy. (Incidentally, while we were there, one of the car salesmen was gingerly re-parking the Lamborghini. We quickly moved away in case he put a little too much pressure on the accelerator...) Even scruffy Mahboonkrong had undergone some kind of make-over. While the street vibe was still evident, no longer was it all mobile phone accessories and pirated goods. Fashion was the thang, though couture it was not, but MBK was clearly where the average Thai girl and her boyfriend went for the latest in trends. And why not, with ladies' shoes priced ubiquitously at 199B (SGD $8) per pair, prices were hard to beat.

Like all good Singaporeans, we did the shopping centre rounds. However, it was the markets that gave us the best shopping experience.

Chatuchak Weekend Market vs Suan Lum Night Bazaar

For the uninitiated, Chatuchak can be a rude shock to the system. The aisles are unbelievably narrow. It can be ridiculously crowded. It is often suffocatingly hot. And to chance all of a sudden upon the motley range of live animals on sale, all looking bedraggled and woebegon, can be distressing for the unsuspecting and the unprepared. But it is precisely the colour and the life that makes Chatuchak the quintessential Bangkok shopping experience.

the entrance nearest the Mo Chit Skytrain station

everything under one roof

flowers galore

a sight for sore eyes

flora of a different kind

As exciting as Chatuchak is, five hours on a sweltering Saturday afternoon was all we could manage, although, in that time, we did manage to do one section rather thoroughly, the section specialising in jeans and t-shirts. To our delight, we found second-hand t-shirts on sale that were genuine kitsch. Old church camp t-shirts, elementary school t-shirts, rock band t-shirts, these cast-offs were one-off and unique. Too bad we could not find any which fitted us in terms of text, colour AND size. In the end, we left with a few small buys, but not one of those t-shirts.

The alternative to Chatuchak

For hardcore travellers who prefer the rough and tumble of Bangkok (so gritty, so real, gush gush) to squeaky clean Singapore (aka "Asia Lite"), Suan Lum Night Bazaar must come across as being as fake as Pamela Anderson's twin assets. True, the sanitised government-sanctioned complex with row after row of neatly arranged stalls lacks the initable flavour and je nais se quois of disorderly Chatuchak, but to Singaporeans unable to navigate Chatuchak's special challenges, Suan Lum is a godsend.

amazingly clear aisles

It was a breeze to walk around. Even with busloads of tourists, the place seemed spacious enough to accommodate everyone which also meant that shopping there was "no sweat". Browsing through the goods was easy - there was sufficient space for things to be displayed properly. Little wonder that we actually ended up buying more things here rather than at Chatuchak. For those whose idea of great shopping is jostling cheek by jowl with sweaty strangers, rummaging through racks and racks of clothing to uncover hidden treasure, shopping at Suan Lum will not be as "shiok" as at Chatuchak.

same same (as Chatuchak)

Many of the same products sold at Chatuchak can be found at Suan Lum; apparently a number of the vendors have stalls in both places. However the range at Suan Lum is smaller than that of Chatuchak which is admitedly hard to beat. Hence, those determined to hunt down a 1 m high garden gnome for the, uh, garden, or an endangered animal for a pet, will find Suan Lum a letdown.

The mainstays of Suan Lum seemed to be fashion and home decor, and it felt decidedly more upmarket than Chatuchak. Whether this was a result of clever display or modern packaging (some stalls here actually had their t-shirts under clear plastic wrap, gasp) rather than an actual difference in product range, the goods on sale seemed to be "hipper". In addition to the ubiquitous copy t-shirts and more traditional wooden handicrafts for the home with the ethnic feel, there were quite a number of stalls carrying contemporary Thai designer lines. Think DCP or Project Shop, but at much cheaper prices. Then there were the stalls that looked like Zed and Zee, or Ig's back here in Singapore, with bric a brac galore in mod style, retro style, whatever was in.

All in all, we were pleased to have added Suan Lum to our shopping itinerary, even though Chatuchak will always hold a special place in our hearts. While Chatuchak will remain a must-do* for us, Suan Lum makes a nice change.

Oh, and before we left on our final trip there, we did the cheesy thing - we took a ride on the ferris wheel. It wasn't the ride of a lifetime, but it did enable some aerial shots of the vicinity.

Roue de Paris, ooh la la

view from the top

* for Chatuchak novices, we suggest dressing in as little as possible, bringing a water bottle, and carrying a towel for mopping up the sweat.


While we were shopping at Central Chitlom, we came across an exhibition of Rembrandt's sketches and etchings, one of the many activities held in conjunction with the 60th Anniversary of King Bhumipol's Coronation.

postcards of Rembrandt's work

Located near our hotel is Landmark Hotel, where a branch of Fitness First is situated. HM, being of the gym rat variety and a former member of FF in Singapore, gave it a shot and discovered that Thai women really like their dance classes.

of course we had to check this out

Lastly, kudos to Bangkok's Skytrain system. Although it wasn't the cheapest option (for 2 people, taxis may in fact be cheaper), it helped us bypass the dreaded traffic jams and took us everywhere we needed to go.

yes, indeed, the Bangkok Skytrain


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