When I say big cities, I am meaning 1 million plus inhabitants.
This counts out some beautiful smaller metropolises that I have visited such as Cape Town, Cusco, Luang Prabang, Santiago de Cuba, Jerusalem, Luxor, Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand.
#10 – Bangkok, Thailand (population c.8.3 million)
I have visited the Thai capital a couple of times – in 2010, primarily to take the night train to Laos with travel buddy Hamish, and again in 2015 as a stopover on the way home from Cambodia & Laos with Mrs Wilbur.
Unsurprisingly for such a massive South East Asian city the place is absolutely manic, requiring a calm head and a huge dollop of patience.
First time around I stayed in the slightly seedy Sukhumvit district in a hotel called the Golden Palace – a trade’s description violation if ever I saw one! Second time around we stayed a bit further out of the centre in a hotel most notable for the exotic choice of condoms in the minibar!
There are a multitude of highlights (though you do need to turn a blind eye to the in-your-face sex industry – Soi Cowboy is particularly awful) – here are my favourites.
The Grand Palace
I saved this for my visit with Mrs Wilbur and despite the crippling heat and large crowds, we had a fabulous time.
First we had to get there. Our taxi driver deigned to not know where the Grand Palace was! He consulted for ages on his phone before eventually taking us to the Grand Palace HOTEL!
We got there finally, having agreed to pay the surcharge to allow our driver to take the quicker flyover route.
The palace complex was completed in 1782 and for nearly 150 years was the home of the kings of Siam, the Royal Court and the administrative seat of government.
Now Bangkok’s primary tourist attraction, the temples are truly amazing with warrior sculptures, massive gilded Buddhas, landscaped grounds and exquisite artwork.
We first had to get through tight security not dissimilar to that faced at an airport, before queueing to buy our tickets and then once more to gain entry.
Our delayed admittance was not over yet however. Mrs Wilbur’s leggings were deemed inappropriate, meaning we had to go back to the main entrance, queue to hire a sarong and queue a second time for security and finally entry to the main complex.
“This better be damned good,” we asserted. Despite the very irritating Chinese tour groups, it was. See for yourself below.
Wat Po Temple
I was to visit this fabulous temple complex on both of my trips to the Thai capital, arriving by fabulous tuktuk on each occasion.
Again the temples, grounds and statues were absolutely wonderful, the highlight undoubtedly being the immense reclining Buddha.
The golden statue measures in at 15 metres tall and 46 metres long, with His feet being 5 metres long each. Impressive indeed.
It was here in 2015 that we first saw the seemingly bizarre ritual of locals taking incredibly like-like dolls with them to pray to Buddha, as if they were on a family outing.
Known as Luk Thep (Child Angels), they are believed to be possessed by spirits that bring good luck and future prosperity, as well as granting fertility to childless couples. They are treated pretty much like any other child, even being fed!
Take a look at this video here to see the bizarre custom.
In the grounds there were several smaller temples and pagodas and like the Grand Palace, plenty of statues. One of them had a striking resemblance to George W Bush – see below whether you agree with me.
Boat on the Chao Phraya River
There is water everywhere around Bangkok with the network of waterways providing vital transport links for locals and of course pleasure trips for tourists.
As well as the Chao Phraya River, there are two sets of canals, Klong Saen Saeb and Klongs of Thonburi. You need to have an extremely keen ability to decipher timetables to be able to work out your route, or you could do what we did in 2010 and just get on one and see where you end up.
Boat travel is ridiculously cheap so we just went with the flow. The boat was boarded close by the Wat Pho temple and we were soon speeding along past temples, water buffalo and fishermen.
We stayed on board for forty-five minutes, being careful not to stray into the space reserved for monks.
There were several stops along the way and we were viewed with curiosity by each new passenger, being the only Westerners on board.
After a refreshing coconut with its milk, we boarded another boat back from whence we had come. All in all a wonderful couple of hours were had.
Jim Thompson House
We bravely worked out a route to get us close to the JTH by boat, getting a soaking along the way as we were struck by a small tidal wave caused by another boat that buffeted our vessel.
Jim Thompson was an American who was sent to Bangkok after the World War II as a military officer. So taken was he with Bangkok and Thailand in general that he settled down in the city permanently.
He then got into the Thai silk industry where he made his fortune by bringing the vivid colours and designs to Western markets. His big break was providing the multi-coloured silks for all the costumes featured in the lavish production of ‘The King & I’. This brought the material to worldwide attention and sealed Jim’s prosperity for the rest of his life.
His home was constructed in the late ’50s from collected parts of various derelict Thai homes, which Thompson had reassembled in their current location in. Some of the homes were brought from the old royal capital of Ayutthaya, whilst others were pulled down and floated along the canal from Baan Khrua.
It really is an amazing place made of wood, with the main building perched on stilts. There are also his small but splendid Asian art collection and his personal belongings on display, whilst the buildings are set in lush tropical gardens. The silk wallpaper is particularly striking, as are the many silk garments on show.
Thompson perished in mysterious circumstances whilst out for an afternoon walk in the Cameron Highlands of western Malaysia in 1967. He mysteriously disappeared and his body was never found. That same year his sister was murdered in the USA, fuelling various conspiracy theories. Was it communist spies? The CIA? Business rivals? A man-eating tiger?
Nobody knows, however Thompson left his wonderful house and all its contents to the Thai people on condition that it be preserved for ever for people to enjoy.
So there are a few Bangkok highlights, but like all great cities, just being there and experiencing the unique potpourri of sounds, smells and sights is the greatest pleasure of all.
There are plenty of other fabulous temples such as Wat Arun, Wat Saket and Wat Traimit and Mrs Wilbur & I also enjoyed a night time cocktail the Sky Bar at Sirocco high up on the 63rd floor of The Dome at State Tower, one of the world’s highest open air bars with a stunning panoramic view of Bangkok and the Chao Phraya river.
Street Food, Buddha & Flowers