A few days in Bangkok and its nearby provinces are all you need to be completely charmed by Thailand's people, culture and cuisine.Sarah MacDonald recently visited the Southeast Asian capital and discovered a city that immediately touched her heart
How can you miss a country you haven't even left yet? This question popped into my mind while driving through the rural Thailand province of Ratchaburi, a couple of hours west of Bangkok. Prawn farms, coconut trees, rice fields, custard apple orchards and other fields flashed by the windows as we sped along the narrow, winding road. I'd only been in Thailand for a couple of days, yet already a sense of nostalgia was building in my heart. The friendly smiles, the cheeky teenage girl bartering with me in the floating market, the patient drivers who rarely seem to honk regardless of how much traffic there is, the fresh, fragrant and flavourful food...I knew I would miss it all.
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My first explorations of Bangkok took me right into the heart of its history, culture and Buddhist faith. Lek, my tour guide from the Tourism Authority of Thailand who became not just a guide but a dear friend, took me to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew). The Grand Palace was the historic home of the King of Thailand and is still used for official ceremonies. Building began on the Grand Palace in 1782. Many of the buildings, walls and courts were built in a traditional Thai style, with multiple ornamented roof tiers, Buddhist and Hindu icons, and breathtaking details in glittering gold, coloured glass and painted tiles. Some of the newer buildings, built in the early 20th century, were a fusion of East and West, with 19th century European architecture strongly influencing the Thai designs. The tranquil temple, in the middle of the palace grounds, holds a solid nephrite jade Buddha, the colour of emerald. Wandering through the grounds was a visual adventure, and around each corner was another photograph waiting to be taken.
We left the palace grounds and walked about 100m through a street market to a pier along the Chao Phraya River, which runs through the city, where we boarded a boat that took us to the Supatra River House, an award-winning restaurant on the riverbank across from the Grand Palace. We savoured spicy Tom Yum soup with giant prawns, chilli and lemongrass, succulent roasted duck, and stir-fried vegetables, before finishing off the meal with refreshing ice creams made from coconut milk and custard apples. I was in culinary heaven!
After lunch the boat took us back across the river, where we visited Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. One of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok, it features over 1,000 Buddha images, including the main attraction, the giant reclining Buddha. Measuring a staggering 46m long and 15m high, the gleaming golden Buddha is stretched out on its side with its head resting on its hand, propped up on an elbow. Its feet are decorated with mother-of-pearl designs, and behind it are a 108 bronze bowls — representing Buddha's 108 auspicious characteristics — into which Buddhists drop coins to bring good fortune and support the monks. The grounds outside the main hall are home to many smaller Buddha images and a traditional Thai massage school.
That evening I went to Siam Naramit, for an extravagant performance that blends music, dancing, fighting, water, lights, and even some elephants, goats and roosters, to explain Thailand's history, culture, mythology and folklore. Featuring more than 100 dancers in exquisite costumes, special effects to make the stage come alive with rain, smoke, rivers and steam, the 80-minute show explained Thai history, took the audience to Buddhist heaven and hell, and shared local festivals, such as Loy Krathong, the festival of light