Day 1 in Thailand: Wat Pho & Bangkok's Chinatown

I'd go back to Thailand in a heartbeat, but until I went, I have to admit it wasn't actually on my bucket list. The places I dreamed of visiting as a kid were Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Hawaii. I'm blaming cabin fever for randomly booking the flight – I live with my mum who's vulnerable, so for two solid years, I only went out for driving lessons, my theory test and MOT – but I also had a very painful ear infection. I take painkillers so rarely that they dull my senses. Going to Thailand seemed like a good idea in that state of mind. It turned out to be a very stupid idea when the painkillers wore off and I remembered I had car insurance to pay for, but.... I was going to Thailand!

The flight from Gatwick to Bangkok took about 11 hours. There was a long wait at immigration, but despite all the terrible things I'd heard about the Thai authorities, the bloke who checked my documents was the nicest immigration officer I've ever met. The west could learn from him.

Escaping the airport, I took the Airport Rail Link train to Makkasan. The station is connected to the MRT (subway) by a skywalk. Super easy to navigate. My hotel was a few minutes from the Sam Yan MRT station, but it took me at least 15 minutes of walking every wrong way before I found it! As I've found while learning to drive, my sense of direction is comparable to that of Pokémon Trainer Leon.

I hoped to walk to Lumpini Park or at least find something good to eat that evening. If I hadn't been inside for so long, I would've done it regardless of how jetlagged I was, but I knew pushing myself was only going to ruin my trip. I rested and ate the crisps I bought at Gatwick.

The next morning, I was all ready to head off to Wat Pho. I took the MRT to Sam Yot and planned to walk down the Ong Ang Canal to Pak Khlong Talat (the flower market), then on to Wat Pho...

...But I got lost again. I didn't want to arrive too late, because the touristy temples are only quiet for a short time after they open, so I went back to the station and just took the MRT to Sanam Chai.

Finding Wat Pho from there was easy. Entry was 200 baht (about £5) and I got a free bottle of water. As soon as I walked in, I knew this trip was going to be worth it.

Thai architecture at Wat Pho, Bangkok

Wat Pho is one of the oldest temples in Bangkok. It became a royal temple in 1767, when King Taksin moved the capital from Ayutthaya to Thonburi and built a palace by Wat Arun, which is opposite Wat Pho on the other side of the Chao Phraya River.

The architecture is so intricate and another world to anything we know in the west.

Details at Wat Pho in Bangkok

The capital moved again – just across the river this time – from Thonburi to Bangkok in 1782. Wat Pho was in pretty bad shape by then, but King Rama I had it restored to its former glory over seven years. King Rama III renovated it even further over nearly 17 years.

Wat Pho is also the birthplace of Thai massage. It's still taught there. I never got a massage in Thailand, but my feet probably would've appreciated it!

There are over 1,000 Buddha images at Wat Pho and many were recovered from Ayutthaya after it was destroyed by the Burmese. The platforms they're on are incredible, too.

I intended to rush to the Grand Palace as soon as it opened, before it was mobbed, but I decided to forget that and take my time enjoying Wat Pho. I walked around for about an hour and only saw about five other tourists and one group with a guide. It was very peaceful.

My last stop – and one of the main attractions at Wat Pho – was the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. I'd seen photos of it, but seeing it in reality was something else! At 46 x 15 m, it's the largest Buddha image in Thailand and it really is huge. The feet alone are 5 m long! For comparison, I'm a bit over 1.7 m tall. I was the only tourist in the temple.

I was already sure that Wat Pho would be one of the most incredible things I'd see in Thailand. It's hard to say what my favourites were now I'm back, but I wasn't wrong that Wat Pho would still be up there somewhere. It was an amazing introduction to Bangkok and peaceful enough for a relaxing morning.

There was a 7-Eleven on the way to Wat Pho, so I went back to get more water. It was getting on for 10 AM and I hadn’t decided if it was too late for the Grand Palace or not. Leaving the 7-Eleven, an old man approached me, pointing at my hair. I'd downloaded Pocket Thai Speaking, but I hadn't had long to prepare and only remembered a few phrases: 'sawasdee' (hello/bye), 'khap khun' (thank you), 'mai aow' (I don't want it), the polite particles ('kha' for women, 'khrap' for men) and words that were mostly useless alone, like 'rahnahan' (restaurant). I definitely didn't understand and thought I'd done something wrong, so I stopped to listen to him. Turned out he was just complimenting my hair, or rather using that to figure that I didn't speak much Thai. I was hot, jetlagged and feeling a bit lonely, so I was touched that this Nice Old Man™ wanted to talk to a lonely farang, even telling me about his childhood in Chiang Mai.

Alas, he also ended up telling me the Grand Palace was closed, which reveals any Nice Old Man™'s true identity: one of Bangkok's infamous scammers. They claim the Grand Palace (or any tourist attraction, as I learned later) is closed to offer you a tour of 'better' attractions, which includes a gem shop where the clueless tourist is conned or pressured into buying fake or overpriced gems. Along the way, you 'randomly' meet another nice stranger, who might even go as far as giving you a tour of one of the temples. Wherever your meeting goes, it's not 'random' and its purpose is for the nice stranger to subtly hype up the gem shop.

My Nice Old Man™ wasn't giving me directions when he said 'this way!' He was taking me to his tuktuk, which was obviously out of sight for a reason. I ended up getting the MRT back to my hotel just to get away from him. Moral of the story: your mum was right. Don't talk to strangers. When Thai people do want to talk to you, they'll usually do it in groups. If you do end up talking to a scammer and feel you can't get away, here are my tips:

  • They aren’t just outside tourist attractions, let alone the Grand Palace. They’re everywhere. Don't doubt your nice man's motives just because you're nowhere near an attraction.

  • Don’t let them know it’s your first time in Thailand. Read up before you go to pretend you’ve been before.

  • When they ask where you're going, always have a place in mind that isn’t a tourist attraction: station, bus stop, hotel, hospital or a specific restaurant. Then there’s nothing they can do other than offer a tuktuk, which you can politely decline.

  • If they ask if you’ve been to any kind of shop or factory, say you’ve already been (in another tuktuk, of course) and bought something nice.

You'd think the pandemic might've put them off, but no, the scams are as alive and well as ever.

Anyway, it worked out, because I found some nice noodles and enjoyed walking around Wat Hua Lamphong, another royal temple. It's famous as a place to donate money for coffins for those who can't afford them.

The internet advised me to take a break from the sun in the middle of the day, because ‘you might think you know heat, but you don’t know Thai heat.' By the end of my trip I’d stopped bothering to hide from the sun and I was fine – Thai heat is just heat – but it was probably the right choice when I was still jetlagged and adjusting to the climate. I went back out in the late afternoon and took the MRT to Wat Mangkon to visit Chinatown.

The road outside the station is Chaoren Krung Road, a long (5.3 mi) road that goes much further than Chinatown. Fun facts: its name means 'prosperous city' and it was the first road in Bangkok to be built by modern methods, as well as being home to the city's first tram line.

It was quiet compared to the main attraction of Chinatown, Yaoworat Road, which is easily reached by the many alleys between them. I met another tourist who said they had a quick look at Yaoworat Road and left again, but it was one of my favourite parts of Bangkok. This is what the cities of my dreams looked like in my mind as a kid.

When the capital moved from Thonburi, the Chinese community around the Chao Phraya River relocated to the area that's now Chinatown. Later, Yaoworat Road was built over eight years from 1892 and named in honour of the first crown prince of Thailand. It's apparently shaped like a dragon's rippling body, which I thought sounded far-fetched when I was there because it looks straight, but I can actually see it on Google Maps. This is lucky, apparently!

There are countless twists and turns to other roads and temples to explore, including the famous Wat Traimit Withayaram Worawihan. The one I found was Wat Samphanthawong, also known as Wat Ko, which means 'island temple.' It used to be surrounded by canals.

This is another royal temple. It was beautiful and very peaceful. I only saw one person other than the monks. They were chanting when I arrived. I quietly took a photo and scurried away again.

Buddhist monks chanting at Wat Ko

I wanted to see Yaoworat Road at night as well, but it was still a while until sunset, so I walked around a bit more in search of food.

I spotted matcha ice-cream on Yayoi's menu and had to go for that. A Japanese chain is absolutely not what I should've gone for in Bangkok's Chinatown, but the matcha ice-cream got me... and I ended up not even ordering dessert because the portions were so generous. They refilled my iced tea at least 10 times for free. I was very impressed.

The night views of Chinatown did not disappoint. I could’ve walked up and down for hours without getting bored.

The streets were also looking good when I went back to Sam Yan.

All in all, it was an exciting day that was also relaxing, despite the crowds once night fell in Chinatown. I was excited to go to Ayutthaya tomorrow... if I woke up in time, anyway.


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