Travel: Bargains in Bangkok

By Mike Yardley

Thailand, the Kingdom of Smiles, continues to woo the world with its magnetic tropical beach resorts and big city thrills.

A quick city-break in the heady soup of Bangkok delivers incredible bang for your buck - or baht.

Yes, it's a sprawling monster of a city with ever-expanding roadways and belching pollution. But beneath the urban haze is a city of intoxicating character, fusing Western commercialism with exotic Thai tradition.

Fronting the river is the frenetic organised chaos of Chinatown, a maze of lanes teeming with food stalls, trinkets, jewellery and souvenirs. On the weekend, make a beeline to the Chatuchak, one of Asia's biggest markets, touting every imaginable product, from puppies and tea sets to snakes and silk.

If you're a nocturnal bargain-hunter, check out Asia Teak, the city's new night market.

For top-end retail therapy, Bangkok still dazzles with eye-popping discounts on hi-fi electronics. Plasma televisions routinely sell at a third of the standard price available back home.

Street life is at the core of Bangkok's essential spirit, and the city could well claim the title for being the biggest al fresco eating experience in the world. The sidewalks are peppered with a seemingly endless choice of food stalls. Whether its coffee and doughnuts for breakfast, or coconut chicken curry for lunch, cheap eats on the street will seduce you. Word of advice - only eat where the locals are eating.

The city sports its Thai Buddhist stripes with extravagant passion, with a profusion of lavishly ornate temples gilding the city. Religious devotion is not confined to the sparkling whitewashed temple walls of the central city. For a point of contrast, visit some of the inner suburbs where you will find clothes lines strung across winding lanes, resplendent with the freshly laundered saffron robes of monks.

But savouring the city's riverside temples is unquestionably the marquee attraction, starting with the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. Arrive by 8.30am to get the jump on the stampeding hordes of Chinese tour groups.

Up until 1900, the Grand Palace was the official residence of the Thai monarchy and a self-contained city. Its most acclaimed feature is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha - the statue is draped in ceremonial robes which are changed with the seasons, by the king himself. Next door, visit Wat Pho, home to the utterly sublime Temple of the Reclining Buddha, symbolising his passage into nirvana. The 46m-long, gold-leaf gilded figure is a truly majestic sight.

Chao Phraya, the River of Kings, cuts a course through the heart of Bangkok and the public ferries are a great way to hop around the sights, with single trips a snip at less than $1.

With a history spanning 137 years, the Mandarin Oriental is Bangkok's most famous hotel. With a prime riverfront location, it remains a favourite haunt for royalty, rock stars and dignitaries. The hotel has showcased its legacy by naming and designing its heritage suites after some literary luminaries who've graced its doors, including Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward. Request a river wing corner room and drink in the dreamy river views from the comfort of your balcony.

Bangkok is nicknamed the "Venice of the East" and another prime location that celebrates the vista is the Riverside Terrace, picture-perfect for a cocktail at sunset. Take the hotel shuttle boat across the river to revel in two more indelible experiences.

The Oriental Spa worked wonders on my body, soothing, stimulating and rejuvenating my senses with a spectacular traditional Thai massage.

And then it was off to dinner, at Sala Rim Naam, a richly decorated traditional Thai pavilion that hosts a nightly traditional dance extravaganza while you indulge in the set dinner feast of 14 tasting dishes.

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- Hamilton News

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