BANGKOK, THAILAND — We knew it would be hard to get to know Bangkok in just three days. It’s huge and chaotic, and we can’t speak or read a word of Thai.
But we gave it a go, with the help of our fantastic host, Google maps and a few helpful locals.
We really lucked out by picking Focal Local, a nine-room bed-and-breakfast inn not far from the Central Pier on the Chao Phraya River. It’s run by a young man named Karan who is both mother hen and mind reader, anticipating needs before you even know you have them.
Totally at sea? Here’s a map and guide that shows the inn and big tourist attractions and also includes best places around Focal Local, attractions in the Thonburi neighborhood and a short tutorial on important Thai words.
Not sure how to get to the river or SkyTrain station? The map shows you, but Karan also offers a free tuk-tuk ride to one or the other every day.
Planning to get around by taxi? Here’s a slip of paper with directions back to Focal Local in Thai.
Our day started with breakfast: the best freshly squeezed orange juice we’ve ever had, flat Thai noodles with chicken and julienne carrots and, for dessert, half a perfectly ripe mango. Karan was there, offering a European breakfast if we wanted one, organizing our day and warning us to drink lots of water in the 95-degree heat and humidity.
We like to get to know a city by walking, but we deferred to Karan and rode a tuk-tuk, or motorized cart, to the river and a ferry across to the Central Pier, even though there was a bridge overhead. To get to the ferry, we had to walk through a small fruit and vegetable stand and Beth almost stepped on a large pig, snoozing — and snoring — on the ground. Once across the river, we hopped on a tourist ferry.
From the river, we could see giant memorials to beloved King Bhumibol, who died in October after serving for 70 years. The whole nation is mourning for a year, with some people carrying it further than others: Many people wear black every day, and others don’t laugh or smile (we had wondered if the airport immigration official was one of them).
Arriving at the temple complex Wat Pho, we quickly realized we didn’t know a thing about all of the Buddhist bling in front of us, so we hired Mr. Yos to tell us.
He interpreted the varying hand positions of the hundreds of golden Buddhas, which signal peace, blessing, enlightenment or protection from the mara, demons who disrupt the quest for enlightenment but — we think — are trying to be better people for the next life. The head of the big, golden Reclining Buddha, who fills an entire chapel, is supported by its right arm. The eyes were open, as in meditation. If the eyes were closed, it would signify the step right before nirvana.
In the chapel, Mr. Yos pointed out a glass case with a thank-you note signed by what he called “my great friend” — President Barack Obama, who visited in 2012, bringing a soy candle from the White House.
There was a lot of color to take in: ornate tiled temples with golden spires, porcelain mosaic stupas and, oddly, a lot of concrete Chinese figures brought back as ship ballast on an 1835 voyage that took rice to China.
Our takeaway: the purpose of these fancy temples basically is 1) to collect donations to maintain themselves (there’s a lot of gold leaf and lacquer that needs to be renewed every 20 years), and 2) to provide a nice burial spot for powerful people, whose ashes lie below the stupas and golden buddhas.
There are a lot of impressive temples in Bangkok, including our own neighborhood’s third-class temple. But Wat Pho is a first-class royal temple associated with the 18th-century King Rama 1 (Bhumibol was Rama 9), and it’s also considered the first public university in Thailand. It still includes a school for Thai massage, which Mr. Yos said is an important skill to acquire on the path to enlightenment.
The new king is Rama 10 but won’t be crowned until the year of mourning ends, and Beth couldn’t resist tweaking Mr. Yos by asking if he’s currently in Thailand: He bought a mansion on Lake Starnberg near Munich last year and is said to be very unpopular in Thailand (though criticism of royals is against the law), probably because he’s been married and divorced three times.
After the tour, Mr. Yos recommended we visit his friend the palm-reader, who sat along a table next to the snack stand. Beth was in an anything goes mood and decided to go for that, having studied palm reading herself for a back-yard carnival in grade school.
He didn’t say anything about life lines or heart lines but described Beth’s character fairly accurately. Still, he fell down on the job when he said that, despite her tendency to be undiplomatic, she should be in one of the “speaking” professions, such as public relations. Hmm . . . don’t think so.
He also predicted clear sailing in love, health and longevity, so we guess that was money well spent.
Despite the local conspiracy to keep us from walking anywhere, we set off by foot along the river, exploring little alleys, piers and the flower market, which seemed mainly dedicated not to providing pretty bouquets for vases but to making arrangements to honor ancestors, especially with marigolds. The spirits get a bottle of strawberry Fanta, always with a straw.
We wished there was a riverfront promenade, but every street dead-ended at the river. By the time we’d walked from Pier 9 to Pier 5, whose green roof looked like a miniature Sydney Opera House, we were soaked in sweat and ready to sit down for a cold drink.
We got one with a river view at Wan Fah restaurant, and we stayed for dinner: for Torsten, red chicken curry and for Beth, steamed sea bass with extra cilantro, which she ordered with the help of a phrase supplied by Karan: “Kor pak-shee yer yer, ka.”
From there, we took a ferry back to Central Pier and walked across the bridge, descending to the park under the highway. It was packed. People were practicing tai chi, jogging and playing volleyball, soccer, table tennis and a game of footy, which a helpful older man told us is called takraw and is very popular in Thailand.
Four shirtless, muscular young men were playing it, two on either side of a badminton-height net, and they were amazing, making kills by leaping into the air, twisting their bodies backward and hooking the ball over the net with a vicious kick of their feet. We thought they were fantastically athletic, but the man said they’re “just babies” compared to professionals.
We continued walking, stopping at 7-Eleven for cold drinks, and as soon as we got back to our room we went to YouTube and watched the all-Asia takraw finals, which seem to always feature Thailand against Malaysia. It was a fun night’s entertainment.