Old is gold

Our guide Mandy came to our hotel located in the modern highrise shopping/tourist district of Sukhumvit Road at 9am and we piled into a taxi to head down to the old city of Bangkok.

It was just after rush-hour traffic, but still it took almost an hour to get to Rattanakosin - the historic centre established in 1782 by King Rama I after he moved the capital from across the Chao Phraya River - as that part of Bangkok is not served by the city's mass rapid transit system.

Mandy told us that the SkyTrain - the elevated transit system that has made travelling within the rest of the sprawling metropolis relatively painless - is unable to serve the old city because of conservation rules and other constraints.

So you must take a taxi, tuk-tuk (motorised rickshaw) or riverboat to Rattanakosin, which has many beautiful ancient royal sites such as the Grand Palace and its adjoining temple, Wat Phra Kaew, and Wat Pho, which houses the largest reclining Buddha statue.

Our first stop was Wat Arun, or the Temple of Dawn, located in Thonburi, an old residential district, across the river from Rattanakosin.

There are thousands of temples in Thailand, but this one is quite unique as its temple towers, or prang, are encrusted with sea shells and colourful, broken pottery shards previously used as ballast in boats that came to Bangkok from China.

It is not clear who first built the temple but according to historians after the fall of the former capital Ayutthaya to the Burmese in 1767, King Taksin moved here to establish a capital; he saw the temple at dawn and decided to restore it.

The main feature of Wat Arun is its central prang, which towers over 70m. We climbed the prang but the stone steps are very steep and we had to hold on to the railings on the way up and especially on the way down.

The reward is a nice and breezy view of the winding and busy Chao Phraya River and the Grand Palace complex on the opposite side.

After Wat Arun, we hopped onto a private long-tail riverboat - so called because of its long shaft propeller powered by a car engine onboard - for a scenic cruise of the Chao Phraya and its adjoining canals or khlongs.

Bangkok used to be called the Venice of the East because of an extensive network of canals and tributaries criss-crossing the capital, but most of these have since been filled and cemented over.

Today, there are still a few remaining canals near Thonburi that are used for public transport in the congested city centre, as well as for tourism.

It was hot standing in the queue to get onto the riverboat, but once we were on board, the river breeze was refreshing despite the high midday sun.

The riverboats, with their narrow, painted wooden hulls, became famous in the chase scene in the James Bond movie The Man With The Golden Gun.

As there are many boats in the waterways, there is a system to regulate traffic - a retractable iron gate is lowered into the water at certain sections at regular intervals allowing boats to travel up or down the canals at different times.

It was exciting lining up in front of the gates, waiting for them to be lifted, and to see that oncoming boats had moved to the side to let us pass.

The cruise gives a perspective on how diverse Bangkok is and how the old and new co-exist alongside; modern concrete buildings are sited next to wooden houses on stilts.

The muddy river water is also teaming with life, with schools of metre-long catfish surfacing and fighting for bread near a riverside temple and gigantic monitor lizards lounging underneath homes built above the canal walls.

After the cruise, we hailed a tuktuk to go to the majestic Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, or the Templeof the Emerald Buddha, both located in the same compound.

This temple is the most revered in the kingdom by the Thais and its name refers to a petite Buddha statue (66 cm) carved from jade that sits in the main temple hall.

The Buddha wears seasonal robes corresponding to the hot, cool and rainy months and these are changed at the start of each season by the king in a solemn ritual to bring good fortune.

It is hard to see the Emerald Buddha as it is placed high above worshippers on a gold altar and cameras are not allowed inside the hall.

Many of the buildings in the temple complex, which sprawls over 94.5ha, are gilded, as are the statues like the yakshas (temple guardians with big bulging eyes and protruding fangs) and kinnaras, part-human and part-bird mythical creatures.

Heading into the Grand Palace, which used to be the king's royal residence before it was moved to the nearby Chitralada Palace in 1946, some of the buildings look European, though they have Thai temple-style roofs, reflecting French and Italian architectural influences.

Another temple worth visiting is Wat Pho, which was built in the 16th century and houses a 43m-long reclining Buddha covered in gold leaf.

The temple was also Bangkok's first public university with murals and sculptures teaching science, religion and literature.

It continues to promote traditional Thai medicine, including Thai massage. You can get a massage at a pavilion in the temple - a great way to end a day of touring the sites.


- I flew from Hong Kong to Bangkok on Air Asia.

- Take a taxi to Rattanakosin if you are travelling in a group. Start early as it will be cooler. Alternatively, take the Skytrain to Saphan Taksin station and transfer to a riverboat.

- Bangkok is hot all year round, so dress lightly, but bear in mind that the Grand Palace and the temples have a strict dress code. No shorts or sleeveless tops.

- Bring a sarong to cover up or buy pants and blouses from stalls outside the temple grounds.

- Bring an umbrella and a bottle of water to keep cool as there are queues to get into these historic sites.

-Hire an English-speaking tour guide in Bangkok as he can make the travel arrangements easily. Look up Tripadvisor for suggestions on finding a local guide.

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