Think Thai temples and most probably think the Grand Palace, said to be the number one visitor attraction in Bangkok. Every day there is a stampede towards the old part of the city as every visitor crosses the Grand Palace off their list. While every guidebook and travel website recommends visiting the Grand Palace, there are plenty of reasons why you might overlook Bangkok's most famous temple in favour of a temple off the beaten path.
Going to Bangkok and not seeing the Grand Palace would be almost like going to Paris and not seeing The Eiffel Tower, right? Hmmm, I'm not so sure…
How many visitors take the time to look closely at the history of the Grand Palace and that which separates it from other Thai temples and makes it unique? We may be in awe of its beauty, but in this regard the Grand Palace is far from unique; many temples in Thailand are breathtakingly beautiful. Most visit The Grand Palace because that's what the guidebooks recommend – yet savvy travellers know that doing something just because the guidebooks tell you to is no good reason.
The great thing is that in Bangkok – and the entire country for that matter – there is no shortage of choice when it comes to checking out temples.
The Grand Palace is famous, considered by many as Bangkok's top tourist attraction and with Thailand receiving so many visitors these days, it is descended upon by massive numbers of people every day. I'd always thought visiting a temple would be a peaceful experience and the first time I made it to the Grand Palace back in 1997 that was almost the case. Photos from my first trip to Thailand show it to be moderately busy, but not what you'd call over-run. These days The Grand Palace is mobbed with visitors and is totally over-run with visitors. Peaceful it is not and the hordes do nothing for the beauty of the place.
Getting to The Grand Palace can be a hike with neither the skytrain system nor the underground going anywhere near (although in a few years' time one of the underground extensions will stop outside Wat Po which is next to The Grand Palace). For backpackers it's easy, from Khao San Road The Grand Palace is an easy 20-minute walk.
With so many people visiting the Grand Palace it's noisy and not at all peaceful – the opposite of what I imagine a Buddhist temple to be.
Impressive Buddha statues come in various styles.
As impressive as it is, The Grand Palace today feels like the major tourist site that it is and it comes with all of the ills that such popular tourist sites attract worldwide – aggressive vendors, scammers and high entry price.
Foreigners pay 500 baht to visit the Grand Palace; for Thais entry is free. It's not a large sum when thinking about entry fees to sites worldwide, but given that entry to most Thai temples is free, it makes you think.
There are strict rules regarding what you can wear in The Grand Palace and staff enforcing these rules are not the best advertisement for the tourism industry, barking at visitors that they have to hire items of clothing to cover their arms and legs before they will be allowed entry.
If all you want to see is a beautiful, authentic Thai temple, you don't have to go to The Grand Palace. There are other options.
From time to time I like to get away to a quiet spot and the quiet grounds of Thai temples are a respite from the noise, chaos and general stress that is life in Bangkok. In my early days in Bangkok, up to around 2001 or 2002, I'd make my way out to the river and over to Wat Arun. It was a stressful journey to get there, but once there on the banks of the Chao Praya River any stress faded away. But Wat Arun has also become over-touristed and today it too is anything but relaxing.
My favourite spot in Bangkok for a quiet temple visit became Wat Lat Phrao in the suburbs of Lat Phrao, several km or so north of the Asoke intersection on Sukhumvit Road.
Wat Lat Phrao is set in a local neighbourhood and backs on to a canal. The atmosphere is very much of the Bangkok of old.
Unlike the city's more famous temples, Wat Lat Phrao is not on the tourist path and I have never seen another foreigner there. Not one, in all of my visits which is kind of surprising given that Lat Phrao is an area where plenty of white guys live.
While it is a neighbourhood temple and far from the tourist areas, there's still stuff going on. You have the usual vendors selling buckets of supplies for the monks to make their lives that little bit more comfortable.
From fish to frogs to birds to eels, there's a variety of animals you can pay to have released to tum-boon (make merit, in English).
In the immediate vicinity of the temple is a mix of low and medium income homes and there are a number of troubled folks living in the area who the temple helps, including some homeless children.
The Wat Phrao temple compound is sprawling with a number of buildings and many rooms and chambers to explore. Some contain hundreds of Buddha images, others have Buddhist artwork. There are reclining Buddhas (never sleeping Buddhas, always reclining Buddhas – Buddha never sleeps, only reclines; it is monks who sleep so a monk once told me). You might just come across a sleeping monk too.
Granted, Wat Lat Phrao is not as impressive as The Grand Palace nor is there the wow you get with the huge reclining Buddha at Wat Po….but it has more than enough to satisfy most visitors who want to see a Thai temple with their own eyes. And that's what Wat Lat Phrao is, an authentic Thai temple. This is not a place for tourists, it's not over-run with visitors and that makes visiting it a much more pleasant experience than visiting the city's famous temples. You can wander the quiet compound without anyone hassling you, without anyone trying to sell you anything and there are none of the scowling, surly officials who revel in telling foreigners what you can and cannot do and what you can and cannot wear.
You can have all of Wat Lat Phrao to yourself – and that is what really sets it apart from the more popular / famous temples in Bangkok. Unless there is a funeral taking place or it's an auspicious Buddhist day, odds are there will be few people to share the compound with.
You needn't limit yourself to Wat Lat Phrao – there are similarly beautiful and impressive temples all over the city.
And if the temple itself is not enough to entice you, there are heaps of interesting, inexpensive eateries nearby to repair to including my favourite Vietnamese restaurant in all of Bangkok, the curiously named Winner House.
To get to Wat Lat Phrao, the closest MRT station is Wat Lat Phrao. From there it's probably about a half-hour walk – to be frank, it's not a pleasant walk. The area is a little disorientating with narrow sois so your best bet is to take either a motorbike taxi or a regular taxi to the temple gates.
I could be reasonably described as agnostic or a heathen and have zero religious leaning. But there is something about temples in Thailand that transcends religion. Find a quiet temple in a rural area or in an urban setting that is not over-run with visitors and there is a certain peace in just being there. I don't pray or seek advice from monks or do any of those things visitors to temples typically do. Nonetheless I find the occasional visit to a temple a relaxing and uplifting experience. And in Bangkok, Wat Lat Phrao is my go to temple.
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo showed the Davis Hotel on Sukhumvit soi 24, taken from a distance.
FROM STICK'S INBOX (These are emails from readers and what is written here was not written by Stick.) Preference may be given to emails which refer to the previous week's column.
EMAIL OF THE WEEK – Sukhumvit soi 16 bar history.
Ladyboys and Nana.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised to hear that Nana management ignores its ladyboy bars when promoting the plaza, despite the fact that some of them are at the top of the biggest grossers list. The late G, as he's known in your column, loathed ladyboys, although he owned the two most successful ladyboy bars in the plaza, then called Obsessions and Cascade. I suppose the present owner of the master lease feels the same way, which as you pointed out, is at the very least unfair and clearly hypocritical. To be sure, the ladyboys have much to answer for. I'm one of their fans and supporters, but hate the aggressive behaviour of some outside DC-10 and Casanova. But punters should not criticise the post-op ladyboys for their deception. That's what defines them, after all, and if you accept them as genetic girls (GGs), it's the answer to their dreams. If it bothers you that there are ladyboys, pre- or post-op, mixed in with GGs in the bars, don't just walk out, complain first to the mamasan, manager or (best) owner. They haven't been fooled, by the way. They examine ID cards when they hire staff. The odd thing is that they persist in mixing, because no bar has ever succeeded doing that. When the word gets out, as it will, it just pisses off 90% of the customers.
Tolerance in relationships.
When you talk of tolerance in relationships, you have to ask the fundamental question of whether ultimately you are better off together – in spite of any behaviour you don't understand. If the answer to that question is yes, then your Thai wife is somewhat like your computer – sometimes things happen that you can't explain. You just move on.
Still a good time to be had.
Every week we hear various stories of doom and gloom about how crap and expensive a trip to Bangkok or Pattaya is. Whilst I fully concede that things are not what they once were, it's just not true that that you cannot have a great time anymore or that it's a total rip-off. It is important to choose your bars and girls with a bit of care and savvy. Some of the whingers just seem to have left their brains at home. They moan about a particular bar or area that is notorious as a tourist rip-off trap but then continue to go back to exactly the same bar or bar area again and again! I continue to have a great time nearly every time I go out in Bangkok and Pattaya both in the bars and back in the room, without paying over the odds for the pleasure. By choosing which bars I go to and which girls I take. For example, there are certain bars in Cowboy and Nana Plaza I wouldn't dream of giving my custom and I haven't set foot on Walking Street for 5 years. Most costs have not gone up by the same rate as inflation or in some cases are cheaper in real terms. I pay no more now for accommodation than I did 20 years ago and my flights are cheaper. In recent months I have paid less than £500 for my last two flights on a quality airline. My first two trips 20 years ago cost £530 and £560!
Avoiding ATM fees in Thailand.
Regarding ATM fees, many German tourists use a visa credit card from DKB, because it promises free withdrawals abroad (while payments for hotels or flights are extra-expensive with this card). If you withdraw cash with a DKB credit card from a Thai ATM, you can e-mail the withdrawal receipt to DKB and they will refund you the fees. In my personal case, I collected 6 withdrawal slips from Thai ATMs, photographed them all next to each other with my phone and e-mailed this one photo to DKB. I was fully refunded two days later, with the line in the transaction statement reading (translated) "expenses / damages". Thus you could also withdraw only small amounts without paying 180 or 200 THB. But actually in tourist centres, it seemed to me that changing cash brought slightly better rates if you pick the local Thai money-changer with the best rates and fast procedures (and you don't have to carry your credit card out with you).
Next to the mint candies.
I would submit that the occurrence of genital herpes in these parts is significantly prevalent by reason of observation. At a favourite massage joint recently I happened to notice two large (well-used) tubes of herpes cream, put out on the reception desk, for all and any to avail themselves of, right next to the bowl of mint candies. Unsure as to the acceptable social protocol, I imagined it to be perhaps like ketchup in an eatery – put a little in the small bowls provided or take the whole damn bottle. But why? Neither ketchup or herpes cream prevents catching herpes, and who likes grabbing hold of a greasy, germ-infested ketchup bottle just prior to chowing down on a burger and fries, much less handling a potentially virus laden tube of dick blister cream prior to carnal festivities?
Songkran in downtown Bangkok was one of the most subdued on record. No doubt it was bedlam in some neighbourhoods and in parts of the city it was water warfare as usual, but on Sukhumvit and many of its sub-sois there was nothing like the number of people out and about as previous years. One friend drove around downtown Bangkok for a couple of hours on the afternoon of the first day of Songkran and didn't see a single pickup truck loaded up with a water tank and the family / gang armed with water cannons. Why it was quieter in downtown Bangkok than previous years is not known. It's probably a combination of the water crisis, the authorities outlawing the use of large water guns, a general feeling of unhappiness (related to the political and economic situation) etc.
Reports from Bangkok bars were as is expected for the week of Songkran, it was dead. In Cowboy, Shark Bar was dead with just a few dancers one night while a couple of doors along in Dollhouse, staff were told that they were not allowed to take time off because of the extended holiday they had had when owner Darel passed away.
All of the Arab's bars were covered with tarps throughout Songkran reiterating the idea that the Arab's bars are no fun zones.
Word out of Pattaya was that trade was brisk with some bars on Walking Street so busy that it was hard to find a seat.
Goldfinger, Kiss and Super Star are three of the older Patpong soi 1 bars known for being more laid-back, relaxed and in recent years, for cheaper drinks prices than most other gogo bars. That has all changed with Goldfinger, Kiss and Super Star raising the price of a lady drink to a steep 250 baht. There has been a backlash with some regulars choosing new haunts and vowing never to return.
And the double lady drink phenomenon has jumped from Cowboy to Nana with reports that some girls in Billboard are now perpetrating this nonsense. Order a lady drink and some ladies return with a Tequila AND a Coke – and a tab for 170 baht x 2 = 340 baht. Bar bosses need to consider whether they want their bars to be known for this sort of nonsense because it will put some punters off.
That said, Billboard, along with Angelwitch were described to me as the only two bars with any real activity in Nana this past week and well worth spending time in.
The Thermae has been known as the freelancer bar for Asian men for about a decade now, yet many farangs lament this and remember the glory days when Thermae was the white man's domain. But maybe whitey should not be so upset with some girls in Thermae asking 6,500 baht for a roll in the hay – and it's not clear if that is the long-time price or is just for short-time.
I feel the need to comment on the paragraph above and on the amount of money the girls charge generally. I am all for the girls making as much money as they can and all power to them if they can find a customer who is willing to pay what some ask for. It's not a nice job – none of the girls like it and they would all rather be doing something else. At the same time, I do question why some people pay so much for sex. Is it really worth that sort of money? I recently heard from a couple of Indian guys who happily pay the 8,000 – 12,000 baht fee girls in Mixx and Spasso's throw out as their opening gambit. These Indians say that they earn good money so why not? That sounds like quite a lot of money to me and when I think that the equivalent of 12,000 baht would cover 5 outstanding steak dinners for two in Auckland, I don't get it. But hey, all power to those who have the money and wish to spend it and all power to the girls who are maximising their income. At the end of the day we all want to get as much as we can for our labour so who can blame the girls asking these prices.
In too many bars in Bangkok now the level of interaction between customers and staff feels like the dining equivalent of getting food from a vending machine. You order a drink from a waitress who doesn't greet you, thank you or even bother to check what you ordered. The drink is brought to you with nary a smile nor a word. Where is the warmth?
From the Pattaya news sites there appear to be more reports of pilfering, thefts and petty crime in Pattaya as more foreign visitors report thefts to the police with some losing considerable sums. Theft from hotel rooms and snatch and grabs are nothing new in Pattaya, but things do seem to be getting worse. With all of this in mind, do think hard about having large sums of cash in Pattaya, be it on your person or in your hotel room. Also, is it really a good idea to wear big, chunky gold chains on the streets of a city which is increasingly known for street crime?
One of Bangkok's best known visa run company's main customer base used to be Brits, but in the wake of various visa policy changes the number of Brits using the Bangkok Buddy visa service has plummeted. It's not that long ago that an ED visa allowed the holder to stay in the country for 15 months (every 3 months you had to go to Immigration to extend it) whereas now ED visas are only good for a maximum of 5 months – and ED visas are much harder to get in the first place. And up until November double entry tourist visas were super easy to get with most embassies and consulates seemingly using them as a money maker, but that class of visa has been discontinued and replaced with a multiple-entry tourist visas which has a list of requirements which many struggle to meet. The result is that the number of Brits taking visa runs is on the decrease, as is the number of visa runners in general. And it's not just Brits who have had problems, some border posts now have strict policies whereby certain nationalities aren't allowed to use that border point at all – for the most part these are those who hold a passport from a country which is – to use a PC term – not fully developed.
Bangkok Airport security now scrutinizes mobile phone power banks. If there is no charge in it, they will confiscate it. And if it is a very high capacity unit – over 32,000 mAH – they will also confiscate it. They check the capacity by simply reading the specifications printed somewhere on the unit. Keep this in mind if you are carting your power bank around with you.
In the West, fast food is generally cheap and you can get an inexpensive meal for not a lot of money. Good quality produce and lean cuts of meat can be pricey in the West and cooking a nutritious meal at home (especially if you're only cooking for one) could cost more than a fast food meal – and that is without thinking about the time it takes to prepare / cook / clean up etc. In Thailand it is the complete opposite – fast food is not considered cheap in Thailand – at least the big name Western fast-food operators – while fresh vegetables and local meats are very cheap in Thailand, be it in local markets or supermarkets. There really is no excuse for foreigners in Thailand eating badly – you cannot blame it on the cost of groceries. Call me harsh, but unhealthy expats in Thailand – and that's A LOT of the expat populace, especially those who don't have a regular job and as such have all the time in the world – have nothing to blame their bad health on but themselves.
Has there been a period in the last 20 years when the Thais not said that it's "set-a-kit mai dee" – meaning the economy is bad? It's a phrase every expat who speaks even a little Thai knows because Thais use it all the time, especially taxi drivers and those whose business is not going so well. Even through the Thaksin era when the economy was rocking along they used it.
It used to be that the Patumwan intersection (MBK) was the most photographed place in downtown Bangkok. Has that changed? Is the Asoke intersection – specifically, looking up Asoke at rush hour – now the most photographed spot in downtown Bangkok?
Quote of the week, "When will bar owners realise that allowing smoking in bars delights one but pisses off four!"
Reader's story of the week comes from Steve Rosse, "Down To The Sea in Ships".
The Big Chilli magazine looks at what it's really like to be a police officer in Thailand.
The UK's Telegraph says Thailand has fallen in love with the Leicester City Football Club.
Drunk drivers and repeat traffic offenders will be sent to work in morgues in Thailand as part of their punishment.
A Thai teen burns his own mother's house down when she doesn't give him money to go out.
A video clip of an American performing oral sex on a Thai lady in public at Songkran goes viral.
Ask Sunbelt Asia Legal
Sunbelt Asia's legal department is here to answer your questions relating to legal issues and the law in Thailand. Send any legal questions you may have to me and I will pass them on to Sunbelt Legal and their response will run in a future column. You can contact Sunbelt's legal department directly for all of your legal needs.
There were no questions for Sunbelt this week.
Very little in the way of bar news this week is the norm for this time of year. Bars in Bangkok will probably remain quiet this coming week with fewer ladies about as some stay upcountry for an extended break with family, and bargoers put off visiting at what is the hottest – and arguably the least pleasant – time of the year. Late April through much of June is a good time for naughty boys to travel to Thailand as there are generally fewer punters around, it's dry and there is more – how shall we say – hunger out there. If I was a naughty boy, probably May or June would be a good time to visit.