Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Saffron-robed monks enter Wat Benchamabophit, the Marble Temple.

Southeast Asia’s most dynamic and exciting city, Bangkok is an intoxicating and sometimes jarring mix of modern and ancient. Scattered concrete skyscrapers share space with traditional wooden homes, while gleaming temples to fashion abut temples gleaming with golden Buddha images. Built on the floodplain of the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok was once known as the “Venice of the East” because canals crisscrossed it, though these have mostly been turned into traffic-clogged roads. They connect older quarters such as the royal island of Rattanakosin and heaving Chinatown with hotel and condominium filled districts around Sukhumvit, Silom, and Sathorn roads. Wherever you venture, the smells of jasmine and grilling street food will remind you where you are.

Bangkok Must-Dos 
Get recommendations on the top Bangkok attractions (what to see, where to go.

Buzzing Chinatown is packed with restaurants, street stalls, centuries-old markets, gold vendors, and some of Bangkok’s best street food. Combine a trip with a visit to Wat Traimit and the Golden Buddha. Tip: Find the “thieves” market and the Sikh temple and climb to the top for fantastic late afternoon views over the district and Chao Phraya river.

Wat Pho
Bangkok’s largest and oldest wat (Buddhist temple) is home to the famous Reclining Buddha, the supine 46m long and 49-feet-high (15-meter-high) gold leaf-covered Buddha image with mother-of-pearl inlaid feet. Tip: Get a massage at the adjoining training center for Thai massage. Th Sanam Chai; tel. 66 (0) 2225 9595; fee.

Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace
The revered Emerald Buddha. A 26-inch-high (66-centimeter-high) image actually carved from solid jade, is housed within the now disused royal palace. Traditional Thai architecture at its finest. Tip: The dress code, banning bare shoulders, sandals, and shorts or short skirts, is strictly enforced. Don’t believe the unscrupulous gem hawkers who will tell you that the palace is shut. Th Na Phra Lan; tel. 66 (0) 2222 8181 or 2623 5500; fee.

“If you’re here on the weekend it’s a must, but prepare to be exhausted.”—Mason Florence, founder and publisher, Bangkok 101 magazine. With 15,000 stalls and stores, the Weekend Market (known locally as “JJ”) is a vast, sauna-like retail extravaganza. Open weekends only. Tip: Buy the Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok ( before you go. It gets hot and crowded, so stop for regular meals and drinks to stay (relatively) cool.

Tuk Tuk Trip
The archetypal Bangkok journey is by the loud, three-wheel tuk tuk (motorized taxi cycles), available anywhere tourists go. Tip: Some tuk tuk drivers try to earn commissions by taking you to gem stores and tailoring shops, usually for next to no fare. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Rooftop Bars
“Just a waist-high rail between you and the rest of Bangkok; you can’t do this anywhere else.”—Mason Florence. Bangkok’s unique, open-air rooftop bars, Moon Bar at Vertigo and Sirocco, combine stunning city views with the feel of a classy restaurant-cum-cocktail lounge. Tip: Views are usually better than the food. If it’s raining, go somewhere else (with a roof). Moon Bar, Banyan Tree Hotel, Th Sathon Tai. Sirocco, State Tower, 1055 Th Silom.

Lumphini Park
“Come at dawn to see the tai chi, or late afternoon with a bottle of wine; great escape.”—Stuart McDonald, founder, independent travel site Travelfish ( An oasis of green calm in the concrete jungle; great people watching. Tip: Best visited at dawn and dusk, when you can watch the tai chi, aerobics, joggers.

Jim Thompson’s House Museum
“It’s on every tourist’s itinerary, but still well worth visiting.”—Austin Bush, author, Lonely Planet Bangkok. Jim Thompson, the American credited with reviving traditional silk weaving in Thailand, erected and adapted these six wooden homes in 1959. Tip: Check out the adjoining Jim Thompson Center for the Arts—above the silk shop. 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Th Rama I; tel. 66 (0) 2216 7368; fee.

Muay Thai
Kickboxing is the quintessential Bangkok spectator sport, and multiple bouts are held at one of two stadiums most evenings of the week. Tip: To bet on the fights get second- or third-class seats. Lumpini Stadium, Th Rama IV near Suan Lum Night Bazaar; tel. 66 (0)2252 8765; Ratchadamnoen Stadium, Th Ratchadamnoen Nok; tel. 66 (0) 2281 4205; fee.

Spa treatment
“For a few dollars you get a better massage than you’d get for hundreds at home.”—Mason Florence. Bangkok has literally hundreds of spas, ranging from basic massage to days-long treatments. Tip: “Ask for a proper Thai massage and avoid the places with scantily clad young women out front; instead look for strong-looking, older Thai women.”—Mason Florence.

Ko Kret
“Only an hour from central Bangkok, but it feels like being upcountry.”—Austin Bush. Combine a boat trip (by local boat combo or tourist longtail) up the Chao Phraya River with a couple of hours on this historic, somnolent, and refreshingly quiet river island of potters and masseuses. Tip: Restaurants here are famed for unusual sweets and snacks.

Thailand's Urban Giants 

Thailand's Urban Giants

Thailand's domestic giants, harshly treated by some of their handlers, face a perilous future in a land of shrinking forests and spreading cities.

In the hills of northern Thailand two strong-minded females share a hut built on stilts in the forest. One, named Jokia, is 42 years old and weighs three tons; the other, named Sangduen, is also in her 40s and weighs 86 pounds. Elephant and woman, their lives linked. When a meal is being prepared, Jokia, standing below, lifts her great nose, which then writhes along the bamboo floor like a plump python until Sangduen hands over some vegetables or a bit of fruit. Before the two met, Jokia had been employed in an illegal timber-cutting operation. Forced to keep dragging logs while pregnant, she struggled up steep slopes pulling heavy loads and suffered a miscarriage. Jokia went on strike. Her handler, or mahout, took to shooting her with a slingshot to get her up and moving, a practice mahouts call "using the remote." He missed his mark one day, blinding her left eye. Jokia's funk deepened. When the man who owned her came by to deal with the situation, she broke his arm with a swing of her trunk. In revenge he shot her remaining eye with an arrow, then put her back to work in chains, hauling freshly felled teak in darkness. 

Dangerous Straits


ark Passage

The Strait of Malacca. Pirates haunt it. Sailors fear it, Global trade depends on it.

“I can smell the sea from here,” says the prisoner. That seems a wild improbability coming from a man in a soundproof cell in northern Malaysia, several miles as the gull flies from the closest salt water. All I can smell in this humid, whitewashed prison is the faint tang of ammonia used to clean the floors.
It is hard to know what to believe of the prisoner’s claims. At times he has declared his innocence and then later confessed to being a willing criminal. He mentions he has three children, later the number is four. His passport lists his name as Johan Ariffin, but Malaysian authorities doubt that’s his real name. His age is noted as 44 (streaks of gray in his black hair make that plausible) and his residence as Batam, an Indonesian island just south of Singapore. Men like him often come from Batam, a guard says.
Though his jailers remain unsure who he is, they know exactly what he is: lanun (pronounced la-noon). When asked for a direct English equivalent, an interpreter explains that there is none, that it is a word freighted with many layers of culture and history. The short, imperfect answer is: The prisoner is a pirate.
He earned that epithet when Malaysia’s marine police captured him and nine accomplices after they hijacked the Nepline Delima, a tanker carrying 7,000 tons of diesel fuel worth three million dollars, in the Strait of Malacca. It was one of several attacks reported during 2005 in the 550-mile channel separating the Indonesian island of Sumatra from the Malay Peninsula, Singapore perched at its southern tip.