Bangkok, Thailand

How Bangkok Got Its Name

OK, now that I’ve got your attention, perhaps you’ve wondered about some of the place names in Thailand, like Bangkok and Phuket (and we won’t even mention Bang Sue, Dong Rak and Ban Pornpis).  As you can well imagine, the way you pronounce them can make a big difference!  So where did these appellations come from and what do they mean?  Actually, the name for Thailand’s capital city came from the Thai word bang, meaning village on a stream, and ko, meaning island.  This makes perfect sense, considering the vital importance of the many waterways in this region, especially the rivers and canals of Bangkok.  The beach studded island of Phuket (Careful!  It’s pronounced pu-ket.) off the southwestern coast of peninsular Thailand is a perennial favorite of American sailors who are attracted by the name, the girls and the bars, not necessarily in that order.  The name comes from bukit, meaning hill, after the mountainous terrain of the island.  So, in Thailand the names can be long, interesting and often amusing and this fascinating feature of Thai culture extends to family names as well.  Just ask the famous Thai boxer, Terdsak Kokietgym!

The Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun, Bangkok

The Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun, Bangkok

John at the Grand Palace, Bangkok

John at the Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

Getting Your Bearings in a Very Big City

Bangkok is one of the largest cities in the world, both in terms of size and population, so it’s not surprising that I found it somewhat complicated trying to figure out how to get around.  Fortunately, many shop owners, policemen and taxi drivers speak enough English to make communication fairly easy.  As in my case, many visitors will arrive in Thailand at the huge Hua Lamphong Railway Station located in the center of Bangkok.  In addition to the shops and fast food outlets within this 100 year old architectural wonder, I was also glad to find a convenient and reliable money changer.  The lobby is continuously crowded with travelers making connections to the Malay Peninsula, Laos, Cambodia and other cities throughout Thailand.  Bangkok has a great Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system connecting major points in the city, the Railway Station and the Suvarnabhumi Airport (Bangkok International Airport).  There’s one of those long names again!  Just a half hour walk from the train station I found a wonderful place to stay, The Montien Hotel, which I will feature in the next article.  Just a quick safety note…remember while you are walking through Bangkok, that it is important to stay hydrated.  Although I found almost no MacDonald’s in Bangkok, there seemed to be a 7-Eleven every half a block!  They turned out to be a great place to cool off for a few minutes while I bought another cold bottle of water.

The Hua Lamphong Railway Station, Bangkok

The Hua Lamphong Railway Station, Bangkok

Not-So-Siamese Cats near the Standing Buddha

Not-So-Siamese Cats near the Standing Buddha

The Ubiquitous Tuk-Tuk

Walking this huge city is out of the question and you will almost certainly need to use the MRT, taxis or tuk-tuks to help you get from one district to another.  This was my first introduction to the ever present tuk-tuk in its many forms found throughout Southeast Asia.  The tuk-tuk is best described as a three-wheel rickshaw powered by either a bicycle or a motor scooter.  Some seem almost to have been put together by the owner from spare parts, while others are the more substantial factory built models known as an auto-rickshaw.  You will not have any trouble finding a tuk-tuk, as they are on almost every street corner and you will hear the familiar toot of the horn as you’re walking, ‘asking’ if you’d like a ride.  The drivers are universally friendly and helpful, fares are generally reasonable and it’s a hoot driving through the busy streets in the open air.  One word of caution…if the fare seems too good to be true, be prepared to make a detour to a jewelry store or tailor shop where the driver gets a commission, before getting to your destination.  Speaking of friendly, the Thai policemen are also happy to assist tourists and I found the small police huts situated throughout the city to be a great place to get directions in a pinch.  One evening when I was totally lost and exhausted, an officer actually came out of the hut and walked me to the nearest taxi stop, flagged down a taxi for me and gave the driver instructions to my hotel!  All right, I know what you’re thinking, but honest, I hadn’t had a drop to drink!

Watch Out for Wild Tuk-Tuk Drivers in Bangkok!

Watch Out for Wild Tuk-Tuk Drivers in Bangkok!

The Standing Buddha at Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok

The Standing Buddha at Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok

The Grand Palace

Perhaps the most famous tourist destination in Bangkok is the Grand Palace, home of the world’s longest reigning monarch, His Majesty the King, Bhumibol Adulyadej.   The construction of this 60 acre complex of temples, residences, courts and gardens on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River began in 1782 and while the current monarch resides in Chitralada Palace, the Grand Palace is still used for official functions.  Surrounded by defensive walls, the inner courts are opened to the public every day from 0830 to 1530 and the entrance fee is about $13.00.  This is a must see for every visitor to Southeast Asia and I think once you have been there you will agree that the palace rivals Versailles and the temples give the Sistine Chapel a good run for its money.  Visitors will be dazzled by the ornate buildings, the splendid architecture and the unbelievable sight of more gold than you can imagine.  One of the most famous structures within the complex is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha or Wat Phra Kaew, dating back to 1785.  Interestingly, the Emerald Buddha is actually made of jade.

The Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

The Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

Inner Court at the Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

Inner Court at the Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

Down by the Chao Phraya River

Many of the most important sites in Bangkok are located near the Chao Phraya River, which is an easy walk from the Grand Palace.  Almost adjacent to the Grand Palace is the impressive Reclining Buddha in the Buddhist temple known as Wat Pho, which has been mercifully shortened from Wat Phra Chettuphon Wimon Mangkhlaram Ratchaworamahawihan!  Covered in gold leaf and measuring 151 feet long, this Buddha will impress even the most jaded tourist.  The entrance fee is just over $3.00.  Next, go to the nearby pier and catch a water taxi crossing the Chao Phraya River to visit Wat Arun or the Temple of Dawn.  By now you have probably figured out that wat means temple in the Thai language.  Wat Arun is probably the most recognizable landmark in Bangkok next to the Grand Palace and for an entrance fee of about $1.50 you can explore the grounds and gardens and climb the steep stairs to the top of the main prang or tower for a spectacular view back across the river to Bangkok.  Crossing the river once again and heading up north, you can visit the 100 foot tall Standing Buddha, dating back to 1867.  It is located within the temple Wat Intharawihan, affectionately known as Wat In, and admission is free.  The Standing Buddha is kept company by an impressive array of cats which seem to have taken up residence on the grounds.  Be sure to join us for our next article which will review a wonderful hotel near the center of Bangkok, The Montien Hotel.

The Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, Bangkok

The Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, Bangkok

The Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun, Bangkok

The Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun, Bangkok

Exploring the Malay Peninsula

From Singapore to Bangkok

An Excellent Network of Ground Transportation 

The two Southeast Asia gateway cities of Singapore and Bangkok, which lie at either end of the Malay Peninsula, are connected by an efficient, inexpensive, safe and comfortable network of ground transportation.  I had been wanting to check out this route for a number of years and finally had the opportunity to go by bus and train from Singapore in the south to Bangkok in the north, with overnight stays in the Malaysian cities of Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown/Penang.  I met a number of other travelers, including solos, groups and families, following the same trail and it turned out to be a great way to experience the culture and history of this interesting region.  As per my usual routine, I had made no reservations for transportation or lodging ahead of time, but had no difficulty in securing either along the way.

Bus Leaving from Golden Mile Complex, Singapore

Bus Leaving from Golden Mile Complex, Singapore

Logistics 

While travelers could just as easily start at the huge, but visitor friendly train station up in Bangkok and head south, I began my journey down in Singapore going north.  The trip only took me three days, but of course it would have been nice to have had more time to explore some of the sights along the way, such as Melaka and the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia or Phuket on the Southern Peninsula of Thailand.  After carefully researching all the alternatives I chose to take the bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur and then from there to Georgetown.  I then took the overnight train from Penang to Bangkok.  A good starting point for planning your trip is a visit to the website, The Man in Seat 61, one of our featured links, which has all the details on ground transportation in Southeast Asia and throughout the world for that matter.  I found that the detailed information described on this website was factually correct, reliable and up to date…spot on, as they say…and I used it as a guide during my entire trip through Southeast Asia.

Inside Bus from Kuala Lumpur to Georgetown, Malaysia

Inside Bus from Kuala Lumpur to Georgetown, Malaysia

Booking Your Tickets

When visiting Southeast Asia, I recommend that you fly in and out with an ‘open jaw’ ticket, arriving in Singapore, as I did, and flying home from Bangkok, or vice versa.  This precludes the need for backtracking, saving both time and money.  While I was exploring Singapore, I stopped at the Golden Mile Complex on Beach Road, a shopping mall where there are many bus companies standing by to book your seat on a coach heading north.  For $32 I reserved a seat on a bus with Five Stars Tours (Update: Five Stars Tours abruptly closed all operations in January 2014) leaving the next morning for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  The six hour ride took us across the Straits of Johor and on through some beautiful country.  Arriving in Kuala Lumpur around 3 PM gave me plenty of time to explore this city and get my bus ticket for the next day heading on to Georgetown/Penang.  On that leg of the trip the five hour bus ride was comfortable and included rest stops along the way, including a stop at Ipoh near the Cameron Highlands.  The train is an equally good alternative for traveling between Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown.

Ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown, Malaysia

Ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown, Malaysia

A Town Called Butterworth in Malaysia?

Confused about Penang vs. Georgetown vs. Butterworth?  Well, here’s the low-down.  Penang is a state on the northwest coast of Malaysia which consists of an island, known as Penang Island, and a portion which is situated on the mainland.  Butterworth (love that name!) is a city on the mainland part of the state of Penang, which has a bus and train station and a ferry landing all within walking distance of one another. Georgetown is a city on the Penang Island part of the state of Penang and it has a bus station and ferry landing, but no train service.  The most popular way in and out of Georgetown on Penang Island is through Butterworth on the mainland.  The 20 minute ferry crossing costs about 40 cents for pedestrians going from Butterworth to Georgetown and is free going the other way.  Ferries leave every 10 to 20 minutes from about 6 AM to 1 AM.

Inside the Night Train to Bangkok, Thailand

Inside the Night Train to Bangkok, Thailand

Night Train to Bangkok

In my case I arrived in Butterworth from Kuala Lumpur by bus.  I walked to the nearby train station to purchase my ticket on the night train to Bangkok for the following day.  Then I took the ferry across to Georgetown for the rest of the day and overnight.  The following day, I took the ferry back across to Butterworth to catch the train.  The ticket for a sleeper on the train cost $34 and the train left at 2:20 PM, arriving at the Hua Lamphong Railway Station (the main station in Bangkok) at 12:20 PM the next day.  So, what was it like spending almost 24 hours on a train traveling up the Southern Peninsula of Thailand?  It was actually quite pleasant and relaxing with some spectacular scenery along the way.  I enjoyed meeting a number of other travelers and had a good night’s sleep before arriving in Bangkok the next morning.  It was also my first introduction to the sometimes painfully slow speed of the trains in Southeast Asia, compared to the express trains of Europe or the bullet train in Japan.  While the departure and arrival times were reliable, there were times that the train seemed to be just pooping along.  In the end this ate into some of my allotted time, which I eventually had to make up for by taking several unplanned in-region flights.

Scenery Along Train Route to Bangkok, Thailand

Scenery Along Train Route to Bangkok, Thailand

Coming Next:  Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown with reviews of two Awesome Accommodations.