Exploring Asia: Temples & Tuk-Tuks in Bangkok, Thailand

It's been 25 years since I last ventured to BangkokThailand, so last month when Seabourn Ovation docked at Laem Chabang, the port for Bangkok, I couldn't wait to see the Thai capital city once again.

Sailing on a two-week Seabourn voyage between Singapore and Hong Kong, I opted to book the cruise line's “Bangkok Temples & Tuk Tuk” shore excursion, which promised a visit to three of Bangkok’s most sacred temples. 

Boarding an air-conditioned coach, I and my fellow cruisers embarked on a two-hour drive to the city center. It was a nice touch that Seabourn didn’t fill each of the coaches to the maximum – instead giving guests a chance to spread out. 

As the Bangkok skyline came into view, it certainly became clear quickly that a lot has changed in 25 years. Obviously there are many more skyscrapers, fewer low-rise buildings and much more traffic. 

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But I still felt Bangkok seemed decidedly familiar. Throughout the day ashore, the smiles of the Thai people I met along the way, the welcome they gave our group and the care and laughter they showed for each other shined brightly.

Golden Buddha

Our first stop was Wat Traimit, also known as the Temple of the Golden Buddha, located in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Clearly, gold attracts.

This temple complex was extremely crowded with travelers eager to see the solid-gold Buddha, which dates to the Sukhothai period (12th to 14th centuries). 

Most notable? This Buddha weighs five and one-half tons. Given its hefty gold value, the Guiness Book of World Records’ classifies it as having the highest intrinsic value in the world.

Visitors who could get within about six feet or so seemed to have felt they'd won the lottery. Everyone was snapping photos, pointing and in awe of the peaceful-looking Buddha with that shiny look. 

It wasn’t always so shiny, though. Previously coated with plaster, lacquered and gilded, it occupied a relatively minor temple. While being relocated in 1955, though, its plaster clips cracked.

Unbelievably, a hidden gold Buddha was discovered beneath the coating.The coat of "shabby" was given to prevent this priceless object from being stolen -- reportedly the Buddha's true appearance was "hidden" for several hundred years.

Today, the gold Buddha is situated at the highest level of Wat Traimit. It’s simply stunning, as you can see by the images in our slide show above.

There are many steps to climb to reach the level where the Buddha is displayed. For clients with mobility issues, be advised that this temple does have an elevator that the guide can access. That eliminates many stairs but not all; I did not see a wheelchair ramp.

That said, using a wheelchair, the elevator ride would lead to a level where the visitor could at least peer upward into an open-air exit area to see a fair portion of the Buddha. But to get the full effect, visitors would need to be somewhat mobile -- to climb the last few stairs (six or seven I recall).

If you go to this temple, be prepared for a crowd. But it is a stunningly beautiful Buddha, and well worth seeing. 

Reclining Buddha

Next, our group re-boarded the coach for a ride to the famous Wat Pho, one of Bangkok's largest temple complexes. 

Cruisers will discover red-roofed temple structures with gilded trim, gorgeous floral displays and much more space within the complex than at other temple sites.

The top draw? It’s the massive, gilded reclining Buddha, which is 50 feet tall and about 151 feet long.

While the temple complex itself is quite large, the visitor corridors alongside the humongous Buddha are not so large.

It was a challenge to navigate to a place to get a clear photo without tons of people, but I did snag a partial one at right.  

A Tuk-Tuk Adventure 

Outside the temple, it was time for Formula One. Well, not exactly, but we did find our caravan of “tuk-tuks,” Bangkok’s famous three-wheeled small motorized vehicles, just outside.

Sporting a covered top, these open-air vehicles can accommodate two people in the back seat, while the driver is seated up front.

Let’s just say navigating into Bangkok’s frenetic traffic scene in a tiny tuk-tuk can be either highly adventurous or simply terrifying, depending on your perspective.

These tiny vehicles motor along, zipping in and out of traffic, as much larger buses, trucks and cars zoom by on all sides.

It’s a bit akin to David versus Goliath, because the tuk-tuk drivers head fearlessly into the fray of mostly larger vehicles (with the exception of motorbikes or bicycles)  – even along busy Ratchadamnoen Road.

However, on this trip, the tour company drew upon local police for a tuk-tuk caravan escort. Cops on motorcycles with flashing lights and, at times, blaring sirens, helped keep the route clear as we set off for the next stop.

Disembarking the tuk-tuks at Wat Ratchanadda temple, we walked into this complex, famed for its unusual Loha Prasat (metal castle).

This temple has a lot of open space, a welcome respite from the crowds at the last two temples. After viewing another Buddha, it was time to hop back on the tuk-tuks once again.

Off we went, arriving at a Bangkok hotel for a buffet lunch, which was tasty and diverse. This stop provided clean modern restrooms too. 

That said, before leaving the city, the coach stopped for the last time at a jewelry, gem and souvenir center, a touristy stop many Seabourn guests (myself included) felt could have been eliminated or, at least, replaced with a more "authentic” shopping experience.

Multiple sales people followed each guest around the store. One Seabourn guest told me she looked at a purse, and it was three times what she’d paid back home. Many guests returned to the bus without any purchases.

That aside, I did very much enjoy the bulk of this tour, as did others. The guide had good information and was eager to impart it to visitors.

For me it was also fun to gaze at a city I’d visited many times in the 1990s. Much had changed, but the city’s energy level hadn't -- it was just expressed in a bit more modern way.

More Options

Seabourn offered a range of other enticing shore excursions from the port of Laem Chabang. A nice option for those who’d already “been there, done that” in Bangkok was the simple “Transfer to Bangkok” at $99 per person.

This transportation allowed cruisers to spend the day exploring the city independently and seeing new things that they hadn't seen on their last visit.

At $205 per person, Seabourn's nine-hour “Best of Bangkok” shore excursion was a guided tour to visit Wat Pho as well as Wat Phra Kaew on the grounds of the Grand Palace. It also included a boat trip along the Chao Phyara River and klongs (canals), a photo stop at the Temple of Dawn and a Thai buffet lunch.

Several tours traveled in areas closer to Laem Chabang, including a four-hour “Panoramic Thai Countryside” tour at $84 or a seven-hour “Thai Cooking Class in Pattaya” at $224.

Other shore excursions were also offered, as were private car and private mini-van touring, which proved popular with guests on our cruise.

In our next Exploring Asia blog, we’ll look at Sihanoukville, Cambodia, before we move on to three ports in Vietnam, as well as Hong Kong.

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