Bangkok Excursions and Sights

Within easy excursion distance of the capital are a number of worthwhile attractions. Among them, the most famous is Ayutthaya, to the north. Capital of the kingdom for 417 years, this was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Asia, with a population of more than one million at its peak, and thousands of magnificent Buddhist temples and royal buildings. The Burmese laid siege to it, finally overruning and razing the city in 1767. The extensive ruins that remain today still have the power to awe by their sheer size and obvious former splendor.
Luxury vessels plying the Chao Phraya make the trip to Ayutthaya in three hours, from landing stages at riverside hotels. Take your pick: the Oriental Queen, run by the Oriental Hotel, serves better food; the Ayutthaya Princes; which embarks from the Shangri-La and Royal Orchid Sheraton hotels, is newer and more comfortable. Along the way they call in at the old royal summer retreat of Bang Pa-In, an eclectic grouping of palaces in a beautiful riverside park. Bang Pa-In on its own would suffice to make this the most desirable of day trips currently offered from the capital. Though most people make the excursion to Ayutthaya by boat and return by air-conditioned coach, we suggest going by coach to see the sights on the way—then return on the river, relaxing in the afternoon heat. Without getting your feet wet, you can bathe in the riverine lifestyle that earned old Siam the European accolade of “Venice of the East.” You can also rent a car and drive the 176-kilometer (110-mile) round trip for an independent day of sight-seeing (be ready to brave the traffic).
The west bank of the Chao Phraya has changed little since the early days of the industrial age. Riverside people still wash in the sluggish waters, children splash around
and wave at passing vessels. Teakwood rice barges, laden to the gunwales, wallow
toward the docks downriver. “Long-tail” taxi boats plane across the water, sending up rooster-tails of spray behind their swivel-mounted, auto-engined outboards with their long, long propeller shafts. In the quiet canals that branch off here and there, women paddle canoes stocked with groceries, bolts of cloth for new sarongs, barbe-cued chicken and pork, and even coffee laced with condensed milk. To explore these backwaters, negotiate private rental of an open motor boat at the Oriental Hotel landing stage. Bargain hard for a half-day excursion, and insist on going very slowly. Four hours is plenty of time to make the full circuit at a duck’s pace. Visit a temple along the way, wave to all the kids, chat with the lady selling milk-laden coconuts—but skip the Snake Farm and the floating market, which doesn’t compare to the more authentic Damnern Saduak market (see below).
South of the city about 29 kilometers (18 miles) is the Crocodile Farm. Reputed to be the largest reptile farm in the world, this unusual place is temporary home to about 30,000 crocodiles, who multiply freely in a simulated murky “swamp” habitat. Children love the wild croc-against-man wrestling matches, staged hourly, and you can also take the kids to witness the feeding at 5 p.m. daily. These beasts aren’t only for tourist’s amusement: when ready, they’re killed, skinned and sold as grub to Chinese restaurants around Asia. Included in the admission price of 100 baht is a small zoo, featuring such bizarre attractions as smoking chimpanzees. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., the farm can be reached by heading south on Old Sukhumvit Highway.
Grown-ups will prefer the Ancient City, or Muang Boran, a few more miles south. Though rarely visited by tourists (or locals, for that matter) this enormous outdoor park, built by a local millionaire, is filled with fascinating full-scale and small-scale replicas of several hundred of Thailand’s most significant monuments and temples. There is also an architectural museum on the grounds. To get to the Ancient City, which is 33 kilometers (about 20 miles) out of Bangkok on Old Sukhumvit Highway, take a bus from the eastern bus terminal and connect to a minibus at Samut Prakan, or go with a Muang Boran group tour (224-1057).
About 54 kilometers (35 miles) west of Bangkok, on Highway 4, is Nakhon Pathom, home to the 129-meter (417-foot) Phra Pathom Chedi, the tallest Buddhist monument in the world. It was built originally around the eighth century but raised to its present height in the nineteenth century. The trip can be combined with a visit to Damnern Saduak, probably the most authentic of Thailand’s surviving floating markets. The exotic floating market is simply a traditional Thai supermarket with a difference: you stay put while the store displays come to you. Named for a canal dug last century, Damnern Saduak lies about an hour west of Bangkok in Ratchaburi Province. You have to get there early. These folk are making a living and won’t wait around for sightseers. Still, it’s worth the yawns and gripes. Bring the cameras—video is the best for capturing the animated bargaining, because this way of life is disappearing fast. Remember, you’re watching, and hopefully, recording, history. Your hotel can arrange a trip out by limo, or you can buy a tour by boat along the canals. Another side trip you can take en route to Nakhon Pathom, if you have time, is to the Rose Garden, a riverside resort embracing a western-style park, a golf-course and a daily cultural show at 3 p.m., complete with sword fighting and performing elephants.
Further along the road, about 129 kilometers (80 miles) northwest of Bangkok, you’ll find the quiet town of Kanchanaburi. This was the starting point of the world-famous (and infamous) Death Railway built by allied prisoners of war and Asian 132 laborers for the Japanese during World War II, and celebrated in the novel and movie Bridge On the River Kwai. Two cemeteries contain the graves of many who died during this tragic undertaking and the town has a small war museum. Hotels on the riverbank (and floating on the river) offer accommodations for those wishing to explore the beautiful natural scenery. Hikers will delight in its lush, green jungle,
dotted with streams, water—falls and caves.