Tuesday, October 17, 2017
   
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Crazy, infectious and fabulous!

Toe-pulling massages, dodgy tuk-tuk drivers and the largest Reclining Buddha in Thailand - ANDREA McVEIGH explores Bangkok’s ‘fabulous vibe...’

THIS wasn’t the sort of massage you get in a Belfast beauty salon, surrounded by scented candles and new age music. Between twisting my leg up behind my ear and pulling each toe until it cracked, my authentic Thai massage in Bangkok’s Wat Pho temple - where most of the country’s masseurs learn their art - was more a test of endurance than a relaxation session.

While my muscles were being pulled, my face was crumpled into a grimace, but it did the trick and only cost £3 for a half hour session. I left with knot-free shoulders and a smile as serene as the one on the temple’s beautiful 45 metre-long and 15 metre high reclining Buddha image, whose feet and eyes are engraved with delicate mother-of-pearl.

Ancient and beautiful Wat Pho - the original temple here was built around 200 years before Bangkok became Thailand's capital - is famous for its huge Reclining Buddha, the largest in Thailand, and also for housing more than 1000 Buddha images, the largest number to be found in one place, anywhere in the country. It's also known for being the country's centre for traditional Thai massage.

Bangkok has a crazily infectious and fabulous vibe - it's by turns tranquil and noisy, sublime and seedy, with that brilliant buzz that all the best cities have.

Yes, there are dodgy taxi and tuk-tuk (three wheel vehicles) drivers, touts and unofficial tour guides keen for you to visit gem factories and tailors for the commission they can make, but that's only a small part of Bangkok and won't dominate your visit. When you can gaze at sights such as Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Grand Palace, you're transported to another place, a place of calm and serenity.

Bangkok can be hectic, but it’s thrilling and exciting too, and if you can avoid the hot and humid high seasons, then walking around is a comfortable experience - my husband and I travelled there in November and enjoyed sunny days without the oppressive humidity of high summer. Our trip started off in comfort, in Eva Air's Elite Class (Premium Economy) cabin between Heathrow and Bangkok - which helps when you're facing the prospect of a long haul flight. It wasn't much more expensive than economy, and, on a 12-hour flight, we appreciated the benefits such as extra legroom, larger seats, a dedicated cabin crew and fancy crockery. It all meant that, when we arrived in Bangkok, we'd had some sleep and were ready to start exploring as soon as we'd checked into the hotel.

To get an understanding of the layout and history of the city, we booked an individual day tour which took in Chinatown, with its street-side restaurants, Chinese medicine stores and probably the greatest concentration of gold shops in the city. Our guide pointed out the various different architectural attractions and explained that historic Chinatown is as old as Bangkok itself, its growth helped by waves of Chinese immigrants who left communist China to seek their fortunes.

The scent of thousands of blooms soon drew us to the fragrant and colourful Pak Klong Talad flower market with its abundance of buds. Fresh flowers and vegetables are brought here every morning from surrounding provinces and the kaleidoscope of colours and pungent odour of flowers lining the streets beside the Chao Phraya river provide an exotic sensory stimulation.

Our next stop was one of those must-sees people who have been to Bangkok will tell you about - the Grand Palace, the city's most famous landmark. Built in 1782 it was, for 150 years, the home of the King, the Royal court and the administrative seat of government. The huge complex features gardens and golden-domed temples, a miniature model of Angkor Wat, throne halls, monuments and government offices. Amongst the statues of elephants and mythical beings is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha temple, one of the most venerated sites in the country. Carved from a block of green jade (not emerald), people come here to pay their respects to the Lord Buddha and his teachings.

After stopping for lunch at a riverside restaurant, our tour concluded with a ride by long-tail boat, navigating Bangkok's narrow canals and rivers, where we were able to glimpse into the houses on stilts that line the river edges to see how the locals live in what are often tiny one-room dwellings. Taking in another Bangkok must-see, that evening we got on a clean, efficient Skytrain - our hotel, the Anantara Baan Rajprasong, was handily adjacent to a Skytrain station - and hit the Patpong night market and red light district.

This is the infamous drag where stalls sell fake designer gear and tourist T-shirts alongside girly bars with more than beer on the menu – we averted our eyes and stuck to the T-shirts! The Skytrain makes travel around Bangkok much easier and you can also use it to get to the massive, sprawling Chatuchak weekend market.

The 7000-plus stalls here are roughly divided into different sections, selling everything from tourist trinkets to fighting cocks, household goods and amazingly cheap hand-made crafts. But you’ll need a strong stomach too to pass the food stalls selling fried crickets and skewers of what looked distinctly like chicken hearts.

Our hotel, the Anantara Baan Rajprasong serviced suites offered us a fantastic base close to the city's main shopping and business areas. With its 97 one and two-bedroom apartments, it feels like a very trendy home-from-home, and in its side street location, which is closed to traffic, it offers a quiet respite from the hustle, bustle and noise usually associated with Bangkok.

Lying on sun loungers by the hotel's outdoor pool, in the midst of beautiful tropical foilage, or gazing at the city skyline from our balcony, we made the most of our suite's facilities, including the sleek mini-kitchen, buying provisions from the nearby supermarket and dining in-room, enjoying the living area and contemporary decor. Alternatively, we could eat in the Terrazz Café, an all-day ground-floor dining spot, which is also were we enjoyed lavish morning breakfasts, or the private Tetto Lounge on the 12th floor.

On our last night in Bangkok, we visited the open air Moon Bar on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree hotel and felt truly on top of the world as we drank in the views over the city. Bangkok is known as the shopping capital of Southeast Asia – Silom Road is good for silks while Chinatown is great for cheap gold chains - and it’s a foodie heaven too. Fascinating and exciting, tranquil and serene, we loved Bangkok, and we’d do it all again tomorrow if we could. We’d still give those Chatuchak fried crickets a miss though!

Factbox:

Anantara Baan Rajprasong Serviced Apartments, Bangkok, from £80 per night. For more details visit www.anantara.com.

EVA Air flies non-stop daily from London Heathrow to Bangkok and codeshare flights with Bangkok Airways to Koh Samui, Phuket and Chiang Mai, with a choice of three classes: Premium Laurel Class (business class), award-winning Elite Class (premium economy) and Economy Class.

Personal seat-back, touch screen audio/video on demand entertainment systems are found in all three classes. To book, visit www.evaair.com or contact Reservations on 0207 380 8300. Fares from Heathrow to Bangkok, between 3 May-30 June, and 21 Aug-31 Oct, start from £580 in economy class (fares include all insurance and fuel surcharges at time of publishing).

Tour of Bangkok was organised through the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) www.tourismthailand.co.uk, email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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