Quintessential Bangkok Experiences

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Quintessential Bangkok Experiences
There’s no denying that Bangkok has given itself over to globalization in many aspects. Yet look past the gleaming malls, the western chains, and towering skyscrapers, and you’ll find a wealth of eastern promise and elements that are uniquely Thai.
By Duncan Forgan, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Maeve Nolan
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    Gain an Appreciation for the Art of Eight Limbs
    Nothing sparks the passion of Thai sports fans quite like Muay Thai. Known as the "art of eight limbs," this form of combat is characterized by the use of fists, elbows, knees, shins, and feet. Watching a Muay Thai contest in Bangkok at the city’s two main venues, Ratchadamnoen Stadium or Lumpini Stadium, is a highlight for many visitors to the capital. Bouts are preceded by a ceremony where boxers show their respect to their trainers and the sport. The fights themselves are visceral affairs, with the cries of gamblers in the stands soundtracking the often-brutal action in the ring.
    Photo by Maeve Nolan
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    The Ancient Art of Thai Massage
    Eager to experience a traditional Thai massage? Bangkok has no shortage of places to enjoy an excellent nuat phaen Thai, or Thai-style massage. Regarded as one of the most distinct styles of massage therapy, nuat phaen Thai has been influenced by the traditional medicine systems of India, China, and Southeast Asia, as well as by yoga. Purported benefits include relief from ailments ranging from asthma and migraines to strains, bruises, and anxiety. For high-end stretching, consider Thann Sanctuary, the award-winning spa extension of the Thai-based wellness provider.
    Photo by Alexander Scheible/age fotostock
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    Find Spiritual Sustenance at Bangkok’s Wats
    Bangkok has hundreds of Buddhist temples, from humble pagodas tucked away down tiny sois (alleys) to vast showpiece complexes known to visitors from every point on the globe. Of these, the most recognizable is Wat Arun. Located on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, the temple’s stunning phra prang (towers) are depicted on the Thai 10-baht coin and are best appreciated from the other side of the river, particularly at sunset. Bangkok’s other big-hitting wats include Wat Phra Kaew, which enshrines the revered Emerald Buddha, and Wat Pho, the home of Thailand’s biggest reclining Buddha.
    Photo courtesy of Backyard Travel
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    Old-School Bustle in Bangkok’s Chinatown
    Bangkok may be the Thai capital, but it is far from being exclusively Thai. The city has one of the biggest and best-preserved Chinatowns in the world, and a stroll around the maze-like neighborhood offers a fascinating insight to the city’s Sino-Thai character. The area’s main thoroughfares, Yaowarat Road and Charoen Krung, teem with vendors, traditional medicine outlets, and, less appealingly, traffic. However, a stroll around the ancient lanes near the river is more rewarding. There are temples (Buddhist, Taoist, Chinese, and Sikh), markets, strange juxtapositions (casket makers near chicken hatcheries, for one), moldering architecture, and some of the best food in the city.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Bangkok’s Floating Markets
    In the days when Bangkok was known as the Venice of the East, many people got around by boat and plentiful trade was done on the water. Though many of the canals have been filled in to make way for roads, the age-old process of buying and selling wares directly from a vessel is alive and well at Bangkok’s floating markets. Tourists are likely to end up at Damnoen Saduak, which is the most visited floating market in Thailand; it's best avoided on weekends, when it is overrun with foreigners on organized tours. More authentic are Amphawa and Khlong Lat Mayom. The former is hugely popular with Thais and is known for its fabulous food, while the latter is surrounded by huge green trees and is a very relaxed affair.
    Photo by Gonzalo Azumendi/age fotostock
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    Intrigue, History, and Silk
    Few western figures embody the romance and often dark mystery of the Orient like U.S. Office of Strategic Services operative Jim Thompson. Based in Thailand during WWII, he settled in Bangkok after the war and started the Thai Silk Company, introducing modern dyes and better looms and becoming a millionaire in the process. He went missing in the Malaysian jungle and his body was never found. However, his love for Asia endures at The Jim Thompson House: six wooden homes filled with antiques and artifacts from around the region. The lush tropical grounds and fascinating contents of the house—not to mention its former owner’s amazing backstory—make this a must-see stop on any Bangkok itinerary.
    Photo by Matt Long
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    Learn about the Mon People on Koh Kret island
    The Chao Phraya River provides a counterpoint to the urban sprawl that surrounds it, and offers access to some of Bangkok’s more bucolic tourist draws. One of these is Koh Kret, an artificial island created 300 years ago when a canal was dug to shorten an oxbow bend in the river. The island is about an hour's ferry ride from central Bangkok and has a rustic feel, far removed from the nearby metropolis. It is one of Thailand’s oldest settlements of Mon people, a tribe that dominated central Thailand between the 6th and 10th centuries. Their distinct characteristics are visible in the design of the monasteries on the island and in their intricate patterned pottery, which is available to purchase at the pottery workshops on the island.
    Photo by Assawin Chomjit/age fotostock
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    Get Down at Bangkok’s Country Music Venues
    Bangkok’s many contemporary clubs, bars, and nightspots belie the fact that the vast majority of Thais prefer homegrown sounds to flashy foreign imports. Thai country music, which is known as luk thung, is hugely popular among many Thais in Bangkok, especially migrants from the upcountry heartlands of Isan and the north. Modern luk thung veers towards power ballads, but the traditional stuff retains its sing-along, tear-in-your-beer appeal. Several music halls host daily performances; on weekends they become packed with migrant workers whose level of boisterousness is commensurate with the flow of alcohol. Among these venues, Isaan Tawandaeng and Isaan Tur Tur are highly recommended.
    Photo by Lorenzo De Simone/age fotostock
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    Let Bangkok Make an Indelible Mark upon You
    Once sported mainly by soldiers, prisoners, and working-class men, yantra (or sak yant) tattoos have spread to international pop and hipster culture. The traditional tattoos are believed to possess magical power to protect from harm and bring good fortune. A number of international celebrities, including Angelina Jolie, have been inked in Thailand. Many ajarn (masters) practice the art of hammering intricate hand-scrawled Thai script onto the body in Bangkok. Names to look out for include Ajarn Toi, who has more than two decades of experience in the art, and Ajarn Thong, who divides his time between Bangkok and Singapore and is one of the most revered tattoo masters in Thailand.
    Photo courtesy of Backyard Travel
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