Bangkok & Chiang Mai — a tale of two Thai cities

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by Marilyln Lutzker, Sunnyside, NY

Bangkok is a constant assault on the senses. Its pollution, traffic and crowds may make you shudder, but its palaces and temples will make your eyes dance. After seeing them, I wonder if there is any gold leaf left in the world! The glitter, the shine, the sparkle, the overwhelming splendor, the sense that within the enclosures of these monuments I was encased in a globe of vibrating colors: it all will remain with me long after I have forgotten much of modern Bangkok.

All aglitter

First among these splendors is the Grand Palace. It is huge, it is overwhelming, it is magnificent, and it rightfully belongs on every visitor’s itinerary.

Official maps say it has 34 structures on over 50 acres surrounded by a wall more than 6,000 feet long. Most of the buildings are painted with shimmering gold leaf. Geometric patterns in blue and gold enamel encrusted with colored glass sparkle on pediments and pilasters. Grimacing statues of monkey-demons guard doorways and hold up cornices. Groups of tourists stand everywhere to take pictures.

Near the Grand Palace, a forest of 99 tall, brilliantly decorated, conically shaped structures (chedis) covers the park-like grounds of Wat Pho, the oldest temple in Bangkok. Although the structures here are different from those in the Grand Palace, the overwhelming sparkle of color and gold is the same.

The Temple of the Reclining Buddha is part of the Wat Pho complex. This amazing statue, 150 feet long and 50 feet high, is made of brick covered in plaster and painted in gold leaf. The soles of its feet are inlaid with scenes in mother-of-pearl.

City shrines

The downtown business section of the city is not pretty. Although the streets were clean of debris, the sidewalks were uneven and broken, and pollution has rendered older buildings soot-covered and dingy. Modern skyscrapers of steel and glass rising between the grime of older concrete buildings just seemed to emphasize the prevailing grayness.

Overhead, there was such an incredibly tangled mess of wires hanging from poles and buildings that it was difficult to imagine they actually supplied electricity for this city. (There was a self-charging flashlight in my bedside table at the hotel.)

The overall drabness of downtown was unexpectedly interrupted by shrines, which appeared on street corners and in parking lots, stores, markets and malls. Each with a golden Buddha sitting on an embellished golden throne and adorned with myriad orange marigold garlands, these constant reminders of the country’s deeply held religious beliefs brighten the landscape as well as the soul.

At the corner of a busy shopping street, across from the Grand Hyatt, is one of the most revered of these sites, the Erawan Shrine. People of all ages were milling around the shrine when I entered the enclosure. Some knelt. Some held joss sticks above their heads. Some placed garlands of marigolds at the foot of the statue. A small group of musicians played traditional melodies at one end. Watching the bustle of reverence, I tried to stand out of the way of the constantly changing numbers of worshipers.

Street life

In this real Bangkok I was seeing, life was lived on the street. The sidewalks were crowded and noisy. Men and women were selling bags of salad, pieces of fruit and packages of cooked food to crowds of office workers. Vendors set up small tables and stools on the sidewalk where they cooked and served hot meals. A great deal of the food consumed in this city seemed to be bought on the street, and from dawn to dark the smell of cooking food mingled with the pollution from too many cars and motorcycles.

People selling tourist souvenirs, shoes, socks, jeans and small electronics added to the sidewalk crush. In the middle of it all, one woman patiently strung white and orange flower petals into garlands to be sold to adorn statues of Buddha.

This city constantly amazed me. I realized that I didn’t hear any honking horns amidst the constant rumble of cars and the roar of motorcycles. For several days I thought cars in Thailand must be sold without horns. We were eventually told that blowing a car horn is considered impolite, and Thai people go to great lengths to avoid being impolite.

Despite the lack of horns, the city was noisy with the babble of crowded sidewalks and the entreaties of sidewalk vendors blending with pop music coming from stores and sidewalk CD vendors.

The traffic

Every nerve-shattering story I ever heard about traffic in Bangkok is true! Four lanes of cars, with rows of motorcycles between them, sometimes stood still for interminable minutes. But even at the glacial pace at which we were moving, cabs and cycles wove in and out of spaces which seemed much too small to accommodate them.

Despite the traffic, I realized that metered cabs were the most convenient, if sometimes an unnerving, way for me to get around. Most of the cab drivers don’t speak English, so it is wise to have someone write down your destination in Thai before leaving your hotel.

On my first day, I panicked when I realized the cab driver was taking me back to the hotel along a different route than the one we took when we left. No need! Due to what must be the world’s most complicated network of one-way streets, lanes which change direction according to the time of day plus prohibitions against turns, a trip in one direction doesn’t even look familiar in the other direction.

But no matter which way you go, metered cabs are amazingly affordable. A ride across town (40 minutes at the wrong time of day) cost less than $3. Most rides were under $2.

Drivers can refuse to take you, so always show them where you want to go before getting in, and say “Meter.” There are a few who will try to negotiate a flat fee, but it is always more than the metered rate. Don’t bargain; just don’t get in. We don’t want to encourage those who take advantage of travelers.

In Bangkok, crossing the street can be more of a challenge than driving on it. On major streets, don’t think of jaywalking or even crossing at a corner where there’s no traffic light. Lights on main roads are far apart, but there may be an overpass. Use it.

On smaller streets, look very carefully in both directions (they drive on the “other” side of the street), wait for an opening in the traffic, walk briskly and hold up your hand authoritatively to signal cars to stop. I have seen old women use this technique on busy streets in Rome and it seems to work in Thailand also.

Side trip to Chiang Mai

I was traveling with a friend, and we broke up our three weeks in Bangkok with four days in Chiang Mai.

I was startled at my first view of this northern city, one hour by plane from Bangkok ($173 round trip). It was green and pretty. A water-filled moat with fountains surrounded an ancient brick wall, the grassy verge next to the highway aglow with orange marigolds and scarlet astilbe.

Chiang Mai was the ancient capital of the Lanna kingdom, which at its height from the 13th to 16th centuries encompassed northern Thailand and much of what is now Laos and Myanmar. It was a prosperous cultural center famous for its temples. Today there are reputed to be 373 temples in the district, 100 within the Old City alone.

The guide who came to take us on our city tour announced gleefully that we would see six of these temples. I demurred. Despite the historical and artistic appeal of the temples, this was a short visit and I wanted to see the city. Two temples would be enough, I felt.

We visited the ancient city wall and drove through the winding streets of the Old City. We wandered the meandering paths of Chiang Mai Park with its trees, flowers, a small shrine and a lake with picnickers stretched out in the sun. We visited a market where live fish swam in a galvanized bucket and many unfamiliar vegetables and fruits were being sold. The tour was arranged through the World Travel Service desk at our hotel.

Next we visited Wat Chet Yot and Wat Chedi Luang, and the contrast with the temples of Bangkok was immediately apparent. Lanna architecture features intricately carved wooden fretwork, and although there is still colored glass and gold leaf, there is considerably less of it.

Wat Chedi Luang, built in 1391, is the oldest temple in the city. It is stone and almost 200 feet high, with a monumental staircase which gains its grandeur from size and shape rather than from decorative surfaces. (It was almost 300 feet high until the earthquake of 1545.)

Life in Chiang Mai, as in Bangkok, is lived on the street, but walking around is easier here. Food vendors — some with their little tables, others just selling “take-away” — crowd the street, but the temperature is lower, the sidewalks are smoother and the crowds are less pressing.

Shopping

If you love to shop, Bangkok and Chiang Mai are heaven. If you think of yourself as an indifferent shopper (like me), you will come to appreciate the psyche of the true shopaholic.

There was so much artfully displayed merchandise, and so much of it cost so very much less than comparable items at home (even if you could find them), that I got caught up in mall and market enthusiasm. There was something about all the choices, the colors and the incredibly low prices which beckoned irresistibly.

I must confess to having bought about 45 items (mostly scarves, woodcarvings and several spectacular wall hangings) for a total of just over $200.

Chatuchak Weekend Market is considered one of the major sights of Bangkok, and the shopper in me looked forward to it eagerly. The taxi dropped us off at 8:30. It was still cool (much of the market appeared to be in the shade) and there were no crowds, so I set off in search of authentic Thai crafts.

But this is a huge market. With, reportedly, 9,000 individual booths, it seemed to stretch interminably. At first I saw no crafts, not even any clothing, only goldfish in plastic bags and larger goldfish in galvanized buckets, then rabbits, then roosters in bamboo cages. When I eventually found the section with crafts, it was almost as overwhelming as the plastic bags full of fish.

There were wooden bowls, boxes and plates; silk scarves and pillow covers; embroidered wall hangings, and tote bags. There were Buddhas, elephants, monks and dragons in bronze, wood, glass and plaster, and there was furniture, porcelain, pottery and basketry. I was in shoppers’ heaven.

I bought a turned-wood vase for under $3, three small baskets for $7, six sheer cotton scarves for $6, a small wall hanging for $6 and a pillow cover for $4 and returned to my hotel exhausted and happy.

The market has sections for almost anything that can be bought and sold — clothes (new and used), shoes, home furnishings, books and electronics — plus, of course, many food stalls.

Suan Lum Night Bazaar was smaller but just as challenging to my senses and self-control. Open from 6 p.m. to midnight, it has the same range of items as the weekend market, at similar prices. In the relative cool of the evening, with decorative bulbs scattered about plus several restaurants, it is a pleasant if somewhat hectic place.

If you want to shop during a hot midday or need some things in a hurry, try the Thai Craft Village in President Tower (973 Ploenchit), a large shop on the ground floor of an office building with a good selection of crafts and textiles. Prices are higher than in the markets but still good value, plus vendors will discount some items.

Bargaining is expected in all markets and even in many mall shops. Unlike in some countries, bargaining here is low-key. Ask the price, then offer a reasonable amount below that. The vendor will either reject it completely (rare) or make a counteroffer, which you can accept or reject. Don’t waste the seller’s time if the price is way beyond what you are willing to pay, but remember that 100 baht is less than $3! A small calculator is useful for converting baht to dollars and also showing vendors what you are willing to pay.

After the pollution and heat of the streets and the confusion and frenzy of the markets, I welcomed the artificial world of the Siam Paragon Shopping Mall (accessible by inexpensive taxi or the fast BTS Sky train; exit at Siam Station). With cool marble and gleaming glass and mirrors, it is pristine, clean and could be anyplace in the world — except it’s not. It’s in Thailand, and it’s elegant as well as commercial.

Lastly, for art lovers and browsers, River City Art & Antique Mall is a high-end shopping mall which can be approached as a museum of antique Asian art. With enticingly arranged windows and shops full of paintings, sculpture and artifacts from all over Asia, this is museum-quality art for the serious (and wealthy) collector, but it’s equally enjoyable for those who have no intention of buying.

Although initially intimidated, I soon decided I could go into the stores instead of just staring into the windows. Staff either ignored me or left me alone when I said, “Just looking.” If you like art, it’s a great place to spend a hot afternoon.

On the river

The Chao Phraya River and the klongs (canals) which branch off it were the heart of old Bangkok, and the river is still a major method of transportation within the city. There are express ferries on which a one-hour ride will take you into the suburbs. There are local ferries and tourist ferries plus special ferries that go just from one side of the river to the other.

We intended to take the one-hour round-trip ride on the tourist express boat, but, this being Bangkok, it was hard to tell which boat was which, and the harbormaster kept yelling, “Express boat, express boat,” so we got on the wrong boat. However, it was comfortable, with a roof and open sides, and moved swiftly for a full hour in each direction. The ride opened my eyes to still another set of startling contrasts.

Today, waterside property is valuable and, when available, sells at premium prices. But in old Bangkok, fishermen and small tradesmen lived along the banks, and many of their homes have remained in their families for many generations. The result? Luxury condominium towers and megastory office buildings and hotels looking down on old fishermen’s shacks with laundry drying on the front porches.

The most picturesque crafts on the river were the long-tail boats used mostly by tourists and tour companies. Rather than hire our own boat (possible), we arranged a tour which included a visit to Wat Arun, another example of Bangkok’s colorful past.

The long-tail boat is not the express ferry. It is narrow, shaky and low in the water. As I attempted the very steep step down into the boat, I imagined myself swimming in the Chao Phraya River and questioned the necessity of this trip. Once I was in, the ride was smooth and cool.

The klongs were shallow and narrow and the buildings that lined them belonged to another century. Porches perched precariously over the water, and the people sitting on them waved to us as we chugged past.

Wherever we went, I was impressed by the people we met. I found the Thais to be calm, invariably polite, accommodating and anxious to please, although that attitude did not always translate into efficiency and speedy service. I soon learned to adapt to their style. Some people spoke English, but even for those in the hospitality industry that ability was sometimes minimal.

Accommodations

In Bangkok we stayed at Chateau de Bangkok Serviced Apartments (29 Soi Ruamrudee 1, Ploenchit Rd.; phone 66 2651 4400, www.accorhotels.com), all of which have cooking facilities. The apartments are located across the street from the Conrad Hotel, which has several fine restaurants, and from All Seasons Mall, which includes some restaurants and a small supermarket.

Although the Skytrain is only a 5- to 10-minute walk away, the walk can be uncomfortable due to the heat and broken sidewalks. Metered taxis are plentiful in the area and rides to the major sights are not expensive.

A superior studio cost $105 a night with breakfast; a one-bedroom suite cost $120 per night with breakfast. Discounts are available for long stays. (A taxi from the airport cost about $10.)

In Chiang Mai we stayed at the Royal Princess Hotel (112 Chang Klan Road; phone 66 5328 1033 43, http://chiangmai. royalprincess.com), nicely located with the night market at its front door and within walking distance of the Old City. We paid $200 for three nights with breakfast. (A taxi from the airport cost $7.)

Dining out

Most Thai food is very hot. Even when they say “not hot,” expect it to be hot. However, there are Thai dishes which are meant to be sweet, not hot. The popular pad Thai is one.

If you cannot tolerate hot dishes, there is no need to resort to the numerous American chain restaurants (Tony Roma’s, McDonald’s, KFC, Sizzler); there are many superb Chinese, Japanese and Italian restaurants. We particularly enjoyed two very different Chinese restaurants.

In Bangkok, Liu (All Seasons Place, 87/3 Wireless Road; phone 0 2690 9255), in the Conrad Hotel, is decidedly high end. The dining room was exquisitely decorated with polished teak and fresh flowers, the service was prompt and attentive, and portions could be ordered small, medium or large.

A superb dinner for two, including tea, soup and three small dishes, cost only $20 including service. The Sunday dim sum prix fixe lunch/dinner is a Bangkok favorite and very reasonably priced.

In Chiang Mai, Jia Tong Heng (193/2-3 Sridonchai Road) is located close to the Royal Princess Hotel. Although our very nice guide recommended this place, I was extremely suspicious when we entered. It was confusing, crowded, didn’t look very clean and appeared to be a cafeteria rather than a restaurant. However, the front room is apparently unrelated to the actual restaurant in the rear, so don’t be upset when you walk in if you decide to try this place — and I recommend it highly.

We were the only non-Asians in the restaurant; fortunately, there were English translations throughout the extensive menu. We had a big pot of tea and six small dishes for under $8. It had a decidedly plain, pipe-rack ambience compared to that of the very elegant Liu in Bangkok, but the food was just as good (and the price even better).

Planning your visit

No way around it, Bangkok is hot and humid! We went in January (2007), considered one of the coolest months, and temperatures ranged from the mid 80s to high 90s. It is possible to avoid the worst of the heat by going to outdoor markets and monuments early in the morning or in the evening. Hotels, restaurants, malls and taxicabs all are air-conditioned. Chiang Mai is always cooler than Bangkok.

In Bangkok, there are three introductory tours offered by numerous companies which take visitors to the historic sights of the city: the “City & Temples Tour,” the “Grand Palace Tour” and the “Canal Tour.” Some guidebooks recommend avoiding them and exploring independently. But at about $30-$35 per person for a 4-hour private tour with car, driver and guide, I was glad to have someone to shepherd me through these large areas and select the most efficient way to see as much as possible while avoiding the large tour groups congregating at key points.

We found that the guides supplied by the Top Five Holiday Company (phone 662-921-8499, www.topfiveholiday.co.th), booked through our hotel, were knowledgeable, pleasant and flexible and spoke English well.

I’d be happy to answer any questions; e-mail me c/o ITN.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Marilyln Lutzker, Sunnyside, NY

Bangkok is a constant assault on the senses. Its pollution, traffic and crowds may make you shudder, but its palaces and temples will make your eyes dance. After seeing them, I wonder if there is any gold leaf left in the world! The glitter, the shine, the sparkle, the overwhelming splendor, the sense that within the enclosures of these monuments I was encased in a globe of vibrating colors: it all will remain with me long after I have forgotten much of modern Bangkok.

All aglitter

First among these splendors is the Grand Palace. It is huge, it is overwhelming, it is magnificent, and it rightfully belongs on every visitor’s itinerary.

Official maps say it has 34 structures on over 50 acres surrounded by a wall more than 6,000 feet long. Most of the buildings are painted with shimmering gold leaf. Geometric patterns in blue and gold enamel encrusted with colored glass sparkle on pediments and pilasters. Grimacing statues of monkey-demons guard doorways and hold up cornices. Groups of tourists stand everywhere to take pictures.

Near the Grand Palace, a forest of 99 tall, brilliantly decorated, conically shaped structures (chedis) covers the park-like grounds of Wat Pho, the oldest temple in Bangkok. Although the structures here are different from those in the Grand Palace, the overwhelming sparkle of color and gold is the same.

The Temple of the Reclining Buddha is part of the Wat Pho complex. This amazing statue, 150 feet long and 50 feet high, is made of brick covered in plaster and painted in gold leaf. The soles of its feet are inlaid with scenes in mother-of-pearl.

City shrines

The downtown business section of the city is not pretty. Although the streets were clean of debris, the sidewalks were uneven and broken, and pollution has rendered older buildings soot-covered and dingy. Modern skyscrapers of steel and glass rising between the grime of older concrete buildings just seemed to emphasize the prevailing grayness.

Overhead, there was such an incredibly tangled mess of wires hanging from poles and buildings that it was difficult to imagine they actually supplied electricity for this city. (There was a self-charging flashlight in my bedside table at the hotel.)

The overall drabness of downtown was unexpectedly interrupted by shrines, which appeared on street corners and in parking lots, stores, markets and malls. Each with a golden Buddha sitting on an embellished golden throne and adorned with myriad orange marigold garlands, these constant reminders of the country’s deeply held religious beliefs brighten the landscape as well as the soul.

At the corner of a busy shopping street, across from the Grand Hyatt, is one of the most revered of these sites, the Erawan Shrine. People of all ages were milling around the shrine when I entered the enclosure. Some knelt. Some held joss sticks above their heads. Some placed garlands of marigolds at the foot of the statue. A small group of musicians played traditional melodies at one end. Watching the bustle of reverence, I tried to stand out of the way of the constantly changing numbers of worshipers.

Street life

In this real Bangkok I was seeing, life was lived on the street. The sidewalks were crowded and noisy. Men and women were selling bags of salad, pieces of fruit and packages of cooked food to crowds of office workers. Vendors set up small tables and stools on the sidewalk where they cooked and served hot meals. A great deal of the food consumed in this city seemed to be bought on the street, and from dawn to dark the smell of cooking food mingled with the pollution from too many cars and motorcycles.

People selling tourist souvenirs, shoes, socks, jeans and small electronics added to the sidewalk crush. In the middle of it all, one woman patiently strung white and orange flower petals into garlands to be sold to adorn statues of Buddha.

This city constantly amazed me. I realized that I didn’t hear any honking horns amidst the constant rumble of cars and the roar of motorcycles. For several days I thought cars in Thailand must be sold without horns. We were eventually told that blowing a car horn is considered impolite, and Thai people go to great lengths to avoid being impolite.

Despite the lack of horns, the city was noisy with the babble of crowded sidewalks and the entreaties of sidewalk vendors blending with pop music coming from stores and sidewalk CD vendors.

The traffic

Every nerve-shattering story I ever heard about traffic in Bangkok is true! Four lanes of cars, with rows of motorcycles between them, sometimes stood still for interminable minutes. But even at the glacial pace at which we were moving, cabs and cycles wove in and out of spaces which seemed much too small to accommodate them.

Despite the traffic, I realized that metered cabs were the most convenient, if sometimes an unnerving, way for me to get around. Most of the cab drivers don’t speak English, so it is wise to have someone write down your destination in Thai before leaving your hotel.

On my first day, I panicked when I realized the cab driver was taking me back to the hotel along a different route than the one we took when we left. No need! Due to what must be the world’s most complicated network of one-way streets, lanes which change direction according to the time of day plus prohibitions against turns, a trip in one direction doesn’t even look familiar in the other direction.

But no matter which way you go, metered cabs are amazingly affordable. A ride across town (40 minutes at the wrong time of day) cost less than $3. Most rides were under $2.

Drivers can refuse to take you, so always show them where you want to go before getting in, and say “Meter.” There are a few who will try to negotiate a flat fee, but it is always more than the metered rate. Don’t bargain; just don’t get in. We don’t want to encourage those who take advantage of travelers.

In Bangkok, crossing the street can be more of a challenge than driving on it. On major streets, don’t think of jaywalking or even crossing at a corner where there’s no traffic light. Lights on main roads are far apart, but there may be an overpass. Use it.

On smaller streets, look very carefully in both directions (they drive on the “other” side of the street), wait for an opening in the traffic, walk briskly and hold up your hand authoritatively to signal cars to stop. I have seen old women use this technique on busy streets in Rome and it seems to work in Thailand also.

Side trip to Chiang Mai

I was traveling with a friend, and we broke up our three weeks in Bangkok with four days in Chiang Mai.

I was startled at my first view of this northern city, one hour by plane from Bangkok ($173 round trip). It was green and pretty. A water-filled moat with fountains surrounded an ancient brick wall, the grassy verge next to the highway aglow with orange marigolds and scarlet astilbe.

Chiang Mai was the ancient capital of the Lanna kingdom, which at its height from the 13th to 16th centuries encompassed northern Thailand and much of what is now Laos and Myanmar. It was a prosperous cultural center famous for its temples. Today there are reputed to be 373 temples in the district, 100 within the Old City alone.

The guide who came to take us on our city tour announced gleefully that we would see six of these temples. I demurred. Despite the historical and artistic appeal of the temples, this was a short visit and I wanted to see the city. Two temples would be enough, I felt.

We visited the ancient city wall and drove through the winding streets of the Old City. We wandered the meandering paths of Chiang Mai Park with its trees, flowers, a small shrine and a lake with picnickers stretched out in the sun. We visited a market where live fish swam in a galvanized bucket and many unfamiliar vegetables and fruits were being sold. The tour was arranged through the World Travel Service desk at our hotel.

Next we visited Wat Chet Yot and Wat Chedi Luang, and the contrast with the temples of Bangkok was immediately apparent. Lanna architecture features intricately carved wooden fretwork, and although there is still colored glass and gold leaf, there is considerably less of it.

Wat Chedi Luang, built in 1391, is the oldest temple in the city. It is stone and almost 200 feet high, with a monumental staircase which gains its grandeur from size and shape rather than from decorative surfaces. (It was almost 300 feet high until the earthquake of 1545.)

Life in Chiang Mai, as in Bangkok, is lived on the street, but walking around is easier here. Food vendors — some with their little tables, others just selling “take-away” — crowd the street, but the temperature is lower, the sidewalks are smoother and the crowds are less pressing.

Shopping

If you love to shop, Bangkok and Chiang Mai are heaven. If you think of yourself as an indifferent shopper (like me), you will come to appreciate the psyche of the true shopaholic.

There was so much artfully displayed merchandise, and so much of it cost so very much less than comparable items at home (even if you could find them), that I got caught up in mall and market enthusiasm. There was something about all the choices, the colors and the incredibly low prices which beckoned irresistibly.

I must confess to having bought about 45 items (mostly scarves, woodcarvings and several spectacular wall hangings) for a total of just over $200.

Chatuchak Weekend Market is considered one of the major sights of Bangkok, and the shopper in me looked forward to it eagerly. The taxi dropped us off at 8:30. It was still cool (much of the market appeared to be in the shade) and there were no crowds, so I set off in search of authentic Thai crafts.

But this is a huge market. With, reportedly, 9,000 individual booths, it seemed to stretch interminably. At first I saw no crafts, not even any clothing, only goldfish in plastic bags and larger goldfish in galvanized buckets, then rabbits, then roosters in bamboo cages. When I eventually found the section with crafts, it was almost as overwhelming as the plastic bags full of fish.

There were wooden bowls, boxes and plates; silk scarves and pillow covers; embroidered wall hangings, and tote bags. There were Buddhas, elephants, monks and dragons in bronze, wood, glass and plaster, and there was furniture, porcelain, pottery and basketry. I was in shoppers’ heaven.

I bought a turned-wood vase for under $3, three small baskets for $7, six sheer cotton scarves for $6, a small wall hanging for $6 and a pillow cover for $4 and returned to my hotel exhausted and happy.

The market has sections for almost anything that can be bought and sold — clothes (new and used), shoes, home furnishings, books and electronics — plus, of course, many food stalls.

Suan Lum Night Bazaar was smaller but just as challenging to my senses and self-control. Open from 6 p.m. to midnight, it has the same range of items as the weekend market, at similar prices. In the relative cool of the evening, with decorative bulbs scattered about plus several restaurants, it is a pleasant if somewhat hectic place.

If you want to shop during a hot midday or need some things in a hurry, try the Thai Craft Village in President Tower (973 Ploenchit), a large shop on the ground floor of an office building with a good selection of crafts and textiles. Prices are higher than in the markets but still good value, plus vendors will discount some items.

Bargaining is expected in all markets and even in many mall shops. Unlike in some countries, bargaining here is low-key. Ask the price, then offer a reasonable amount below that. The vendor will either reject it completely (rare) or make a counteroffer, which you can accept or reject. Don’t waste the seller’s time if the price is way beyond what you are willing to pay, but remember that 100 baht is less than $3! A small calculator is useful for converting baht to dollars and also showing vendors what you are willing to pay.

After the pollution and heat of the streets and the confusion and frenzy of the markets, I welcomed the artificial world of the Siam Paragon Shopping Mall (accessible by inexpensive taxi or the fast BTS Sky train; exit at Siam Station). With cool marble and gleaming glass and mirrors, it is pristine, clean and could be anyplace in the world — except it’s not. It’s in Thailand, and it’s elegant as well as commercial.

Lastly, for art lovers and browsers, River City Art & Antique Mall is a high-end shopping mall which can be approached as a museum of antique Asian art. With enticingly arranged windows and shops full of paintings, sculpture and artifacts from all over Asia, this is museum-quality art for the serious (and wealthy) collector, but it’s equally enjoyable for those who have no intention of buying.

Although initially intimidated, I soon decided I could go into the stores instead of just staring into the windows. Staff either ignored me or left me alone when I said, “Just looking.” If you like art, it’s a great place to spend a hot afternoon.

On the river

The Chao Phraya River and the klongs (canals) which branch off it were the heart of old Bangkok, and the river is still a major method of transportation within the city. There are express ferries on which a one-hour ride will take you into the suburbs. There are local ferries and tourist ferries plus special ferries that go just from one side of the river to the other.

We intended to take the one-hour round-trip ride on the tourist express boat, but, this being Bangkok, it was hard to tell which boat was which, and the harbormaster kept yelling, “Express boat, express boat,” so we got on the wrong boat. However, it was comfortable, with a roof and open sides, and moved swiftly for a full hour in each direction. The ride opened my eyes to still another set of startling contrasts.

Today, waterside property is valuable and, when available, sells at premium prices. But in old Bangkok, fishermen and small tradesmen lived along the banks, and many of their homes have remained in their families for many generations. The result? Luxury condominium towers and megastory office buildings and hotels looking down on old fishermen’s shacks with laundry drying on the front porches.

The most picturesque crafts on the river were the long-tail boats used mostly by tourists and tour companies. Rather than hire our own boat (possible), we arranged a tour which included a visit to Wat Arun, another example of Bangkok’s colorful past.

The long-tail boat is not the express ferry. It is narrow, shaky and low in the water. As I attempted the very steep step down into the boat, I imagined myself swimming in the Chao Phraya River and questioned the necessity of this trip. Once I was in, the ride was smooth and cool.

The klongs were shallow and narrow and the buildings that lined them belonged to another century. Porches perched precariously over the water, and the people sitting on them waved to us as we chugged past.

Wherever we went, I was impressed by the people we met. I found the Thais to be calm, invariably polite, accommodating and anxious to please, although that attitude did not always translate into efficiency and speedy service. I soon learned to adapt to their style. Some people spoke English, but even for those in the hospitality industry that ability was sometimes minimal.

Accommodations

In Bangkok we stayed at Chateau de Bangkok Serviced Apartments (29 Soi Ruamrudee 1, Ploenchit Rd.; phone 66 2651 4400, www.accorhotels.com), all of which have cooking facilities. The apartments are located across the street from the Conrad Hotel, which has several fine restaurants, and from All Seasons Mall, which includes some restaurants and a small supermarket.

Although the Skytrain is only a 5- to 10-minute walk away, the walk can be uncomfortable due to the heat and broken sidewalks. Metered taxis are plentiful in the area and rides to the major sights are not expensive.

A superior studio cost $105 a night with breakfast; a one-bedroom suite cost $120 per night with breakfast. Discounts are available for long stays. (A taxi from the airport cost about $10.)

In Chiang Mai we stayed at the Royal Princess Hotel (112 Chang Klan Road; phone 66 5328 1033 43, http://chiangmai. royalprincess.com), nicely located with the night market at its front door and within walking distance of the Old City. We paid $200 for three nights with breakfast. (A taxi from the airport cost $7.)

Dining out

Most Thai food is very hot. Even when they say “not hot,” expect it to be hot. However, there are Thai dishes which are meant to be sweet, not hot. The popular pad Thai is one.

If you cannot tolerate hot dishes, there is no need to resort to the numerous American chain restaurants (Tony Roma’s, McDonald’s, KFC, Sizzler); there are many superb Chinese, Japanese and Italian restaurants. We particularly enjoyed two very different Chinese restaurants.

In Bangkok, Liu (All Seasons Place, 87/3 Wireless Road; phone 0 2690 9255), in the Conrad Hotel, is decidedly high end. The dining room was exquisitely decorated with polished teak and fresh flowers, the service was prompt and attentive, and portions could be ordered small, medium or large.

A superb dinner for two, including tea, soup and three small dishes, cost only $20 including service. The Sunday dim sum prix fixe lunch/dinner is a Bangkok favorite and very reasonably priced.

In Chiang Mai, Jia Tong Heng (193/2-3 Sridonchai Road) is located close to the Royal Princess Hotel. Although our very nice guide recommended this place, I was extremely suspicious when we entered. It was confusing, crowded, didn’t look very clean and appeared to be a cafeteria rather than a restaurant. However, the front room is apparently unrelated to the actual restaurant in the rear, so don’t be upset when you walk in if you decide to try this place — and I recommend it highly.

We were the only non-Asians in the restaurant; fortunately, there were English translations throughout the extensive menu. We had a big pot of tea and six small dishes for under $8. It had a decidedly plain, pipe-rack ambience compared to that of the very elegant Liu in Bangkok, but the food was just as good (and the price even better).

Planning your visit

No way around it, Bangkok is hot and humid! We went in January (2007), considered one of the coolest months, and temperatures ranged from the mid 80s to high 90s. It is possible to avoid the worst of the heat by going to outdoor markets and monuments early in the morning or in the evening. Hotels, restaurants, malls and taxicabs all are air-conditioned. Chiang Mai is always cooler than Bangkok.

In Bangkok, there are three introductory tours offered by numerous companies which take visitors to the historic sights of the city: the “City & Temples Tour,” the “Grand Palace Tour” and the “Canal Tour.” Some guidebooks recommend avoiding them and exploring independently. But at about $30-$35 per person for a 4-hour private tour with car, driver and guide, I was glad to have someone to shepherd me through these large areas and select the most efficient way to see as much as possible while avoiding the large tour groups congregating at key points.

We found that the guides supplied by the Top Five Holiday Company (phone 662-921-8499, www.topfiveholiday.co.th), booked through our hotel, were knowledgeable, pleasant and flexible and spoke English well.

I’d be happy to answer any questions; e-mail me c/o ITN.