Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 16, 2017

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The boats that ply the Chao Phraya River provide a great vantage point for many of the city's sights, such as the Wat Arun temple.

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Bangkok

You can still find peaceful refuge from the frenzy

Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit, otherwise known as Bangkok, is a seething tangle of highways packed with traffic, glass and steel towers, massive barges and ultra-modern trains. Beneath this disorienting surface, though, runs the old mysterious current of sensual grit and beauty. The Chao Phraya River and the city's few remaining canals, or khlongs, are watery magic carpets that can whisk the traveller between the two worlds, old and new.

The khlongs that were once the city's major arteries have been largely paved over, but there are enough on the city's east bank to give glimpses of floating kitchens, boats packed with produce, and people bathing in the water. Cross-river ferries operate at most piers and drop passengers at the other bank for a pittance. You can also jump on a shared longtail taxi, a needle-shaped boat with a very noisy motor, or haggle with a driver and arrange to charter one yourself. Pandan Tour (780/488 Charoen Krung Road; thaicanaltour.com; from $65) offers full day tours of the khlongs with stops at a floating market, temples and an orchid nursery.

Back on the west bank, keep it simple and catch one of the red and white Chao Phraya Express Boats (chaophrayaexpressboat.com) that run the 21 kilometre stretch of the river all day until 7 PM weekdays and 8 PM on weekends. The company’s "tourist boats" are also a good bet if you're planning to hop on and off. You won't want to miss the obvious biggies: the dazzling Grand Palace, and Wat Arun or Temple of Dawn, with its world-famous gilded spire. At night, the streets along the river are alive with neon, night markets, clubs and restaurants. You may spot people tossing in bread to feed the giant catfish that swarm along the river's edge, released by the devout to invite blessings.

Cool, calm and erected

You can't go anywhere in Bangkok without bumping into a temple. If you start seeing through a gilded haze, maybe it's time to head for an inexpensive massage from a massage student in the Medicine Pavillion at Wat Pho (2 Sanam Chai Road; watpho.com), another temple where even the giant (and yes, gilded) Buddha is reclining.

For a lesson in anatomy of a different sort, head to the Chao Mae Tubtim, also known as the Penis Garden, at the Swissotel Nai Lert Hotel (2 Wireless Road; swissotel.com/hotels/bangkok-nai-lert-park) which is crowded with phalluses of every size, shape and colour. It’s popular with women trying to conceive, as it’s said to increase fertility. To get there, take the Skytrain to the Phloen Chit stop and ask at the hotel desk.

On your way back to the riverbank, get off at the Siam Exchange stop on the BTS and go back in time at the Jim Thompson House (6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road; jimthompsonhouse.com; $3), former home of an American architect and military officer who revived Thailand's post-war silk industry. A series of six carved teak traditional Thai houses that Thompson had moved from the countryside contain an eclectic collection of porcelain and other unusual objects plus live silkworms and a detailed look at the silk-making process. A relaxing cafe opens onto a cool jungle-like garden.

If you're looking for other ways to avoid the sticky heat, Bangkok's current trendy attraction, Escape Hunt (Interchange 21 Tower, Sukhumvit Road; escapehunt.com; from $13), is an indoor puzzle game where groups don Sherlock hats and are locked in a Victorian London-style room with one hour to gather clues and crack the mystery.

And don't leave Bangkok without a night at the movies at the Paragon Cineplex (991 Siam Paragon Rama 1 Road, Phatumwan; majorcineplex.com). Aside from the cultural experience of standing with the crowd to show reverence to His Majesty the King before the movie starts, for a mere $28 you get a fully reclining chair, a blanket, popcorn, a drink and a massage. Pay extra for 3D and 4D (the chair vibrates in response to the onscreen action).

A breath of fresh air

Ten minutes by boat from Bangkok's concrete inferno is the Bang Krachao peninsula, an oasis so peaceful, lush and verdant it's known as the city's “green lungs.” There are few cars or tourists. The narrow bike paths have no guardrails and are raised about a metre above the mangrove swamps and coconut groves — daunting at first, but it's unusual for wary visitors to end up in the muck.

English on the peninsula is rare, so if you go without a guide it's best to bring a Thai speaker with you. Catch a boat at Khlong Toei Pier right next to the Wat Klong Toey Nok temple. On the other side, you can rent bikes cheaply and follow the main road to the Bang Nam Phueng floating market, a quaint not-just-for-tourists market where you can sit at canal-side tables and eat freshly-grilled seafood and papaya salad or sticky rice steamed in banana leaves served from canal boats. The market stalls abound with gac fruit, dried hibiscus flowers, mulberry green tea and other treasures.

If you’re planning to explore deeper, a guide is a good idea. Arrange a private tour of the island with Spice Roads Cycle Tours (bangkokbikerides.com; $38). Or, if you're up for an adventure, stay at the heart of the green lung at the Bangkok Treehouse (*Bang Krachao; bangkoktreehouse.com; doubles from $200), a twelve-room boutique hotel accessible only by bike path or boat. The rooms are called "nests," and several are open-aired platforms in the trees or over water.

For more information, visit bangkoktourist.com.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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