As a Bangkok veteran who has made almost twenty trips to the city, I love that I never seem to run out of new things to do. This round, though, I was showing around a first timer — and I felt very responsible for making sure he saw the traditional highlights of the city in addition to our offbeat nightlife discoveries.
How to cram it all in on our final morning? We settled on a Viator Exclusive showcasing three special sides of Bangkok — the Morning Buddhist Almsgiving, Grand Palace and Flower Market Tour.
In spite of the 5:45am pickup time, I was pumped. My only other experience observing an alms ceremony was in Luang Prabang, and while stunning it was frankly a bit of a circus. I’d never heard of observing one as a tourist-oriented activity in Bangkok before, which gave me high hopes that we’d have a very authentic morning.
I wasn’t disappointed.
We arrived at local monastery Wat Benchamabophit just as the orange orb of sunrise lifted over the dark city. Our guide, Niran, led us inside for a quick tour of the temple, where groundskeepers were just starting to sweep up for the day.
Interesting as the information was, I was distracted by the wisps of saffron that continued to flash by the corner of my eye. We made our way back to the entrance, where rows of monks were beginning to greet alms-givers. A bag of food was pressed into our hands and with a quick explanation of proper protocol we were pushed ahead to participate. I was a bit flustered by this, having not realized that we’d be doing anything more than observing.
I was somewhat relieved when I was able to sulk back into the corners and quietly soak up the scene. I’ve never been so grateful to have my Canon 70-300mm zoom lens — I felt like I was able to really capture the experience while keeping a respectful distance and without being intrusive.
We watched transfixed as car after car and motorbike after motorbike pulled up to the temple. Policemen, students, office workers, a dude with dreadlocks to his knees — they all came, popped their trunks, slipped off their shoes, and doled out offerings to the monks with a respectful wai for each. This, Niran had explained, was a daily ritual much like the Western tradition of attending church each Sunday. Most prepared their offerings the night before, and dropped them off on their way to work or school.
I was fascinated.
Niran appeared, two fresh coconuts in hand, and continued to quietly explain more about the practice of almsgiving. For those who give, it is a way of “making merit” in their Buddhist beliefs. For the monks who receive them, it is a way of receiving sustenance that allows them to focus on their studies and meditation. Most male Thais become monks at some point in their lives, for at least a short period — Niran had done it it twice; once before getting married and once after his father died.
Once and for all, I was able to settle a question that had burned at me for years: Do monks pay for cab rides in Thailand? Typically, they do, was the laughing reply — though they pay only half price for the BTS and MRT, two of Bangkok’s public transportation systems.
I left the alms ceremony totally satisfied — we couldn’t have asked for a more authentic or education experience. Our next stop was one I’d been to before, the Pak Khlong Talat flower market, Bangkok’s largest wholesale and retail flower bazaar. However, I’d only ever been late at night — I was eager to see the twenty-four hour market in the daylight.
Unsurprisingly, I spent most of my time with my camera glued to my face, unable to stop snapping off shots of the colorful blooms all around us. Along the way Niran pointed out fruits we might be unfamiliar with, and continued to answer our ever-bubbling up questions about life in Bangkok and — as I’m obsessed with other people’s professions — life as a tour guide.
As we rounded the corner to where we’d once again meet our driver, we realized we were actually running early (very much a first for this perpetually late traveler). I paused to shuffle through my bag and when I looked up I was being handed a bouquet of white roses from Ian in one hand and a glass of cha yen — a milky Thai iced tea — from Niran in the other. What a lucky girl, I thought.
Eventually we made our way to The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. The gates had yet to open and a crowd was forming around them. While we waited, I tried to determine how many times I’d been inside — this would be only my third, but somehow it felt very familiar. Yet, notably, this was my first with a guide — and I was looking forward to hearing his insights.
Already conservatively dressed from the alms ceremony, we were able to bypass the line for modesty sarongs and be among the first to enter the grounds when the opening hour struck.
Those first moments were precious. Not long after, a swarm of fellow camera-toting tourists would buzz around us, but right then, we had the breathing room to truly be awed by one of Southeast Asia’s most impressive palace complexes.
One of my favorite moments of the tour was Niran’s earnest explanation of the Thai people’s love for the precious Emerald Buddha, to which he attributed Thailand’s safety from colonialism, communism, and other societal ills. While I might not share his reverence for any religion or religious icon, I found his devotion both fascinating and touching.
The Emerald Buddha in question, one of the holiest religious figures in all of Thailand, is carved from just one piece of jade, and is dressed in various ceremonial outfits based on the season. The outfits can be changed only by a member of the royal family, a change that is done to great fanfare and pageantry.
We were actually astounded when we made it back to our hotel by 10:30am — early enough to nab hotel breakfast! While waking up before sunrise is admittedly somewhat painful, I loved being back at our hotel so early and realizing how much we’d already accomplished, even with the whole day ahead of us still — I also mused that this would be the perfect tour for jetlagged travelers who just rolled up in Thailand and are wide awake at that hour anyway!
Overall I’m not sure who enjoyed this morning more — Ian, the Bangkok first timer, or me, the long-time Bangkok fan. I do know that I’m adding it to my roster of must-do recommendations for friends and family who make their way to Thailand. As as a Viator Exclusive, there’s only one place they’ll be able to find it.
It was, as always, with a heavy heart that I packed up my things and made my way to the airport that very afternoon. Earlier, Niran, ever the good Thai nationalist, had attempted to reassure us during a discussion about the military coup. “Peace is coming to Thailand!,” he said with confidence and a smile. “The tourists will return. You will return.”
Will I ever.
With lots of love for now, Thailand.
I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.