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.
Huh, who knew monkeys got transit discounts? Haha! No, I know you meant monks, but I did have quite a chuckle. 🙂
Loved your review of the tour and I agree, it would be a great intro to the city when you’re still jetlagged!
Ha, and this was a post I ACTUALLY proof read. Le sigh…
I am not so sure whether or not monkEYS pay for cab rides! 😉
I’d give one a free ride! 🙂 Ha seriously, nothing is better than spending hours and hours crafting a beautiful blog post only to receive three emails in an hour that you made a ridiculous typo even after a round of editing!
Well since I’ve discovered your blog like a month ago I’ve read many many of your blogposts (to bring back my own great south east asia memories) and they’re usually perfectly written! Great blog!
Pretty much the best typo I’ve seen in a while! Wish my typos were so fun 🙂 You should totally keep it.
Sounds like a great day touring Bangkok. I LOVE the Royal Palace – so beautiful. And, as always, stunning photos! I’ve been toying with the idea of upgrading my SLR – which do you use?
Hey Karisa! Check my Obsessions page, or the badge in my sidebar that will lead you there. Links to all my camera gear 🙂
I’ve never made it to the Grand Palace and now I’m regretting it even more! Sounds like the perfect tour being not too long and with a great guide!
Well I’ve gone enough times for both of us now, Jade 😉
Sometimes I think you get more out of a tour when it’s not your first visit. You’ve already ooh’d and aah’d and taken a lot of photos, and now you are ready to get those burning taxi questions answered!
That actually is a great point Corinne. A lot of the questions and discussions I have with tour guides in Thailand are ones I wouldn’t even think to have when I had first arrived in the country.
this might be just what i need to crack bangkok. next time, captain! next tiiiiiime…
I feel like I made so many amazing Bangkok discoveries on this trip to Thailand. I love it more and more all the time.
Wow, I can’t believe you did all that in a few hours! Sounds like a pretty good deal!
And amazingly it didn’t feel rushed. Well, I could have used a bit more time at the flower market but Ian was definitely done. I think I’m a bit of an outlier there… I could take photos of markets for hours!
The Morning Buddhist Almsgiving looks like a mystical experience. That’s something I never did in Thailand, and now I’m kicking myself for not making it happen. I managed the Grand Palace, which was indeed grand but crazy crowded. I would have loved the flower market too. Guess I have to go back!
Actually as far as I know, participating in an alms giving ceremony is not a super popular tourist activity in Thailand — it’s much more a thing in Luang Prabang in Laos. However it certainly is taking place as part of the daily routine all the country, so it was really amazing to be able to observe it so intimately.
Congratulations on another amazing entry here! Just when I think you’ve hit the top,…you push it even farther! We’re heading off to the Dominican Republic for Easter week, any tips?
I’ve never been! I do love anywhere sunny and sandy though, so maybe someday 🙂
I absolutely love the picture of the two of you in the doorway – there’s something very authentic about it. Thailand definitely agrees with you. The Almsgiving looks absolutely fascinating, and definitely something I would love to witness. Plus, the monks are wearing fabulously colored robes!
Thanks Marni! I think Thailand does indeed agree with me 🙂
Sounds like a great day to introduce someone to Bangkok. It’s good to know the almsgiving ceremony was a bit more authentic/less intrusive than the one in Luang Prabang.
Yeah, I truly enjoyed it. I love being the only tourist!
A timely post. Am back in BKK next week and haven’t been to those places yet.
Check it out Jimmy! It’s a great morning.
“Do monks pay for cabs?” You have no idea how happy I am to have the answer to this haha! I love reading your posts on Thailand, and especially your take on cultural insights.
Thanks Michelle! I love returning to Thailand over and over again — it’s a privilege to have the time and the access to get to understand the country on a deeper level.
Sounds like a great intro to Bangkok – I only had about 2 days there, and a tour like this would have been great for me! I ended up doing a similar half-day tour in Chiang Mai – we went up to Doi Suthep early in the morning to watch the monks go about their alms receiving, then got a pre-tourist-crowd tour of the temple. I loved it, and the extra insight our guide gave was priceless.
I just visited Doi Suthep for the first time with a guide (I’d previously been without one) and it really was lovely. I’ve started to realize I prefer spending the money to hire one for historical sites and such — I just get so much more out of it.
Amazing post! Thanks for sharing it 🙂
I am surprised however that you are using 70-300mm f/4-5.6 – I was sure those images are done with way more “professional” equipement like 70-200 2.8 – just another prrof that it’s all about the photographer not the gear!
I would love to upgrade to L series lenses at some point, Lev! But I’m glad too hear that in the meantime, I fooled ya 🙂
Booking a tour must be the perfect solution to overcome the overwhelming feeling I get from even just thinking of Bangkok. There is just so much to see and do, and everything seems so difficult due to cultural and lingual differences. Getting a guide to take us places with a driver is surely the perfect introduction for a Bangkok-noob. On our way to or from Koh Tao this fall we’ll definitely make time for a guided tour 🙂
Last time I was in Bangkok I couldn’t wait to get out of there, but I’m sure I’ll love it eventually, I just need some time for it to grow on me.
I think a lot of people feel that way about Bangkok in the beginning, Nicole! It can be overwhelming — having a guide to answer your questions and an air conditioned car to whisk you around is definitely a nice way to ease in 🙂
Beautiful photos as always! I just purchased the same Canon 70-300mm lens! I can’t wait to really put it to use soon. That’s really interesting about the monks. I was raised a Catholic so I would have assumed that once you were a monk, you were a monk for life. Although I’m not a religious person, I do enjoy learning about different religions.
Me too, Katelyn! And yeah, I think the short term “monkhood” is a really interesting phenomenon, but a beautiful example of how ingrained Buddhism is in the Thai way of life.
That’s my biggest love about Thailand – no matter how many times you’ve been there’s always something new to do.
Keeps me coming back!
So beautiful! I’d never heard of this flower market before, and now I really want to go.
It’s one of my favorite hidden gems in Bangkok! Definitely set some time aside for exploring it, Meg 🙂
would be interested what your nights out in Bangkok look like. Do you head to popular destination like KSR or do something completely different to “regular” first-time visitors?
Hey KE! I post a lot about my evening wanderings in Bangkok… you can find a ton of posts here! I love checking out the Khao San Road madness every once in a while — and there’s a great jazz bar nearby — but typically I’m much more into bars around Sukhumvit and Thonglor. And of course you can’t forget the rooftop bars…. 🙂
I love the gorgeous colours that you can find all around Bangkok! The gaudy golds manage to look so majestic and awesome in Thailand too.
They definitely know how to rock the gaudy 🙂 It’s a national art!
I was researching this viator tour and was on the fence, you really sold me! Thanks, I’m looking forward to it!
It’s one of my favorites Monyca! Have so much fun!
I can’t tell you how helpful your blog has been in planning my upcoming travels to Thailand and Cambodia. I have been a reader for so long, but now am finally going to visit some of the places I have been reading about here and can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am! So thank you for bringing me tips and inspiration!
That being said, how did you arrange your guide to see an authentic Alms-giving in Bangkok?
Hey Ellen! Everything featured in this post is part of the tour I was on. I highly recommend signing up for it!