Iconic Itineraries: 12 Perfect Days in Southeast Asia

Bangkok is a fascinating place to begin your journey, since so much of what you experience here—from the general friendliness of the people and the efficiency of the infrastructure to the particular blend of heat and sugar that distinguishes the flavors of this region—will resonate for you in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. And yet in other ways, Thailand is sui generis. For one thing, it is the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized by the West. For another, it alone among its neighbors is ruled by a king. One of the great pleasures of this trip will be charting not only the similarities but also the differences—sometimes subtle, sometimes surprisingly profound—among these countries and cultures that lie in such close proximity to one another and whose histories are so inextricable.

Probably the first thing you’ll notice about this city of nine million, however, is its apparently seamless marriage of the old and the new. If last night’s trip from the airport had you zooming over pristine elevated highways, this morning’s ten-minute drive to your first stop, the Wat Traimitr complex, sends you creeping through Chinatown, whose streets are faced with examples of beautiful old architecture, often with a distinctive Portuguese flair (traders and missionaries from Portugal arrived in the sixteenth century). The complex is home to a number of temples, the largest of which houses one of Thailand’s most prized national treasures, the Golden Buddha, a five-and-a-half-ton icon that was constructed in the thirteenth century and rediscovered only in 1955, encased in a crust of stucco (probably to protect it from the invading Burmese in the sixteenth century). Inside, crowds of tourists mill past the great statue, talking and laughing as if at a cocktail party.

Muscle your way to the front and spend a few moments in the gleam of the long-limbed, graceful Buddha. The Thais practice Theravada Buddhism, which came to the country around the third century b.c. from India, where the Buddha, a Hindu prince, had been born 200 years earlier. This sect of Buddhism is recognizable for its Hindu overtones and exuberant palette, a marked contrast to the stripped-down asceticism of Mahayana Buddhism, which pervaded eastern Asia.

By 9:45 a.m., you are en route to the flower and vegetable market, which provides a crash course in the diversity of Thailand’s colors, scents, and flavors, not to mention its fecundity. Your guide will lead you down the main thoroughfare of the flower market, where the breadth of offerings is so extravagant that it seems almost comical: Every few paces there are vendors stringing thick garlands of achingly fragrant, pearly Arabian jasmine or jamming clumps of furled, shell-pink lotus flowers into overstuffed plastic buckets—which, as you’ll see, are as plentiful throughout the region as dandelions. A 15-minute stroll takes you to the produce end of the market, where the visual feast begins all over again: baskets of fiery bird’s-eye chiles; containers of pale-green cabbages; eggplant and watercress arranged like jewels on plastic sheets.

But as transfixing as the market is, tear yourself away by 10:30 for the 15-minute drive to your next stop, the Grand Palace, a vast compound of palaces and temples, one of which holds the country’s most important image, the Emerald Buddha. (First, though, a warning: This time of day is not for the heat-shy—there’s very little shade to be had. The crowds, however, are much thinner, and you’ll be able to move at your leisure.)

Built in 1782, the year modern Bangkok was founded, the Grand Palace was for almost 150 years the seat of both the national government and the king’s residence (parts of it are still used for various state functions). Your first stop is the Wat Phra Kaew Museum, wherein resides a small, well-presented collection of royal treasures, including intricately worked betel-juice bowls and coins from the kingdom of Siam (1768–1932), the precursor to modern Thailand. After exiting the museum, you’ll walk down a short pathway to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which is busy with more than a hundred buildings and stupas, most of them blindingly gold and all of them fantastically vibrant. One of the most brilliant is the Phra Mondop library, which houses sacred Buddhist texts.

At Wat Traimitr, ask your guide to show you the little prayer kiosks.


In Bangkok’s colorful flower market, you can buy a jasmine lei for $1.


You’ll then walk under the scaffolding (renovation work on the sanctuary began recently) into the Emerald Buddha Pavilion. Cameras aren’t allowed here, but at any rate, you will be too dazzled by the splendor of the room to care. As you gaze variously upon the floor (which is lined with marble), the ceiling (lacquered a glossy red), and the walls (painted with scenes from the Buddha’s life), it is difficult to keep from thinking of the Sistine Chapel, another monument to another of the world’s great religions. In the front of the room, sitting on a shining throne, is the Buddha. Made not of emerald, as the name suggests, but rather of jade, it stands a surprisingly small two feet tall and is colored a dark forest green. The exact place and date of origin of Thailand’s most iconic sculpture are unknown, but it is generally thought to have come from the northern part of Thailand in the early 1400s, after which it spent more than two centuries in Laos before being brought to Thailand by King Rama I in 1778.

A few more minutes wandering the palace grounds and you’ll be ready to faint, though whether from hunger or the heat will be hard to say. Fuel up and cool down with a cheap meal at the nearby S&P, where you should chase your (highly addictive) sticky rice and mango dessert with an icy glass of refreshing lemongrass juice. Fed and watered, you’re off for a boat ride down the Chao Phraya, the city’s wide, busy waterway. You and your guide will clamber into one of the long, flat boats you saw at breakfast, and then buzz down either Bangkok Noi or Dao Khanong canals for a tour of the city’s “water streets,” neighborhoods of houses whose facades front the street and whose back porches face the water.

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