If you like ancient temples but also shopping, stop off in the Thai capital this month. And ensure you visit a traditional shrine to ask for a lucky year ahead
Why does Bangkok in January feel so special? Of Thailand’s three seasons – hot, dry, and rainy – it is one of the coolest months, meaning there are pleasant tropical breezes and crisp azure skies. A relief from the soaring heat and humidity that normally prevails the rest of the year.
This is the best time to enjoy outdoor activities, so think walks, rides and river cruises. Discover Thai country charm with a day trip to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. It’s only 90 minutes’ drive from the city, but transports you back centuries, to a time when the magnificence of old Siamese kingdoms was embodied in glorious temples and palace complexes. At the Ayutthaya historical park, you can ride around the ruins in grand style atop an elephant majestically draped in red and gold livery. Here, the dreamy temple sites include Wat Phra Mongkhon Bophit, with its giant bronze Buddha image, Wat Lokaya Sutha, featuring Ayutthaya’s largest reclining Buddha, and Wat Mahathat, where a serene Buddha head is framed by the roots of a sacred Bodhi tree.
After a Thai lunch on the riverside and exploring the temple markets, head back to Bangkok, cruising down the Chao Phraya, past sleepy river settlements, graceful colonial villas, palaces and the spectacular Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun) and Grand Palace. You can arrive at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok’s pier just in time to enjoy the hotel’s afternoon tea of sandwiches and scones, a beloved ritual in the legendary Authors’ Lounge.
The Christmas shopping season is over, but that’s no reason to resist Bangkok’s great malls. You can easily walk from one retail wonderland to another along Rama 1 and Rajdamri Road. Siam Paragon Mall is the grandest, with luxury brands, local boutiques, a fantastic food hall and the Paragon Department Store, whose fourth floor is devoted to quality and stylish Thai handicrafts, textiles and accessories. (Siam Ocean World is also housed here – the biggest aquarium in South-East Asia.) Nearby is CentralWorld, the sixth largest mall in the world, housing a Japanese Isetan department store and an international food hall, plus hundreds of boutiques and stalls selling foreign and local brands and lifestyle products.
When in Bangkok at New Year, do as the Thais do and visit a shrine to ask for good luck for the coming year. Some important ones are located around CentralWorld, each offering unique protective powers. The famous Erawan Shrine, of the four-headed Brahma, is believed to be the most powerful. Thais and tourists flock here to ask for fertility, good health, good luck, new jobs, and to offer floral garlands, fruit, and even wooden elephants. The Ganesha Shrine in front of Isetan at CentralWorld honours the Hindu elephant god, the patron of the arts and remover of obstacles, so creative people come here to offer fruit, milk and marigold garlands and to ask for artistic inspiration and protection from harm. Beside Ganesha is the Trimurti Shrine, where Thais offer red incense sticks, red roses and red candles while asking for luck in love. Nearby stalls sell kits of incense, garlands and other offerings. Whether or not you ask for blessings, these shrines are quite magnificent and worth a visit to soak up the local culture.
The best way to unwind after all that walking is with a rejuvenating traditional Thai massage at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok’s magical Oriental Spa, set in the hushed interior of a traditional-style teak house, just a short ferry boat ride across the river.
Chami Jotisalikorn is a Bangkok-based lifestyle journalist, editor and communications consultant, and a published author of Asian interior and travel books www.chami-j.com