Culture isn't just dusty old buildings and aging collections. Culture is in action and it's the daily activities and practices, festivals, ceremonies and events that weave the fabric of a society, not something to be preserved or observed but learned and practiced and there are ample opportunities in Thailand. Check with the TAT (tel. 01155) or the Bangkok Tourism Bureau (see their information offices around the city or call tel. 02225-7612) and keep an eye on magazines like Metro or local newspapers, The Nation and The Bangkok Post, for major events during your stay. The best part of Thai festivals is that you may come as an observer, but whether soaked by buckets of water on Song Kran or releasing candle floats down river on Loi Kratong foreign visitors aren't usually given the chance to just observe but are dragged in as participants.
Fancy a chance to learn cooking techniques from the pros? Thai cooking is fun and easy and there are a few good hands-on courses in Bangkok. You'll learn about Thai herbs, spices, and unique local veggies. You'll never look at a produce market the same again. Lectures on Thai regional cuisine, cooking techniques, and menu planning complement classroom exercises to prepare all your favorite dishes. The best part is after, when you get to eat them.
The Blue Elephant is the best in town. A large Belgian-based Thai restaurant chain popular throughout Europe, they have just opened this latest branch in a turn-of-the-century Thai mansion adjacent to Surasak BTS station. Classes begin at 8am with a visit to the market to pickup fresh ingredients for the day. Back in the classroom, you'll first watch demonstrations before stepping-up to your own deluxe cooking station to practice what you've learned under the watchful eye of a teacher. It's all fun and learning at the stoves before sharing your creations with the rest of the class in a delicious lunch spread. The course is open to anyone from beginner to expert. Different dishes are taught each day so you could attend for a week and always learn something new. Visit them at 233 South Sathorn Road, just below BTS Surasak station, or call tel. 02673-9353 (www.blueelephant.com). One-day courses cost 2,800B ($68); group-rates available.
The Oriental Cooking School — In a quaint campus across the river from the famed hotel, multiple-day courses are held from Monday to Sunday from 9am, with lunch after at a cost of 6,150B ($150) per person. Very expensive, but their chef is tops and you'll learn, through demonstration and hands-on practice, every aspect of Thai cooking. Call them at tel. 02437-6211 for booking and information. The hotel also offers combined cooking study and accommodation packages.
A traditional Thai massage is a must-do for visitors in Thailand and is quite unique. You don't just lie back and passively receive a Thai massage; instead, you are an active participant as masseurs manipulate your limbs to stretch each muscle, then apply acupressure techniques to loosen up tense muscles and get energy flowing. It's been described as having yoga "done" to you and your body will be twisted, pulled, and sometimes pounded in the process. Talk to any hotel concierge as most hotels have in-house services or can otherwise make arrangements.
The home of Thai massage, Wat Po is school to almost every masseuse in Bangkok, and has cheap massages in an open-air pavilion within the temple complex -- a very interesting, but not necessarily relaxing, experience (tel. 02221-2974; 200B/$4.55 per hr.). Here, you can arrange day courses if you are interested in learning Thai massage.
Bangkok, like most tourist destinations in Thailand, supports some fine spas, most in the larger hotels. Le Banyan Tree Spa (tel. 02679-1054; www.banyantree.com) and The Oriental's spa tel. 02439-7613; www.orientalbangkok.com) are two of the finest places going if price is less of an issue. These are just two of the many fine spas in town (in hotels and out). For a more budget spa experience, stop by the newly opened Chivit Chiva (16/1-2 Sukhumvit Soi 19; tel. 02253-0607; near the Asok BTS station), a fancy little getaway with services starting at just 600B ($14.50).
There are countless massage places around Bangkok, and many offer fine services at very reasonable rates (where else can you get an hour of massage for 205B/$5). Be aware that certain massage parlors cater to gentlemen, with services beyond the standard massage: aim for places offering "traditional massage" and open storefront areas instead of backrooms. Many places have "no sex" or other blatant signs indicating the place is hanky-panky free (and if you're looking for hanky-panky, those signs are just as blatant). Try Po Thong Thai Massage, in the basement of the Fortuna Hotel, Sukhumvit Soi 5 (tel. 02255-1045; 300B/$7.30 per hr.), or Arima Onsen (37/10-11 Soi Surawong Plaza near Sala Daeng BTS station; tel. 02235-2142; 220B/$5.40 per hr.). According to the experts, 2 hours is the minimum to experience the full benefits of Thai massage, but 1 hour treatments are the norm. These places, and the many like them, also offer foot massage, but honestly, this bone-grinding process can be pretty painful (ask for a gentle foot massage unless you can handle the pain; I couldn't).
Muaythai, or Thai Boxing, is Thailand's national sport and a visit to the two venues in Bangkok, or the many fight-nights in towns all over Thailand (as much festival as sport), is a fun window into Thai culture. The pageant of the fighters' elegant pre-bout rituals, live musical performances, and the frenetic gambling activity are a real spectacle. In Bangkok, catch up to 15 bouts nightly at either of two stadiums. The Ratchadamnoen Stadium (Ratchadamnoen Nok Ave.; tel. 02281-4205) hosts fights on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, while the Lumphini Staduim on Rama IV Road (tel. 02251-4303) has bouts on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Tickets are 1,500B ($23) for ringside seats, 800B ($20) for second class and all the way down to 500B ($12.50) for nose-bleed seats behind a cage. Ringside is not worth it. It is best to go second class or cheaper where you still have a good view of the action in the ring and are close-up to the gambling action: guys with multiple cellphones scream, shout and often overshadow the action in the ring as they swap wagers. A memorable night, though a bit much for the squeamish.
Wat Mahathat, or the Temple of the Great Relic, serves one of Thailand's largest Buddhist Universities and has become a popular center for meditation lessons and practice, with English-speaking monks overseeing students of Vipassana, also called Insight Meditation. Meditation instruction is held daily and call ahead to get the schedule and to make an appointment: tel. 02222-6011. It's a good introduction to basic technique.
If you're traveling through Bangkok during February through April you can't beat the fantastic sights of the kite-fighting competitions held at Lumphini Park in the center of the city and at Sanam Luang near The Grand Palace. Elaborate creations in vivid colors vie for prizes, and "fighting," a team spectator sport complete with sponsors, thrills onlookers. The TAT will have all the information you need about exact dates, or you can check the local papers or travel publications.
OK, so it's not exactly culture per se, but you'll have a hard time getting out of Thailand without encountering some kind of snake show. Bangkok's biggest venue is at the Red Cross Snake Farm, 1871 Rama IV Rd. (tel. 02252-0161). Located in the heart of Bangkok opposite the Montien Hotel, this institute for the study of venomous snakes, established in 1923, was the second facility of its type in the world (the first was in Brazil). There are slide shows and snake-handling demonstrations weekdays at 10:30am and 2pm; on weekends and holidays at 10:30am. You can also watch the handlers work with deadly cobras and equally poisonous banded kraits and green pit vipers, with demonstrations of venom milking. The venom is later gradually injected into horses, which produce antivenom for the treatment of snakebites. The Thai Red Cross sells medical guides and will also inoculate you against such maladies as typhoid, cholera, and smallpox in their clinic. The farm is open daily Monday to Friday 8:30am to 3pm, Saturday and Sunday 8:30am to noon; admission is 70B ($1.70). It's at the corner of Rama IV Road and Henri Dunant.
For a complete listing of what to see and do in Bangkok, visit the online attractions index at Frommers.com.
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