To put it simply, Bangkok can seem like a labyrinth to new arrivals in the city. The sprawling expressways and overpasses, huge new Skytrain and crowded streets full of vendors give the place a distinct Blade Runner-esque feel. Causing even further confusion is the lack of a true "center" to the city, with various districts scattered throughout town. On the positive side, the Skytrain has made it much easier to get around, and taxis, tuk-tuks, buses and motorcycle taxis are plentiful. Get your bearings by reading the following guide and it will not take long for you to be seduced by the glorious chaos and charm of the "City of Angels."
The most heavily visited area, at least during the day, is Ko Rattanakosin (Rattanakosin Island), Bangkok's old city on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River. Here you will find fantastic examples of historical architecture such as the glittering
Bangkok was once referred to as "The Venice of the East," but today the klongs, or canals, are concentrated in Thonburi, an area lying to the west of the Chao Phraya River. You can take a klong tour, typical stops include
Banglampoo & Thewet
Backpackers head for the
The Dusit district offers plenty of tourist attractions.
Northern Bangkok's touristic highlight is
Young Thais and keen shoppers head for the area around
There is plenty of selection in malls such as
The Sathorn/Silom area forms the core of Bangkok's Central Business District, although the Stock Exchange of Thailand is located some distance away on Ratchadaphisek Road. The area encompasses a number of embassies and hotels, such as the Banyan Tree,
If you head west along Sathorn or Silom Road, you will come to Charoen Krung ("New") Road and back to the Chao Phraya River. A tram used to run along this road, but these days hardly anything does - the traffic is too thick! This is another popular hotel area, with such luxurious hotels as
Chinatown & Pahurat
North along the river lies hectic
Outside the City
There are also a number of attractions to be found in the outlying areas of Bangkok and adjacent provinces, including
Thai cuisine has spread across the globe in the past three decades at an unprecedented speed. The reason is not hard to fathom -- the food is absolutely delicious. There are two types of Thai cooking: royal Thai cuisine and "common" fare. The former is traditionally served to royalty, and usually garnished with exquisitely carved fruits and vegetables. "Common" Thai food is what Thais eat every day. Each of the four regions in Thailand has a distinct cuisine, but unless you are dining in a restaurant specializing in regional cooking, you are likely to find a blend of cuisines on most menus.
In the central region, the food is known for being hot, salty, sweet and sour. Dishes such as nam phrik (dips) and soups served with boiled rice are standard fare. In the northeastern region, sticky rice is the staple accompaniment to such popular dishes as som tam (green papaya salad), gai yang (barbecued chicken) and laap (salads of meat and fresh herbs). Much of the street food in Bangkok is from the northeast, due to the large number of vendors coming from the region. Food from the north tends to be mild, salty and sour, but not sweet. Fermented sour pork sausages (you can see them being barbecued on the street) are a favorite. In the south, fish and sour curries (without coconut milk) are the normal diet.
There are plenty of restaurants in this district where you will find the best in Thai cuisine. Phranakorn Bar & Gallery has a popular rooftop bar where the drinks are reasonably-priced. Be sure to try an authentic Thai whiskey and enjoy the local, contemporary music playing in the background. The restaurant Thiptara built on the Chao Praya River has been made to resemble a traditional Thai compound. Rim Nam Terrace can be found within the Royal River Hotel, and serves local Thai cuisine in a modern dining room. The tiny and ancient Chote Chitr has been turning out court style food for over 90 years while the Brick Bar serves up beer and satisfying Thai snacks.
On the other hand, if it is international cuisine you are hungry for, Bangkok will satisfy you all the same. From Indian to Greek, Middle Eastern and Latin — name your cuisine and somewhere there will be a waiter ready with an appropriate menu. Sample Pacific Rim offerings at Jesters or riverfront Supatra House. Enjoy Cantonese favorites at Mei Jiang. Trader Vics Polynesian bar in Bangkok is always ready to welcome the wayfaring traveler.
If you're in the mood for fresh seafood, try Harmonique, where the menu is Thai and the main ingredient is fish. Good places to start your Thai culinary adventure include Baan Khanitha, where the food is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. Large hotels usually have excellent Thai restaurants, among them the Celadon. While European restaurants are relatively new on the scene, there has been a recent boom in Italian cuisine, with oldies such as Angelini's attracting huge crowds. Several French restaurants have also opened to rave reviews, one of the best is Le Café Siam. Coffee is enjoying a boom in Bangkok, and although Starbucks may now be everywhere, other chains like Au Bon Pain are springing up with great success.
Then there are the "international" restaurants serving Asian and Italian-inspired dishes, but which refuse to be easily pigeonholed: Eat Me and Indigo are just two that defy labels. Bangkok's pubs and bars are up there with the best, although it is worth noting that steep taxes on wine push even basic table vino into the expensive bracket. At its very core, Bangkok is a beer-and-whiskey town. In many establishments you can order a bottle of whiskey which will be kept for your next visit. There are a number of micro-breweries to keep ale lovers happy and plenty of bars for spirit sippers, such as the more upmarket Barbican.
Then there are the pubs where live bands play popular Thai songs and, at some stage in the evening, the ubiquitous Hotel California. Henry J Bean's is just such a pub. Note that pubs and bars in Bangkok serve delectable food, making an evening of bar-hopping a fine way to pass the time. Try the area around Phra Arthit Road or Narathiwat Soi 15.
Bangkok is dotted with literally hundreds of eateries and nightspots. Do not be afraid to be adventurous because it is difficult to find a bad meal in the "City of Angels." In fact, dining and drinking will most likely become one of the highlights of your trip here.
In just over 200 years, Bangkok has grown from a small collection of villages scattered among canals and rice paddies alongside the Chao Phraya River to an enormous sprawl of a capital. Extending upward and outward to become Thailand's dominant city, Bangkok mirrors the long, continuing reign of the Chakri dynasty that founded it. The seeds of this growth were sown back in 1767 when invading Burmese armies razed the old capital of Ayutthaya by tearing down its temples. Those that survived, including the royal family, were carted off as slaves. Out of this chaos, a Thai general named Phraya Thaksin founded a new capital at Thonburi on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River, opposite modern Bangkok, proclaimed himself king and immediately set about recapturing much of the surrounding country. One of the few surviving legacies from this period is Wat Arun, or "Temple of the Dawn." It has since been enlarged and reconstructed, but was originally part of Thaksin's royal temple.
Following his military successes, Thaksin became more and more excessive in his behavior and was finally ousted in a coup that transferred power to another general, Chao Phraya Chakri. Chakri kicked off the modern history of Bangkok by transferring the capital from Thonburi to the eastern bank of the river, founding Bangkok in 1782 on the fortified island of Ratanakosin. Chakri refurbished many of the existing temples in the area, such as Wat Po, and built present-day tourist sites, including Wat Phra Kaew, the Grand Palace and Lak Mueang, the shrine dedicated to the guardian deity of Bangkok. The National Museum, built originally for Chakri's vizier Prince Wang Na, also dates from this period.
Under Chakri and his successors, Bangkok continued to expand, mainly because of trade. New communities such as Yaowarat (mainly Chinese traders) and Pahurat (the Indian quarter) were established, extending outward from Ratanakosin. The third king in the Chakri dynasty, Phra Nang Klao, developed a new system of royal titles, naming himself Rama III and his predecessors Rama I and Rama II. Rama III was responsible for expanding Wat Pho and Wat Arun to their present form and also initiated the aborted construction of Wat Saket, the spectacular Golden Mount Temple, completed further down the line by Rama V.
Rama IV, also known as Mongkut, is probably best known by Westerners as the ruler in The King and I and the more recent Anna and the King. Thais tend to find these interpretations offensive and growing evidence now suggests the accounts of Anna Leonowens, on which the movies were based, to be pure fiction at best. The real Rama IV was a brilliant leader who skillfully negotiated treaties with foreign powers that prevented the colonization of Thailand. Under his reign, Bangkok benefited from his trade policies with an expanded port and, for the first time, paved streets.
Rama V (also known as Chulalongkorn or "The Great King") took on the throne in 1868 at the age of 15 and continued his father's reforms, setting down the foundations for the modern Thai government as well as moving the royal palace to Dusit and building Bangkok's first railway system. The grounds of his old Chitlada Palace feature the Vimanmek Teak Mansion and the Abhisek Throne Hall, both excellent examples of royal Thai architecture. During this time, both the Victory Monument and Democracy Monument were constructed to designs by Corrado Feroci, an Italian credited with helping found Thailand's modern art movement. Rama V's long reign brought peace and stability to Thailand and his death in 1910 ushered in a period of great change. The first in a long series of coups was launched unsuccessfully in 1912 by a group of disgruntled soldiers. Another coup in 1932 by Western-educated students proved more successful, ending the absolute monarchy and replacing it with a constitutional model.
Rama VII abdicated in 1935, leaving the 10-year-old Rama VIII in his place. Power passed into the hands of Field Marshall Phibun, the first in what would prove to be a long line of military dictators. Probably one of the best examples of 1930s architecture is the Neilson Hays Library in downtown Bangkok. Phibun allied with the Japanese during World War II, sparing the capital from destruction, but lost his position of absolute power to a democratic civilian government after the war. He regained absolute power under murky circumstances surrounding the death of Rama VIII.
The current King Bhumibol (Rama IX) was crowned in 1946, and the first few decades of his reign were marked by the rise of communism in Indochina, leading to growing American military aid and a continuing succession of military dictators. The enduring legacy in Bangkok of this time are the bars of Patpong and Soi Cowboy, which catered to American soldiers on R & R from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Another reminder of this turbulent time is Jim Thompson's House and Museum, preserved exactly as the silk magnate left it when he mysteriously disappeared.
In 1973, massive student demonstrations forced General Thanom, the military ruler, to leave the country. A civilian government took over, but lasted only until 1976, when more student demonstrations against the return of Thanom were brutally crushed by right-wing forces fearing a communist takeover. General Prem Tinsulanonda, a moderate, took power in 1980 and is credited for leading Thailand out of this mess, granting amnesty to the communists and overseeing a period of growth and stability that turned Bangkok into the vibrant modern capital it is today.
One downturn in this trend of liberalization has been another military coup in 1991, overthrown the following year by bloody Bangkok street demonstrations. Since then, a succession of four civilian governments has seen the capital enjoy a much more stable political climate. The only other crisis of note was the 1997 Asian economic meltdown, whose legacy is still apparent in scores of unfinished condominiums and office towers.
In 2006 amidst widespread protest and accusations of human rights abuses, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who came to power with the Thai Rak Thai Party in 2001, was removed in a bloodless coup, staged while he was out of the country. Political turmoil has continued to show itself in street demonstrations and most visibly with the blocking by protesters of aiport and transit links in late 2008.
Bangkok offers a wide variety of accommodations to suit every taste and budget. A visitor can live royally in an elegant five star hotel or stay comfortably in a guest house on a modest budget. Since many hotels are often fully booked during the peak season from November to March, it is recommended that visitors make advance reservations if they plan to visit during this time.
The main hotel districts are around Siam Square and Ploenchit Road, next to the Chao Phraya River, along Silom Road and Suriwong Road, and along Sukhumvit Road. There are other areas such as Banglampoo where backpackers favor inexpensive guesthouses. More inexpensive accomodation is available across the river where some modern high-rise hotels are planned and in Chinatown, which is one of the most vibrant and typically Asian parts of Bangkok.
Siam Square and Ploenchit Road
In the area around Siam Square, you will find some very nice places to stay, along with a whole variety of shops, restaurants and nightspots. The less expensive places are concentrated on Soi Kasemann 1 and near Jim Thompson's House and Museum. These places, such as Wendy House, offer a guesthouse atmosphere with hotel comfort.
In a quiet enclave opposite Siam Square stands an elegant low-rise modern Thai building, the classy five-star Siam InterContinental. Another nearby luxury hotel is the Amari Watergate Hotel, near the World Trade Center. The Grand President Bangkok is a 30-year-old landmark aimed primarily at business travelers. Next to the Erawan Shrine and across from the Central World Plaza, you will find the Grand Hyatt Erawan, another stylish five-star hotel. Reputation precedes itself at Four Seasons Bangkok while less expensive accomodation can be found at the well known Indra Regent and Bangkok Palace.
Chao Phraya River, Silom Road and Suriwong Road
This district encompasses some of the older sections of Bangkok. The area around Silom Road and Suriwong Road is considered the financial district, and has a number of hotels and restaurants not far from the Patpong Night Market with its easy shopping and entertainment. For a centrally located top-class hotel geared for both business and leisure, try the Dusit Thani on the corner of Silom Road. Then there are two luxury establishments, the Montien Bangkok features a distinctly Thai character, and the Sukhothai, which boasts an elegant decor inspired by the walled city of Sukhothai.
Continue farther west, and you will reach the riverbank, where some of the leading hotels in Bangkok are to be found. The Royal Orchid Sheraton offers riverfront luxury oriented toward tour groups. For decades, the Shangri-La has claimed to be Bangkok's finest hotel, though there are now many others in its class. The Oriental, another stylish riverside hotel, is often voted as one of the world's top hotels. The Peninsula and Marriott Spa Resort are two other plush hotels overlooking the Chao Praya River.
This is another area well known for shops and nightspots, including the seamy bars of Soi Nana and Soi Cowboy. There are some mid-range hotels and inns here, including the Atlanta Hotel and the Bangkok Inn, but the better four-star and five-star hotels tend to be more oriented toward business travelers than tourists. However, what they may lack in character is made up for in facilities. The brand-new JW Marriott Bangkok is a deluxe hotel geared toward business travelers and boasts one of the most modern fitness centers in the city. The Landmark and the Westin Grande Sukhumvit are two of the most luxurious hotels on Sukhumvit, while the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit is an old mainstay with business travelers. Novotel Lotus caters to business clientele. For modern-sized, unpretentious topnotch accommodation, try the Amari Boulevard, where all the rooms have nice views of the Bangkok skyline. More budget oriented options can be found at Zenith Hotel and the Danish style Stable Lodge.
Wherever you decide to stay in Bangkok, the friendly people here in the "Land of Smiles" will make it easy to relax and enjoy your time in this hospitable city.