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
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.
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.
Bangkok may seem a bit overwhelming at first, with so much to see and do, but once you get used to all the traffic and confusing geography be ready to experience the time of your life.
Unlike many other cities around the world where you immediately feel a sense of awe and wonder, Bangkok's contrasts might require an adjustment when first arriving. However, it is certainly worth exploring this amazing capital. There are a number of areas inside and outside the city where an abundance of sights and attractions can be visited on a day tour.
The most famous of Bangkok's sights, the Grand Palace is a square mile of royal white buildings surrounded by white walls. Within the complex is Wat Phra Kaew, which contains the Emerald Buddha. To gain an overview of Thai history and art, go to the nearby National Museum, which offers free guided tours in English. Not far south from the Grand Palace is Bangkok's oldest and largest temple, Wat Pho, famous for its enormous Reclining Buddha and its school of traditional Thai massage. Dip through the Pak Klong Talat fruit and flower market on your way to nearby Wat Mahathat, the most important place of Buddhist learning in Southeast Asia. Finish up your day on the rooftop of the Phranakorn Bar & Gallery with a refreshing drink and a curry.
Near the Democracy Monument, which forms the centerpiece of a roundabout, you will find a variety of important and interesting temples. Wat Sa Ket may look undistinguished, but from the top of this "Golden Mount," you can enjoy some truly stunning views of the city. Built by Rama V, the unusual Chinese-influenced design of Wat Ratchabophit makes it one of the city's prettiest temples. Wat Indravihara, is worth visiting for a glimpse of the towering 32-meter-high Standing Buddha. Nearby is the spacious, leafy area of Dusit, a royal district since the reign of Rama V. The last major temple built in Bangkok, Wat Benchamabophit incorporates an intriguing mix of classical Thai and 19th century European design and is often referred to as the "Marble Temple" because of its Carrara marble walls. The Dusit Zoo, set in a beautiful park, houses some rare animals, including the Komodo dragon, the world's largest reptile. The elegant National Library is also in this area, alongside a smaller library built as a tribute to the present King, Rama IX. Not far away is the backpackers' hangout, Banglampoo, where you can do some shopping and have a bite to eat in a number of good restaurants, including the Sidewalk Café.
The markets, shops and remnants of old-style architecture make Chinatown interesting for tourists. Check out the China House, located at the Oriental Hotel, for fine dining, or the Bamboo Bar for live jazz and drinks. There are also some interesting temples in the area. Wat Chakrawat, which overlooks the Chao Phraya River, is home to several crocodiles and monkeys. Wat Ga Buang Kim is a typical neighborhood temple where local residents socialize and the occasional worshiper drops by. Inside Wat Traimit, you will find the world's biggest solid-gold Buddha, which is more than three meters tall and weighs five and a half tons. Stop in at Thai Nakon Intimex to admire the traditional craft of nielloware, or metalwork. Although Bangkok is generally a very safe city, this is one area that can be dangerous for tourists at night.
Thonburi became linked to central Bangkok by the construction of the Memorial Bridge in 1932, but it retained its separate identity until 1971. For an authentic Thai cuisine experience try the Blue Elephant, located in the historic Blue Elephant Cooking School. Beside the Memorial Bridge lies Wat Prayoon. This temple is worth visiting for its unusual collection of miniature chedis or Thai Buddhist monuments and shrines. A popular way to see the sights in Thonburi is to embark on a canal tour by chartering a boat at Tha Chang, in front of the Grand Palace. A canal tour will take in one of Bangkok's most memorable landmarks, Wat Arun, also known as the "Temple of Dawn." Another highlight of a canal tour is the museum of the Royal Barges, where you will see a variety of fantastically ornamented boats used in ceremonial processions on the river. Stop in at Chao Phraya River Cultural Center to see how local crafts are made. You can purchase the ones you like, or come back in the evening to see one of their regularly held performances. If your visit falls on a Saturday or Sunday, head to the Taling Chan District Office, to buy fresh fruits and more at the Floating Market.
Bangkok's downtown area includes the main financial district around Silom Road, the green expanse of Lumpini Park and a number of shopping centers around Sukhumvit Road and Siam Square, including the Ma Bun Krong Center. Around Siam Square, you can have coffee at Au Bon Pain, then go on a tour of Jim Thompson's House and Museum nearby. After visiting the famous Erawan Shrine, you can go across the street and visit the fabulous Thai Craft Museum, followed by some duty-free shopping at the World Trade Center. At the Snake Farm, near the intersection of Rama I Road and Silom Road, you can see venom extracted from live snakes two times a day. A few blocks away lies the Patpong Night Market, which is also well known for its many neon-lit go-go bars.
There are a number of destinations outside Bangkok that are worth visiting. Ayutthaya, the ancient capital and a World Heritage Site, is situated 80 kilometers north of Bangkok. Kanchanaburi, best known as the location of the bridge over the River Kwai, is set in some limestone hills 120 kilometers (75 miles) to the northwest. Worth the trip is Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, 109 kilometers (68 miles) southwest of the capital. Here you will see canals crowded with paddle boats laden with fruits and vegetables.
After spending some time in Bangkok, the "City of Angels," you will see why many visitors keep coming back, some for business, some for holiday, and some to settle down.
Thailand For You (+66 2671 0235/ http://www.th4u.com/guide.htm/)
Walking Tour of Bangkok (http://www.visit-thailand.info/special-features/walking-tour-of-bangkok.htm/)
Thailand For Visitors (http://thailandforvisitors.com/central/bangkok/ctown-tour.html/)
Bangkok Private Tours (http://www.bangkokprivatetours.com/bangkok_walk.html/)
Bangkok River Cruise Tours (+66 2651 9501/ http://www.bangkok.com/river-cruise-tours/index.html/)