Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrThere are few cities in the world that manage to polarize visitors as poignantly as Bangkok. While all who venture this far south(east) agree that this bustling Thailand metropolis and primate city of 16 million souls, is the most convenient hub in Asia, they can't quite agree about the city's character. Is it a shining beacon of modernity, home to spectacular restaurants, roof-top bars, great shopping, enticing temples and deluxe hotels? Or is it a grimy, sleazy capital where road congestion, overwhelming pollution, chaotic markets and stifling heat oppresses all the senses? Bangkok is, in reality, all these things and more. Much more.
Bangkok is the embodiment of all the world's most famous capitals: it's the one that never sleeps, the city of neon lights, of angels, eternity, modernity and cheap, exotic love. This is where East meets West, old meets new and everyone's up for a very good time. One thing is certain, there is no visitor who can spend a few days in this intoxicating city and leave utterly unaffected.
Whether you're heading here for the food, the night-life, the shopping, the Thai culture or simply to absorb the craziness of it all, Bangkok is bound to be one of the most fascinating and contrasting cities you're ever likely to visit.
DistrictsBangkok is quite a sprawling city and lacks a most definite city center. There are over 150 districts here yet although a few interesting attractions are further afield, most tourist activity is centered around just a few areas.
RattanakosinBangkok of yesteryear, or Old City Center, is brimming with old palaces, fab museums, and cheap hostels. Rattanakosin is the vibrant budget tourist district found wedged between the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River and the Sri Rat Expressway. Here you'll find Khao San Road, known as backpacker haven, as well as the city's most prominent landmarks such as the Grand Palace complex and Wat Pho complex and most densely populated streets.
Hotels near Rattanakosin
SiamTo the east of Rattanakosin you'll find the Siam area, the most modern commercial center of the city filled with shopping malls and mid-range hotels. This area exudes a slightly more relaxed vibe, where streets are (somewhat cleaner) and less crowded, relatively speaking.
SukhumvitHop east yet another few kilometers and you'll get to experience the flashier side of Bangkok. This is where locals with money and expats with real jobs live, so here you'll see beautiful mansions, flashy hotels, great nightclubs as well as upper market restaurants and trendy bars. A recent explosion of boutique hotels have made Sukhumvit particularly popular among mid-budget-range travelers. If you're more than happy to explore raw-Bangkok but prefer to sleep in sanitized-Bangkok, without breaking the bank, then this is a great area in which to stay.
SilomSouth of Siam Square is the area known as Silom, one which epitomizes Bangkok to an absolute tee. By day, Silom means serious business and it's here that you'll find the financial heart of the city. But by night, all bets are off and Silom mutates into the most frenzied red-light district spot in town. If ever a suburb in Bangkok could be accused of having a split-personality, this would definitely be it.
ChinatownIf you're looking for maniacal street markets, exasperating crowds and overwhelming sights, smells and sounds then the city's Chinatown is the place you should head to first and foremost. Wedged between Siam and Rattanakosin, Chinatown is the most effervescent nook in Bangkok and a place which begs to be explored at length. Plenty of temples, restaurants, shops and bazaars to keep you busy for days if not weeks on end.
DusitThe most exclusive area in town, found north of Rattanakosin, Dusit* is the most European of all the suburbs and home to country's political and regal headquarters. Wide roads, lovely parks, stunning palaces and gorgeous restaurants grant Dusit a most un-Bangkok like atmosphere, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, at least for a few hours.
HistoryBangkok dates back to the 15th century, when it started out as a small village on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, ruled under the administration of the Ayutthaya Kingdom . Its favorable strategic position helped Bangkok develop swiftly and is still nowadays considered one of the most prominent, and hotly contested, hubs in Asia. Frantic bursts of modernizations over the years is what grants the city a most distinctive look and feel.
Following the sacking of Ayuttaya by the Burmese in 1767, the new king, Saphan Taksin, established the new capital city in what is now its western bank. In 1782, when the current dynasty began, King Rama I, Taksin's successor, moved the capital city again across the river, on the eastern bank. Today, the city stretches on both banks, on a surface of 579 square miles.
SightseeingMost of the city's major landmarks are found in the Rattanakosin area on the eastern banks of the river. Although the Thai capital is home to literally hundreds of interesting attractions, here you'll find the top 3: the Grand Palace, Wat Pho (or reclining Buddah Temple) and Wat Arun, possibly the most picturesque of them all.
When visiting temples, or any other places of worship, do remember that no matter how relaxed the city may appear, conservative attire and behavior is a must. Shorts and sleeveless tops are not acceptable temple-attire; long pants, skirts and kaftans are. Please note that photography is not allowed in many of the temples, so do inquire on entry.
The Grand PalaceThe Grand Palace is the biggest and most imposing attraction in Bangkok and is likely to absorb at least three or four hours of your time. The palace served as the seat of the Royal Family from 1782 until 1925, and spreads across more than 200,000 square meters. Within the grounds you'll also find Wat Phra Kaew, known more commonly as the 'Temple of the Emerald Buddha', the most sacred representation of Buddha. The 66cm tall, 250 year old statuette, carved from just a single piece of jade, is the most revered relic in the entire country and can only be touched by the King.
Wat PhoRight across the street from the Grand Palace, is the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, or Wat Pho, built upon the foundation of the first medical university in Thailand, and the birthplace of the famous Thai massage. The 141 feet gilded statue of the Reclining Buddha is a very popular symbol of Thailand. If the Grand Palace is too crowded for your tastes, Wat Pho provides a similarly impressive, albet slightly cheaper and more serene, experience.
Wat ArunLiterally translating to "The Temple of Dawn", Wat Arun's name originates from the aftermath of the 1767 battle against the Burmese, when King Taksin swore to restore it after seeing its radiantly reflected light of dawn. Before the capital city was moved across the Chao Phraya River, the temple was part of King Taksin's court, and also housed the Emerald Buddha. Wat Arun is probably the most iconic Thai edifice, offering a most breathtaking view both at sunrise and sunset.
How to Get ThereReaching Bangkok's most popular riverside is relatively easy, if not a little time consuming. If you're staying on the western banks on the river, simply hop on one of the many boats which ply its width. A single ride costs ฿20 ($0.62). If you happen to be within a half-hour walking distance on the eastern bank, than this is definitely the fastest, easiest and cheapest way for you to reach the sites. Between the maddening traffic and overpriced taxis, you'll likely be there in less time than it would take you to haggle with the at-times greedy taxi drivers.
If coming from further afield, note that the closest BTS Skytrain station is at Saphan Taksin. Under this station is where you'll find the Central Pier and where you can catch a quick and easy express boat to Tha Chang, the closest stop to the Palace and Temples. Boats displaying an orange or green flag, or no flag at all, all head to the Palace.
Erawan MuseumThe Erawan Museum was built by Lek Viriyaphant , a Bangkok tycoon, and renowned for its enormous three-headed elephant statue which houses the displays on show. The elephant-shaped museum is 95 feet tall, 98 feet long and weighs approximately 250 tonnes. The interior comprises three storys, each representing a plane of the Hindu universe: underworld, Earth and heaven. The museum contains old pottery and Ming vases at the lowest floor, European antiques on the middle floor, and ancient statues of Buddha, and cosmos-inspired pieces of art, on the highest floor.
Floating MarketsVisiting a floating market in Bangkok is one of the most iconic Southeast Asian experiences of all and, even though most visitors go intent on browsing rather than shopping, know that this is a near-impossible feat to accomplish. The most popular floating markets require an entrance fee ( around ฿200 ($6.20)) and once inside you'll get the chance to walk along the piers on which the merchants dock their boats full of exotic food, fruits and souvenirs. The most famous floating markets in Bangkok are Bang Ku Wiang, Taling Cha, Damnoen Saduak, and Tha Ka, although many return visitors may be shocked to see how commercialized these have become in recent years.
If you're after a slightly more authentic experience, then head to the Khlong Lat Mayon markets instead. These markets are little known to tourists but insanely popular with locals, and although you'll find more fresh and delectably cooked produce than souvenirs, it can be a much more enjoyable experience. So enjoyable in fact, that word is spreading fast and Khlong Lat Mayon is set to become the next hot-spot, so get here while you can!
Khao San RoadNo visit to Bangkok is complete without a thorough exploration of Khao San Road, the most famous address in the city, if not the whole country. Famous for its laid-back, bohemian atmosphere and cheaper-than-free food, drinks, and accommodation Khao San Road is a haven for backpackers and adventurous hippies, and is always a good solution for a last minute search of accommodation. Khao San Road has undergone a gentrification of sorts in the last decade, and now isn't nearly as dodgy, or enticing, as it used to be.
Khao san Road is about a block east from the river, on the northern end of the Rattanakosin district.
Wat RatchanaddaWat Ratchanadda is a temple famous for its 37 iron spires signifying the virtues of enlightenment. You'll find this temple about two blocks east of the Democracy Monument.
The Forensic MuseumThe Forensic Museum is not recommended for the sensitive traveler, and contains rather unusual and gloomy attractions, from genetically deformed fetuses in formaldehyde to skeletons and corpses affected by parasites, as well as the 35 kilos testicle belonging to a man with elephantiasis. Perhaps due to the museum's nature, the price for a visit is peculiarly low for a Thai museum - only ฿40 ($1.24). The museum is on the western side of the Chao Phraya River, within walking distance from Wat Arun.
The Democracy MonumentCommemorating the 1932 Thai Revolution, which marked the beginning of constitutional monarchy in Thailand, the Democracy Monument is a traffic circle on Ratchadamnoen Klang Road. The monument represents a manuscript containing the first constitution of Thailand, created in 1932, suspended on a round turret and guarded by four tall pillars. the pillars are wing shaped and represent the main forces of the Thai state: navy, army, air force and police, who were responsible for the revolution. The wings, as well as the radius of the square, measures 79 feet, to mark the date of the revolution, June 24th. The turret in the center measures 10 feet in height, to match June, the third month in the Thai calendar.
Jim Thompson HouseOne of the most popular tourist destination in Bangkok City, this is a complex of various old Thai structures that American businessman Jim Thompson collected from all parts of South Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. Thompson was in the business of silk, and he invested his funds in several rare artifacts from not only Thailand, but also Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.
These artifacts can be seen with the help of a guided tour across this building, along with an insight about live silk production and weaving in the adjacent silk weaver’s village, at a very reasonable price. A great in-house restaurant serves up some fantastic local food.
Wat BenchamabophitWat Benchamabophit is also known as the Marble Temple. This temple is a major tourist attraction which was constructed around 1899 AD by King Chulalongkorn. Merit makers visit the monks of this temple to give alms every morning between 6 AM to 7:30 AM. This temple has been submitted to UNESCO for consideration as a future World Heritage Site.
Vimanmek MansionAlso known as Vimanmek Palace, this mansion was one of the former Royal palaces in town and located close to the Dusit Zoo. English language guided tours are available, and please note that the mansion has a temple-like strict dress code.
Ancient City of SiamBangkok's Ancient Siam is an infinitely interesting attraction and makes for a full day excursion out of town. Found about an hour of the city's center, this 800 acre park gives an interesting overview of ancient Thailand and comprises the entire country in miniature replica, complete with lakes, rivers, cities and mountain ranges. Rent a bike and take yourself on a relaxing ride through old Thailand and see what life was like when Siam was alive and kicking. A fantastic way to tour the country in just a single, relaxing day.
Baiyoke Sky HotelCurrently (but soon to be overtaken) highest building in Bangkok, this hotel features an observation deck and bar, giving an astounding 360° view of the Bangkok skyline.
Queen Saovabha Memorial InstituteSnake lovers of the world rejoice, for here you'll see a comprehensive collection of some of the most venomous snakes on the planet. The institute's main purpose is to collect venom for the making of antidotes, yet is open to the public and holds daily shows where visitors are allowed, if not blatantly encouraged, to handle many of the specimens (whose venom may or may not have been extracted). Ophidiophobics need not apply.
Siriraj Medical MuseumIf the Forensic Museum is the one attraction on this list which has most caught your attention, then you may as well add this medical museum to your list of must-see places. The Siriraj Medical Museum displays the mummified remains of the first known serial killer in modern Thai history, Si Ouey Sae Urng, as well as various body bits and bobs of murder victims, all perfectly preserved in formaldehyde and elegantly displayed in glass cases. Immensely fascinating as well as educational (the lack of plaques lends one to make educated guesses as what a particular body part may or may not be) yet perhaps not the foremost family attraction in town. This may not be one of the most popular landmarks in town (surprisingly!) but if you happen to be temple-d and market-ed out then this may make for a refreshing sightseeing change. Visits on empty stomachs are highly recommended.
Siam Ocean WorldSpreading across 10,000 square meters and housing more than 30,000 marine species, Siam Ocean World was, until 2013, the biggest aquarium in Asia. Located inside the Siam Paragon shopping mall, the aquarium can be visited for ฿1,100 ($34), and the ticket includes a glass bottom boat cruise on the surface of the shark basin. Siam Ocean also boasts a jungle section, with terrestrial species, from tarantulas to exotic frogs and tropical penguins. For an extra ฿2,000 ($62) , you can also scuba dive inside the bigger aquariums.
Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and ZooThe world's largest crocodile farm is home to over 100,000 hungry snappers and is one of the city's foremost attractions. Come give a nose rub to Yai, the world's largest captive specimen, who measures a whopping six meters in length and weighs an impressive 2,465 pounds. The farm is also home to elephants, lions, horses, tigers, hippos and monkeys, in what is possibly the most eclectic animal concoction in the whole country.
Located at 555 Moo 7 Taiban Road in Samutprakarn, a small distance from Bangkok City, this place is open from 8 AM till 6 PM. Entry fee is ฿300 ($9.30).
Bangkok National MuseumThe Bangkok National Museum is the largest museum in the whole of South East Asia, which was opened by the monarch King Rama V in 1874. There are three main exhibition halls in this building: Siwamokhaphiman Hall, Buddhaisawan Chapel and the teak wood Red House.
Its galleries contain ancient Thai artifacts dating back to Neolithic times.
Wat Mangkon KamalawatThis is the most famous and the largest Chinese Buddhist temple in Bangkok.
This fine temple of worship is located in the district of Pom Prap Sattru Phai in the city's Chinatown, in a courtyard off Charoen Krung Road.
Flow HouseIf you're spending more than a couple of days in Bangkok, chances are you'll soon tire of the heat and crowds. Escape both at Flow House, a fantastic man-made surf club, where entry and use of all boarding equipment is free of charge. The only thing you pay for is your surfing time on the wave. Come chill out, or boogie and surf board for the entire day, with assistance of local and professional surfers. A great chance to get wet and wild in Bangkok, and a brilliant way to spend a sightseeing day off. Plenty of great food and cold drinks available all day long. Flow boarding on simulated waves is gaining international momentum and is swiftly rising as a bona fide sport. This place is mostly aimed at younger folks, yet as long as you're willing to have a go you'll have a great time, no matter your age.
ShoppingBangkok is a city of contrasts, and if you get the chance to travel by SkyTrain, you will get a great overview of the city, with skyscrapers raising upwards from slum-like areas. A similar contrast can be observed when it comes to shopping as well. Thailand's economy is very free, and everybody is allowed to improvise a street stall and sell almost anything, from food to plush toys and clothing on home-made sidecar motorcycles. You'll see them everywhere, from the shadiest markets to the front of the most extravagant malls, so variety is not an issue, whether you choose to buy a hand made souvenir or an expensive purse. Speaking of which, Bangkok's downtown CentralWorld and Siam Paragon stand as true coliseums of shopping, the former being one of the biggest shopping centers in Asia. Here you can find everything and anything your heart desires and your wallet can afford.
DiningThailand is legendary for its huge variety of food and its prodigious mixture of tastes. The reputation does not come undeserved and the variety, once again, stretches the gamut of extreme. Thai cuisine philosophy is very simple: to find the perfect infusion between sour, sweet, salty, and spicy.
Thai cuisine is as complex as it is varied, and the prices in Bangkok definitely match that credo. Meals range from ฿30 ($0.93) in hawker stalls, to ฿300 ($9.30) in opulent, 5-star digs.
To really get a taste of Thailand, you must be adventurous enough to try the street food. Don't worry about hygiene, Thais are very clean people, in spite of the unfriendly climate, and food is naturally conserved with jalapeno peppers. If you prefer your food less spicy, do make sure you let your chef know in advance.
NightlifeYou may have surmised by now that variation is king in Bangkok and this is definitely true for the city's night-life scene. Between strip clubs where prostitutes are offered along with your beers, to swanky cocktail bars, super swish rooftop clubs; exclusive nightclubs, ladyboys cabaret clubs; great comedy clubs, and a mind-boggling number of casual street-side bars, the options here are near endless.
PatpongPatpong still reigns supreme in Bangkok and is erroneously known as THE headquarters of the city's sex industry. In fact, Patpong is only one of many red-light districts in the city, although it is the only one geared towards providing entertainment to expats and tourists, first and foremost. In Patpong is where you'll find the most popular go-go bars, exotic shows and pay-by-the-hour companions, mostly found along Patpong 1 and Patpong 2 streets, while in nearby Silom Soi 4 you'll find an array of bars mainly catering to gay men. Before you go, please do read our safety section outlined below.
Nana PlazaNana Plaza has been giving Patpong a run for its money in recent years, as the latter seems to be slowly but surely be taken up by innocuous nightmarkets which party goers seem to find a little annoying. The entertainment complex is believe to be the largest 'sex plaza' in the world and found in the Sukhumvit district.
Khao San RoadIf you're looking for a more relaxed, fun night out, minus the sex bits, then head to Khao San Road instead, where a plethora of pubs, live music haunts, and chill out bars make up the majority of the establishments. Here you'll encounter the usual, young backpacker crowd as this street serves up about the cheapest drinks in the whole city.
For a classier night out, dress up a little and head to one of the city's best rooftop bars, where the drinks are exorbitantly expensive but do come with a side-serve of breathtaking city views. The best bars in town are found in the city's top 5-star hotels, with the one in the Hilton being the most revered of all.
HotelsBecause of Bangkok's size, it may make sense to check the area in which you'll want a hotel first, but here are the cities most popular picks:
NightlifeBangkok is one of the (inf)famous sex capitals of the world, being home to the largest sex complex ever built - Nana Plaza, situated on Sukhumvit Road Soi 4. Most hotels in the immediate area are not family friendly.
Tourist TransportationBangkok has two major airports, the older Don Muang Airport serving only a few budget carriers such as AirAsia, and the newer Suvarnabhumi Airport serving all other airlines.
Here's how to get around the city:
Song ThewsThese local buses are a fun experience and attraction to be experienced. Rides cost between ฿10 ($0.31) and ฿20 ($0.62), depending on the route. In Bangkok, a city where everyone tries to make an extra buck, rip-offs are the norm, so it helps to be prepared. Know where you should catch your songthaew, where you should get off and how much the ride should cost. Instead of asking the driver for assistance, simply wave one down, jump on board and hand over your baht at the end of the journey. Bangkok locals have a penchant for ripping off tourists, yet they also know there is an abundance of foreign expats who know what they're doing. Come across as the latter and you'll be (mostly) fine.
TaxisTaxi drivers are pretty much the same as everywhere, meaning that you either negotiate a price without the meter which is always overpriced, or you ask to put the counter on, in which case you risk being taken for a ride around the whole city. Motorcycle taxis are very popular in Bangkok and ideal if you don't value your life, or your limbs, all that much. Haggle before you jump on and then hope for the best.
TrainsThe subway and the SkyTrain are probably the most convenient means of transportation in Bangkok, and the latter is a particularly enjoyable way to get around thanks to the sub-zero temps of the air-conditioning system. A great way to deal with a blistering Bangkok day is to schedule a 5-minute Skytrain ride every hour or so. Pure bliss.
Notes on ProstitutionBangkok is known as the sex capital of the world and is a city where it's on offer on most street corners every single night of the week. While prostitution is actually illegal in Thailand, it is highly tolerated. Ladyboys are a particular attraction for Western visitors and many ladyboy bars in Bangkok are among the most frequented by tourists. Kathoey is the local name for a ladyboy and rises from the cultural belief that humans have more than two genders. Kathoey is that of a male who identifies himself as a female and runs the gamma from being a very effeminate male, to one who cross-dresses and even one who has undergone a complete sex change.
This most inherent part of Thai culture is what makes ladyboys not just tolerated in Thailand, but completely accepted. The fact they have been exploited by Westerners for entertainment is only one of quite a few negative effects of mass tourism, in a tolerant and very open country.
SafetyCompared to other major cities, Bangkok has a very low crime rate, and is generally a very safe place to live. Moreover, Thais display a very protective attitude towards tourists. However, traffic incidents are relatively frequent, and if you travel between cities, it is probably best to avoid the minivans, as their drivers have a reputation for speeding and alcohol-related accidents. One other thing to keep in mind is to avoid altercations with locals. No matter whose cause is the right one, the police will almost always part with the locals, unless bribed to switch sides.
The biggest problems for tourists are the scams run by most owners of go-go and ping-pong bars in the Patpong areas. Unsuspecting first-time visitors are lured with the offer of a show included free of charge for one ฿100 ($3.10) drink and then presented with a ฿2,000 ($62) bill by several burly blokes. Intense criminal activity in this area is a serious issue, so although it would certainly be a lot of fun to simply stroll by and pick a club randomly, in this case it's recommended you do some research and know exactly which bar you should, or should not, walk into.
The Bangkok SmellAlong with Hong Kong, Bangkok would have to be one of the most 'fragrant cities' on Earth, and you may take that any which way you please. Between the incessant traffic emission, lack of street care, sewer and rubbish amassment and multitude of food and animal smells, the city can have a more than overpowering effect on an uninitiated olfactory system. Having said all this, the famed eau de Bangkok is only ever a serious issue for asthmatics or anyone suffering from respiratory problems. For most others, however, it will simply serve as a wonderful reminder of just how clean his/her city of origin really is.
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Author: aelumag. Last updated: Feb 08, 2015