The first thing that strikes you about Bangkok is the bombardment of juxtaposing influences, Eastern and Western, traditional and modern, that hit you from all corners. Buddhist monks calmly walk past high rise buildings, ancient wats share space with beer bars and night clubs. Unlike other Asian cities like Tokyo, which resembles just another Western metropolis, the city of Bangkok seems comfortable enough with its multiple identities. Located only slightly above sea levels, Thailands largest city is flooded with monotonous regularity, during the monsoons and is, like so many other sprawling metros worldwide, chaotic, polluted and congested. Traffic is a nightmare, the temperature can reach record breaking levels, and there is a visible chasm that exists between the rich and the poor, but people here are much too busy having fun to notice or care.
Bangkok was originally known as “Bang Makok”, and in its earlier incarnation was a small village situated on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. In 1782, King Rama I renamed the city as Krung Thep, as the locals still call it. This was the beginning of the Chakri dynasty of kings which continues to date. Krung Thep, like Los Angeles means “City of Angels”; foreigners however, still refer to the city by its older name. The city has had a tumultuous history, especially in recent decades as military dictatorships and coups took place regularly. However, it has escaped any long lasting damage from these events and, today, is one of the most exciting cities in the world. Economic liberalization has brought in Western ideas and influences, but the city which boasts of nearly 800 temples, still retains its spiritual identity and cultural heritage.
How to Get There
The Suvaranabuhumi Airport has been Bangkoks international airport since 2006 and is used by all international flights. All facilities you would expect of a world class airport are available including money exchanges, ATMs, restaurants, a swank lounge and a duty free shopping arcade. Once at the terminal building, said to be the largest in the world, you can book a limousine at the limousine service center or catch one of the few metered taxis outside the exit. Airport express shuttles are also available and transport passengers to four stops - Silom, Khao San Road, Sukhumvit and Hua Lamphong Train Station. The flat rate is about 150 baht and they operate on an hourly basis. Local buses from a separate terminal connect the airport to many of the busiest areas in the city.
Transportation isn’t really a problem in Bangkok. The Bangkok Sky Train, also known as BTS, plies much of downtown and costs 5 to 10 baht for a ticket. Rides on Bangkoks Metro cost about 12 to 36 baht depending on the distance you want to travel. The citys buses, operated by the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority, come in a bewildering range of colors and service innumerable routes. The newer, orange air conditioned buses are the most comfortable of the lot and charge a maximum of 22 baht. The small green buses are best avoided, cramped as they are and driven by lunatic drivers. Taxis are definitely a more comfortable way of getting around, even with the notorious traffic jams in the city. All are metered and air conditioned with a minimum fee of 35 baht. A trip around Bangkok will cost less than a 100 baht, with no surcharges. Avoid the yellow-green taxis. The meters are rigged and the service is questionable. The other colors are operated by the larger taxi service companies who enforce better quality standards.
What to See
The Grand Palace is the most popular landmark in the city and home to the countrys most revered shrine, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Carved out of a single jade stone (not emerald, as most believe), the Emerald Buddha is an iconic figure in Thai culture and is placed high up above several altars. Besides, the shrine, there are other buildings and halls within the palace complex like the Borombinan Hall, and the Chakri Mahaprasat, which houses the ashes of the kings of the Chakri dynasty. Another palace worth visiting is the Vimanek Mansion, reportedly the largest golden teak building in the world. Within its 80 rooms and winding staircases lies an art connoisseurs dream – Thai and Western art, intricately caved teak and mahogany furniture, porcelain and glassware. There is also a museum with European carriages on display. If you have the time, take in a tour of the other palaces in the city like the Suan Pakkad Palace and the Phaya Thai Place. Palaces, being royal homes, a strict dress code applies for entry into one.
Bangkoks dominant Buddhist tradition can be seen in the hundreds of temples, small and large, that dot the cityscape. Besides the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, the largest wat in the city, is a regular on the tourist temple circuit. It’s famous for its massive figure of a reclining Buddha and as a center for the study of traditional Thai massage techniques. In fact, if you’ve never tried this incredibly rejuvenating therapy, this is a great place to be initiated into its pleasures. Make a sunset trip to the Temple of Dawn or Wat Arun- its illuminated façade stands out splendidly in the late evening. Wat Mahathat is a famous center for learning Vipasana meditation techniques. There is also a weekly amulet bazaar that’s set up just outside the palace.
The 24 meter high Democracy monument is located at the center of a traffic roundabout and marks the establishment of the countrys Constitution. Another famous site is the Victory Monument, built to commemorate the martyrs of the Thai-Franco dispute.
Jim Thompsons House
Formerly the abode of the American mastermind behind the revival of Thailands ailing silk industry, the house of Jim Thompson is now a museum housing Thompsons extensive collection of art including porcelain, traditional paintings and one of the oldest Budhhas in the world.
The National Museum houses an impressive collection of textiles, murals, Chinese art and a spectacular gold plated Buddha. Head to the Royal Barge Museum to gawk at the gaudy, gilded barges, or royal boats that are used during certain important state ceremonies.
This snake breeding and venom extraction facility conducts daily snake handling and venom milking shows involving some of the most poisonous cobras, vipers and kraits.
Where to Sleep
There is a vast range of accommodation available here, from affordable backpacker’s digs to luxury hotels. Khao San Road, the citys backpacker ghetto has budget accommodations, while the Rattanakosin area has some of the swankier, pricier pads. If you plan on using a lot of Bangkoks public transport system, choose a hotel with convenient, Metro and Skytrain access.
Where to Eat
The city offers myriad eating choices - from fine cuisine to street food. Generally, Sukhumvit Road and Khao San Road have a great selection of international cuisine restaurants while Chinatown is the place to head for cheaper priced eateries. Street stalls selling satay and curry shops are scattered all over the city. The local specialty? Deep fried bugs with soy sauce. Eeew, you might think, but quite tasty and good for you too!
Bangkok has shed some of its reputation as a sleaze center with a seedy night life. The famous Go-Go bars with their exotic dancers are still intact, but, there are an increasing number of chic restaurants, jazz clubs and trendy pubs. If packed dance floors and blaring music isn’t your idea of a great night out, there are chic lounges and bars that offer a more relaxed setting to enjoy your drink. Many of these are found at star hotels, like the 84+ at the Conrad Hotel, but many others like Bullys Bar can be found in areas like Sukhomvit Road and Silom. For those who like their evenings more raucous and less sophisticated, there are always the famous Go-Go bars. The Patpong area abounds in these raunchy strip clubs – more than 100 dot the two parallel streets. Nana Entertainment plaza in Sukhumvit is another sin hotspot. Something of a “sex mall” with three storeys of strictly adult entertainment, no families are allowed entrance.
Thailand also has one the most admirably tolerant attitudes towards homosexuals and transsexuals, owing probably to the tolerant nature of Buddhism. Transsexuals, who are in the process of re assigning their gender, are something of a night life cult by themselves. Known by locals and visitors alike as “lady boys”, they take part in extravagant cabaret style performances, elaborate affairs that are hugely popular. At many of these shows, you might find families sprinkled among the audience, so wide spread is their appeal.
Shopping in Bangkok, like so much else of the city, encompasses the best of the West with uniquely Asian spaces. The city boasts of world class malls like CentralWorld and The Emporium that can easily compare to any arcade in London or New York. For shopping with a more local flavor head to the Chatuchak Weekend Market- the bargain haunt of the city. With a mind boggling array of wares ranging from the ordinary to the exotic and the bizarre, this market offers the most chaotic but enjoyable shopping in Bangkok. The city also offers a range of celadon pottery, stone carvings, laquerware, silver ware and textiles that are available at the bigger malls as well as street bazaars. For a different sort of nightlife, visit the Patpong Night Market where you can pick up everything from CDs to “designer wear” and more. Khao San Road and the Suan Lum Night Bazaar are two other places where you can shop till the wee hours of morning for handicrafts, textiles, ready-to-wear, jewelry, furniture and lots more. At Bangkoks Chinatown, you’ll find oddities like feather boas and martial art weapons alongside gold shops.
Massages and Spas
The Thais haven’t been far behind in cashing in on the spa culture spreading across the globe and Bangkok has many world class spas and resorts that offer spa treatments. With spas and massage centers (the real deal, not the sleazy ones) all over the city, finding one is not difficult. The Orientist Spa, as well as those at hotels like the Shangri-La, Plaza Athenee and Dusit Thani offer exclusive spa packages in a serene environment. Besides herbal baths and treatments, you can also visit for a traditional Thai massage. Unlike other forms of massage, a Thai massage is intended to make the recipient feel “new” rather than relaxed and drowsy. By applying gentle pressure and stretching the body using Yogic principles, the masseur offers a one-on-one experience that’s rejuvenating and healing at the same time. Facial massages, aromatherapy and oil massages as well as foot massages are the most popular services.
Muay Thai Boxing
Muay Thai, or Thai boxing as it’s known internationally, is as old as Thailand itself. Originally conceived as a form of defense against Thailands enemies, the sport has a fanatic following in the country with matches being telecast live on television. The best way to catch the action is to head for one of the venues for these anything goes matches. Kicking and elbowing are some of the tactics used here to the loud accompaniment of a wind and percussion band who are comprised of former Muay Thai boxers themselves. The sport attaches great reverence to teachers and masters with a separate ritual honoring them at the beginning of every match. Spectators cheer on and the entire experience is a fun and enjoyable one.