The city of Bangkok is a dichotomy between peaceful Buddhist temples & sordid red light districts. Beautiful national monuments & shoddy patches of low-income housing. Large, upscale shopping malls & equally large, rickety floating markets. Bright pink taxis or loud tuk tuks that jam the streets & a convenient but limited elevated metro line. Gleaming skyscrapers & lowly guest houses. The list goes on.
For the Americans out there, imagine a metropolitan area with a spread just about double that of Los Angeles, containing one million less people but three times the spice.
The area developed as a small trading post at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River and became the capital city of the kingdom of the Siam Empire in 1768. Around that time, it was given the ceremonial name of (take a deep breath) Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. That became shortened to Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, which is still the official name in Thai – but the name Bangkok stuck with foreigners and became the official English name for the entire city.
Brightly lit and ornately decorated gold signs stand tall on the corners of the streets, proudly displaying pictures of Thailand’s King and Royal Family. The King’s face is a familiar sight due to it’s prominence on everything in Thailand. Money, pictures, posters, signs. I’m told that Thai people really love their King, yet it seems that most people are reluctant to discuss thoughts on the Royal Family with foreigners.
There are a few stops that are mandatory in Bangkok. The first is the Grand Palace, which was the official residence of Thai Kings from the 18th century until present, when the current King chose to live in a different palace. The detail and architecture of the entire complex is mesmerizing. On the grounds is The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which was built as the Monarch’s personal place of worship. It’s a breathtaking collection of holy buildings, statues, and pagodas – and regarded as the most sacred temple in Thailand. I find the visit to the temple alone was worth the 350 baht entrance fee for the Grand Palace.
Wat Pho is also worth the short 10-minute walk from the Grand Palace, where for 50 Baht you can see Asia’s largest reclining buddha (46m long) and gaze at the remarkable mother of pearl inlaid into the buddha’s giant feet.
From there, it’s easy to jump on a river taxi (don’t fall for the overpriced tourist boats) for 15-20 baht or so and take in a different perspective on the city (or avoid the notoriously bad traffic jams). The Skytrain is also another option for avoiding street transportation, although it doesn’t cover the areas near the Grand Palace & Wat Pho. On the elevated train there are two lines to choose from, and you’ll need coins to pay for tickets which should cost anywhere from 15 to 40 baht depending on the destination.
The Skytrain provides access to Bangkok’s most popular mall – MBK, which is near the National Stadium stop on the Silom line. Shoppers can find virtually anything at MBK, and can even attempt to barter with independent shop stalls – but it will help to have a Thai friend with you.
The Bang Ramat Floating Market is also a major attraction in Bangkok, although only open on Sundays it’s easily accessible from the adjacent Taling Chan Floating Market, which is open on weekends. Whichever floating market you visit in Bangkok, make sure to plan an early morning visit when the markets are most active and transportation is readily available.
There are plenty of great local & foreign restaurants around the city, and a variety of upscale bars and nightclubs at the city’s fancy hotels around the downtown area.
One word of warning: when you’re looking for transport, watch out for tuk tuk drivers that offer ridiculous multi-stop city tours for ridiculously low prices (10 baht per person), or that tell you that your destination (a temple) is closed until 3pm, so they can take you somewhere else instead. These usually end up being a series of spontaneous stops at tailors or travel bureaus, where they’ll receive commission for your possible patronage. Stick to metered pink taxis if you’re not looking for the thrill of the tuk tuks.
Whatever adventure you’re looking for in Bangkok, it’s likely you’ll find it – no matter the time of day or night.