1. The Grand Palace
The old part of the city - Rattanakosin "Island" (presumably because it was once encircled by canals) boasts the fewest hotels, but arguably contains the most interest, and this is perhaps the only part of the city suitable for a walking sightseeing tour. It will take you a half day at least to absorb the two main attractions here; namely, Wat Po, Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple with its huge reclining Buddha, and the adjoining Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha Temple. Also within this area lies the National Museum, The National Art Gallery, The National Theatre, Wat Mahatat which is the centre of Buddhist studies, and a broad flat expanse of recreational parkland called Sanam Luang. Also worth noting is the Lakmuang Pillar, which commemorates the founding of Bangkok 220 years ago and is, now a popular shrine featuring regular classical dance performances.
2. Bangkok Temples
The appeal of Thai temples lies not only in their aesthetic allure, but also in their wonderful accessibility, since they are open to visitors of all faiths. As well as serving as a place for worship, religious ceremonies, education, and community ceremonies, their tranquil interiors offer sanctuary from an increasingly stressful exterior, and provide an excellent place for contemplation for Thais and tourists alike.
Organised excursions usually include the most famous, ie. Wat Po, (reclining Buddha) Wat Traimitr (Golden Buddha) and Wat Benjamabophitr (Marble temple) which can all suffer from visitor overload, and a return trip at dawn or dusk when the coaches have gone is worth the effort. But it is the smaller least-visited ones, often hidden in quiet corners of the city, where Thai Temple Magic is most often discovered - and since there are more than 400 temples in Bangkok, the potential for magic is considerable.
There is perhaps no better reflection of Thailand’s abundance than that reflected in the dynamic cacophony of its local markets. Whether an up-country collection of shaky stalls, or a world-beater like Bangkok’s Chatuchak, the sheer quantity overwhelms the senses, and defies rational thought. "Who is eating all of this food?" is the first question, followed by "Who on earth is buying all of this stuff?" Asking a local might bring the puzzled glance of somebody being asked a silly question. Consulting a long-toothed expat might result in a predictable "Well, even after 25 years here, I’ve never figured that one out."
Consumer mysteries notwithstanding, Bangkok’s markets provide a touristic treat, and a few hours spent in any of the city’s tightly packed mazes will keep your eyes and nostrils at full attention, your feet dancing regular quicksteps, and your camera devouring rolls of film. Like so many sightseeing pleasures in the Kingdom, day markets are inevitably best appreciated at sunrise, and it is worth rising at first light to enjoy them at their coolest, most colourful best. Amongst the many waiting to be explored are the wholesale fruit, vegetable and flower market at Pak Klong Talaad, the plant market at Thewes, the clothes market at Pratunam (next to Amari Watergate), the markets of Chinatown (see below), the night market of Pat Pong, and of course the Mother of all Markets at Chatuchak every weekend. (see our member area of an ezine article on this subject.)
Bangkok’s Chinatown area merits a whole, or at least a half day’s exploration. During this time you are likely to sample every available odour on the planet, see numerous UNFO’s (unidentifiable non-flying objects -"What on earth is that?") admire countless Asian countenances of every age, experience wonder, shock, curiosity, revulsion, admiration, reverence, amazement, and overhear a dozen different local languages. Not least, you’ll have your lungs filled with some of the most traffic-polluted air in the city, sweetened by jasmine, and amply spiced by frying garlic. Not for the faint-hearted, this sprawling, crowded area guarantees a mega-buzz for those who enjoy feeling the pulse of a city directly through the jugular. Chinatown encompasses the equally worth visiting Thieves and Pahurat markets which are within easy walking distance. (Nancy Chandler’s map is indispensable for exploring Chinatown.)
5. Museums & Interesting Places
If you have time, your list might also include the National Museum, (largest in S.E. Asia), Wang Suan Pakaad (previously a royal residence), Jim Thompson’ s House, (superb antiques and legacy of a disappeared American silk specialist), Vimanmek Palace (beautiful golden teak building), the Snake Farm (fascinating venom extraction shows), Erawan Shrine, (roadside Brahman place of worship), Royal Barge Museum (wonderfully decorative boats used in royal processions), Dusit Zoo, Lumpini Park (to see Thai people at leisure) and the extraordinary enclave of Khao San Road, (to see backpackers at leisure, and possibly where your teenage son or daughter might be staying.)
6. The Main River
The Chao Phya river, plus the wealth of natural and man-made attractions which line its banks, provide a non-stop panoply of fascination. Numerous tour options are available, including day trips to the former Thai capital of Ayuthaya, and dinner cruises which allow you to experience the big river as a combination of darkness, reflections, and city lights. Arguably the most fun and certainly the best value is a return ride on the public river boat the Chaophya Express or Reua Duan to its Nonthaburi terminus. The round trip takes approximately three hours and you can get off at any of the numerous stops where something catches your interest.
7. The Canals (Klongs)
Visitors returning to Bangkok after an absence of a few decades are stunned to discover the exotic Venice-like city they once knew is now firmly embedded in concrete. Many of the long straight roads clogged with vehicles used to be waterways filled with boats. Few klongs remain, but those that do are worth visiting, particularly on the opposite (Thonburi) side of the river. Tours exist, but a privately arranged trip exploring the smaller lesser-known and often tiny channels is much preferable. For the pioneering traveller, numerous "longtail" public boats operate in this remaining network, and using these local services can be a wonderful experience. Unless you speak enough Thai to find your way around, a local guide is recommended.
8. Eating & Drinking
The excellence of Thai cuisine needs little introduction, even though Thai restaurants overseas tend to serve blander variations of the art. One of the best ways of appreciating the subtleties is participating in a Thai cooking class where students first shop for the ingredients and herbs in the local market before learning how to blend and combine them into the simply extraordinary taste sensations they provide. Bangkok is home to some of the finest restaurants in Asia, from the simplest of servings, to the most sophisticated haute cuisine.
Probably no other city in Asia offers such a vast choice of goods, much enhanced by the polite sales techniques, and the good-natured haggling that accompanies most transactions. Thailand is brimming with bargains, the more so since the devaluation of the Thai baht in 1997, and a simple stroll around the shops or local market may see you return with things that you never thought you wanted, but suddenly had to buy.
Provided you have sufficient time, following the standard tourists’ shopping rules will help ie. a) First invest time only observing what there is to buy in various outlets (markets, shops, department stores etc.), b) Decide what you want to buy, and check prices in several different locations, bargaining where applicable, c) Make purchases when you are reasonably sure there are no better deals available.
One good starting point for this procedure is at Pratunam followed by a short walk to Central World. A subsequent exploration of the myriad shops inside Central World Plaza will top off the first "shopseeing" impressions. The BTS brings you quickly and efficiently to the many other main shopping areas.
There is a vast choice: clothing, silks, cotton, batik, lacquerware, pewter, carvings, ceramics, silver, gold, furniture, handicrafts, hill tribe articles, jewellery and gemstones, to mention but a few. The latter should be bought from a reputable shop (ask local expats or your Embassy for recommendations) and made for pleasure rather than investment.
Bangkok’s racy nightlife has recently been hobbled by government attempts to uphold decency, and the bars are currently a shadow of their former self. This has happened many times over the years, and a return to the full formula may still be on the cards. Increasing numbers of tourists have also turned what was once rather spontaneous and charmingly amateur entertainment into something less appealing more commercialised, and less erotic. Nonetheless, Pat Pong is still worth a visit, not least for its night market. The Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy areas are smaller clones of the same thing. Most bars don’t cheat, but a few are rip-offs with hidden charges. Go with a local person, or take advice before setting out. More sedate entertainment comes in the form of a Thai dinner of bland but nonetheless enjoyable Thai dishes, with an introduction to the subtleties of Classical Dance.
Most participation sports are available in Bangkok for those fit enough to perform in the tropical conditions, and the city is particularly well endowed with golf courses. A cooler alternative is ice skating, and the Thais have shown themselves to be skilful ice hockey players. Arguably the most interesting spectator sport is Thai Boxing - Muay Thai - and a major bout can empty the city streets of taxis until it is over as drivers flock to the nearest television set. Reserved for the daring rather than the dainty, a seat in one of Bangkok’s two boxing stadiums will guarantee an evening of revelations into the Thai psyche.