Be dazzled by gilded royal palaces and bustling temples in the South-East Asian hub of Bangkok
Glance down on the city as your flight lands and you might note a certain resemblance to its namesake in California. Like Los Angeles, Bangkok has grown exponentially; now studded with countless glass-clad skyscrapers, the sprawling metropolis harbours a population of more than eight million. It’s a hi-tech, artsy, baffling and thrilling destination.
But encased within the hurly-burly of the modern city, the soul of the traditional village from which it sprang survives. Dive down a soi (alley) or into the courtyard of a wat (Buddhist temple) in the early morning and you’ll discover another world – one where you might meet ochre-robed monks collecting alms, a silk-weaver preparing for a day at the loom or a market-trader poling a fruit-laden boat along a narrow khlong (canal).
Bangkok was founded by a king around his new residence, with temples enmeshed into its fabric; even today, the spirit of the city is inextricably linked with respect for royalty and religion alike, and both palaces and places of worship remain touchstones of Thai life. By exploring both, you’ll gain an insight into Bangkok’s psyche.
Just two and a half centuries ago, Baang Mákàwk was merely a sleepy village on the east bank of the Chao Phraya river opposite the larger settlement of Thonburi Si Mahasamut, a key trading post for merchants heading upstream from the Gulf of Siam. But events elsewhere were to transform the fortunes of this hamlet in the sticks: in 1867, the Siamese capital, Ayuthaya, was sacked by the Burmese, its court captured and exiled. General Phraya Taksin stepped up to kingship and moved the capital to Thonburi; in 1782, he was deposed by another general, Phraya Chakri, who relocated his capital across the river to the easily defensible site at Baang Mákàwk. Here, the new king – later called Rama I – built a royal palace and temples on the island of Ko Ratanakosin. No longer truly an island, Ko Ratanakosin remains the heart of the modern city, called Bangkok by foreigners but renamed by Rama I in spectacular style: Krungthep Mahanakhon Amonratanakosin Mahintara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Popnoppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amonphiman Avatansathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukamprasit – ‘City of Angels’, and a lot more besides.
Dozens of temples and palaces dot the city; seeing more than a handful would take weeks, so we’ve picked a selection of the most interesting to kick-start your visit.
Ko Ratanakosin remains the heart of Bangkok, and at the heart of the former island lies the royal complex encompassing Rama’s palace and Wat Phra Kaew, the ‘Temple of the Emerald Buddha’ (www.palaces.thai.net). Together, these form the capital’s kaleidoscopic centrepiece.
Despite the name, Wat Phra Kaew’s main draw isn’t the 66cm-high nephrite figurine in the main bót (chapel) – though pilgrims arrive from all over Thailand to pay respects. No, it’s the head-spinning decoration seemingly coating every inch of the temple, inside and out. With terrifying statues of celestial demons and other granite figures guarding the temple, soaring gilded prangs (spires) and chedis (stupas), and a vast mural of the Ramayana running around the cloister, it’s hard to know where to look.
The inauguration of the Grand Palace in 1785 marked the official founding of Bangkok. Though the king now lives elsewhere, most of the buildings are not open to the public. However, wandering among the spectacular residences, audience halls and throne rooms, admiring the garden topiary and bling decor, is an experience in itself.
The adjacent Wat Pho (www.watpho.com) is a living monastery-temple complex, reputedly founded in the 16th century and rebuilt by Rama I when developing his new capital; his remains are interred in the central bót. The biggest attraction – literally – is the enormous gilded reclining Buddha figure, some 46m long; be sure to admire the 3m-high feet inlaid with intricate mother-of-pearl motifs. Monks study and chat around the complex, and massages are available on site or at the adjacent school.
Wat Mahathat, a little north of the Grand Palace, dates from the 18th century. Visit this working monastery to meet monks and learn about Buddhism through daily evening talks or vipassana (insight) sessions at the meditation school.Wat Suthat, in nearby Banglamphu, is an important royal temple, but remains peaceful despite its fine murals and 8m-high bronze Phra Si Sakayamuni statue depicting a seated Buddha.
At the eastern fringes of Banglamphu, within the precincts of 18th-century Wat Saket, the Golden Mount rises 58m and offers views across Bangkok – climb the winding path past gnarled trees and tombstones to the viewing platform and gilded shrine at the top.
By the end of the 19th century the Grand Palace had – at least, in the eyes of King Chulalongkorn – become cramped and unhealthy; the modernising monarch developed a new palace district at Dusit Park. Though the royal residence, Chitralada Palace, is off-limits to the public, you can visit King Chulalongkorn’s extraordinary Vimanmek Mansion (www.vimanmek.com/?lang=en). Reputedly the world’s largest golden-teak building, it was constructed in 1868 and moved here in 1901; wander among the king’s personal effects and collections of arts and artefacts from around the world. Nearby Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall displays fine regional handicrafts. A ticket to Wat Phra Kaew also includes admission to Dusit.
The 82m-high prang of the ‘Temple of the Dawn’, Wat Arun, is arguably Bangkok’s most recognisable landmark, best appreciated from the Chao Phraya river before up-close admiration of its elaborate glazed ceramic decor. Founded on the site of a shrine discovered by Taksin, the temple was enlarged in the 18th and 19th centuries. Time your visit for dusk to capture dreamy photos.
To take in temples and palaces as well as less-seen corners, consider joining a guided tour. Urban Adventures (www.bangkokurbanadventures.com) offers cycling, tuk-tuk, river and walking tours, while ABC Amazing Bangkok Cyclist Tours (http://realasia.net) pedal through quiet parts of Thonburi, revealing local lifestyles. Grasshopper Adventures (http://grasshopperadventures.com) runs a night cycling tour to Wat Arun and Wat Pho and Spice Roads (www.spiceroads.com) provides a sunset tour starting at the Golden Mount.
Dress conservatively when visiting palaces and temples: shoulders and legs should be covered, and shoes rather than sandals should be worn.
Need to know
• Getting there Kenya Airways flies to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport daily.
Express trains run every 15 minutes from Suvarnabhumi to Makkasan City Terminal, near Phetchaburi MRT station about 7km east of the Grand Palace. Many buses also serve the airport – they are cheaper but slower. A taxi is likely to cost upwards of 500B, depending on destination.
• Getting around The MRT (Mass Rapid Transit, or Metro; www.mrta.co.th) and BTS Skytrain services (www.bts.co.th) are fast and cheap, but don’t serve the main tourist sights. Buses (www.bmta.co.th) are plentiful, but can get snarled up in traffic. Chao Phraya Express Boats (http://chaophrayaexpressboat.com/en/home/) are useful for accessing sites near the river, including most major temples and palaces. Taxis are also good value; tuk-tuks (rickshaws) are a noisy but fun experience.
• Money Currency in Thailand is the Baht (B). ATMs are widespread, and credit cards are commonly accepted.
• Tourist info Bangkok Tourist Division (www.bangkoktourist.com) has an office at 17/1 Th Phra Athit, near the National Museum, providing maps and information.
5 Rooftop Bar-Restaurants
High-rise drinking is all the rage, with countless rooftop bars in Bangkok. These are five of the best.
1 Sky Bar (www.lebua.com/sky-bar) & Distil (www.lebua.com/distil) are perched on the 63rd and 64th floor of the Tower at Lebua – the latter being Bangkok’s highest watering hole, with innovative mixologists creating fabulous cocktails.
2 Vertigo & Moon Bar (www.banyantree.com/en/bangkok/experience_the_resort/dining/vertigo_and_moon_bar) is the original that set the trend for sophisticated high-rise restaurant-bars.
3 Sala Rattanakosin (www.salaresorts.com/rattanakosin/dine-en.html) is a stylish restaurant with a delightful rooftop bar which, though not high-level, offers sweeping river views to Wat Arun and Wat Phra Kaew – perfect for sunset cocktails.
4 HI SO & Water Club (www.sofitel.com/gb/hotel-6835-sofitel-so-bangkok/index.shtml#./bar.shtml) are two of the options atop the Sofitel So Bangkok – choose from chic cabanas at HI SO or cocktails by the pool at the Water Club.
5 Above Eleven (www.aboveeleven.com) has a captivating bird’s eye view of Bangkok. It’s also a relaxing place to try Peruvian-Japanese cuisine.
and don’t miss…
Bangkok boasts museums bursting with fine arts, historic artefacts and fascinating tales of the city’s past
• The National Museum (www.nationalmuseums.finearts.go.th/thaimuseum_eng/bangkok/exhibition.htm), housed in an 18th-century viceroy’s palace, displays excellent history exhibits and traditional handicrafts, fine and religious art, musical instruments and weapons. Near Wat Arun, the National Museum of Royal Barges (www.nationalmuseums.finearts.go.th/thaimuseum_eng/royalbarges/history.html) displays ceremonial boats – and what boats! Up to 45m long, and adorned with intricate gilt religious decorations, each requires dozens of rowers.
In 1948 an American who had stumbled upon the traditional silk-weavers of Baan Krua district founded the Thai Silk Company; 12 years later he put together six traditional teak buildings to create what’s now the Jim Thompson House (www.jimthompsonhouse.com), a fascinating time-capsule preserving the eponymous trader’s abode and displaying his fine collection of artefacts. Wander across the khlong to delve into what’s left of the old Muslim silk-weaving village.
For more insights into traditional village life, head to Ban Kamthieng (www.siam-society.org/heritage/kamthieng.html), a reconstructed teak building decked out as the home of a rural family from northern Thailand.
Getting under the skin of Bangkok isn’t all about palaces, temples and museums, of course. For some fresh air and top-notch people-watching, head to Lumphini Park at dawn to see ranks of people practising Tai Chi. There’s rather less serene entertainment on offer at nearby Lumphini Stadium (http://www.muaythailumpinee.net/en/index.php), which hosts bouts of Muay Thai kickboxing.
Got a taste for local cuisine? Learn to cook up your own Phat Thai, stir-fry or curry at one of the city’s cookery schools. One of the most heralded – and pricey – is run by the Blue Elephant (www.blueelephant.com/bangkok/); Baipai is another professional, well-respected and moderately priced option.
Where to stay
1 Mandarin Oriental Hotel (+66 (0) 2 659 9000; www.mandarinoriental.com/Bangkok; doubles from 16,150B) Arguably Bangkok’s most luxurious hotel, with its wonderful riverside setting and gardens, has hosted luminaries including Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson.
2 Chakrabongse Villas (+66 (0) 2 222 1290; www.chakrabongsevillas.com; rooms/suites from 5,000B) Built in 1908 by Prince Chakrabongse, this delightful hotel has just seven rooms and suites decked in traditional furnishings and silks.
3 Old Bangkok Inn (+66 (0) 2 629 1787; www.oldbangkokinn.com; doubles from 3,190B) Several adjacent shophouses have been combined to create a stylish boutique hotel with varied decor and lush colours.
Where to eat
1 Deck (+66 (0) 2 221 9158; www.arunresidence.com) The views across the Chao Phraya to Wat Arun from this restaurant’s romantic terrace are almost as mouth-watering as the dishes on its varied menu. It’s part of the Arun Residence, a deluxe six-room hotel.
2 Ruen Mallika (+66 (0) 2 663 3211; www.ruenmallika.com) Taste delectable authentic ‘royal’ Thai cuisine in a two-century-old teak building with a decked area in a verdant garden in Sukhumvit. There’s a second branch in the Crystal Design Center.
3 Nahm (+66 (0) 2 625 3388; www.comohotels.com/metropolitanbangkok/dining/nahm)
Often named the city’s best restaurant, nahm is the flagship eatery at the Metropolitan by COMO Hotel Bangkok. Australian chef David Thompson dishes up fresh takes on traditional Thai cuisine.
If you like this…
Other destinations on the KQ network boasting jaw-dropping temples, palaces, forts and castles include New Delhi, home to the mighty Red Fort and Jama Masjid; Accra, from where forts and castles stretch along the former Gold Coast; Cairo, with its ancient mosques, pyramids and coptic churches; and Paris, where Notre- Dame cathedral, the ice-cream church of Sacre Coeur and nearby Palace of Versailles demand attention.
Listen to the locals
Autch and Numhom are local guides with Urban Adventures leading tours through less-visited districts and backstreets.
“For an authentic cheap lunch, try one of Bangkok’s many street stalls. Look for the places where locals are eating and join them for delicious noodle soups, fried rice and other dishes, mostly for under 50B or 60B.
“For a relaxing drink, we head to Cheap Charlie’s, a casual, street-side bar on Sukhumvit Soi 11. It attracts a mixed clientele all enjoying a few early evening beers at low prices.
“The best place to discover the city’s contemporary arts scene is the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (www.bacc.or.th), hosting varied exhibitions and events – check the website for details of what’s on.”