To put it simply, Bangkok can seem like a nightmare to the uninitiated. Sprawling expressways and overpasses, the huge new Sky Train and crowded streets full of vendors give the city a distinct Blade Runneresque feel. To confuse matters further, there’s no true ‘centre’ to the city, with various districts famed for different reasons being dotted right across town. On the positive side, the Sky Train has made it much easier to get around, and taxis, tuk-tuks, buses and motorcycle taxis are plentiful. Get your bearings by reading the following and it won’t take long for you to be seduced by the glorious chaos and charm of the City of Angels.
The most heavily touristed area – at least during the day – is Ko Rattanakosin (Rattanakosin Island), Bangkok’s old city lying on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya river. Here you’ll find fantastic historical architecture such as the glittering Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, as well as Wat Po, Wat Mahathat, the Golden Mount and Wat Suthat. The city’s founding pillar, Lak Muang, is found in this district, while cultural highlights include the National Museum, National Theatre and National Gallery. If you’re keen on seeing something completely out of the ordinary, pop across the river to the Museum of the Department of Forensic Medicine. Sanam Luang is about the only green spot on the ‘island’ – which has never truly been an island but would have seemed like one during the old city’s heyday, when many of the canals linking the area to the river had yet to be filled in.
Bangkok was once referred to as “The Venice of The East”, and today its klongs, or canals, are concentrated in Thonburi, an area lying to the west of the Chao Phraya river. You can take a klong tour, and most will stop at Wat Arun and the museum of theRoyal Barges. Buses heading south from Bangkok leave from Sai Tai bus terminal, located here.
Backpackers head to the Banglamphu and Thewet districts. Tucked away behind the Democracy Monument, there’s some good trinket shopping to be done on Khao San Road, a strip lined with guesthouses and cheap restaurants, none of which stand out for their ambience or cuisine. Some great restaurants and bars come to life at night along Phra Arthit Road, however, a mere stone’s throw away. Following the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya, this area is popular with students from nearby Thammasat and Silpakorn universities, and has a laid- back, cosmopolitan feel.
The Dusit district also offers plenty of tourist attractions. Vimanmek Palace, Wat Benchamabophit, Suan Pakkard Palace and Dusit Zoo are all found here. There’s not much in the way of hotels or restaurants, but a small arty area popular with local students has sprung up on Rachawithee Soi 34.
Northern Bangkok’s highlight for tourists is Chatuchak Weekend Market, best reached by catching the Skytrain. Mor Chit bus terminal is located at the same stop – handy to know if you want to catch an interprovincial bus heading north or northeast. Don Muang, Bangkok’s international airport, is about 15 km further north still.
Heading back south, the area around the Victory Monument features a variety of bars, including Saxophone Pub and Restaurant. This is also a major transport hub, with plenty of buses – and the Skytrain – passing through.
Young Thais and keen shoppers head to the area around Siam Square, a shoppers’ paradise – unless you’re a tall Western woman looking for off-the-rack clothes or shoes. Otherwise, there’s plenty to be found in malls such as Siam Discovery, Siam Center, Centerpoint (the most popular teenage hangout), Mah Bun Krong and the World Trade Center. A walk away from the latter you’ll find Panthip Plaza, also known as heaven for computer geeks. The non-shopper can retreat to the sanctuary of Jim Thompson’s House and Museum. There’s a cluster of hotels in this area, including Siam Intercontinental, Le Royal Meridien and the Novotel Siam Square. Popular restaurants including Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Café can also be found here.
Heading east along Ploenchit and Sukhumvit Roads, there’s plenty of further shopping to be had, both at street stalls, which spring up around the beginning of Sukhumvit and stretch to Soi Asoke, and department stores such as Central Chidlom and The Emporium, plus a huge array of dining options. Restaurants along this stretch include Auberge Dab, Baan Khanita, Lemon Grass, Cabbages and Condoms and Rossini’s. The Ekamai, the Eastern bus terminal, is located on Soi Ekamai (63), very close to the Science Center for Education. Sukhumvit Road also features a large selection of hotels, including the Bangkok JW Marriot, Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit and Delta Grand Pacific.
The Sathorn/Silom area is probably the closest Bangkok comes to having a financial district (although the Stock Exchange of Thailand is located some distance away on Ratchadaphisek Road). The area features a number of embassies and hotels, such as the Westin Banyan Tree, the Sukhothai, and the Dusit Thani. Silom Rd offers further shopping opportunities, including the Patpong nightmarket. Sri Maha Uma Devi temple is also located in this district. There’s plenty to choose from in this area when it comes to restaurants, particularly around Convent Rd. Head to nearby Lumphini Park for a break in a rare patch of green.
If you head west along Sathorn or Silom you’ll come to Charoen Krung (or ‘New’) Rd and the Chao Phraya again. A tram ran along this road earlier in the century, but these days hardly anything does – the traffic’s just so thick! This is another popular hotel area, with plush hotels overlooking the river including The Oriental, The Peninsula, the Shangri La, the Royal Orchid Sheraton and the Marriott Royal Garden Riverside. Dine at one of their restaurants or any of the many that dot their way along the majestic river such as Yok Yor Marina and Restaurant, or take a sunset cruise. River City Shopping Complex sells a huge array of antiques and is worth browsing through.
Further north along the river lie hectic Chinatown and Pahurat, an Indian district. Here you’ll find Wat Traimit, but the area is better known overall for its shopping. Yaowarat Rd has loads of gold shops, while Sampeng Lane has everything from hair accessories to shoes, all at bargain basement prices. Further north still there’s Pak Klong Talaart, with its colourful fresh flowers.
There are also a number of attractions to be found in the outlying areas of Bangkok and adjacent provinces, including King Rama IX Royal Park, Nonthaburi, the Ancient City, Damnoen Saduak Floating Market and Ayutthaya, the latter of which usually incorporates a visit to Bang-Pa In Summer Palace.