The headlong pace and flawed modernity of Bangkok match few people’s visions of the capital of exotic Siam. Spiked with scores of high-rise buildings of concrete and glass, it’s a vast flatness that holds an estimated population of eleven million, and feels even bigger. Yet under the shadow of the skyscrapers you’ll find a heady mix of chaos and refinement, of frenetic markets, snail’s-pace traffic jams and hushed golden temples, of dispiriting, zombie-like sex shows and early-morning alms-giving ceremonies. Plenty of visitors enjoy the challenge of taking on the “Big Mango”, but one way or another, the place is sure to get under your skin.
Most budget travellers head for the Banglamphu district, where if you’re not careful you could end up watching DVDs all day long and selling your shoes when you run out of money. The district is far from having a monopoly on Bangkok accommodation, but it does have the advantage of being just a short walk from the major things to do in the Ratanakosin area: the dazzling ostentation of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo, lively and grandiose Wat Pho and the National Museum’s hoard of exquisite works of art. Once those cultural essentials have been seen, you can choose from a whole bevy of lesser sights, including Wat Benjamabophit (the “Marble Temple”), especially at festival time, and Jim Thompson’s House, a small, personal museum of Thai design.
For livelier things to do, explore the dark alleys of Chinatown’s bazaars or head for the water: the great Chao Phraya River, which breaks up and adds zest to the city’s landscape, is the backbone of a network of canals that remains fundamentally intact in the west-bank Thonburi district. Inevitably the waterways have earned Bangkok the title of “Venice of the East”, a tag that seems all too apt when you’re wading through flooded streets in the rainy season. Back on dry land, shopping varies from touristic outlets pushing silks, handicrafts and counterfeit watches, through home-grown boutiques selling street-wise fashions and stunning contemporary decor, to thronging local markets where half the fun is watching the crowds. Thailand’s long calendar of festivals is one of the few things that has been largely decentralized away from the capital, but Bangkok does offer the country’s most varied entertainment, ranging from traditional dancing and the orchestrated bedlam of Thai boxing, through hip bars and clubs playing the latest imported sounds, to the farang-only sex bars of the notorious Patpong district, a tinseltown Babylon that’s the tip of a dangerous iceberg. Even if the above doesn’t appeal, you’ll almost certainly pass through Bangkok once, if not several times – not only is it Thailand’s main port of entry, it’s also the obvious place to sort out onward travel, with good deals on international air tickets, as well as a convenient menu of embassies for visas to neighbouring countries.
Bangkok is a relatively young capital, established in 1782 after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya, the former capital. A temporary base was set up on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River, in what is now Thonburi, before work started on the more defensible east bank, where the French had built a grand, but short-lived, fort in the 1660s. The first king of the new dynasty, Rama I, built his palace at Ratanakosin, within a defensive ring of two (later expanded to three) canals, and this remains the city’s spiritual heart.
Initially, the city was largely amphibious: only the temples and royal palaces were built on dry land, while ordinary residences floated on thick bamboo rafts on the river and canals; even shops and warehouses were moored to the river bank. A major shift in emphasis came in the second half of the nineteenth century, first under Rama IV (1851–68), who as part of his effort to restyle the capital along European lines built Bangkok’s first roads, and then under Rama V (1868–1910), who constructed a new residential palace in Dusit, north of Ratanakosin, and laid out that area’s grand boulevards.
The modern metropolis
Since World War II, and especially from the mid-1960s onwards, Bangkok has seen an explosion of modernization, which has blown away earlier attempts at orderly planning and left the city without an obvious centre. Most of the canals have been filled in, replaced by endless rows of cheap, functional concrete shophouses, high-rises and housing estates, sprawling across a built-up area of over 300 square kilometres. The benefits of Thailand’s economic boom since the 1980s have been concentrated in Bangkok, attracting migration from all over the country and making the capital ever more dominant: the population, over half of which is under 30 years of age, is now forty times that of the second city, Chiang Mai.
Every aspect of national life is centralized in the city, but the mayor of Bangkok is not granted enough power to deal with the ensuing problems, notably that of traffic – which in Bangkok now comprises four-fifths of the nation’s automobiles. The Skytrain and the subway have undoubtedly helped, but the competing systems don’t intersect properly or ticket jointly, and it’s left to ingenious, local solutions such as the Khlong Saen Saeb canal boats and side-street motorbike taxis to keep the city moving. And there’s precious little chance to escape from the pollution in green space: the city has only 0.4 square metres of public parkland per inhabitant, the lowest figure in the world, compared, for example, to London’s 30.4 square metres per person.Read More
City of angels
City of angels
When Rama I was crowned in 1782, he gave his new capital a grand 43-syllable name to match his ambitious plans for the building of the city. Since then, 21 more syllables have been added. Krungthepmahanakhornbowornrattanakosinmahintarayutthayamahadilokpopnopparatratcha-thaniburiromudomratchaniwetmahasathanamornpimanavatarnsathitsakkathattiyavis-nukarprasit is certified by the Guinness Book of Records as the longest place-name in the world, roughly translating as “Great city of angels, the supreme repository of divine jewels, the great land unconquerable, the grand and prominent realm, the royal and delightful capital city full of nine noble gems, the highest royal dwelling and grand palace, the divine shelter and living place of the reincarnated spirits”. Fortunately, all Thais refer to the city simply as Krung Thep, “City of Angels”, though plenty can recite the full name at the drop of a hat. Bangkok – “Village of the Plum Olive” – was the name of the original village on the Thonburi side; with remarkable persistence, it has remained in use by foreigners since the time of the French garrison.
To invite good fortune, ward off malevolent spirits and gain protection from physical harm, many Thais wear or carry at least one amulet at all times. The most popular images are copies of sacred statues from famous wats, while others show revered monks, kings (Rama V is a favourite) or healers. On the reverse side, a yantra is often inscribed, a combination of letters and figures also designed to deflect evil, sometimes of a very specific nature: protecting your durian orchards from gales, for example, or your tuk-tuk from oncoming traffic. Individually hand-crafted or mass-produced, amulets can be made from bronze, clay, plaster or gold, and some even have sacred ingredients added, such as special herbs, or the ashes of burnt holy texts. But what really determines an amulet’s efficacy is its history: where and by whom it was made, who or what it represents and who consecrated it. Stories of miracle cures and lucky escapes also prompt a rush on whatever amulet the survivor was wearing. Monks are often involved in the making of the images and are always called upon to consecrate them – the more charismatic the monk, the more powerful the amulet. Religious authorities take a relaxed view of the amulet industry, despite its anomalous and commercial functions, and proceeds contribute to wat funds and good causes.
The belief in amulets is thought to have originated in India, where tiny images were sold to pilgrims who visited the four holy sites associated with the Buddha’s life. But not all amulets are Buddhist-related; there’s a whole range of other enchanted objects to wear for protection, including tigers’ teeth, rose quartz, tamarind seeds, coloured threads and miniature phalluses. Worn around the waist rather than the neck, the phallus amulets provide protection for the genitals as well as being associated with fertility, and are of Hindu origin.
For some people, amulets are not only a vital form of spiritual protection, but valuable collectors’ items as well. Amulet-collecting mania is something akin to stamp collecting and there are at least half a dozen Thai magazines for collectors, which give histories of certain types, tips on distinguishing between genuine items and fakes, and personal accounts of particularly powerful amulet experiences. The most rewarding places to watch the collectors and browse the wares yourself are at Wat Rajnadda Buddha Centre, probably the best place in Bangkok; along “Amulet Alley” on Trok Mahathat, between Wat Mahathat and the river, where streetside vendors will have cheaper examples; and at Chatuchak Weekend Market. Prices start as low as B50 and rise into the thousands.
Bangkok for kids
Bangkok for kids
The following theme parks and amusement centres are all designed for kids, the main drawbacks being that many are located a long way from the city centre. Other attractions kids should enjoy include the Museum of Siam, feeding the turtles at Wat Prayoon, Dusit Zoo, Siam Ocean World aquarium, the Snake Farm, cycling around Muang Boran Ancient City and pedal-boating in Lumphini Park. For general tips on kids’ Thailand, For more information, see Travelling with children.
Bangkok Butterfly Garden and Insectarium
In Suan Rotfai (Railway Park), just north of Chatuchak Weekend Market; Tues–Sun 8.30am–4.30pm; free; t02 272 4359–60. Over 500 butterflies flutter within an enormous landscaped dome. There’s also a study centre, plus family-oriented cycle routes and bikes (and pedalos) for rent in the adjacent park, which also has a kids’ playground. BTS Mo Chit or Chatuchak Park subway.
Ten minutes’ drive north of Don Muang Airport at kilometre-stone 7 Thanon Rangsit–Ongkarak; Mon–Fri 10am–5pm, Sat & Sun 10am–7pm; B500, children under 90cm free, or B1000 per person including lunch and transfers; t02 533 1152, wdreamworld-th.com. Theme park with different areas such as Snow Town and Fairytale Land, including water rides, a hanging coaster and other amusements. A/c bus #538 from Victory Monument.
Soi 26, Thanon Sukhumvit, down towards Thanon Rama IV; Mon–Thurs 9am–7pm, Fri–Sun 8.30am–8.30pm; B90–300, depending on size of visitor; t02 665 6555, wfunarium.co.th. Huge indoor playground, with an arts and crafts room, cooking classes and a restaurant. BTS to Prom Pong, then a taxi.
On the northeastern outskirts at 99 Thanon Ramindra, Minburi; daily 9am–5pm; joint ticket to both parks B600, children B500; t02 518 1000, wsafariworld.com. Drive-through safari park, with monkeys, lions, giraffes and zebras, and separate marine park with dolphins and sea lions, as well as various animal shows (phone for times). If you don’t have your own car, you can be driven through the park in a Safari World coach. Take a/c bus #60 from Rajdamnoen Klang in Banglamphu or a/c #26 from Victory Monument, then a songthaew to Safari World.
On the far eastern edge of town at 101 Thanon Sukhapiban 2; daily 10am–6pm; B300, children 100–130cm B100, under 100cm free, with extra charges for some rides, or B900 for an unlimited day pass; t02 919 7200, wsiamparkcity.com. Waterslides, whirlpools and artificial surf, plus roller coasters and other rides, and a safari zone. Bus #60 from Rajdamnoen Klang in Banglamphu.
Thailand’s sex industry
Thailand’s sex industry
Bangkok owes its reputation as the carnal capital of the world to a sex industry adept at peddling fantasies of cheap thrills on tap. More than a thousand sex-related businesses operate in the city, but the gaudy neon fleshpots of Patpong and Sukhumvit’s Soi Nana and Soi Cowboy give a misleading impression of an activity that is deeply rooted in Thai culture: the overwhelming majority of Thailand’s prostitutes of both sexes (estimated at anywhere between 200,000 and 700,000) work with Thai men, not farangs.
Prostitution and polygamy have long been intrinsic to the Thai way of life. Until Rama VI broke with the custom in 1910, Thai kings had always kept concubines, only a few of whom would be elevated to royal mothers. The practice was aped by the nobility and, from the early nineteenth century, by newly rich merchants keen to have lots of sons. Though the monarch is now monogamous, many men of all classes still keep mistresses, known as mia noi (minor wives), or have casual girlfriends (gig); the common view is that an official wife (mia luang) should be treated like the temple’s main Buddha image – respected and elevated upon the altar – whereas the minor wife is like an amulet, to be taken along wherever you go. For less wealthy men, prostitution is a far cheaper option: at least two-fifths of sexually active Thai men are thought to visit brothels twice a month.
The farang sex industry is a relatively new development, having started during the Vietnam War, when the American military set up seven bases around Thailand. The GIs’ appetite for “entertainment” attracted women from surrounding rural areas to cash in on the boom, and Bangkok joined the fray in 1967. By the mid-1970s, the GIs had left, but tourists replaced them, lured by advertising that diverted most of the traffic to Bangkok and Pattaya. Sex tourism has since grown to become an established part of the Thai economy and has spread to Phuket, Hat Yai, Ko Samui and Chiang Mai.
The majority of the women who work in the country’s go-go bars and “bar-beers” (outdoor hostess bars) come from the poorest areas of north and northeast Thailand. Economic refugees, they’re easily drawn into an industry in which they can make in a single night what it takes a month to earn in the rice fields. Many women opt for a couple of years in the sex bars to help pay off family debts and improve the living conditions of parents stuck in the poverty trap.
Many bar girls, and male prostitutes too, are looking for longer-term relationships with their farang customers, bringing a temporary respite from bar work and perhaps even a ticket out. A surprising number of one-night transactions do develop into some sort of holiday romance, with the young woman accompanying her farang “boyfriend” (often twice her age) around the country and maintaining contact after he’s returned home. It’s a common joke that some bar girls field half a dozen mobile phones so they can juggle all their various “sponsors”. An entire sub-genre of novels and confessional memoirs (among them the classic Hello, My Big Big Honey!: Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews) testifies to the role money plays in all this, and highlights the delusions common to both parties, not to mention the cross-cultural incomprehension.
Despite its ubiquity, prostitution has been illegal in Thailand since 1960, but sex-industry bosses easily circumvent the law by registering their establishments as clubs, karaoke bars or massage parlours, and making payoffs to the police and politicians. Sex workers, on the other hand, often endure exploitation and violence from pimps and customers rather than face fines and long rehabilitation sentences. Hardly surprising that many prefer to go freelance, working the clubs and bars in non-red-light zones such as Thanon Khao San. Life is made even more difficult because abortion is illegal in Thailand. The anti-prostitution law, however, does attempt to treat sex workers as victims rather than criminals and penalizes parents who sell their children. A high-profile voice in the struggle to improve the rights of sex workers is the Empower Foundation (wempowerfoundation.org), which not only organizes campaigns and runs education centres for bar workers but also manages its own bar in Chiang Mai.
Inevitably, child prostitution is a significant issue in Thailand, but NGOs such as ECPAT (wecpat.net) say numbers have declined over the last decade, due to zero-tolerance and awareness campaigns. The government has also strengthened legislation against hiring a prostitute under the age of 18, and anyone caught having sex with an under-15 is now charged with rape. The disadvantaged are still targeted by traffickers however, who “buy” children from desperately poor hill-tribe and other minority families and keep them as bonded slaves until the debt has been repaid.
If your time in Bangkok is limited, you should think especially carefully about what you want to do in the city before deciding which part of town to stay in. Traffic jams are so appalling here that easy access to Skytrain, subway or river transport can be crucial. Advance reservations are recommended where possible during high season (Nov–Feb), though some guesthouses will only take cash deposits. For ultra-cheap double rooms under B400, your widest choice lies on and around Banglamphu’s Thanon Khao San. The most inexpensive rooms here are no-frills crash-pads – small and often windowless, with thin walls and shared bathrooms – but Banglamphu also offers plenty of well-appointed mid-priced options with a/c and swimming pools. Other, far smaller and less interesting travellers’ ghettoes that might be worth bearing in mind are the generally dingy Soi Ngam Duphli, off the south side of Thanon Rama IV, which nevertheless harbours a couple of decent shoestring options; and Soi Kasemsan I, which is very handily placed next to Siam Square and firmly occupies the moderate range, though with a few rooms for B500. Otherwise, the majority of the city’s moderate and expensive rooms are scattered widely across the downtown areas, around Siam Square and Thanon Ploenchit, to the south of Thanon Rama IV and along Thanon Sukhumvit, and to a lesser extent in Chinatown. As well as easy access to transport links and shops, the downtown views from accommodation in these areas are a real plus, especially from the deluxe hotels that are scenically sited along the banks of the Chao Phraya River.
As you’d expect, nowhere in Thailand can compete with Bangkok’s diversity when it comes to food: it boasts an astonishing fifty thousand places to eat, almost one for every hundred citizens. Although prices are generally higher here than in the provinces, it’s still easy to dine well on a budget. For Thai food, the best gourmet restaurants in the country operate from the downtown districts, proffering wonderful royal, traditional and regional cuisines that definitely merit a visit. At the lower end of the price scale, one-dish meals from around the country are rustled up at the food courts of shopping centres and department stores, as well as at night markets and street stalls, which are so numerous in Bangkok that we can only flag the most promising areas. For the non-Thai cuisines, Chinatown naturally rates as the most authentic district for pure Chinese food; likewise neighbouring Pahurat, the capital’s Indian enclave, is best for unadulterated Indian dishes, while there’s a sprinkling of Indian and (mostly southern Thai) Muslim restaurants around Silom’s Maha Uma Devi Temple and nearby Thanon Charoen Krung. Sukhumvit’s Soi 3 is a hub for Middle Eastern cafés, complete with hookah pipes at the outdoor tables; good, comparatively cheap Japanese restaurants are concentrated on Soi Thaniya, at the east end of Thanon Silom; and there’s a Korean enclave in Sukhumvit Plaza, at the corner of Soi 12. In the more expensive restaurants listed below you may have to pay a ten percent service charge and seven percent VAT.
Drinking and nightlife
Drinking and nightlife
For many of Bangkok’s male visitors, nightfall is the signal to hit the city’s sex bars, most notoriously in the area off the east end of Thanon Silom known as Patpong. Fortunately, Bangkok’s nightlife has thoroughly grown up in the past ten years to leave these neon sumps behind, and now offers everything from microbreweries and vertiginous, rooftop cocktail bars to fiercely chic clubs and dance bars, hosting top-class DJs. The high-concept bars of Sukhumvit and the lively, teeming venues of Banglamphu, in particular, pull in the style-conscious cream of Thai youth and are tempting an increasing number of travellers to stuff their party gear into their rucksacks. During the cool season (Nov–Feb), an evening out at one of the seasonal beer gardens is a pleasant way of soaking up the urban atmosphere (and the traffic fumes). You’ll find them in hotel forecourts or sprawled in front of dozens of shopping centres all over the city, most notably Central World Plaza. Among the city’s club nights, look out for the interesting regular events organized by Zudrangma Record Store at venues such as Cosmic Café, which mix up dance music from all around Thailand and from all over the world. Getting back to your lodgings should be no problem in the small hours: many bus routes run a (reduced) service throughout the night, and tuk-tuks and taxis are always at hand – though it’s probably best for unaccompanied women to avoid using tuk-tuks late at night.
The bars, clubs and café-restaurants listed here, located around the east end of Thanon Silom and especially in the narrow alleys of Soi 2 and Soi 4, are the most notable of Bangkok’s gay nightlife venues. More general background on gay life in Thailand, plus contacts and sources of information, most of them concentrated in Bangkok, can be found in Basics (see Health). Advice on opening hours and on carrying ID is given in Drinking and Nightlife.
On the cultural front, the most accessible of the capital’s performing arts is Thai dancing, particularly when served up in bite-size portions in tourist shows. Thai boxing is also well worth watching: the raucous live experience at either of Bangkok’s two main national stadia far outshines the TV coverage.
Bangkok has a good reputation for shopping, particularly for antiques, gems, contemporary interior design and fashions, where the range and quality are streets ahead of other Thai cities. Silk and handicrafts are good buys too, though shopping for these in Chiang Mai has many advantages. As always, watch out for fakes: cut glass masquerading as precious stones, old, damaged goods being passed off as antiques, counterfeit designer clothes and accessories, pirated CDs and DVDs, even mocked-up international driver’s licences (though Thai travel agents and other organizations aren’t that easily fooled). Bangkok also has the best English-language bookshops in the country. Downtown is full of smart, multi-storey shopping plazas like Siam Centre, Siam Paragon and Central World on Thanon Rama I and Emporium on Thanon Sukhumvit, which is where you’ll find the majority of the city’s fashion stores, as well as designer lifestyle goods and bookshops. The plazas tend to be pleasantly air-conditioned and thronging with trendy young Thais, but don’t hold much interest for tourists unless you happen to be looking for a new outfit. Shopping centres, department stores and tourist-oriented shops in the city keep late hours, opening daily at 10 or 11am and closing at about 9pm; many small, upmarket boutiques, for example along Thanon Charoen Krung and Thanon Silom, close on Sundays, one or two even on Saturdays. Monday is meant to be no-street-vendor day throughout Bangkok, a chance for the pavements to get cleaned and for pedestrians to finally see where they’re going, but plenty of stalls manage to flout the rule.