The only place to start your exploration of Bangkok is Ratanakosin, the royal island on the east bank of the Chao Phraya, where the city’s most important and extravagant sights are located. When Rama I developed Ratanakosin for his new capital in 1782, after the sacking of Ayutthaya and a temporary stay across the river in Thonburi, he paid tribute to its precursor by imitating Ayutthaya’s layout and architecture – he even shipped the building materials downstream from the ruins of the old city. Like Ayutthaya, the new capital was sited for protection beside a river and turned into an artificial island by the construction of defensive canals, with a central Grand Palace and adjoining royal temple, Wat Phra Kaeo, fronted by an open cremation field, Sanam Luang; the Wang Na (Palace of the Second King), now the National Museum, was also built at this time. Wat Pho, which predates the capital’s founding, was further embellished by Rama I’s successors, who have consolidated Ratanakosin’s pre-eminence by building several grand European-style palaces (now housing government institutions); Wat Mahathat, the most important centre of Buddhist learning in Southeast Asia; the National Theatre; the National Gallery; and Thammasat and Silpakorn universities.
Bangkok has expanded eastwards away from the river, leaving the Grand Palace a good 5km from the city’s commercial heart, and the royal family has long since moved its residence to Dusit, but Ratanakosin remains the ceremonial centre of the whole kingdom – so much so that it feels as if it might sink into the boggy ground under the weight of its own mighty edifices. The heavy, stately feel is lightened by traditional shophouses selling herbal medicines, pavement amulet-sellers and studenty canteens along the riverside road, Thanon Maharat; and by Sanam Luang, still used for cremations and royal ceremonies, but also functioning as a popular open park and the hub of the modern city’s bus system. Despite containing several of the country’s main sights, the area is busy enough in its own right not to have become a swarming tourist zone, and strikes a neat balance between liveliness and grandeur.