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.
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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 (both performances and classes), 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.
Brief history of Bangkok
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.
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. You can book onto tours that cover more than one of these sights, for example the Flexi Walking Temple Tour, which takes in the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun.
Wat Phra Kaeo and the Grand Palace
Hanging together in a precarious harmony of strangely beautiful colours and shapes, Wat Phra Kaeo is the apogee of Thai religious art and the holiest Buddhist site in the country, housing the most important image, the Emerald Buddha. Built as the private royal temple, Wat Phra Kaeo occupies the northeast corner of the huge Grand Palace, whose official opening in 1785 marked the founding of the new capital and the rebirth of the Thai nation after the Burmese invasion. Successive kings have all left their mark here, and the palace complex now covers 2 acres, though very little apart from the wat is open to tourists.
The only entrance to the complex in 2km of crenellated walls is the Gate of Glorious Victory in the middle of the north side, on Thanon Na Phra Lan. This brings you onto a driveway with a tantalizing view of the temple’s glittering spires on the left and the dowdy buildings of the Offices of the Royal Household on the right: this is the powerhouse of the kingdom’s ceremonial life, providing everything down to chairs and catering, even lending an urn when someone of rank dies. A textile museum under the auspices of the queen, which it’s claimed will show how she invented a new Thai national dress in the 1960s, is scheduled to open among these buildings, but for now you’ll have to content yourself with some crafts shopping at the Queen’s Support Foundation (see Banglamphu and Ratanakosin). Turn left at the end of the driveway for the ticket office and entrance turnstiles.
As this is Thailand’s most sacred site, you have to dress in smart clothes: no vests or see-through clothes; men must wear full-length trousers, women trousers or over-the-knee skirts. Suitable garments can be borrowed from the office to the right just inside the Gate of Glorious Victory (same building as the Queen’s Support Foundation shop; free, deposit of B200 per item).
Wat Phra Kaeo
Entering the temple is like stepping onto a lavishly detailed stage set, from the immaculate flagstones right up to the gaudy roofs. Reinforcing the sense of unreality, the whole compound is surrounded by arcaded walls, decorated with extraordinary murals of scenes from the Ramayana. Although it receives hundreds of foreign sightseers and at least as many Thai pilgrims every day, the temple, which has no monks in residence, maintains an unnervingly sanitized look, as if it were built only yesterday.
The approach to the bot
Inside the entrance turnstiles, you’re confronted by 6m-tall yaksha, gaudy demons from the Ramayana, who watch over the Emerald Buddha from every gate of the temple and ward off evil spirits; the king of the demons, green, ten-faced Totsagan (labelled “Tosakanth”), stands to the left of the entrance by the southwest corner of the golden Phra Si Ratana Chedi. Less threatening is the toothless old codger, cast in bronze and sitting on a plinth immediately inside the turnstiles by the back wall of the bot, who represents a Hindu hermit credited with inventing yoga and herbal medicine. In front of him is a large grinding stone where previously herbal practitioners could come to grind their ingredients – with enhanced powers, of course. Skirting around the bot, you’ll reach its main entrance on the eastern side, in front of which stands a cluster of grey statues, which have a strong Chinese feel: next to Kuan Im, the Chinese bodhisattva of mercy shown holding a bottle of amritsa (sacred elixir), are a sturdy pillar topped by a lotus flower, which Bangkok’s Chinese community presented to Rama IV during his 27 years as a monk, and two handsome cows which commemorate Rama I’s birth in the Year of the Cow. Worshippers make their offerings to the Emerald Buddha at two small, stand-in Buddhas here, where they can look at the main image through the open doors of the bot without messing up its pristine interior with gold leaf, candle wax and joss-stick ash.
The bot and the Emerald Buddha
The bot, the largest building of the temple, is one of the few original structures left at Wat Phra Kaeo, though it has been augmented so often it looks like the work of a wildly inspired child. Eight sema stones mark the boundary of the consecrated area around the bot, each sheltering in a psychedelic fairy castle, joined by a low wall decorated with Chinese porcelain tiles, which depict delicate landscapes. The walls of the bot itself, sparkling with gilt and coloured glass, are supported by 112 golden garudas (birdmen) holding nagas, representing the god Indra saving the world by slaying the serpent-cloud that had swallowed up all the water. The symbolism reflects the king’s traditional role as a rainmaker.
Of the bot’s three doorways, the largest, in the middle, is reserved for the king himself. Inside, a 9m-high pedestal supports the tiny Emerald Buddha, a figure whose mystique draws pilgrims from all over Thailand – as well as politicians accused of corruption, who traditionally come here to publicly swear their innocence. Here especially you must act with respect, sitting with your feet pointing away from the Buddha. The spiritual power of the 60cm jadeite image derives from its legendary past. Reputed to have been created by the gods in India, it was discovered when lightning cracked open an ancient chedi in Chiang Rai in the early fifteenth century. The image was then moved around the north, dispensing miracles wherever it went, before being taken to Laos for two hundred years. As it was believed to bring great fortune to its possessor, the future Rama I snatched it back when he captured Vientiane in 1779, installing it at the heart of his new capital as a talisman for king and country.
Seated in the Dhyana Mudra (meditation), the Emerald Buddha has three costumes, one for each season: the crown and ornaments of an Ayutthayan king for the hot season; a gilt monastic robe for the rainy season, when the monks retreat into the temples; this is augmented with a full-length gold shawl in the cool season. To this day it’s the job of the king himself to ceremonially change the Buddha’s costumes – though in recent years, due to the present king’s age, the Crown Prince has conducted proceedings. The Buddha was granted a new set of these three costumes in 1997: the old set is now in the Wat Phra Kaeo Museum while the two costumes of the new set that are not in use are on display among the blinding glitter of crowns and jewels in the Royal Decorations and Coins Pavilion, which lies between the ticket office and the entrance to Wat Phra Kaeo.
Among the paraphernalia in front of the pedestal sits the tiny, silver Phra Chai Lang Chang (Victory Buddha), which Rama I always carried into battle on the back of his elephant for luck and which still plays an important part in coronation ceremonies. Recently covered in gold, it occupies a prestigious spot dead centre, but is modestly obscured by a fan and by the umbrella of a larger gold Buddha in front. The tallest pair of a dozen standing Buddha images, all made of bronze but encased in gold and raising both hands to dispel fear, are at the front: Rama III dedicated the one on the Emerald Buddha’s left to Rama I, the one on his right to Rama II, and Rama IV enshrined relics of the Buddha in their crowns.
The Chapel of the Gandhara Buddha
Near the entrance to the bot, in the southeastern corner of the temple precinct, look out for the exquisite scenes of rice sheaves, fish and turtles painted in gold on blue glass on the doors and windows of the Chapel of the Gandhara Buddha (labelled “Hor Phra Kanthara Rat”). The decorations allude to the fertility of the ricefields, as this building was crucial to the old royal rainmaking ritual and is still used during the Royal Ploughing Ceremony. Adorning the roof are thousands of nagas (serpents), symbolizing water; inside the locked chapel, among the paraphernalia used in the ritual, is kept the Gandhara Buddha, a bronze image in the gesture of calling down the rain with its right hand, while cupping the left to catch it. In times of drought the king would order a week-long rainmaking ceremony to be conducted, during which he was bathed regularly and kept away from the opposite sex while Buddhist monks and Hindu Brahmins chanted continuously.
The Royal Pantheon and minor buildings
On the north side of the bot, the eastern end of the upper terrace is taken up with the Prasat Phra Thep Bidorn, known as the Royal Pantheon, a splendid hash of styles. The pantheon has its roots in the Khmer concept of devaraja, or the divinity of kings: inside are bronze and gold statues, precisely life-size, of all the kings since Bangkok became the Thai capital. Constructed by Rama IV, the building is open only on special occasions, such as Chakri Day (April 6), when the dynasty is commemorated, and Coronation Day (May 5).
From here you get the best view of the royal mausoleum, the porcelain viharn and the supplementary library to the north (all of which are closed to tourists, though you can sometimes glimpse Thai Buddhists worshipping in the library), and, running along the east side of the temple, a row of eight bullet-like prangs, each of which has a different nasty ceramic colour. Described as “monstrous vegetables” by Somerset Maugham, they represent, from north to south, the Buddha, Buddhist scripture, the monkhood, the nunhood, the Buddhas who attained enlightenment but did not preach, previous emperors, the Buddha in his previous lives and the future Buddha.
The Phra Mondop and Phra Si Ratana Chedi
In the middle of the terrace, dressed in deep-green glass mosaics, the Phra Mondop was built by Rama I to house the Tripitaka, or Buddhist scripture, which the king had revised at Wat Mahathat in 1788, the previous version having been lost in the sack of Ayutthaya. It’s famous for the mother-of-pearl cabinet and solid-silver mats inside, but is never open. Four tiny memorials at each corner of the mondop show the symbols of each of the nine Chakri kings, from the ancient crown representing Rama I to the present king’s discus, while the bronze statues surrounding the memorials portray each king’s lucky white elephants, labelled by name and pedigree. A contribution of Rama IV, on the north side of the mondop, is a scale model of Angkor Wat, the prodigious Cambodian temple, which during his reign (1851–68) was under Thai rule (apparently, the king had wanted to shift a whole Khmer temple to Bangkok but, fortunately, was dissuaded by his officials). At the western end of the terrace, you can’t miss the golden dazzle of the Phra Si Ratana Chedi, which Rama IV erected, in imitation of the famous bell-shaped chedis at Ayutthaya’s Wat Phra Si Sanphet, to enshrine a piece of the Buddha’s breastbone.
Extending for about a kilometre in the arcades that run inside the wat walls, the murals of the Ramayana depict every blow of this ancient story of the triumph of good over evil, using the vibrant buildings of the temple itself as backdrops, and setting them off against the subdued colours of richly detailed landscapes. Because of the damaging humidity, none of the original work of Rama I’s time survives: maintenance is a never-ending process, so you’ll always find an artist working on one of the scenes. The story is told in 178 panels, labelled and numbered in Thai only, starting in the middle of the northern side opposite the porcelain viharn: in the first episode, a hermit, while out ploughing, finds the baby Sita, the heroine, floating in a gold urn on a lotus leaf and brings her to the city. Panel 109 near the gate leading to the palace buildings shows the climax of the story, when Rama, the hero, kills the ten-headed demon Totsagan (Ravana), and the ladies of the enemy city weep at the demon’s death. Panel 110 depicts his elaborate funeral procession, and in 113 you can see the funeral fair, with acrobats, sword-jugglers and tightrope-walkers. In between, Sita – Rama’s wife – has to walk on fire to prove that she has been faithful during her fourteen years of imprisonment by Totsagan. If you haven’t the stamina for the long walk round, you could sneak a look at the end of the story, to the left of the first panel, where Rama holds a victory parade and distributes thank-you gifts.
The palace buildings
The exit in the southwest corner of Wat Phra Kaeo brings you to the palace proper, a vast area of buildings and gardens, of which only the northern edge is on show to the public. Though the king now lives in the Chitrlada Palace in Dusit, the Grand Palace is still used for state receptions and official ceremonies, during which there is no public access to any part of the palace.
Phra Maha Monthien
Coming out of the temple compound, you’ll first of all see to your right a beautiful Chinese gate covered in innumerable tiny porcelain tiles. Extending in a straight line behind the gate is the Phra Maha Monthien, which was the grand residential complex of earlier kings.
Only the Phra Thinang Amarin Winichai, the main audience hall at the front of the complex, is open to the public. The supreme court in the era of the absolute monarchy, it nowadays serves as the venue for ceremonies such as the king’s birthday speech. Dominating the hall are two gleaming, intricately carved thrones that date from the reign of Rama I: a white umbrella with the full nine tiers owing to a king shelters the front seat, while the unusual busbok behind is topped with a spired roof and floats on a boat-shaped base. The rear buildings are still used for the most important part of the elaborate coronation ceremony, and each new king is supposed to spend a night there to show solidarity with his forefathers.
Chakri Maha Prasat
Next door you can admire the facade of the “farang with a Thai hat”, as the Chakri Maha Prasat is nicknamed. Rama V, whose portrait you can see over its entrance, employed an English architect to design a purely Neoclassical residence, but other members of the royal family prevailed on the king to add the three Thai spires. This used to be the site of the elephant stables: the large red tethering posts are still there and the bronze elephants were installed as a reminder. The building displays the emblem of the Chakri dynasty on its gable, which has a trident (ri) coming out of a chak, a discus with a sharpened rim. The only part of the Chakri Maha Prasat open to the public is the ground-floor weapons museum, which houses a forgettable display of hooks, pikes and guns.
The Inner Palace
The Inner Palace (closed to the public), which used to be the king’s harem, lies behind the gate on the left-hand side of the Chakri Maha Prasat. Vividly described in M.R. Kukrit Pramoj’s Si Phaendin, the harem was a town in itself, with shops, law courts and an all-female police force for the huge population: as well as the current queens, the minor wives and their children (including pre-pubescent boys) and servants, this was home to the daughters and consorts of former kings, and the daughters of the aristocracy who attended the harem’s finishing school. Today, the Inner Palace houses a school of cooking, fruit-carving and other domestic sciences for well-bred young Thais.
Dusit Maha Prasat
On the western side of the courtyard, the delicately proportioned Dusit Maha Prasat, an audience hall built by Rama I, epitomizes traditional Thai architecture. Outside, the soaring tiers of its red, gold and green roof culminate in a gilded mongkut, a spire shaped like the king’s crown, which symbolizes the 33 Buddhist levels of perfection. Each tier of the roof bears a typical chofa, a slender, stylized bird’s-head finial, and several hang hong (swans’ tails), which represent three-headed nagas. Inside, you can still see the original throne, the Phra Ratcha Banlang Pradap Muk, a masterpiece of mother-of-pearl inlaid work. When a senior member of the royal family dies, the hall is used for the lying-in-state: the body, embalmed and seated in a huge sealed urn, is placed in the west transept, waiting up to two years for an auspicious day to be cremated.
The Wat Phra Kaeo Museum
In the nineteenth-century Royal Mint in front of the Dusit Maha Prasat – next to a small, basic café and an incongruous hair salon – the Wat Phra Kaeo Museum houses a mildly interesting collection of artefacts donated to the Emerald Buddha, along with architectural elements rescued from the Grand Palace grounds during restoration in the 1980s. Highlights include the bones of various kings’ white elephants, and upstairs, the Emerald Buddha’s original costumes and two useful scale models of the Grand Palace, one as it is now, the other as it was when first built. Also on the first floor stands the grey stone slab of the Manangasila Seat, where Ramkhamhaeng, the great thirteenth-century king of Sukhothai, is said to have sat and taught his subjects. It was discovered in 1833 by Rama IV during his monkhood and brought to Bangkok, where Rama VI used it as the throne for his coronation.
A word of warning
When you’re heading for the Grand Palace or Wat Phra Kaeo, you may well be approached by someone, possibly pretending to be a student or an official, who will tell you that the sight is closed when it’s not, or some other lies to try to lead you away from the entrance, because they want to lead you on a shopping trip for souvenirs, tailored clothes or, if you seem really gullible, gems. The opening hours of the Grand Palace – but not Wat Pho – are indeed sometimes erratic because of state occasions, but you can check the details out on its website, wpalaces.thai.net – and even if it’s closed on the day you want to visit, that’s no reason to throw yourself at the mercy of these shysters.
The Ramayana is generally thought to have originated as an oral epic in India, where it appears in numerous dialects. The most famous version is that of the sage Valmiki, who is said to have drawn together the collection of stories as a tribute to his king over two thousand years ago. From India, the Ramayana spread to all the Hindu-influenced countries of Southeast Asia and was passed down through the Khmers to Thailand, where as the Ramakien it has become the national epic, acting as an affirmation of the Thai monarchy and its divine Hindu links. As a source of inspiration for literature, painting, sculpture and dance-drama, it has acquired the authority of holy writ, providing Thais with moral and practical lessons, while its appearance in the form of films and comic strips shows its huge popular appeal. The version current in Thailand was composed by a committee of poets sponsored by Rama I (all previous Thai texts were lost in the sack of Ayutthaya in 1767), and runs to three thousand pages – available in an abridged English translation by M.L. Manich Jumsai.
The central story of the Ramayana concerns Rama (in Thai, Phra Ram), son of the king of Ayodhya, and his beautiful wife Sita, whose hand he wins by lifting, stringing – and breaking – a magic bow. The couple’s adventures begin when they are exiled to the forest, along with Rama’s good brother, Lakshaman (Phra Lak), by the hero’s father under the influence of his evil stepmother. Meanwhile, in the city of Lanka (Longka), the demon king Ravana (Totsagan) has conceived a passionate desire for Sita and, disguised as a hermit, sets out to kidnap her. By transforming one of his demon subjects into a beautiful deer, which Rama and Lakshaman go off to hunt, Ravana catches Sita alone and takes her back to Lanka. Rama then wages a long war against the demons of Lanka, into which are woven many battles, spy scenes and diversionary episodes, and eventually kills Ravana and rescues Sita.
The Thai version shows some characteristic differences from the Indian, emphasizing the typically Buddhist virtues of filial obedience and willing renunciation. In addition, Hanuman, the loyal monkey general, is given a much more playful role in the Ramakien, with the addition of many episodes which display his cunning and talent for mischief, not to mention his promiscuity. However, the major alteration comes at the end of the story, when Phra Ram doubts Sita’s faithfulness after rescuing her from Totsagan. In the Indian story, this ends with Sita being swallowed up by the earth so that she doesn’t have to suffer Rama’s doubts any more; in the Ramakien the ending is a happy one, with Phra Ram and Sita living together happily ever after.
The royal tonsure ceremony
To the right and behind the Dusit Maha Prasat rises a strange model mountain, decorated with fabulous animals and topped by a castle and prang. It represents Mount Krailas, the Himalayan home of the Hindu god Shiva (Phra Isuan in Thai), and was built by Rama IV as the site of the royal tonsure ceremony, last held here in 1932, just three months before the end of the absolute monarchy. In former times, Thai children generally had shaved heads, except for a tuft or top-knot on the crown, which, between the age of eleven and thirteen, was cut in a Hindu initiation rite to welcome adolescence. For the royal children, the rite was an elaborate ceremony that sometimes lasted seven days, culminating with the king’s cutting of the hair knot, which was then floated away on the Chao Phraya River. The child was then bathed at the model Krailas, in water representing the original river of the universe flowing down the central mountain.
Wat Pho (Wat Phra Chetuphon)
Where Wat Phra Kaeo may seem too perfect and shrink-wrapped for some, Wat Pho is lively and shambolic, a complex arrangement of lavish structures which jostle with classrooms, basketball courts and a turtle pond. Busloads of tourists shuffle in and out of the north entrance, stopping only to gawp at the colossal Reclining Buddha, but you can avoid the worst of the crowds by using the main entrance on Soi Chetuphon to explore the huge compound.
Wat Pho is the oldest temple in Bangkok and older than the city itself, having been founded in the seventeenth century under the name Wat Photaram. Foreigners have stuck to the contraction of this old name, even though Rama I, after enlarging the temple, changed the name in 1801 to Wat Phra Chetuphon, which is how it is generally known to Thais. The temple had another major overhaul in 1832, when Rama III built the chapel of the Reclining Buddha, and turned the temple into a public centre of learning by decorating the walls and pillars with inscriptions and diagrams on subjects such as history, literature, animal husbandry and astrology. Dubbed Thailand’s first university, the wat is still an important centre for traditional medicine, notably Thai massage, which is used against all kinds of illnesses, from backaches to viruses.
The eastern courtyard
The main entrance on Soi Chetuphon is one of a series of sixteen monumental gates around the main compound, each guarded by stone giants, many of them comic Westerners in wide-brimmed hats – ships that exported rice to China would bring these statues back as ballast.
The entrance brings you into the eastern half of the main complex, where a courtyard of structures radiates from the bot in a disorientating symmetry. To get to the bot, the principal congregation and ordination hall, turn right and cut through the two surrounding cloisters, which are lined with hundreds of Buddha images. The elegant bot has beautiful teak doors decorated with mother-of-pearl, showing stories from the Ramayana in minute detail. Look out also for the stone bas-reliefs around the base of the bot, which narrate the story of the capture and rescue of Sita from the Ramayana in 152 action-packed panels. The plush interior has a well-proportioned altar on which ten statues of disciples frame a graceful, Ayutthayan Buddha image containing the remains of Rama I, the founder of Bangkok (Rama IV placed them there so that the public could worship him at the same time as the Buddha).
Back outside the entrance to the double cloister, keep your eyes open for a miniature mountain covered in statues of naked men in tall hats who appear to be gesturing rudely: they are rishis (hermits), demonstrating various positions of healing massage. Skirting the southwestern corner of the cloisters, you’ll come to two pavilions between the eastern and western courtyards, which display plaques inscribed with the precepts of traditional medicine, as well as anatomical pictures showing the different pressure points and the illnesses that can be cured by massaging them.
The western courtyard
Among the 99 chedis strewn about the grounds, the four great chedis in the western courtyard stand out as much for their covering of garish tiles as for their size. The central chedi is the oldest, erected by Rama I to hold the remains of the most sacred Buddha image of Ayutthaya, the Phra Si Sanphet. Later, Rama III built the chedi to the north for the ashes of Rama II and the chedi to the south to hold his own remains; Rama IV built the fourth, with bright blue tiles, though its purpose is uncertain.
In the northwest corner of the courtyard stands the chapel of the Reclining Buddha, a 45m-long gilded statue of plaster-covered brick which depicts the Buddha entering Nirvana, a common motif in Buddhist iconography. The chapel is only slightly bigger than the statue – you can’t get far enough away to take in anything but a surreal close-up view of the beaming 5m smile. As for the feet, the vast black soles are beautifully inlaid with delicate mother-of-pearl showing the 108 lakshanas, or auspicious signs, which distinguish the true Buddha. Along one side of the statue are 108 bowls: putting a coin in each will bring you good luck and a long life.
The National Museum
The National Museum houses a colossal hoard of Thailand’s chief artistic riches, ranging from sculptural treasures in the north and south wings, through bizarre decorative objects in the older buildings, to outlandish funeral chariots and the exquisite Buddhaisawan chapel, as well as sometimes staging worthwhile temporary exhibitions.
The first building you’ll come to near the ticket office houses an overview of the authorized history of Thailand, including a small archeological gem: a black stone inscription, credited to King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai, which became the first capital of the Thai nation (c.1278–99) under his rule. Discovered in 1833 by the future Rama IV, Mongkut, it’s the oldest extant inscription using the Thai alphabet. This, combined with the description it records of prosperity and piety in Sukhothai’s Golden Age, has made the stone a symbol of Thai nationhood. There’s recently been much controversy over the stone’s origins, arising from the suggestion that it was a fake made by Mongkut, but it seems most likely that it is indeed genuine, and was written partly as a kind of prospectus for Sukhothai, to attract traders and settlers to the underpopulated kingdom.
The main collection: southern building
At the back of the compound, two large modern buildings, flanking an old converted palace, house the museum’s main collection, kicking off on the ground floor of the southern building. Look out here for some historic sculptures from the rest of Asia (S1), including one of the earliest representations of the Buddha, from Gandhara in modern-day Pakistan. Alexander the Great left a garrison at Gandhara, which explains why the image is in the style of Classical Greek sculpture: for example, the ushnisha, the supernatural bump on the top of the head, which symbolizes the Buddha’s intellectual and spiritual power, is rationalized into a bun of thick, wavy hair.
Upstairs, the prehistory room (S6) displays axe heads and spear points from Ban Chiang in the northeast of Thailand, one of the earliest Bronze Age cultures ever discovered. Alongside are many roughly contemporaneous metal artefacts from Kanchanaburi province, as well as some excellent examples of the developments of Ban Chiang’s famous pottery. In the adjacent Dvaravati room (S7; sixth to eleventh centuries), the pick of the stone and terracotta Buddhas is a small head in smooth, pink clay from Wat Phra Ngam, Nakhon Pathom, whose downcast eyes and faintly smiling full lips typify the serene look of this era. At the far end of the first floor, you can’t miss a voluptuous Javanese statue of elephant-headed Ganesh, Hindu god of wisdom and the arts, which, being the symbol of the Fine Arts Department, is always freshly garlanded. As Ganesh is known as the clearer of obstacles, Hindus always worship him before other gods, so by tradition he has grown fat through getting first choice of the offerings – witness his trunk jammed into a bowl of food in this sculpture.
Room S9 next door contains the most famous piece of Srivijaya art (seventh to thirteenth centuries), a bronze Bodhisattva Padmapani found at Chaiya (according to Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a saint who has postponed his passage into Nirvana to help ordinary believers gain enlightenment). With its pouting face and sinuous torso, this image has become the ubiquitous emblem of southern Thailand. The rough chronological order of the collection continues back downstairs with an exhibition of Khmer and Lopburi sculpture (seventh to fourteenth centuries), most notably some dynamic bronze statuettes and stone lintels. Look out for an elaborate lintel from Ku Suan Tang, Buriram (S3), which depicts Vishnu reclining on the dragon Ananta in the sea of eternity, dreaming up a new universe after the old one has been annihilated in the Hindu cycle of creation and destruction. Out of his navel comes a lotus, and out of this emerges four-headed Brahma, who will put the dream into practice.
The main collection: northern building
The second half of the survey, in the northern building, begins upstairs with the Sukhothai collection (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries; N7–8), which features some typically elegant and sinuous Buddha images, as well as chunky bronzes of Hindu gods and a wide range of ceramics. The Lanna rooms (roughly thirteenth to sixteenth centuries; N5–6) include a miniature set of golden regalia, among them tiny umbrellas and a cute pair of filigree flip-flops, which would have been enshrined in a chedi. An ungainly but serene Buddha head, carved from grainy, pink sandstone, represents the Ayutthaya style of sculpture (fourteenth to eighteenth centuries; N9–10): the faintest incision of a moustache above the lips betrays the Khmer influences that came to Ayutthaya after its conquest of Angkor. A sumptuous scripture cabinet, showing a cityscape of old Ayutthaya, is a more unusual piece, one of a surviving handful of such carved and painted items of furniture.
Downstairs in the section on Bangkok or Ratanakosin art (eighteenth century onwards; N1), a stiffly realistic standing bronze brings you full circle. In his zeal for Western naturalism, Rama V had the statue made in the Gandhara style of the earliest Buddha image displayed in the first room of the museum.
The funeral chariots
To the east of the northern building, beyond the café on the left, stands a large garage where the fantastically elaborate funeral chariots of the royal family are stored. Pre-eminent among these is the Royal Chariot of Great Victory, built by Rama I in about 1789 for carrying the urn at his father’s funeral. The 11m-high structure symbolizes heaven on Mount Meru, while the dragons and divinities around the sides – piled in five golden tiers to suggest the flames of the cremation – represent the mythological inhabitants of the mountain’s forests. Each weighing around forty tonnes and requiring the pulling power of three hundred men, the teak chariots last had an outing in 2012, for the funeral of the only child of Rama VI, Princess Bejaratana.
Wang Na (Palace of the Second King)
The sprawling central building of the compound was originally part of the Wang Na, a huge palace stretching across Sanam Luang to Khlong Lod, which housed the “second king”, appointed by the reigning monarch as his heir and deputy. When Rama V did away with the office in 1887, he turned the palace into a museum, which now contains a fascinating array of Thai objets d’art. As you enter (room 5), the display of sumptuous rare gold pieces behind heavy iron bars includes a well-preserved armlet taken from the ruined prang of fifteenth-century Wat Ratburana in Ayutthaya. In adjacent room 6, an intricately carved ivory seat turns out, with gruesome irony, to be a howdah, for use on an elephant’s back. Among the masks worn by khon actors next door (room 7), look out especially for a fierce Hanuman, the white monkey-warrior in the Ramayana epic, gleaming with mother-of-pearl.
The huge and varied ceramic collection in room 8 includes some sophisticated pieces from Sukhothai, while the room behind (9) holds a riot of mother-of-pearl items, whose flaming rainbow of colours comes from the shell of the turbo snail from the Gulf of Thailand. It’s also worth seeking out the display of richly decorated musical instruments in room 15.
The Buddhaisawan chapel
The second-holiest image in Thailand, after the Emerald Buddha, is housed in the Buddhaisawan chapel, the vast hall in front of the eastern entrance to the Wang Na. Inside, the fine proportions of the hall, with its ornate coffered ceiling and lacquered window shutters, are enhanced by painted rows of divinities and converted demons, all turned to face the chubby, glowing Phra Sihing Buddha, which according to legend was magically created in Sri Lanka and sent to Sukhothai in the thirteenth century. Like the Emerald Buddha, the image was believed to bring good luck to its owner and was frequently snatched from one northern town to another, until Rama I brought it down from Chiang Mai in 1795 and installed it here in the second king’s private chapel. Two other images (in Nakhon Si Thammarat and Chiang Mai) now claim to be the authentic Phra Sihing Buddha, but all three are in fact derived from a lost original – this one is in a fifteenth-century Sukhothai style. It’s still much loved by ordinary people and at Thai New Year is carried out onto Sanam Luang, where worshippers sprinkle it with water as a merit-making gesture.
The careful detail and rich, soothing colours of the surrounding two-hundred-year-old murals are surprisingly well preserved; the bottom row between the windows narrates the life of the Buddha, beginning in the far right-hand corner with his parents’ wedding.
On the south side of the Buddhaisawan chapel, the gaudily restored Tamnak Daeng (Red House) stands out, a large, airy Ayutthaya-style house made of rare golden teak, surmounted by a multi-tiered roof decorated with swan’s-tail finials. Originally part of the private quarters of Princess Sri Sudarak, elder sister of Rama I, it was moved from the Grand Palace to the old palace in Thonburi for Queen Sri Suriyen, wife of Rama II; when her son became second king to Rama IV, he dismantled the edifice again and shipped it here to the Wang Na compound. Inside, it’s furnished in the style of the early Bangkok period, with some of the beautiful objects that once belonged to Sri Suriyen, a huge, ornately carved box-bed, and the uncommon luxury of an indoor bathroom.
Banglamphu and the Democracy Monument area
Immediately north of Ratanakosin, Banglamphu’s most notorious attraction is Thanon Khao San, a tiny sliver of a road whose multiple guesthouses and buzzing, budget-minded nightlife have made it an unmissable way-station for travellers through Southeast Asia. There is plenty of cultural interest too, in a medley of idiosyncratic temples within a few blocks of nearby landmark Democracy Monument, and in the typical Bangkok neighbourhoods that connect them, many of which still feel charmingly old-fashioned.
Thanon Khao San
At the heart of Banglamphu is the legendary Thanon Khao San, almost a caricature of a travellers’ centre, crammed with internet cafés and dodgy travel agents, the pavements lined with cheap backpackers’ fashions, racks of bootleg PlayStation games, tattooists and hair-braiders. It’s a lively, high-energy base: great for shopping and making travel arrangements – though beware the innumerable Khao San scams – and a good place to meet other travellers. It’s especially fun at night when young Thais from all over the city gather here to browse the clothes stalls, mingle with the crowds of foreigners and squash into the bars and clubs that have made Khao San a great place to party. Even if you’re staying elsewhere, the Khao San area is a cultural curiosity in its own right, a unique and continually evolving expression of global youth culture fuelled by Thai entrepreneurship.
Chinatown and Pahurat
When the newly crowned Rama I decided to move his capital across to the east bank of the river in 1782, the Chinese community living on the proposed site of his palace was obliged to relocate downriver, to the Sampeng area. Two centuries on, Chinatown has grown into the country’s largest Chinese district, a sprawl of narrow alleyways, temples and shophouses packed between Charoen Krung (New Road) and the river, separated from Ratanakosin by the Indian area of Pahurat – famous for its cloth and dressmakers’ trimmings – and bordered to the east by Hualamphong train station.
The Chinese influence on Thai culture and commerce has been significant ever since the first Chinese merchants gained a toehold in Ayutthaya in the fourteenth century. Following centuries of immigration and intermarriage, there is now some Chinese blood in almost every Thai citizen, including the king, and Chinese-Thai business interests play an enormous role in the Thai economy. This is played out at its most frantic in Chinatown, whose real estate is said to be among the most valuable in the country; there are over a hundred gold and jewellery shops along Thanon Yaowarat alone.
For the tourist, Chinatown is chiefly interesting for its markets, shophouses, open-fronted warehouses and remnants of colonial-style architecture, though it also harbours a few noteworthy temples. A meander through its most interesting neighbourhoods could easily soak up a whole day, allowing for frequent breaks from the thundering traffic and choking fumes. For the most authentic Chinatown experience, it’s best to come during the week, as some shops and stalls shut at weekends; on weekdays they begin closing around 5pm, after which time the neighbourhood’s other big draw – its food – takes centre stage.
For fifteen years between the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 and the founding of Bangkok in 1782, the west-bank town of Thonburi, across the Chao Phraya from modern-day Bangkok, stood in as the Thai capital, under the rule of General Phraya Taksin. Its time in the spotlight was too brief for the building of the fine monuments and temples that graced earlier capitals at Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, but some of its centuries-old canals, which once transported everyone and everything, have endured; it is these and the ways of life that depend on them that constitute Thonburi’s main attractions. In some quarters, life on this side of the river still revolves around these khlongs: vendors of food and household goods paddle their boats along the canals that crisscross the residential areas, and canalside factories use them to ferry their wares to the Chao Phraya River artery. Venture onto the backroads just three or four kilometres west of the river and you find yourself surrounded by market gardens and rural homes, with no hint of the throbbing metropolis across on the other bank. The most popular way to explore these old neighbourhoods is by boat, but joining a bicycle tour of the older neighbourhoods is also very rewarding (see Express boats). Most boat trips also encompass Thonburi’s imposing riverside Temple of the Dawn, Wat Arun, and often the Royal Barge Museum as well, though both are easily visited by yourself, as are the small but historic temple of Wat Rakhang and the surprisingly intriguing, and child-friendly, cemetery at Wat Prayoon.
The canals of Thonburi
The most popular way to explore the sights of Thonburi is by boat, taking in Wat Arun and the Royal Barge Museum, then continuing along Thonburi’s network of small canals. The easiest option is to take a fixed-price trip from one of the piers on the Bangkok side of the Chao Phraya, most conveniently from Tha Chang near Wat Pho or the River City pier off Thanon Charoen Krung. You can also charter your own longtail from these piers and others such as Tha Phra Arthit in Banglamphu and Tha Sathorn, and from many five-star riverside hotels, but bear the prices listed below in mind when negotiating and be specific about your itinerary.
Many tours include visits to one of Thonburi’s two main floating markets, both of which are heavily touristed and rather contrived. Wat Sai floating market is very small, very commercialized and worth avoiding; Taling Chan floating market is also fairly manufactured but more fun, though it only operates on Saturdays and Sundays. Taling Chan market is held on Khlong Chak Phra, in front of Taling Chan District Office, a couple of kilometres west of Thonburi train station, and can also be reached by taking bus #79 from Banglamphu. For a more authentic floating-market experience, consider heading out of Bangkok to Amphawa, in Samut Songkhram province.
Arguably more photogenic, and certainly a lot more genuine, are the individual floating vendors who continue to paddle from house to house in Thonburi, touting anything from hot food to plastic buckets. You’ve a good chance of seeing some of them in action on almost any longtail boat tour on any day of the week, particularly in the morning.
Connected to Ratanakosin via the boulevards of Rajdamnoen Klang and Rajdamnoen Nok, the spacious, leafy area known as Dusit has been a royal district since the reign of Rama V, King Chulalongkorn (1860–1910). The first Thai monarch to visit Europe, Rama V returned with radical plans for the modernization of his capital, the fruits of which are most visible in Dusit, notably at Vimanmek Palace and Wat Benjamabophit, the so-called “Marble Temple”. Even now, Rama V still commands a loyal following and the statue of him, helmeted and on horseback, which stands at the Thanon U-Thong Nai–Thanon Sri Ayutthaya crossroads, is presented with offerings every week and is also the focus of celebrations on Chulalongkorn Day (Oct 23). On December 2, Dusit is also the venue for the spectacular annual Trooping the Colour, when hundreds of magnificently uniformed Royal Guards demonstrate their allegiance to the king by parading around Suan Amporn, across the road from the Rama V statue.
Today, the Dusit area retains its European feel, and much of the country’s decision-making goes on behind the high fences and impressive facades along its tree-lined avenues: the building that houses the National Parliament is here, as is Government House, and the king’s official residence, Chitrlada Palace, occupies the eastern edge of the area. Normally a calm, stately district, in 2008 Dusit became the focus of the mass anti-government protest by the royalist PAD movement, whose thousands-strong mass of yellow-shirted supporters occupied Government House and part of Rajdamnoen Nok for an extraordinary three months, creating a heavily defended temporary village in this most refined of neighbourhoods.
Wat Benjamabophit (aka Wat Ben) is a fascinating fusion of classical Thai and nineteenth-century European design, with the Carrara-marble walls of its bot – hence the tourist tag “The Marble Temple” – pierced by unusual stained-glass windows, Neogothic in style but depicting figures from Thai mythology. Rama V commissioned the temple in 1899, at a time when he was keen to show the major regional powers, Britain and France, that Thailand was siwilai (civilized), in order to baulk their usual excuse for colonizing. The temple’s sema stones are a telling example of the compromises involved: they’re usually prominent markers of the bot’s sacred area, but here they’re hard to spot, decorative and almost apologetic – look for the two small, stone lotus buds at the front of the bot on top of the white, Italianate balustrade. Inside the unusually cruciform bot, a fine replica of the highly revered Phra Buddha Chinnarat image of Phitsanulok presides over the small room containing some of Rama V’s ashes. The courtyard behind the bot houses a gallery of Buddha images from all over Asia, set up by Rama V as an overview of different representations of the Buddha.
Wat Benjamabophit is one of the best temples in Bangkok to see religious festivals and rituals. Whereas monks elsewhere tend to go out on the streets every morning in search of alms, at the Marble Temple the ritual is reversed, and merit-makers come to them. Between about 5.30 and 7 or 7.30am, the monks line up on Thanon Nakhon Pathom, their bowls ready to receive donations of curry and rice, lotus buds, incense, even toilet paper and Coca-Cola; the demure row of saffron-robed monks is a sight that’s well worth getting up early for. The evening candlelight processions around the bot during the Buddhist festivals of Maha Puja (in Feb) and Visakha Puja (in May) are among the most entrancing in the country.
Extending east from the main rail line and south to Thanon Sathorn and beyond, downtown Bangkok is central to the colossal expanse of Bangkok as a whole, but rather peripheral in a sightseer’s perception of the city. In this modern high-rise area, you’ll find the main shopping centres around Siam Square, though don’t come looking for an elegant commercial piazza here: the “square” is in fact a grid of small streets, sheltering trendy fashion shops, cinemas and inexpensive restaurants. It lies to the southeast of Pathumwan intersection, the junction of Thanon Rama I (in Thai, “Thanon Phra Ram Neung”) and Thanon Phrayathai, and the name is applied freely to the surrounding area. Further east, you’ll find yet more shopping malls around the noisy and glittering Erawan Shrine, where Rama I becomes Thanon Ploenchit, an intersection known as Ratchaprasong. It was here that the opposition redshirts set up a fortified camp for several months in early 2010, before the Democrat government sent in the troops, leading to the deaths of 91 people. It’s once more possible to stroll in peace here, using an elevated walkway that runs beneath the Skytrain lines but above the cracked pavements, noise and fumes of Thanon Rama I, all the way from the Siam Paragon shopping centre to the Erawan Shrine (further progress is blocked by Central and Chitlom Skytrain stations). East of Ratchaprasong, you pass under the expressway flyover and enter the farang hotel, shopping and entertainment quarter of Thanon Sukhumvit.
The area south of Thanon Rama I is dominated by Thailand’s most prestigious centre of higher learning, Chulalongkorn University, and the green expanse of Lumphini Park. Thanon Rama IV (in Thai “Thanon Phra Ram Sii”) then marks another change of character: downtown proper, centring around the high-rise, American-style boulevard of Thanon Silom, the heart of the financial district, extends from here to the river. Alongside the smoked-glass banks and offices, and opposite Convent Road, site of Bangkok’s Carmelite nunnery, lies the dark heart of Bangkok nightlife, Patpong.
Surprisingly, among downtown’s vast expanse of skyscraping concrete, the main attractions for visitors are four attractive museums housed in historic teak houses: Jim Thompson’s House, the Ban Kamthieng, the Suan Pakkad Palace Museum and M.R. Kukrit’s Heritage Home. The area’s other tourist highlight is Siam Ocean World, a high-tech aquarium that both kids and adults can enjoy. The accounts of the sights below are arranged roughly north–south.
The amorphous clutter of Greater Bangkok doesn’t harbour many attractions, but there are a handful of places that make pleasant half-day escapes, principally Chatuchak Weekend Market, the cultural theme-park of Muang Boran, the rather more esoteric Prasart Museum, the upstream town of Nonthaburi and the tranquil artificial island of Ko Kred (see map). If you want to go a little further, visit Ayutthaya for the day: there's an excellent small group tour that leaves from Bangkok and takes in no fewer than five UNESCO-sited temples.
Chatuchak Weekend Market (JJ)
With over eight thousand open-air stalls to peruse, and wares as diverse as Lao silk, Siamese kittens and designer lamps, the enormous Chatuchak Weekend Market, or JJ as it’s usually abbreviated (from “Jatu Jak”), is Bangkok’s most enjoyable – and exhausting – shopping experience.
The market also contains a controversial wildlife section that has long doubled as a clearing house for protected and endangered species such as gibbons, palm cockatoos and Indian pied hornbills, many of them smuggled in from Laos and Cambodia and sold to private animal collectors and foreign zoos. The illegal trade goes on beneath the counter, despite occasional crackdowns, but you’re bound to come across fighting cocks around the back, miniature flying squirrels being fed milk through pipettes, and iridescent red-and-blue Siamese fighting fish, kept in individual jars and shielded from each other’s aggressive stares by sheets of cardboard.
Where to shop
Chatuchak is divided into 27 numbered sections, plus a dozen unnumbered ones, each of them more or less dedicated to a particular genre, for example household items, plants and secondhand books, and if you have several hours to spare, it’s fun just to browse at whim. The market’s primary customers are Bangkok residents in search of idiosyncratic fashions (try sections 5 and 6) and homewares (sections 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8), but Chatuchak also has plenty of collector- and tourist-oriented stalls; best buys include antique lacquerware, unusual sarongs, traditional cotton clothing and crafts from the north, silver jewellery, and ceramics, particularly the five-coloured bencharong. For handicrafts and traditional textiles, you should start with sections 22, 24, 25 and 26, which are all in a cluster at the southwest (Kamphaeng Phet subway) end of the market; sections A, B and C, behind the market’s head office and information centre, are also full of interesting artefacts.
Foodies will want to check out Talat Or Tor Khor (the Agricultural Market Organization), a covered market that sells a fantastic array of fruit, veg and other produce from around the country, as well as prepared dishes to take away or to eat at the food court; it’s on the south side of Thanon Kamphaeng Phet, next to Kamphaeng Phet subway station. There are a number of other places to eat and drink inside the market.
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
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, 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.
Scale Bangkok's highest building for panoramic views that will strike awe into brave children.
Sea Life Bangkok Ocean World
Spread over two spacious floors, Bangkok Ocean World is an impressive, Australian-built aquarium. Among outstanding features of this US£30-million development are an 9m-deep glass-walled tank, which displays the multicoloured variety of a coral reef drop-off to great effect, and a long, under-ocean tunnel where you can watch sharks and rays swimming over your head.
Accommodation in Bangkok
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. See Where to stay in Bangkok for more information.
Eating in Bangkok
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.
The Chao Phraya River looks fabulous at night, when most of the noisy longtails have stopped terrorizing the ferries, and the riverside temples and other grand monuments – including the Grand Palace and Wat Arun – are elegantly illuminated. Joining one of the nightly dinner cruises along the river, especially one of the converted, wooden rice-barges listed below, is a great way to appreciate it all. Call ahead to reserve a table and check departure details – some cruises may not run during the rainy season (May–Oct).
t02 437 4932,wloynava.com. The original, 40-year-old converted rice-barge service still departs Si Phraya pier twice nightly, at 6pm and 8.10pm, with pick-ups at Tha Sathorn possible. Thai, seafood or vegetarian meal, accompanied by live traditional music and dancing. B1300, including hotel pick-up in central Bangkok.
t02 476 0022 ext 1416, wmanohracruises.com. Beautiful converted rice-barge operated by the Anantara Riverside Resort, south of Taksin Bridge in Thonburi, serving Thai set dinners. Departs hotel at 7.30pm, returning 10pm, with pick-ups at Tha Sathorn possible.From B1400. Click here to book.
t02 222 8679, wwanfahcruise.com. Wooden rice-barge-style boat that departs River City at 7pm, returning at 9pm, with Thai classical dancing, and a choice of a Thai or seafood set menu. B1200, including hotel pick-up in central Bangkok.
Thai cookery classes in Bangkok
As well as the places listed below, nearly all the luxury hotels in Bangkok offer cookery classes.
Baipai 8/91 Soi 54, Thanon Ngam Wongwan. Thorough, four-hour classes in a quiet, suburban house in northern Bangkok. B2200, including transfers from central hotels. Closed Sun.
Blue Elephant 233 Thanon Sathorn Tai (BTS Surasak). In a grand, century-old building, courses that range from B3300 for a half-day to a five-day private course for professional chefs for B90,000.
Helping Hands Klong Toey. Set up with the help of a Christian charity, a chance to experience the slums of Klong Toey and spend a morning learning to cook. B1200, including a market tour and free transfers from next to Phrom Pong BTS station. Closed Sun.
May Kaidee 33 Thanon Samsen. Banglamphu’s famous vegetarian cook shares her culinary expertise at the Samsen branch of her restaurant chain for B1200 per half-day, including making raw food dishes and a market visit. Also available are shorter “cooking parties” for B600 and special classes such as fruit carving for B1500.
Thai House 22km from central Bangkok in Bangmuang. Set in a rural part of Nonthaburi province, one- (B3800) to three-day (B16,650) cooking courses, all including transfers from downtown, the latter including vegetable and fruit-carving, all meals and homestay accommodation in traditional wooden houses.
You can also book a cookery class that includes a trip to Bangkok's largest market, Khlong Toei, to choose and buy your own ingredients before cooking them up.
Yellow-flag heaven for veggies
Every autumn, for nine days during the ninth lunar month (between late Sept and Nov), Thailand’s Chinese community goes on a meat-free diet to mark the onset of the Vegetarian Festival (Ngan Kin Jeh), a sort of Taoist version of Lent. Though the Chinese citizens of Bangkok don’t go in for skewering themselves like their compatriots in Trang and Phuket (see Ngan Kin Jeh: the Vegetarian Festival), they do celebrate the Vegetarian Festival with gusto: some people choose to wear only white for the duration, all the temples throng with activity, and nearly every restaurant and foodstall in Chinatown turns vegetarian for the period, flying small yellow flags to show that they are upholding the tradition and participating in what’s essentially a nightly veggie food jamboree. For vegetarian tourists this is a great time to be in town – just look for the yellow flag and you can be sure all dishes will be one hundred percent vegetarian. Soya substitutes are a popular feature on the vegetarian Chinese menu, so don’t be surprised to find pink prawn-shaped objects floating in your noodle soup or unappetizingly realistic slices of fake duck. Many hotel restaurants also get in on the act during the Vegetarian Festival, running special veggie promotions for a week or two.
The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, eulogizing the taste of the durian, compared it to “rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds, but intermingled with wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, brown sherry and other incongruities”. He neglected to discuss the smell of the fruit’s skin, which is so bad – somewhere between detergent and dog shit – that durians are barred from Thai hotels and aeroplanes. The different varieties bear strange names that do nothing to make them more appetizing: “frog”, “golden pillow”, “gibbon” and so on. However, the durian has fervent admirers, perhaps because it’s such an acquired taste, and because it’s considered a strong aphrodisiac. Aficionados discuss the varieties with as much subtlety as if they were vintage Champagnes, and treat the durian as a social fruit, to be shared around, despite a price tag of up to B3000 each. They also pour scorn on the Thai government scientists who have recently genetically developed an odourless variety, the Chanthaburi 1 durian.
The most famous durian orchards are around Nonthaburi, where the fruits are said to have an incomparably rich and nutty flavour due to the fine clay soil. To see these and other plantations such as mango, pomelo and jackfruit, your best bet is to hire a longtail from Nonthaburi pier to take you west along Khlong Om Non. If you don’t smell them first, you can recognize durians by their sci-fi appearance: the shape and size of a rugby ball, but slightly deflated, they’re covered in a thick, pale-green shell which is heavily armoured with short, sharp spikes (duri means “thorn” in Malay). By cutting along one of the faint seams with a good knife, you’ll reveal a white pith in which are set a handful of yellow blobs with the texture of a wrinkled soufflé: this is what you eat. The taste is best when the smell is at its highest, about three days after the fruit has dropped. Be careful when out walking near the trees: because of its great weight and sharp spikes, a falling durian can lead to serious injury, or even an ignominious death.
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.
LGBT Travel Information for Bangkok
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.
Entertainment in Bangkok
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.
Jim Thompson’s House
Jim Thompson’s House is a kind of Ideal Home in elegant Thai style, and a peaceful refuge from downtown chaos. The house was the residence of the legendary American adventurer, entrepreneur, art collector and all-round character whose mysterious disappearance in the jungles of Malaysia in 1967 has made him even more of a legend among Thailand’s farang community.
Apart from putting together this beautiful home, completed in 1959, Thompson’s most concrete contribution was to turn traditional silk-weaving in Thailand from a dying art into the highly successful international industry it is today. The complex now includes a shop (closes 6pm), part of the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company chain.
Above the shop, the Jim Thompson Center for the Arts is a fascinating gallery that hosts both traditional and modern temporary exhibitions on textiles and the arts, such as royal maps of Siam in the nineteenth century or an interactive show that celebrates the hundredth anniversary of Thompson’s birth and the vibrant evolution of Bangkok over the same period. There’s also an excellent bar-restaurant (last food orders currently 6pm, though it may start to open in the evenings till 11pm), which serves a similar menu to Jim Thompson’s Saladaeng Café. Ignore any con-men at the entrance to the soi looking for mugs to escort on rip-off shopping trips, who’ll tell you that the house is closed when it isn’t.
The grand, rambling house is in fact a combination of six teak houses, some from as far afield as Ayutthaya and most more than two hundred years old. Like all traditional houses, they were built in wall sections hung together without nails on a frame of wooden pillars, which made it easy to dismantle them, pile them onto a barge and float them to their new location. Although he had trained as an architect, Thompson had more difficulty in putting them back together again; in the end, he had to go back to Ayutthaya to hunt down a group of carpenters who still practised the old house-building methods. Thompson added a few unconventional touches of his own, incorporating the elaborately carved front wall of a Chinese pawnshop between the drawing room and the bedroom, and reversing the other walls in the drawing room so that their carvings faced into the room.
The impeccably tasteful interior has been left as it was during Jim Thompson’s life, even down to the place settings on the dining table – Thompson entertained guests most nights and to that end designed the house like a stage set. Complementing the fine artefacts from throughout Southeast Asia is a stunning array of Thai arts and crafts, including one of the best collections of traditional Thai paintings in the world. Thompson picked up plenty of bargains from the Thieves’ Quarter (Nakhon Kasem) in Chinatown, before collecting Thai art became fashionable and expensive. Other pieces were liberated from decay and destruction in upcountry temples, while many of the Buddha images were turned over by ploughs, especially around Ayutthaya. Some of the exhibits are very rare, such as a headless but elegant seventh-century Dvaravati Buddha and a seventeenth-century Ayutthayan teak Buddha.
After the guided tour, you’re free to look again, at your leisure, at the former rice barn and gardener’s and maid’s houses in the small, jungly garden, which display some gorgeous traditional Thai paintings and drawings, as well as small-scale statues and Chinese ceramics.
The legend of Jim
Thai silk-weavers, art dealers and conspiracy theorists all owe a debt to Jim Thompson, who even now, forty-odd years after his disappearance, remains Thailand’s most famous farang. An architect by trade, Thompson left his New York practice in 1940 to join the Office of Strategic Services (later to become the CIA), a tour of duty that was to see him involved in clandestine operations in North Africa, Europe and, in 1945, the Far East, where he was detailed to a unit preparing for the invasion of Thailand. When the mission was pre-empted by the Japanese surrender, he served for a year as OSS station chief in Bangkok, forming links that were later to provide grist for endless speculation.
After an unhappy and short-lived stint as part-owner of the Oriental Hotel, Thompson found his calling with the struggling silk-weavers of the area near the present Jim Thompson House, whose traditional product was unknown in the West and had been all but abandoned by Thais in favour of less costly imported textiles. Encouragement from society friends and an enthusiastic write-up in Vogue convinced him there was a foreign market for Thai silk, and by 1948 he had founded the Thai Silk Company Ltd. Success was assured when, two years later, the company was commissioned to make the costumes for the Broadway run of The King and I. Thompson’s celebrated eye for colour combinations and his tireless promotion – in the early days, he could often be seen in the lobby of the Oriental with bolts of silk slung over his shoulder, waiting to pounce on any remotely curious tourist – quickly made his name synonymous with Thai silk.
Like a character in a Somerset Maugham novel, Thompson played the role of Western exile to the hilt. Though he spoke no Thai, he made it his personal mission to preserve traditional arts and architecture (at a time when most Thais were more keen to emulate the West), assembling his famous Thai house and stuffing it with all manner of Oriental objets d’art. At the same time he held firmly to his farang roots and society connections: no foreign gathering in Bangkok was complete without Jim Thompson, and virtually every Western luminary passing through Bangkok – from Truman Capote to Ethel Merman – dined at his table (even though the food was notoriously bad).
If Thompson’s life was the stuff of legend, his disappearance and presumed death only added to the mystique. On Easter Sunday, 1967, Thompson, while staying with friends in a cottage in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, went out for a stroll and never came back. A massive search of the area, employing local guides, tracker dogs and even shamans, turned up no clues, provoking a rash of fascinating but entirely unsubstantiated theories. The grandfather of them all, advanced by a Dutch psychic, held that Thompson had been lured into an ambush by the disgraced former prime minister of Thailand, Pridi Panomyong, and spirited off to Cambodia for indeterminate purposes; later versions, supposing that Thompson had remained a covert CIA operative all his life, proposed that he was abducted by Vietnamese Communists and brainwashed to be displayed as a high-profile defector to Communism. More recently, an amateur sleuth claims to have found evidence that Thompson met a more mundane fate, having been killed by a careless truck driver and hastily buried.
Top image © Chatchai Somwat/Shutterstock
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