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.