Located in the southern half of Thailand and overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, Bangkok is a city of contrasts where ancient monuments and temples meet modern concrete, steel and glass architecture and a shoppers' paradise. Visitors to the country's capital city with its nine million inhabitants will have their senses bombarded by the hustle and bustle of this thriving metropolis, and there's never a dull moment in the city that offers something for everyone and whose name means 'city of angels.'
Top Bangkok Attractions
One of the outstanding features of Bangkok is its devotion to religion, predominantly Buddhism of the Theravada school. There are dozens of shrines and temples around the city, so it is easy to learn about the local beliefs and customs. Bangkok's largest religious shrine is Wat Phra Kaew in the Grand Palace which contains the sculpture of the Emerald Buddha. As local legend goes, if the Emerald Buddha is ever destroyed, Thailand will be too. Before visitors head for Wat Phra Kaew, however, they should check that their clothing respects the dress code, as items like shorts, sleeveless tops, revealing clothes and open heeled sandals are not permitted.
There are hundreds of Buddhist temples, known as wats, throughout Bangkok including Wat Arun, the tallest structure in the city before the age of the skyscraper, and Wat Pho with its giant reclining Buddha. The Grand Palace itself is a major tourist attraction, and almost a city in its own right with its wealth of halls, courtyards, gardens and magnificent architecture.
Navigating through Bangkok can be a complicated business, but the city is divided into 50 districts, known as khets, which can certainly help visitors orientate themselves. Although each district does not necessarily have its own distinct function or theme, and there is much overlapping, it can be a good starting point. Bang Rak, Phra Nakhon and Chatuchak are major business districts, for example, while many government institutions are based in Phra Nakhon along with Dusit.
Dusit is also the location of many of Bangkok's tourist attractions including the Grand Place and Wat Pho. Thon Buri on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, meanwhile, is another centre for tourism with several monuments including the Wat Arun temple. For those keen to do some shopping, the Pathum Wan district is the place to go as it contains Siam Square and Ratchaprasong where many of Bangkok's shopping centres are based.
Arts and Entertainment
Festivals and cultural events are an important part of the life of the city, and the cause of much celebration throughout Bangkok. The Songkran festival in mid-April marks the beginning of the traditional Thai New Year and is time for fun, particularly in Sanam Luang, close to the Grand Palace, with its famous procession and bathing of the sculpture of Phra Phuttha Sihing. In fact, water is the central theme of Songkran with the crowds indulging in playful water fights, so be prepared to get wet.
Other major dates include the Royal Ploughing Ceremony in May announcing the start of the rice-growing season; the official birthday of Queen Sirikit on August 12 where buildings throughout the city are decorated; and the official birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest serving monarch, on December 5 with its splendid illuminations of the Grand Palace. Loi Krathong or the Festival of Lights takes centre stage when a full moon falls in the twelfth month of the Thai lunar calendar, typically in November, and there are Chinese New Year celebrations in the Yaowarat area of the city in January or February.
On the subject of shopping, Bangkok makes it easy to shop until you drop. The city is home to countless stores and haberdasheries offering great clothes at discount prices. For those keen to try their hand at a local tradition, start bargaining before agreeing to a price. Siam Square is the place to go for luxury shopping from individual designer boutiques to glamorous shopping malls, while Silom specialises in antiques.
Alternatively, there is the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Phahonyothin in the north of the city with its vast array of new and used goods. With around 8,000 stalls, it is the largest market in Southeast Asia. If you want to shop and enjoy the water at the same time, head for the Taling Chan Floating Market on the weekend in Thon Buri where merchants really do float down the canals selling goods from their boats. These are just a few examples of what is on offer in Bangkok, and most districts will have their own shopping precincts and markets to explore.
Parks and the Great Outdoors
With so much going on in Bangkok, there is hardly time to catch your breath. Thankfully, the city also has a fine collection of parks and green spaces where city residents and tourists alike can take some time out. Several of these are located in the city centre including Lumphini Park in Silom which occupies the same role in the life of Bangkok as Central Park does in New York. Created in the 1920s, it has been the site of many important occasions in Thai history, while the summer months will see it packed with people escaping the heat and traffic fumes of the surrounding streets.
Also popular are Chatuchak Park and King Rama IX Park, two of Bangkok's largest green spaces, with their landscaped botanical gardens, lakes, ponds and sports facilities. Another area well worth a visit is the lively Santichaiprakarn Park beside the Chao Phraya River and close to the Phra Sumen Fort dating back to the 18th century. Those feeling particularly adventurous might want to check out the Queen Saovabha Institute Snake Farm too.
Many tourists will take the opportunity to visit other parts of Thailand as part of a holiday to Bangkok, and there is much to see within easy travelling of the city. If you are willing to travel a couple of hours out of town, take a day trip to Petchburi. The capital city of Phetchaburi Province, it is one of the oldest settlements in Thailand with roots dating back to the 8th century. It was formally a royal fort as well as having many temples and other places of interest, and is only 10 miles from the coast where beautiful, peaceful beaches can be found.
Other well-known destinations for daytrips include the ancient capital of Ayutthaya with its superb collection of ruins; the Hua Hin beach resort, perfect for weekend breaks; Bang Pa-In which is home to the splendid Summer Palace; and Kanchanaburi where the attractions include the famous bridge featured in the classic film Bridge over the River Kwai. The rest of Thailand is also accessible from Bangkok for those wishing to spend more time in the country and travel to its many regions.
With so much going on in Bangkok, it is important for visitors to have a good base for exploring the city and all it has to offer. Fortunately, there is a huge selection of accommodation available in many different styles and price ranges. As befits a modern capital city, Bangkok boasts a selection of superb luxury hotels, but for many tourists Khlong Tan Nuea on the east side of city is a popular destination offering a wide selection of hotels. Siam Square, Sukhumvit and Silom are also good options, while decent budget hotels can be found in Bang Rak in southwest Bangkok. Talat Hot in the northwest of the city is another area worth investigating, while Khao San Road is a leading destination for backpackers.