Glimmering golden temples and sacred statues of Buddha; khlongs (canals) bustling with river boats and floating markets; sensuous silks and fragrant orchids; sparkling sapphires and rubies; exquisite “spirit houses” and people with perpetual smiles on their faces — that’s what the Kingdom of Thailand is all about.
As one of the most developed and progressive nations in Southeast Asia, Thailand — once known as Siam — is bordered by Myanmar (Burma) to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Cambodia to the southeast and Malaysia to the south of Thailand’s isthmus. Western tourists are eagerly welcomed, even though con games and price-gouging aimed at tourists can be rampant.
Thailand’s roots reach back to the 10th century, but Bangkok, the nation’s current capital, wasn’t founded until 1782, when Rama I became the first king of the Chakri Dynasty. Since that time, this “city of angels” has been an economic and cultural powerhouse in the region.
Known as the Venice of the East, due to the many canals slicing through the city, Bangkok lies at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River and has been wowing tourists with its exotic temples, lavish palaces and teeming markets for decades. No matter where your travels take you, the people of Thailand will greet you with genuine smiles and a respectful wai (hands pressed together, as if in prayer, accompanied by a gentle bow of the head).
In 1782, King Rama I decided to move Thailand’s capital to Bangkok from Thonburi, just across the river. The Grand Palace was built to serve as the official royal residence and remained so until the early 20th century. Easily toured on foot, the palace complex is most interesting for its unique Thai architecture, but be aware that visitors must be dressed modestly (shorts, sleeveless tops and short skirts are not allowed). On the grounds of the Grand Palace, you will also find Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Bangkok is, in fact, home to a plethora of temples and shrines, and there are several you should visit, no matter how crunched you are for time. Once you’ve seen the Emerald Buddha, visit Wat Arun, Temple of Dawn; Wat Pho, Temple of the Reclining Buddha; and Wat Traimit, Temple of the Golden Buddha.
If you’re intrigued by Thai architecture, silk and a good mystery, a visit to the Jim Thompson House is in order. An architect by trade, Jim Thompson joined the U.S. Army during World War II and was the OSS station chief in Bangkok after the war ended. He decided to stay in Thailand and founded the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company. He also purchased land in the city and built an exquisite Thai-style home. In 1967, he mysteriously disappeared while on vacation in the jungle of the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Today, you may tour his fascinating home.
If you feel like you’ve seen and done all there is to do at ground level in Bangkok, take a break and visit a rooftop bar in one of the city’s many skyscrapers. Here you can enjoy a drink as well as an eye-popping view. A few of our favorites include the Sky Bar at Sirocco at the top of the State Tower, the Long Table on the 25th floor of the Column Tower, and Vertigo on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel.
Art lovers looking to check out the Thai art scene have several museums to choose from in Bangkok, including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.
Bangkok is an incredible metropolis, but many Thais still live the old way in various fishing villages outside the city. Take a Tour with Tong to a typical fishing outpost, where you’ll spend the day with a local fisherman and his family. You’ll arrive by Thai long-tail boat, visit the fisherman’s bamboo stilt home, eat a traditional seafood lunch and meet wild monkeys along the way.
Gourmands will tell you that Bangkok offers a heavenly array of restaurants and bars, with something delectable in every price range. Thai cuisine is a spicy blend of flavors, based on lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, basil, garlic, onion, ginger, coriander, mint, chili peppers, curry and eggplant. Popular menu items include vegetarian or shrimp spring rolls; chicken, beef or pork satay skewers; pineapple fried rice; and pad thai, stir-fried noodles with eggs, tamarind, fish sauce, bean sprouts and red chili peppers, plus chicken, shrimp or tofu.
Liquor made in the area includes several varieties of beer, whiskey and rum. Be on the lookout for rice-based Mekhong whiskey, SangSom Thai rum and Chang Beer (a pale lager). For those who eschew alcoholic beverages, go for cha yen (a Thai version of iced tea). It’s made by combining red tea leaves, star anise, sugar and evaporated milk. The creamy sweetness is the ideal complement to the spicy food you’ll be eating.
There are numerous places around town to try traditional Thai dishes, including Siam House Cafe, a small restaurant in the Silom area; Jin Chieng Seng, in the lobby at the Inn a Day hotel; and Basil, which offers dishes from four different regions of Thailand (and also runs Thai cooking classes).
For an upscale seafood buffet with a knockout river view through floor-to-ceiling windows, Lord Jim’s at the Mandarin Oriental is the place. The emphasis is on seafood; you’ll gorge yourself on scallops, tiger prawns, lobster, crab, mussels, clams, oysters and more.
Vegetarian travelers or those simply looking for healthy options will want to try the Bonita Cafe and Social Club on Pan Street, offering vegan and raw food dishes such as teriyaki tofu burgers and zucchini pasta. The friendly owners and cozy atmosphere are as memorable as the food.
Masala Art, located in the Thonglor Complex, earns raves as one of Bangkok’s best Indian restaurants. The extensive menu includes dishes like murg makhani, lamb masala, punjabi fish and saag paneer.
Want a break from Asian food? You can find just about any cuisine that you like, including Italian — and if you’re craving some bruschetta or fettuccini, head to Medici, located at the Hotel Muse.
Shopping in Bangkok
Bangkok offers a wealth of shopping opportunities — as well as a chance to hone your haggling skills! In all but the largest malls and department stores, prices are subject to negotiation. (For bargaining tips, see Shopping Abroad: A Traveler’s Guide.) A good souvenir is Thai silk, which has been a sought-after commodity ever since the first Western travelers made their way to Southeast Asia. Look for ties, scarves, robes and dresses. Many talented tailors are also available to custom-design clothing for you.
If you’ve got time on a Saturday or Sunday, take the Skytrain to the Mo Chit station, and head directly to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. This place throbs with action, as thousands of vendors hawk their wares to some 200,000 visitors each day. Spread across 25 acres, stalls are organized according to the merchandise sold — housewares, clothing, ceramics, amulets and antique Buddhas, live animals, etc. Prices are fair, and bargaining is encouraged and expected. If you’re looking for Thai crafts (bronzeware, lacquerware, silk items), you’ll find them here. Chatuchak can be chaotic, so check out the website — which includes a map — before you go. See Chatuchak.org.
Mall lovers won’t want to miss the massive CentralWorld shopping center, offering numerous international and local brands.
The Damnoen Saduak floating market is a must-visit for any newcomer to Bangkok. About an hour and a half outside of the city (in Ratchaburi Province) you’ll find this busy khlong, clogged with long-tail boats piled high with every type of fruit and vegetable imaginable. This is mainly a produce market, but you’ll also find typical souvenir items. Take a taxi or hire a private car, and spend a few hours exploring. It’s a typical tourist trap, but you’ll get some amazing photographs to show your friends and family back home.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a Bangkok visitor who hasn’t stopped in at least one jewelry store. There you’ll find excellent deals on sapphires and rubies, and Thai jewelers are very adept at custom-designing or copying pieces of jewelry. Shop at reputable stores — not those recommended by your tuk-tuk driver — and know how much similar gems or gold would cost here at home. One favorite is Venus Jewelry, located on Withayu Road.
–written by Andrea M. Rotondo; updated by Marsea Nelson