Bangkok is one of the most vibrant, exciting and cosmopolitan cities in Asia. Today the city of Bangkok acts as a major business, financial and cultural hub of South East Asia. Bangkok is home to more than 10 million people and has experienced phenomenal growth in the last 30 years.
Thailand’s capital is a place where ancient and modern collide amid an abundance of sights, sounds, smells and tastes, and contrasts are everywhere you look. There are futuristic skyscrapers and ancient temples, religious shrines and hedonistic nightclubs, street food and chic restaurants, road gridlock and an efficient sky train and underground system. They all exist side by side.
Between temples, museums, markets, river trips, shopping malls, parks and nightclubs, visitors to this diverse city are rewarded with a vast array sightseeing, shopping and eating possibilities. Many refer to Bangkok as the city that never sleeps.
Turn the clock back hundreds of years and Bangkok was nothing more than a village by the Chao Phraya River, a home for those who worked the land. At this time, it was situated in the midst of a landscape of plum trees, hence the name. Bangkok means plum orchard. Early Bangkok (Krung Thep in Thai) also served as a port for merchants and their sailing ships. As these ships grew in size and the river traffic intensified so the village expanded and increased in importance.
Bangkok became the capital of the country in 1782, replacing Thornburi, which was situated on Chao Phraya River’s western bank. The decision was made by King Rama I (the founder of the Chakri Dynasty, which still reigns in Thailand today) for strategic reasons to better defend against attacks by the Burmese.
Almost immediately, the king ordered building work to start, concentrating on palaces and Buddhist temples. Among the first raft of construction projects was the Grand Palace, home to the dazzling statue of the Emerald Buddha.
Growth continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as the city expanded outwards and rural areas became residential districts. During the economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s many multinationals moved their regional headquarters here. Although the financial crash of 1997 saw some leans year, it wasn’t too long before this vibrant megalopolis was back on its feet, a modern-day city brimming with excitement, awe-inspiring sights and opportunities.
Bangkok is a city with a rich and captivating cultural diversity, home to a number of different religions. The official religion of Thailand is Buddhism, practiced by more than 90% of the population. During your time in the capital city you will come across many Thai Buddhist temples. But you will also see Muslim mosques, Christian churches, Chinese Taoist temples and Hindu shrines.
Western influences and ideas are abound in the city, which is perhaps not surprising considering the port has long traded with the west. Dress and fashion are the most obvious signs of this change in Thailand’s culture where Western-style clothes are ubiquitous, particularly among teenagers. Other noticeable influences are the widespread ownership of consumer electronics and mobile communications and the increasing popularity of shopping malls as weekend hangouts. And while Western food outlets such as McDonalds are a growing presence, traditional Thai food can be savoured in every district. During your time in Bangkok, try such mouth-watering dishes as gaeng daeng (red curry), pad Thai (Thai style fried noodles), tom kha kai (chicken in coconut soup) and yam nua (spicy beef salad).
To experience the Bangkok of yesteryear, go over to the old city, where you will find traditional shop-houses, canals and low-rise neighbourhoods that appear untouched by the passing of time.
Bangkok is also a city that knows how to throw a good party and there are many public festivities year-round. Some of the most popular are:
- Songkran in April, which welcomes in the Thai New Year. The celebrations get very wet as there are lots of friendly water fights. Considering this is usually the hottest month of the year, many locals and visitors find it refreshing to be pelted with buckets of water.
- Loy Krathong, which falls on the first full-moon night of November. People send small floats decorated with candles, flowers and incense across the river to honour the goddess of the water and to bring luck. With countless candles twinkling on the water for as far as the eye can see, Loy Krathong is one of the city’s most picturesque festivals.
- Chinese New Year, a week-long celebration in late January/early February. There are colourful dragon parades, firework displays and acrobatic shows.
Residents are friendly people who are warm, open and generous towards tourists. It’s no small wonder that Bangkok is also known as “the city of smiles”. Note that a smile can mean many things here, and shouldn’t always be interpreted as being a sign of happiness or pleasure. Yes, it can mean those things, but a Thai person may also smile as a form of apology, an attempt to diffuse a situation or when they don’t know the answer to something.
Although a major business and economic powerhouse, the lifestyle here tends to be more relaxed than those of other major cities. Sure, it can be hectic during the day with traffic being a major stressor, but the city has so many places to chill out and de-stress such as Benjasiri Park, Queen Sirikit Park and Lumpini Park. During the weekends, many Bangkokians head to the nearby seaside resorts of Pattaya and Hua Hin.
Bangkok has a tropical monsoon climate and lays claim to being the hottest city in the world. Although there are three seasons – hot, rainy and cool – temperatures regularly top the 30°C throughout the year. Humidity levels can also be high during these times.
The driest time of the year is winter, between November and February, while September is the wettest month. Travellers who like their weather temperatures to be sizzling should come during the spring, from March to August. This is the hottest time of the year, where daily temperatures can easily reach 40°C. However, this can make sightseeing very uncomfortable. The weather is typically dry during this season, but the occasional thunderstorm provides some brief respite from the heat.
The best time of the year to come to Bangkok is probably during the dry season, from late October/early November to February. Although not completely dry, as the name suggests, there is less rain than at other times of the year and humidity levels are lower. Daytime temperatures on the coolest days can hover around the low to mid-20s.
Bangkok’s roads have a reputation for traffic jams and gridlocks, especially during the rush hours. Unless you are a fan of spending hours bumper to bumper with other vehicles, avoid getting into a car or bus during these times. Fortunately, with a modern and efficient public transportation system, Bangkok is an easy city to get around. The Skytrain (BTS) and Underground (MRT) rail systems connect the principle business, shopping and entertainments districts of the city.
Taxis are cheap and in abundance. And although the once ubiquitous tuk-tuks are declining in numbers, they’re still a popular way for tourists and visitors to get around.
Bangkok also has a day and night bus service that will take you almost anywhere in the metropolitan areas. The Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA) is responsible for operating more than 100 routes, which are served by more than 3,000 buses (regular and air-conditioned).
- The daily operating hours for buses are 5 am to 11 pm
- Night buses provide a 24-hour service
You can also travel to a number of destinations by water bus and ferries. They are a wonderful way to explore the khlongs, or old canals that crisscross the city. At one time, Bangkok was known as the “Venice of the east” for its network of waterways.
Bangkok is divided into 50 districts, which are further split into 154 sub districts. Below are the most visited districts on the tourist trail.
Shopping, eating and nightlife are Sukhumvit’s biggest draws. Sukhumvit Road is the longest thoroughfare in Bangkok and is home to shops, cinemas, upmarket restaurants, bars, hotels and clubs. There is something for everyone here, day and night. For food, you can savour a United Nations of cuisine with Thai, French, Italian and Middle Eastern among the flavours on offer. If shopping is on the agenda, check out the Terminal 21 designer mall and the Emporium, which overlooks Benjasiri Park.
At night, you can sip cocktails in rooftop bars and get down and dirty on the dance floors of some of the hottest clubs in the city, such as About Eleven and Q Bar. Elsewhere, visitors might want to explore the nocturnal delights of the red-light districts of Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy.
Siam is Bangkok’s main shopping area with stores, boutiques and malls that cater for all budgets. Among the most popular draws are Siam Paragon, one of Thailand’s biggest shopping centres. It is the glitzy home of more than 250 stores selling fashion, jewellery and beauty products to the well-heeled. While you are here, stop by the shopping centre’s Sam Ocean World, the largest aquarium in Southeast Asia. Other important shopping centres in the district include Sam Discovery Centre, Siam Centre and MBK Centre.
Silom shows two faces to the world. By day, smartly dressed men and women beaver away in the gleaming high-rise buildings that are home to leading financial institutions and a number of banks. At night, the succulent aromas from the district’s restaurants attract many hungry diners.
Silom also has another big calling card and that is the Patpong red-light district. Neon-lit bars and go-go clubs present adult entertainment shows and gyrating pole dancers, some of whom could pass as contortionists. Away from the carnal desires of the clubs is a busy market where you can buy souvenirs, cheap fashions and jewellery. If parts of Patpong feel familiar to you it may be because the district has featured in numerous movies including The Deer Hunter.
With ancient temples, beautiful scenery, restaurants and theatres, Riverside is a must-see Bangkok destination. The district extends across both sides of the Chao Phraya River and is filled with attractions, ancient and modern.
Among the most popular sites are the Bank of Thailand Museum, a statue of King Rama 1, the colourful boats of the Royal Barges Museum, the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Keaw and Wat Arun. This towering edifice is also known as the Temple of Dawn, an ancient temple believed to be the oldest in the city.
In addition to the district’s fine selection of restaurants, consider dining on the luxurious Grand Pearl as it cruises down the river, taking in major Bangkok sights. After your meal, browse the night markets, including the Asiatique which occupies the site of an old trade port. This huge complex encompasses more than 1,000 boutiques and numerous restaurants, and puts on nightly entertainment shows.
The old city is where the Bangkok that we know today started out. It is a peaceful oasis amidst the sometimes frenetic throb of the rest of the city, the home of spectacular temples and shrines and other important religious and historical attractions. Among them are the simply magnificent Grand Place, which was built in 1782 and served as the home of the Thai King for 150 years, Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and Loha Prasat Temple.
Devote at least a couple of days to exploring the old city, where you will also find the Bangkok National Museum, the Museum of Siam and Khao San Road. Alex Garland’s novel The Beach described this street as the “centre of the backpacking universe”. It is easy to see why with many budget guesthouses and mid-range hotels as well as bars, clubs and massage parlours lining its length.
Chinatown is a colourful jumble of temples, markets, shopping arcades, restaurants and street foods. Loud, lively and exciting, it is a feast for the senses. Marvel at the simplicity of the traditional wooden shop-houses and the beauty of the extravagantly decorated temples. Wander down side streets to find market stalls laden with food, spices, cheap souvenirs and clothing. In addition to the roadside stalls, there’s the Klong Thom Centre, a three-story shopping destination. For lunch or dinner, head over to Yaowarat Road, Chinatown’s main street. The busy thoroughfare is known for its restaurants and array of food vendors and carts. Pull up a plastic chair by one of the stalls and sample a range of local specialties.
- When taking a taxi, ask your driver to turn the meter on. If he refuses, find another taxi. There are lots about. Avoid the rush hour if you can. Taxi drivers don’t require a tip, but you may want to round up the fare, which would be appreciated.
- Thailand is very security conscious and the police could ask to see your ID at any time. Carrying your passport around with you may be impractical so always take a photocopy with you.
- Always carry bottled water with you. Fortunately, you are never more than a few hundred metres away from a drinks vendor. Before buying, always check that the bottled water is sealed.
- Department stores and some shops have fixed prices for goods, but in others where there are no ticket prices, haggling is expected. This can be a route to getting some great bargains. Good luck!
- Most tourists are allowed to stay in Thailand for up to 30 days without a visa. If you wish to stay longer in Bangkok or other parts of the country, you can obtain a two-month visa from the Thai consulate or embassy in your country. If you are already in Thailand and wish to extend your stay, you can do so by applying for a one-month extension from an immigration office.
Important Telephone Numbers:
Fire Brigade: 199
Tourist Police: 155
Bumrungrad International Hospital: 02 667 1000
Bangkok Christian Hospital: 02 235 1000-7
Sukhumvit Hospital: 02 391 0011
Directory Assistance: 1133