If there is one must-see sight that no visit to Bangkok would be complete without, it’s the dazzling, spectacular Grand Palace, undoubtedly the city’s most famous landmark. Built in 1782 – and for 150 years the home of the Thai King, the Royal court and the administrative seat of government – the Grand Palace of Bangkok is a grand old dame indeed, that continues to have visitors in awe with its beautiful architecture and intricate detail, all of which is a proud salute to the creativity and craftsmanship of Thai people. Within its walls were also the Thai war ministry, state departments, and even the mint. Today, the complex remains the spiritual heart of the Thai Kingdom.
Within the palace complex are several impressive buildings including Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), which contains the small, very famous and greatly revered Emerald Buddha that dates back to the 14th century.
The robes on the Buddha are changed with the seasons by HM The King of Thailand, and forms an important ritual in the Buddhist calendar. Thai Kings stopped living in the palace around the turn of the twentieth century, but the palace complex is still used to mark all kinds of other ceremonial and auspicious happenings.
The palace complex, like the rest of Ratanakosin Island, is laid very similar to the palaces of Ayutthaya, the glorious former capital of Siam which was raided by the Burmese. The Outer Court, near the entrance, used to house government departments in which the King was directly involved, such as civil administration, the army and the treasury. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is located in one corner of this outer court. The Central Court is where the residence of the King and halls used for conducting state business were located. Only two of the throne halls are open to the public, but you’ll be able to marvel at the exquisite detail on the facades of these impressive structures.
The Inner Court is where the King’s royal consorts and daughters lived. The Inner Court was like a small city entirely populated by women and boys under the age of puberty. Even though no royalty currently reside in the inner court, it is still completely closed off to the public. Despite the proximity of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, there’s a distinct contrast in style between the very Thai Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the more European inspired design of the Grand Palace (the roof being the main exception). Other highlights are Boromabiman Hall and Amarinda Hall, the original residence of King Rama I and the Hall of Justice.
Nowadays its impressive interior is used for important ceremonial occasions like coronations. It also contains the antique throne, used before the Western style one presently in use. Visitors are allowed inside the spacious European style reception room or Grand Palace Hall (Chakri Maha Prasat). Then there’s the impressive Dusit Hall, rated as perhaps the finest architectural building in this style, and a museum that has information on the restoration of the Grand Palace, scale models and numerous Buddha images.
A strict dress code applies. The Grand Palace with The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is Thailand’s most sacred site. Visitors must be properly dressed before being allowed entry to the temple. Men must wear long pants and shirts with sleeves (no tank tops. If you’re wearing sandals or flip-flops you must wear socks (in other words, no bare feet.) Women must be similarly modestly dressed. No see-through clothes, bare shoulders, etc. If you show up at the front gate improperly dressed, there is a booth near the entrance that can provide clothes to cover you up properly (a deposit is required).
Wat Arun, locally known as Wat Chaeng, is situated on the west (Thonburi) bank of the Chao Phraya River. It is easily one of the most stunning temples in Bangkok, not only because of its riverside location, but also because the design is very different to the other temples you can visit in Bangkok. Wat Arun (or temple of the dawn) is partly made up of colourfully decorated spires and stands majestically over the water.
Wat Arun is almost directly opposite Wat Pho, so it is very easy to get to. From Sapphan Taksin boat pier you can take a river boat that stops at pier 8. From here a small shuttle boat takes you from one side of the river to the other for only 3 baht. Entry to the temple is 100 baht. The temple is open daily from 08:30 to 17:30.
We would recommend spending at least an hour visiting the temple. Although it is known as the Temple of the Dawn, it’s absolutely stunning at sunset, particularly when lit up at night. The quietest time to visit, however, is early morning, before the crowds.
Given beauty of the architecture and the fine craftsmanship it is not surprising that Wat Arun is considered by many as one of the most beautiful temples in Thailand. The spire (prang) on the bank of Chao Phraya River is one of Bangkok’s world-famous landmarks. It has an imposing spire over 70 metres high, beautifully decorated with tiny pieces of coloured glass and Chinese porcelain placed delicately into intricate patterns.
You can climb the central prang if you wish, the steps are very steep but there is a railing to balance yourself. Getting up is as tricky as getting down! When you reach the highest point you can see the winding Chao Phraya River and the Grand Palace and Wat Pho opposite. Along the base of this central tower there are sculptures of Chinese soldiers and animals.
Head into the ordination hall and you can admire a golden Buddha image and the detailed murals that decorate the walls. Although Wat Arun is a very popular for tourists, it is also an important place of worship for Buddhists. Make sure you dress appropriately, or pick up one of the cover ups that are for rent near the entrance.
Wat Arun was envisioned by King Taksin in 1768. It is believed that after fighting his way out of Ayutthaya, which was taken over by a Burmese army at the time, he arrived at this temple just as dawn was breaking. He later had the temple renovated and renamed it Wat Chaeng, the Temple of the Dawn. It used to be the home of the Emerald Buddha, before the capital and Palace was moved to the other side of the river. This can now be seen at the Grand Palace.
The central prang was extended during the reign of Rama III (between 1824 and 1851), and is now one of the most visited sites in Thailand. It was also Rama III who added the decoration of the spires with porcelain, so that they glimmer in the sunshine.
Even though transactions are more concerned with tourists rather than locals these days, the floating market;boats are still piled high with tropical fruit and vegetables, fresh, ready-to-drink coconut juice and local food cooked from floating kitchens located right on the boat.
To enjoy the atmosphere without haggling over prices, try relaxing on a guided boat tour of Damnoen Saduak market. Floating markets are Taling Chan Market, Bang Ku Wiang Market, Tha Kha, and Damnoen Saduak.
Bangkok’s Chinatown is a popular tourist attraction and a food haven for new generation gourmands who flock here after sunset to explore the vibrant street-side cuisine. At day time, it’s no less busy, as hordes of shoppers descend upon this 1-km strip and adjacent Charoenkrung Road to get a day’s worth of staple, trade gold, or pay a visit to one of the Chinese temples.
Packed with market stalls, street-side restaurants and a dense concentration of gold shops, Chinatown is an experience not to miss. The energy that oozes from its endless rows of wooden shop-houses is plain contagious – it will keep you wanting to come back for more. Plan your visit during major festivals, like Chinese New Year, and you will see Bangkok Chinatown at its best.
Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha), or Wat Phra Chetuphon, is located behind the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and a must-do for any first-time visitor in Bangkok. It’s one of the largest temple complexes in the city and famed for its giant reclining Buddha that measures 46 metres long and is covered in gold leaf. It’s an easy ten minute walk between here and the Grand Palace, and we recommend coming to Wat Pho second, because even though the golden Buddha here is just as popular many people don’t take the time to wander around the rest of the complex so the experience tends to be far more relaxing. This is also a great place to get a traditional Thai massage. Wat Pho is often considered the leading school of massage in Thailand, so you really are in good hands here. Since December 2012, entrance to the temple costs 100 baht and you can visit any time between 08:00 and 17:00.
The highlight for most people visiting Wat Pho is the Reclining Buddha. The figures here are impressive: 15 metres tall, 46 metres long, so large it feels like it has been squeezed into the building. The Buddha’s feet are 5 metres long and exquisitely decorated in mother-of-pearl illustrations of auspicious ‘laksanas’ (characteristics) of the Buddha. 108 is a significant number, referring to the 108 positive actions and symbols that helped lead Buddha to perfection. You’ll need to take your shoes off to enter, and if you would like a little good luck, we recommend purchasing a bowl of coins at the entrance of the hall which you can drop in the 108 bronze bowls which line the length of the walls. Dropping the small pennies in makes a nice ringing sound and even if your wishes don’t come true, the money goes towards helping the monks renovate and preserve Wat Pho. As this is a revered image, all visitors must wear appropriate clothing; this means no exposed shoulders or skin above the knee.
As we said before, it really is worth taking a look round the rest of the temple. Wat Pho also has good English speaking guides who will provide interesting information for around 200 – 400 baht, depending on how many people there are in your group and how good your negotiating skills are. If you prefer, you can wander alone. Recommend sites include four chapels that contain 394 gilded Buddha images, long lines of golden statues from different parts of Thailand sitting in the lotus position. Although the intricately detailed murals that cover the walkways around Wat Pho will require a book or guide to decipher, the exquisite murals are so detailed and intricate that even if you don’t understand all the imagery you can still appreciate the artwork. Finally in the courtyards at Wat Pho Temple are some comical looking Chinese statutes that were once uses as ballasts on ships and 91 chedis (or stupas) decorated in ceramic pottery flowers and colourful tiles.
Wat Pho was the first public university in Thailand, specialising in religion, science and literature. It is now more well-known as a centre for traditional massage and medicine. After a walk around the temple there is nothing quite like a relaxing foot or head and shoulder massage. If you’ve never tried a traditional Thai massage, Wat Pho is a good place to experience this popular leisure activity. It’s quite different to most other forms of therapeutic massage and tends to be invigorating rather than relaxing, incorporating yoga style postures to relieve stress and improve blood circulation. This is a very popular activity at Wat Pho temple, so we recommend you pop in before your treatment to book a spot, or you might end up with a long wait.
Once only popular among wholesalers and traders, Chatuchak Weekend Market has reached a landmark status as a must-visit place for tourists. Its sheer size and diverse collections of merchandise will bring any seasoned shoppers to their knees – this is where you can literally shop ‘till you drop’.
The 35-acre (68-rai) area of Chatuchak is home to more than 8,000 market stalls. On a typical weekend, more than 200,000 visitors come here to sift through the goods on offer. Veteran shoppers would agree that just about everything is on sale here, although not all at the best bargain rates. But if you have one weekend in Bangkok, squeeze in a day trip to Chatuchak Weekend Market and you will not be disappointed.
For first-timers, ‘conquering’ Chatuchak may seem like an impossible task, but worry not. There is a system to help you navigate your way through Chatuchak. Inside, one main walkway encircles the entire market, and it branches off into a series of numbered alleyways called Soi 1, Soi 2, Soi 3, and so on.
These alleyways are grouped into sections, with 27 sections in all. You will find more than one category of goods contained in one section, and the same category of goods will appear again in the other sections. In terms of locating your category of goods, this system is rather useless; but it will come in handy when you try to locate your particular stall or where your exact location is on the Chatuchak map.
Another way to find your way around Chatuchak is to find points of reference as you go along. The BTS and MRT stations as well as banks and numbered entrance gates are good points of references, as you will come across them as you turn corners. Then again, use the map to locate these references to find your correct orientation.
If you can dream it up, Chatuchak probably has it. Here, you will be amazed at the sheer variety of merchandise, whether a Moroccan lamp, an antique wooden chest, a pair of vintage Levi’s jeans, or, on the exotic side, a python.
Although it’s impossible to name all, the selection of goods being offered at Chatuchak can be roughly divided into 11 categories:
When buying goods at Chatuchak, particularly ‘antiques’, it is wise to exercise a few precautions. Check your goods thoroughly to see whether there is any damage, as many vendors sell factory rejects. For ‘antiques’, don’t trust the vendor when he tells you it is genuine. It’s better to bring along an expert, unless you are happy with what you are paying for.
Chatuchak Weekend Market is the perfect place for bargain hunting, although whatever you buy here is probably no longer the best deal you can find. So brush up your negotiation skills and be prepared to walk away when the deal fails to go your way. Then, you’ll either be offered a lower price or simply find the same merchandise at another stall. It also helps to do a few practice runs before you actually start buying. Note that a friendly attitude and big smile are your biggest allies in securing the best possible deal.
Few people go to Chatuchak knowing exactly what they want or which stall to go to. Many expect to be surprised and let the sights of all the goods take them through a journey down the maze of stalls. Most often, shoppers arrive with a rough idea of what they want, then are hypnotised by what they see and end up going home with more than a few extra shopping items.
So, the best advice is, if you are going for the first time, to pick a starting point then just follow your instincts, enjoy the experience and bring home your exciting new finds.
Chances are you will end up spending at least half a day here so it is a good idea to prepare a few things to ensure that your shopping experience at Chatuchak is an enjoyable one.
Hop on the skytrain (BTS) to Mo Chit station, take exit no. 1 and follow the crowd until you see rows of canvas stalls selling clothes. Turn right while continuing to follow the crowd and you will see a small entrance that leads into the market (clothing section).
Another option is to take the subway (MRT) to Chatuchak Park station (exit no.1), then follow the crowd until you arrive at the small entrance that leads into the market (clothing section). For the plant and flower section, get off at Kampheng Phet MRT station (exit no. 1).
The weekend market is open on Saturdays and Sundays, 09:00 – 18:00, and Fridays 18:00 – 24:00. Plant sections are also open on Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 07:00 – 18:00.
If Bangkok is a city where East greets West, then Khao San Road is the scene of their collision, the place where they jostle for superiority and poke one another in the eye. With travellers from every corner of the modern world, sleek clubs playing sophisticated sounds, eclectic market stalls, converted VW cocktail bars, and foods tamed to suit the Western palate, it may seem clear who won the fight. However, whether you’re a hard-up farang (foreigner) or open-minded Thai, its irrepressible energy and carefree vibe makes it well worth a visit.
Don’t be worried that the place has lost its soul though. Dig beneath the thin veneer of progress and you’ll see the place has retained the raucous, gritty charm that made it famous: the sprawling neon signs that light up the street at night are still here, as are pushy tuk-tuk drivers, street vendors peddling everything from fried insects to croaking ornamental frogs, and drunken revellers, lost in the neon glare, staggering its length late into the night. And lets not forget the common and yet still compelling sight of bewildered new arrivals hunting frantically for a place to rest before sundown, or of strutting Thai beauties prowling the streets in search of a new ‘tee-rak’ (loved one).
Most importantly of all, the air of youthful abandon which permeates the place 24/7 is still here, unashamedly and comfortingly intact despite the seemingly unstoppable influx of fast-food outlets (Starbucks, McDonalds and Burger King) and incongruous shopping malls. In fact, though most use it as a convenient spot to re-configure after a bout of island hopping, or as a base from which to launch an assault on the city’s temples and markets, it’s true to say that Khao San Road has become an attraction in itself, albeit one with a raw, uncouth, cosmopolitan feel that isn’t textbook Thai.
Soi Cowboy was named after the cowboy hat-wearing African-American who opened the first bar here in the early 1970s, this red-light district has a more laid-back, carnival-like feel to it than Patpong or Nana Plaza. Flashing neon lights up a colourful streetscape of 20 or so A go-go bars that line its sides. Don’t be shy, it’s pretty easygoing and open-minded, entry is always free and drink’s prices are fixed.
Soi Cowboy is just next to Terminal 21, a very popular new shopping mall, so just cross the street and see it for yourself… or use Terminal 21 as an excuse to have a quick peek. Remember, you might not see this again anywhere else in the world!
Inside Soi Cowboy Go Go Bars
Each is brightly lit and colourful, playing loud music, offering lines of seats typically arranged in tiers around a UV-lit central stage. Another row of stools is available directly around the stage, but first timers tend to sit in the back. Bars usually close around 2.30 am, but it’s not unusual to see them open until 3am. Weekends can be really busy, especially in the most popular ones such as Tilac or Baccara.
Soi Cowboy is fairly straight-forward, no traps or scams… so just sit and order a drink: expect to pay 100 to 150 baht, which is rather fair (some bars like Sahara and Kiss now charging up to 180 baht… ouch). Staffmembers might sit next to you and ask for a drink, but rarely in a pushy way. If you want to enjoy your new friend’s company, it’s a nice gesture to buy her one and it is not too crazily expensive.
Jim Thompson House – The lovely garden-enclosed compound sitting on the bank of the Saen Saeb Canal would have gone completely unnoticed, had it not been for a legacy left behind by a middle-aged American man named Jim Thompson. His elegant residential enclave, comprising six traditional Thai teakwood houses transported from Ayutthaya and Bangkok’s Ban Krua community, echoes Jim Thompson’s 30-year love affair with Southeast Asian art and cultural heritage.
An architect by training and an avid collector of Asian objets d’art, Jim Thompson’s keen eyes and flair for design breathed life into everything he touched. After his discharge from military service in 1946, Jim Thompson decided to settle down in Thailand, where he dedicated over 30 years to reviving Thai silk – then a dying cottage industry – and introduced it to the world’s most respectable fashion houses and catwalks in Paris, New York, London and Milan.
The same goes for his Thai house, which was no ordinary teakwood villa complex filled with incongruous collections of antiques, but a breathing museum – even then – that embodies Jim Thompson’s life-long passion and whimsical design choices. One day in 1967, while at the height of his success, he mysteriously disappeared into the Malaysian jungle, and thus began the legacy of Jim Thompson…
In the shadow of surrounding trees, the house’s inconspicuous façade belies a tastefully decked entry foyer, itself an unconventional architectural feature in traditional Thai houses and a preamble to Jim Thompson’s signature East-meets-West style permeating throughout the house.
A clever lighting arrangement draws your eyes to two wall niches displaying a 17th Century standing Buddha and a wooden hand-carved figurine. High above your head, a Belgian chandelier glistens from the ceiling, while the floor is laid out with Italian marble tiles, punctuating the heavy wood accents on the walls and indoors staircase.
Upstairs, you are greeted by a series of decorative wall hangings that Jim Thompson acquired from various Buddhist temples. Like ancient murals, they tell stories of the Buddha’s previous and present lives as well as his spiritual journey towards attaining enlightenment. From here, proceed to the right and encounter the solemn sandstone Buddha image guarding the entry to the Thai kitchen, which now houses Jim Thompson’s exquisite collection of Benjarong porcelain ware.
The dining room is housed inside the 19th Century teakwood villa Thompson bought from its owner in Ayutthaya. On the dining table, fashioned from two Chinese mahjong tables, the blue-and-white porcelain set is laid out in its full glory, as if dinner is about to be served, with Thompson seated at the head of the table, his back to the windows.
Set between the private quarter and the dining area is the living room, constructed from the 100-year-old wooden house Jim Thompson bought from the Ban Krua Muslim community just across the canal. The villagers at Ban Krua were the first weavers of the Jim Thompson silk brand. Jim Thompson used to row across the canal and back every day, until he decided to build a permanent home here.
With a four-metre-high ceiling and one open-sided wall, the living room is a lofty area overlooking the Saen Saeb Canal. Thompson masterfully converted the four windows into four display niches, upon which he placed four Burmese guardian spirits (or ‘Nats’) carved from wood, a gift from the Burmese government.
As you wander from one room to the next, you can’t help but admire Jim Thompson’s thoughtful eclecticism and meticulous attention to details. His sophisticated taste and in-depth knowledge of Southeast Asian art shine through the rare antique and art collections placed tastefully in each room that enrich the overall ambience, rather than just show off his wealth.
While respecting local traditions and customs, he was no slave to them either. The staircase and bathrooms are found indoors, rather than outdoors as you would normally find in traditional Thai homes. Satellite houses, which normally would be linked through an open courtyard area, are all grouped under one roof with a covered walkway. And the decorative window panels, which traditionally face outwards, face in. Jim Thompson’s skillful adaptation of the local style to suit his western upbringing was years ahead of its time, rendering a timeless twist to what would otherwise be labeled as ‘classic’ or simply ‘colonial’.
After Jim Thompson’s mysterious disappearance, a court-appointed administrator, which 10 years later became The James H.W. Thompson Foundation, took over the management of his house and assets. Today, the brand Jim Thompson also extends to an art centre, souvenir boutique, restaurant and café, as well as banqueting facilities located in the same vicinity. With an outdoor terrace by the canal, the elegantly appointed Araya Hall caters for gatherings of between 40 and 80 people, whether a corporate function, meeting, fashion show, wedding banquet, press conference, private luncheons or dinners.