There just aren’t adjectives enough to describe Bangkok. It’s simultaneously a demanding and rewarding city; fast-paced yet harbouring a serene traditional core. Unapologetic consumerism jostles side by side with quiet temples and respect for ancient traditions. Juxtapositions abound. It makes for an enticing destination – come for a day or two en route to Thailand’s beaches and you may find that you stay for weeks.
But where to begin? There’s a huge amount to see and experience, and a lot of scammers and touts to avoid whilst trying to find the best of what the city has to offer. First find somewhere central to stay. There’s seemingly no end to the hostels vying for your custom along the backpackers’ mecca of Khao San Road, but unless you’re keen to party all night I recommend indulging in somewhere quieter and a little more elegant, somewhere that can be a refuge from the city’s heat and frenetic pace as well as a place to rest your head. My favourites were the Arun Residence on the banks of the Chao Prayer River, which has lovely views of the Temple of the Dawn (www.arunresidence.com) or the historic Old Bangkok Inn (www.oldbangkokinn.com) Wherever you stay, make sure you carry the hotel or hostel’s business card with you at all times – taxi and tuk tuk drivers can rarely speak English or read the tourist maps and these cards have the address in Thai.
There are two modes of transport for getting around the city that you shouldn’t ignore (aside from the obligatory tuk tuk ride!). The first is the Skytrain which carries you cheaply and swiftly around the city to (or near to) a number of key destinations. Take a light jumper, the air-con is strong! The second is the river. Bangkok was once known as the Venice of the East’; a number of boats carry locals and tourists alike up and down the central stretch of the Chao Praya, and a trip on one of the smaller longboats along one of the tributaries or canals is a cheap and fun way to explore some of the less well-trodden waterways of the city.
As for sightseeing, well there’s a lot to choose from. Bangkok’s beautiful temples should be a must-see even for those who don’t call themselves culture vultures. Visually they are incredible and though often humming with other tourists you can usually find a quiet corner from which to watch the daily life of the temple unfolding underneath the tourist activity. Wat Pho, with tits enormous reclining Buddha, is top of my list. The queue to circumnavigate the famous Buddha fail to detract too much from the atmosphere and many of those paying their respects will be carrying offerings rather than cameras. You’ll also be able to experience Thai massage here, or watch monks teaching classes of attentive schoolchildren. Directly adjacent, the Grand Palace is also a winner – if you want to explore its dazzling splendour thoroughly you could spend a whole day here. (And despite what the tuk tuk owner / taxi driver / man on the corner says, it is not closed!) The Vimanmek Teak Mansion is a less well-known attraction, set in Dusit Park it is the world’s largest golden teak mansion held together without a single nail. Despite its magnificent finery it’s surprisingly serene and intimate. It is home to a treasure trove of objets d’art and antiques. Another favourite is the beautiful Marble Temple, or Wat Benchamabophit. Merit makers come to the monks of this temple offering alms every morning between 6 and 7:30. It’s worth the early rise to see the monks line up on Nakhon Phantom in the soft morning light with their bowls to receive donations of curry, rice, lotus buds, and coco-cola.
Let’s not forget that lovely rampant consumerism. Siam Square and the surrounding area covers the needs of most shoppers to the city – in fact Siam Paragon is the second largest mall in South East Asia! A slightly different but equally superlative shopping experience can be had at the popular Chatuchuck Weekend Market, one of the world’s largest markets where everything from vintage clothing to exotic snacks to small animals can be perused. The amulet market tucked away on Ko Ratanakosin makes a good spot for people watching and photo opportunities – and of course for some souvenirs that won’t weigh down your luggage. And I particularly enjoyed wandering amongst the flower market near to the Tha Thewet ferry pier. Of course, the stalls and shops lining Khao San Road make for a great place to stock up on souvenirs or gifts – head there in the afternoon and once you’ve shopped ‘til you’ve dropped you can enjoy some street food (street stalls offer some of the city’s best food, just make sure it’s freshly cooked) and a drink or two to kick start your evening in one of the areas many bars. Louise Alexander