Things to Do in Bangkok
A visit to Bangkok's Grand Palace is at the top of every visitors 'must-see' list. Built in 1782 by King Rama I who established Bangkok as Thailand's new capital, the Grand Palace became the Royal seat for 150 years.
The striking buildings within the palace complex reflect the spirit of each successive monarch and the era in which they ruled. While Thailand's current (and longest-reigning) monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has never lived in the Grand Palace, the complex is still used to mark ceremonial and auspicious happenings. Deep within the Palace grounds you'll find Thailand's most sacred sight - Phra Kaew Morakot (the Emerald Buddha) contained within a beautiful temple (Wat Phra Kaeo). This highly revered Buddha sculpture is carved from a single block of jade and dates from the 15th century AD.
To make the most of your visit it is worthwhile hiring a guide who will help broaden your understanding of the Grand Palace and its colorful history.
The Chao Phraya River (or Mae Nam Chao Phraya) runs north to south through Thailand, whose most notable and densely populated cities lie along the river's main tributary.
In Bangkok, the Chao Phraya is a major transportation artery. A vast network of ferries and water taxis, known as long tails, ferry locals and tourists up and down the river, connecting with the city's main sights. For many, these boats are the preferred way of getting around Bangkok, whose streets are often choked with traffic.
Several boat lines compete for business on the river and its canals and you’ll find variations in price and distance traveled. If you start at Tha Sathon (accessible via sky train at Saphan Taksi), you'll chug sedately past (or be able to disembark at) Chinatown, Wat Arun, Wichai Prasit Fort and the Grand Palace. There’s no denying it - the Chao Phraya is a murky and sometimes smelly river, but even a short boat trip along it gives you a fresh perspective on the city.
The Temple of the Dawn - or Wat Arun - towers 260 ft (79 m) above the Chao Phraya river. With fabulous views of the rising and setting sun and of the city's main attractions, the temple is one of Bangkok's most visited sights after the Grand Palace.
Named by Bangkok's founder King Thaksin to signify the rise of the new kingdom (after Ayutthaya was destroyed), the Temple of the Dawn was originally much shorter until its expansion during King Rama III's rule (1824 - 1851). Local people donated the ceramic pieces that make up the temple's unique exterior decoration.
It is possible to climb the temple for views across the river to the Grand Palace and beyond but its narrow steps are not for the faint hearted.
Chinatown - or Yaowarat - is a vibrant area, packed with shops, markets, restaurants and hotels, mostly concentrated along Thanon Yaowarat (Yaowarat Street). Markedly different from the rest of Bangkok, Chinatown is relatively untouched by modern development and has the highest concentration of gold shops in the city. There is also a smaller network of roads and alleys, which reveal markets crammed with anything from hair slides to cutlery.
Having been settled in the area since the 1700s, Bangkok's large Chinese community has a unique and fascinating history. You can now get a sense of that at the relatively new Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Centre in Wat Trai Mit Witthayaram. The center details the evolution of Chinatown and its people, from their earliest migration from China to the present day.
Wat Kalayanamit is an elaborate Bangkok temple that sits on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. It’s located near the mouth of the Bangkok Yai Canal, although any time spent on this part of the river means you’re unlikely to miss it; the temple’s giant ochre-roofed viharn tends to stand out and demand attention.
While Kalayanamit’s viharn can be said to be traditionally Thai in architectural style, the temple’s other buildings and pavilions have a distinct Chinese influence. This is because Wat Kalayanamit was built in the first half of the 19th century when China was seen as the ideal counterbalance to the growing European influences in southeast Asia. As such, Chinese architecture, sculptures, and other decorative artefacts became increasingly popular. Inside the huge viharn, an equally huge Buddha statue almost fills the entire prayer hall, while the walls are painted with scenes from the time of the temple's construction.
Located at the end of Chinatown's Yaowarat Road, near Hua Lampong Station, Wat Traimit is home to the world's largest gold-seated Buddha. Measuring in at three meters tall and weighing over five tons, the Golden Buddha makes Wat Traimit a prominent stop on Bangkok’s temple trail.
This impressive statue attracts floods of visitors who come to marvel at its impressive size and gleaming golden surface, but was once hidden from invading armies by a covering of plaster. Pieces of the plaster that once formed its disguise can now be found on display in a case within the temple.
Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province is home to the famous Bridge on the River Kwai and the beginning of the Thai-Burma Death Railway, both poignant reminders of the thousands of POW's and forced laborers who lost their lives in WWII. Made famous by the 1957 David Lean movie of the same name, the building of the bridge in 1943 was one part of a huge Japanese wartime project to link Thai and Burmese railway lines and create a direct route from Bangkok.
Due to illness, starvation and neglect, thousands of people lost their lives building the bridge and railway – you can visit the graves of nearly 7,000 POWs at the nearby Kanchanaburi war cemetery. Parts of the original bridge are now displayed in the War Museum here. You can walk along the restored railway bridge on foot or take a train specifically for tourists.
In a city and country known for its colorful markets, none stands quite so vivid as Bangkok’s Pak Khlong Talat Flower Market. The largest floral market in the Thai capital -- both retail and wholesale -- sits on the banks of the river just south of Wat Pho.
Open 24 hours a day, the market starts each day primarily as a vegetable and fruit market before giving way to the flowers. As you wander through, you’ll see flowers from around the world, piled high in stall after stall -- delicate orchids, bunches of colorful carnations, fragrant roses, lilies and forget-me-nots.
Asiatique The Riverfront is a large open-air mall situated in the once bustling international trade docks of the East Asiatic Company. It faces the Chao Phraya River and Charoen Krung Road and was opened in 2012 after an extensive renovation of the site.
Asiatique blends the traditional side of Bangkok with its rapidly growing modern side by combining a night bazaar and a swish, contemporary shopping mall. It features more than 1500 shops, stores, and boutiques and around 40 restaurants all within the same complex. It offers a good variety of shops, with a range of brands and independent outlets drawing a mixed crowd of locals and tourists.
Opening only in the evenings from 5pm, Asiatique also has a strong focus on entertainment in addition to retail therapy, with nightly shows including cabaret acts, Thai boxing, and screenings at its on-site 4D movie theater.
More Things to Do in Bangkok
Deep within the Grand Palace grounds you’ll find Thailand’s most sacred sight - the Emerald Buddha (Phra Kaew Morakot) contained within the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew or Wat Phra Keow). This temple is regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple in the country and is an essential palladium of Thai society.
Within its walls is the highly revered Buddha sculpture, carved from a single block of jade and dates from the 14th century AD. Believed to have been crafted in Sri Lanka, the Emerald Buddha was transported and revered throughout Southeast Asia before being brought back to Thailand from Laos in 1552. It has sat in its present shrine within the Grand Palace walls since 1784 and remains an important symbol of the Thai nation.
Sukhumvit Road is the longest boulevard in Thailand (with the Skytrain running along most of its length), and the surrounding neighborhood has become the city’s makeshift international zone, with expats and well-off Thais living on the small side streets, called sois, that intersect it. It’s a neighborhood where choices are endless. Luxury hotels stand beside budget accommodations, and the food scene from five star to street stand is top notch.
What Sukhumvit lacks in tourist attractions it makes up for in its buzzing shopping and nightlife scene. By day air-conditioned shopping malls offer just about anything under the sun and sumptuous days spas promise relaxation. By night the neighborhood comes alive with some of Bangkok’s top nightclubs (and a few notorious red light districts).
Held in the Asia Hotel in Bangkok, the Calypso Cabaret is certainly a show with a twist, using traditional cabaret to parade Thailand’s famous transsexual culture. It’s filled with lots of great costumes, dancing and singing, and performers accommodate all nationalities, singing songs and acting in Japanese, English, Korean and Chinese.
Each show contains several fascinating acts, including that of Carmen Miranda, who rides ostriches on the stage while dancing in the bright lights, a very convincing Marilyn Monroe impersonator and the comedic styling of Geisha, who performs in Japanese, but is hilarious in any language.
The controversial nature of the event make perhaps do not make it ideal for family outings, but these highly professional shows bring lots of memorable moments, including from Korean songs of the Wondergirls and the fantastic and overwhelming finale—which we will not give away here.
The Golden Mount - or Wat Saket - was constructed by King Rama I shortly after the founding of Bangkok. Built just outside the original city walls and intended as a burial site, the mount has many thousands of bodies interned here - most of them dating from Rama II's rule when plague swept through the city.
Built on swampy ground, the hill was rebuilt by Rama III who added a chedi (stupa) which promptly collapsed due to the shifting foundations. Rama V built the golden chedi we see today on the rubble of the previous chedi. The golden chedi is rumored to contain some of Buddha's remains – including his teeth. Concrete walls were constructed during World War II to ensure the structure remains stable. The Golden Mount looks its best at night when it glows gold against the dark sky. It is worth visiting in the daytime too for fantastic views across the city.
Arching in front of the sacred Wat Suthat in Bangkok, what is left of the Giant Swing (Sao Ching Cha) is a tall teak structure that once supported a giant seat used during Brahman festivals to honor the god Shiva. The landmark is often spotted on walking and biking tours through Bangkok. During the festivities, participants would swing in arcs in an effort to reach a bag of gold suspended from a bamboo pole, which was believed to encourage a good harvest. A black-and-white photograph illustrating the ceremony can be found at Wat Suthat's ticket counter nearby.
Constructed toward the end of the 18th century by King Rama I, the swing was later damaged by lightning during the reign of Rama II. In 1920, it was renovated and moved to its current location in front of Wat Suthat. However, there were so many injuries and even accidental deaths that the ceremonies were discontinued for good by the end of the 1930s. In 2007, the Giant Swing was replaced with the current model.
Situated to the west of Bangkok in Samut Songkhram, the Maeklong Railway Market is one of the most unusual markets in Thailand. At first glance it almost seems like any other local market, with vendors selling fresh vegetables, colorful fruit, and other foodstuff from tiny shops lining a narrow lane.
However, all is not quite as it seems at the Maeklong Railway Market. At regular intervals throughout the day, a loud train siren will sound and in a matter of moments, the shop owners will scoop up any stray produce, use long poles to hold up their awnings, and casually make way for the huge passenger train that chugs directly through the market!
Once the train has disappeared, the vendors will place their awnings back into position and the market will continue as usual. This occurs at the Maeklong Railway Market up to eight times a day, each and every day.
This bustling local gem is the largest fresh food market in Bangkok, with stalls selling produce straight from rural farms, raw meat and seafood direct from the nearby fishing port. Khlong Toey is particularly crowded in early mornings, when locals arrive in search of the best fare but despite long lines the vibe is still pretty relaxed.
While travelers can find random items like batteries and electronics, the real draw here is food. Come prepared to sample fruits and vegetables straight from market shelves, or to tuck into steaming hot plates of green curry at one of the mom and pop breakfast and lunch stalls.
A major destination among travelers in Bangkok, The Marble Palace is aptly named for its design, which is entirely made from Italian marble. Completed in 1911, the temple is the home of the golden Buddhist statue called Phra Buddhajinaraja and is still a live shrine, often filled with patrons who make offerings or light candles inside.
Buried beneath the statue is said to be the ashes of King Chulalongkorn and outside the main shrine in the gallery are more than 50 statues of Buddha depicted by several different cultures and variations of Buddhism in the region.
Located near to the Dusit Palace, the spacious complex on Si Ayudhya Road is built on the site of an older temple and was once used as the headquarters of Thai troops fighting against the Laotian army.
Budget travelers the world over go to Khao San Road to eat delicious, cheap street food, stay in budget digs, shop at the souvenir stalls and hang out in its open-air bars. So legendary is this Thai street, it even has its own website!
Only 20 minutes walk to the Grand Palace, Khao San Road started on its current incarnation in the early 80s, when Thailand fully embraced tourism. What began as a few budget travelers renting rooms in local houses, bloomed into a fully fledged backpacker mecca. As well as being an attraction in itself these days, Khan San Road is a good place to arrange ongoing travel within Thailand or its neighboring countries. Khao San Road is still as popular as ever and, love it or hate it, its irrepressible energy is infectious and hard to deny.
A top destination for visitors in Bangkok, the Jim Thompson House is a museum dedicate to the 20th century American businessman Jim Thompson, who almost single handedly reinvented the Thai silk trade. Housed in the former home of Mr. Thompson, the museum contains art he obtained while traveling in the region as well as very informative demonstrations showing the entire process of making silk, from how the silkworms are raised through to the production process.
The house is made up of six traditional Thai-style homes that were purchased one by one and formed into an elaborate mansion-like complex that includes a drawing room, painting pavilion, library, study and silk pavilion. Certainly a fan-favorite, the gift shop contains loads of great silk products as well as books and paintings showcasing the life of Jim Thompson.
Thailand is full of royal palaces and striking religious temples. But one of Bangkok’s most memorable highlights is the Royal Barges National Museum. This popular destination houses a fleet of ornately decorated, sleek and slender ships that were once the main mode of transportation for the royal family.
Travelers can examine the religious symbols that decorate the king’s personal barge and get up close with to the hand-carved Buddhas and pristine dugouts of these unique vessels. The largest ship stretches from 45 meters in length and takes 50 men to propel it through the city’s winding water channels. Travelers who visit in October and November may even get to see the boats set sail during the famous cloth-giving ceremony.
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