The Thais call it Krung Thep – City of Angels; others know it as Bangkok. But whatever name is used, this sprawling metropolis is one of Asia’s most captivating cities. It’s safe, friendly and easy to explore on your own, although the traffic can be awful and the constant hustle wearing. To escape the choked streets, a Bangkok-based friend says “travel by boat.” Like Venice or Amsterdam, much of Bangkok’s charm is riverine: the Chao Phraya river snakes through the Thai capital and sustains a network of klongs (canals) along its western bank – the Thonbori side.
Not only do river taxis/buses get you to your destination quickly, the journey is cheap, pollution free, and thoroughly fascinating. Also, organized tours for trips along the rivers and canals start from various points on the Chao Phraya, which are a good way to sample every day waterside life. For traveling short distances, try a samlor or tuk-tuk – a bizarre three-wheeler about the size of a golf cart but faster and noisier. There is also the Mass Rapid Transit system to use. Tip: enjoy a good cup of coffee from a Black Canyon Express Kiosk – at eight of the stations.
Meandering the back streets, you quickly discover there’s just something really warm about Thai hospitality. You’ll be gawking in wonder at the cacophony of sounds, colors and scents from unique markets – even exotic floating markets – selling everything under the sun. You find fortunetellers, gem cutters, spice vendors, sleazy massage parlors, and canalside eateries serving up tasty and exceedingly cheap food. Look up every now and again to catch sight of the spires of Bangkok’s extraordinary temples.
There are at least 400 temples scattered throughout the city, usually lavishly decorated with bejewelled figures from mythology, Buddhas sheathed in gold, intricately carved doors and pediments. Bangkok temples are, as Somerset Maugham pointed out, "unlike anything in the world . . . gorgeous yet not garish.”
The most sacred image in Bangkok is at the Wat Phra Kaeo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Built by King Rama 1, the founder of the Chakri dynasty, it adjoins the Grand Palace. Around here you can easily spend more than a day. The chapel houses the statue of translucent jade which sits atop a 40-foot golden pedestal, with robes changed by the Thai king according to the seasons – it is a real feast for the eyes.
The Grand Palace itself was built piecemeal over the past 200 years as the home of the Thai monarchy and is an amazing assortment of glittering spires, pinnacles and ornate designs in gilt and mother-of-pearl. Don’t miss a visit to the Amporn Phimok Prasad – the Disrobing Pavilion – whose floor is reputed to be the exact height of an elephant’s back. A short stroll from the Grand Palace is the National Museum where you can get a good insight into Thailand’s history and view a large selection of rare artifacts.
The majestic Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, is one of the city’s most beautiful landmarks. Inlaid with millions of pieces of Chinese porcelain, it rises high above the west bank of the river and is best viewed at dawn, just as the sun rises. A few blocks from the Grand Palace, the National Art Gallery in Chao Fa Road, opposite the National Theater, houses an impressive display of works by Thai artists and will keep your interest for several hours.
An interesting way to spend a free day in Bangkok is to browse through the "thieves market," soak in the atmosphere and maybe find something unusual to buy. There are actually two markets: one at Lang Krasuang, on Atsadang Road, sells electrical goods, musical instruments, camping gear and other utilitarian items. The other, Woeng Nakhon Kasem, specializes in antiques. Best buys are porcelain, brass, copperware, Chinese and Thai objets d’art. Other must-buys include Thai silk and handwoven cotton fabrics, handcrafted dolls, embroidery and wood carvings.
Other ideas? Chinatown, a vibrantly gaudy area covering Yaowarat Road and Charoen Krung Road, will give you a good glimpse of “old Bangkok.” The snake farm at the Pasteur Institute, at the corner of Henri Dunant Road and Rama IV Road, has an interesting collection of poisonous snakes.
Thai cuisine is highly seasoned with chillies and spices. Be sure to let the waiter know whether you want your dish extra hot or without the addition of chilli. Popular dishes include bai toey (chicken wrapped in leaves), hor mok poo (steamed crabmeat with curry paste), and tom yam soup (a fiery but delicious soup of seafood, lemon grass and sometimes chicken). Try the food stalls: there’s one around every corner. Service is cheerful, and the food is good. Try the old standby, khao phat, or fried rice – for mere pennies you’ll have a tasty and pleasant memory of the “City of Angels.”