Nestled into the central region of Southeast Asia, Thailand’s capital city Bangkok is a cultural jewel. With a population of over 10 million people, the populous city contains over 15 percent of the nation’s population in one location. As with many of the rapidly growing cities in Asia, Bangkok blends the ancient with the modern, creating a Thai fusion that leaves a lasting impression. While the capital for many tourists is a short stopover to the famed beaches, the city itself has many incredible features worthy of your time.
Stepping off the plane in Suvarnbhumi airport, you will immediately be transported into the land of gold. Which not surprisingly, is what Suvarnbhumi means. Opened in 2006, the airport is a major hub for southeast Asia. Handling over 45 million passengers a year, don’t be surprised if you are hit with long lines and excessive wait times. On the positive side, it gives a chance to peruse the airport sculptures prior to immigration, the most beautiful of which is the Samudra Manthan. Look for “Thai Giants’ playing tug of war with a golden serpent. It’s an depiction of the Hindu story called “Churning of the Ocean of Milk.”
Once through immigration, prepare for the sweltering heat of the region. Situated between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, the country bears the brunt of high overall temperatures paired with high humidity. With over 275 days a year above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) and averaging above 70 percent humidity year-round, Bangkok is considered one of the hottest places in the world.
One of the best ways to beat the heat and get stunning views of the city is by taking a cruise along the Chao Phraya river that bisects the metropolis. There are numerous docks to set out from, just ask your cab or tuk-tuk where the closest one is. As with most things in Thailand, the prices for a ride upriver are quite low. If sightseeing is your goal, it’s cost-effective to rent a boat for yourselves. This will give you the ability to adapt the trip to your desires.
Once onboard, lean back and have your camera ready as the city will flash by with speed. Take a minute to see the juxtaposition of the culture. Advanced glass walled buildings flank old gold-plated temples at waterside. Keep a keen eye out at the edges of the water as it’s not uncommon to catch a full-sized Monitor lizard basking in the sun.
There are multiple offshoots from the main river, and most reserved trips will take you along at least one of the narrow canals. Catch a look at some of the traditional overwater housing and take the opportunity to pick something up at a waterside market. Instead of traditional sales on land, these salespeople race forward on their kayaks to the side of your boat. Most of their products are small trinkets, but there’s nothing like a semi-chilled beer from a floating market to take the edge off. Once back on the main route, keep your eye out for the towering Wat Arun.
Wat Arun is a Buddhist temple named after the Hindu God Aruna. The religious duality highlights the long history of the region. Originally built around the 17th Century, the initial temple had none of the distinctive prangs that rise high into the air. Its current height was instead added in the early 1800s during the reign of King Rama II. The picture below was taken prior to the 2013-2017 renovations that gave the entire complex a whiter exterior.
Most of the river cruises drop off at the Tha Chang ferry terminal, which is perfectly suited to tour the famous Grand Palace. Home to the King of Siam since 1782, it is now largely used in ceremonial roles, but remains one of the most popular sites in the city. The white walls and ornate rooftop provide a distinctive and regal governmental seat.
Inside the palace grounds, sits the brilliantly colored Wat Phra Kaew, also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. From the western side, a golden stupa rises above the walls. Built to house relics of the Buddha from Sri Lanka, the tiles on the outside that give it a brilliant sheen can be seen clearly from the river and beyond.
Once inside, take time to study the intricate mosaics built over the years, especially the tiled sides of Phra Mondop. The patterns of glass tiles blend green and gold giving everything an emerald shine. Phra Mondop is a library for the most sacred of religious texts and the most recent was designed in the 18th century by King Rama I.
Two gold Chedi are on the eastern side of the terrace. These stupas were also built by Rama I, and he included a unique design around the base of each by adding monkeys and giants holding up the stupa. Look closely and you’ll see a few missing tiles, though it doesn’t impact the mosaic colors on the statues.
Twelve true sized giants, called Yaksha, act as guardians of the temple gates. The tiled statues reflect the seriousness of their task in both the painted masks and weapons in their hands.
Another beautiful part of the temple is the row of eight prang. Added again by King Rama I, each of the prang are intended to represent a different part of Buddhism. Making them even more spectacular are the porcelain tiles covering the outside. The white tiles mix well with the colorful giants surrounding its base.
Once finished with your tour of the Grand Palace, wave down a tuk-tuk. The famed Thai taxis are affordable and a great way to explore the city, while giving a fresh breeze to break the heat. Most cab drivers work on a standard fare these days, but don’t be surprised to haggle with the drivers on a price beforehand. After a ride or two, you should get a feeling for the current going rate, but if ever unsure, prior to arriving in country, look online for the accepted taxi costs.
Once the sights begin to blend together after a long day, add a stop at the infamous Khao San Road. Shopping, restaurants, and partying are the hallmark of this less than distinguished strip. Cheap hotels and hostels mean you’ll find expats lining the bars as you stroll the street. The open-air market gives you the chance to pick up any trinkets needed before departing. This includes less expected items like creepy mannequin heads, which you should prepare yourself for in the picture below. Expect the entire area to be packed with revelers at any time of the day making the most out of the dirt cheap prices on beer.
One of the best aspects of Bangkok is that it’s filled with nightlife and Thai culture. Need to relax, Thai messages are incredibly cheap and amazing. Though I recommend you request a Swedish style if you don’t enjoy being manhandled and folded in unnatural ways. Of course, there are other and stranger ways of self-care such as a “Fish Spa.” These spots are a bit of gimmick, so don’t be afraid to pass on the peculiar and somewhat ticklish experience.
If you’d like to sightsee the craziness of the red-light district, head to Patpong Street and take in a show. Prefer a more cultured night? Then check out Moon bar on the top of the Banyan Tree hotel. From your table you’ll be given a 360-degree overview of the twinkling lights from the surrounding metropolis. If nothing else, find a local bar and enjoy a cold Chang or Singha beer while people watching. No matter how you choose to spend your time, there are a considerable number of worthwhile places to visit in the capital city.
Thanks for reading. Comment and let me know what places in Bangkok I missed and need to be added to the must-see list.
There’s obviously much more to Thailand than just Bangkok, so please look for future articles on some of the other incredible parts of the country. Join my mailing list here to stay updated on travel and aviation updates and look for my next article on another must-see place.