The headlong pace and flawed modernity of Bangkok match few people's visions of the capital of exotic Siam. Spiked with scores of high-rise buildings of concrete and glass, it's a vast flatness which holds a population of at least seven million, and feels even bigger. But under the shadow of the skyscrapers you'll find a heady mix of chaos and refinement, of frenetic markets and hushed golden temples, of early-morning almsgiving ceremonies and ultra hip designer boutiques.
Bangkok is a relatively young capital, established in 1782 after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya, the former capital. A temporary base was set up on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River, in what is now Thonburi, before work started on the more defensible east bank, where the first king of the new dynasty, Rama I, built his fabulously ornate palace within a defensive ring of canals. He named this "royal island" Ratanakosin, and it remains the city's spiritual heart, not to mention its culturally most rewarding quarter. No visit to the capital would be complete without seeing Ratanakosin's four star attractions - if necessary, the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaeo, Wat Po and the National Museum can all be crammed into a single action-packed day.
Around the temples and palaces of the royal island spread an amphibious city of shops and houses built on bamboo rafts moored on the river and canals. Even though many of the canals have since been built over, one of the great pleasures of the city is a ride on its remaining waterways; the majestic Chao Phraya River is served by frequent ferries and longtail boats, and is the backbone of a network of canals and floating markets that remains fundamentally intact in the west-bank Thonburi district. Inevitably the waterways have earned Bangkok the title of "Venice of the East", a tag that seems all too apt when you're wading through flooded streets in the rainy season.
Bangkok began to assume its modern guise at the end of the nineteenth century, when the forward-looking Rama V relocated the royal family to a neighbourhood north of Ratanakosin called Dusit, constructing grand European-style boulevards, a new palace (still in use today), and a fine temple, Wat Benjamabophit (the "Marble Temple"). Since then, Bangkok has attracted mass migration from all over Thailand, pushing the city's boundaries ever eastwards in an explosion of modernization that has blown away earlier attempts at orderly planning and left the city without an obvious centre.
The capital now sprawls over 330 square kilometres and is far and away the country's most dominant city. Bangkokians own four-fifths of the nation's cars and the population is forty times that of the second city, Chiang Mai. London's New Statesman recently reported that Bangkok has the worst transport problems of any world city, and it boasts just 0.4 square metres of public parkland per inhabitant, the lowest figure in the world, compared, for example, to London's 30.4 square metres per person. Modern Bangkok is not without its beauty however, the sleek glass towers and cool marble malls lending an air of energy and big-city drama to the eastern districts of Silom, Siam Square and Sukhumvit.
North and west of the city, the unwieldy urban mass of Greater Bangkok peters out into the vast, well-watered central plains, a region that for centuries has grown the bulk of the nation's food. The atmospheric ruins of Thailand's fourteenth-century capital Ayutthaya lie here, ninety minutes' train ride from Bangkok and, together with the ornate palace at nearby Bang Pa-In make a rewarding excursion from the modern metropolis. Further west, the massive stupa at Nakhon Pathom and the traditional floating markets of Damnoen Saduak are also easily manageable as a day-trip, and combine well with an overnight stay at the town of Kanchanaburi, impressively sited on the River Kwai and location of several moving World War II sites, including the notorious Death Railway.
When to visit
Bangkok's climate is governed by three seasons. The cool season, which runs from November through February is the pleasantest time to visit; days are invariably bright and clear, and temperatures average a manageable 27C (though they can still reach a broiling 31C at midday). Not surprisingly this is peak season for the tourist industry, so it's well worth booking accommodation and flights in advance during this period; prices for hotel rooms are at their highest during this time, rising to a climax over Christmas and New Year. March sees the beginning of the hot season, when temperatures can rise to 36C, and continue to do so beyond the end of April. During these sweltering months you'll probably be glad of an air-conditioned hotel room, and may find yourself spending more money than anticipated, simply because it's more comfortable to travel across the city in an air-conditioned taxi rather than sweat it out on foot (though air-con buses are a good compromise option). The daily downpours that characterize the rainy season can come as a welcome relief, though being hot and wet is a sensation that doesn't appeal to everyone. The rainy season varies in length and intensity from year to year, but usually starts with a bang in May, gathers force between June and August, and comes to a peak in September and October, when whole districts of the capital are flooded. Rain rarely lasts all day however, so as long as you're armed with an umbrella, there's no reason to reschedule your trip - and you'll get more for your money, too, as many hotels and airlines drop their prices right down at this time of year.
Table of ContentsIntroduction
Getting there from Britain and Ireland
Overland routes from southeast Asia
Red tape and visas
Money, banks and costs
Opening hours and festivals
1 Introducing the city
3 Around Democracy Monument
4 Chinatown and Pahurat
7 Downtown Bangkok
8 Chatuchak and the outskirts
12 Gay Bangkok
15 Kids' Bangkok
EXCURSIONS FROM BANGKOK
Damnoen Saduak floating markets
Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai
The historical framework
Religion: Thai Buddhism
Art and architecture