Bangkok is the capital of Thailand and, with a population of over eleven million inhabitants, by far its largest city. Its high-rise buildings, heavy traffic congestion, intense heat and naughty nightlife do not immediately give you a warm welcom, but don't let your first impression mislead you. It is one of Asia's most cosmopolitan cities with magnificent temples and palaces, authentic canals, busy markets and a vibrant nightlife that has something for everyone.
For years, it was only a small trading post at the banks of the Chao Phraya River, until King Rama I, the first monarch of the present Chakri dynasty, turned it into the capital of Siam in 1782, after the burning of Ayutthaya by Burmese invaders. Since then, Bangkok has turned into a national treasure house and functions as Thailand's spiritual, cultural, political, commercial, educational and diplomatic centre.
Just under 14 degrees north of the Equator, Bangkok is a tropical metropolis that is also one of the most traveller-friendly cities in Asia. A furious assault on the senses, visitors are immediately confronted by the heat, the pollution and the irrepressible smile that accompanies many Thais.
The high relative humidity and warm temperature favour the growth of tropical plants, you'll find exotic orchids and delicious fruit everywhere. Bougainvillea and frangipani bloom practically all over the city. Thai cuisine is justifiably famous, varied, and affordable. Bangkok for many represents the quintessential Asian capital.
Saffron-robed monks, garish neon signs, graceful Thai architecture, spicy dishes, colourful markets, traffic jams, and the tropical climate come together in a happy coincidence. It is difficult to leave with lukewarm impressions of the city.
Located 30 km (19 mi) to the east of Bangkok, space-age Suvarnabhumi Airport started operations in September 2006 and is now Bangkok's main airport and the busiest airport in Southeast Asia. It is used for almost all international and domestic flights to Bangkok.
There is only one terminal building, which covers both domestic and international flights, but it is huge (by some measures the world's largest), so allow time for getting around.
There are two immigration sections, but processing time is lengthy — at least 30 minutes.
Suvarnabhumi offers all facilities you would expect from a major international airport.
There's a transit hotel, ATMs, money exchange, restaurants, tax-free shops, an observation lounge and even a "redemption booth", very reassuring for karmically challenged passengers. There are about 50 dining venues spread over the terminal building.
The one that sounds most interesting probably is "Panda Ready To Eat", but the cheapest place for a meal is Magic Food Point on level 1, near gate 8.
There are a few stores in the check-in area, including a convenience store and a post office, however the real shopping experience awaits travellers on the other side of immigration in the departure area, where the number of shops and duty free outlets leaves you wondering whether you are in an airport or a mall.
There is not much to see at the observation deck on the seventh floor, since the steel structure of the roof blocks most of the view.
Most of Bangkok's sights are concentrated on the island of Rattanakosin, often referred to the "Old City". Out of Bangkok's hundreds of temples, the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun usually make up the top 3.
The Grand Palace has an immense size, so expect to spend at least a full morning or afternoon there. Within the palace grounds is Wat Phra Kaew, the most sacred Buddhist temple of Thailand.
Unlike other temples, it is not one building, nor are there living spaces for monks. Instead, it is a collection of highly decorated holy buildings and monuments. One of its buildings houses the Emerald Buddha, and while you might not expect it from its size, it is the most sacred Buddha image of Thailand.
Nearby is Wat Pho, home to the world's largest reclining Buddha image and a famed massage school. Take the ferry across the Chao Phraya River to Thonburi for the outstanding Wat Arun.
The main structure is about 60 to 88 m high and it is surrounded by four smaller prangs. It is one of Thailand's most picturesque temples, and is engraved on the inner part of all ten baht coins. It is so recognisable that it even became the logo of the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT).
If you climb it, and look closely, you will see that it is beautifully decorated with colourful broken Chinese porcelain pieces. Heading back to Rattanakosin, there are many other major temples you could visit, including the Golden Mount, Wat Suthat and Wat Ratchanaddaram.
Don't throw away the entry ticket of the Grand Palace, as it gives free entry to the Dusit Palace in Dusit. It is situated in a leafy, European-style area built by King Rama V to escape the heat of the Grand Palace. Its main structure is the Vimanmek Mansion, touted as the largest golden teakwood house in the world, but you could spend your whole day in the museums if you wish.
There are many museums in Bangkok showing traditional Thai-style residences. Most visitors take a tour through Jim Thompson's House, the CIA-operative's mansion assembled by combining six traditional Thai-style houses, conveniently located near Siam Square. Ban Kamthieng in Sukhumvit, M.R. Kukrit's Heritage Home in Silom and the Suan Pakkad Palace in Phahonyothin are not quite as impressive, but still make for a nice experience.
Rattanakosin's museums are mostly dedicated to history and culture, including the National Museum (about Thai history and archaeological remains), the Museum of Siam and the King Prajadhipok Museum. Bangkok has a small, but vocal art community, and you might want to visit the National Gallery or The Queen's Gallery, or one of its numerous smaller galleries spread over the city. Siam Square features the recently opened Bangkok Art and Culture Centre which has temporary art exhibitions throughout year.
Lumphini Park in Silom is the largest park in central Bangkok, and a good way to escape the fumes. Backpackers around Khao San Road can head for Santichaiprakarn Park, a small but fun park along the Chao Phraya River with a breezy atmosphere, usually with locals juggling or practicing tricks.
It is built around the 18th-century Phra Sumen Fort with a nice view on the modern Rama VIII cable-stayed bridge.
Another nice family attraction is Siam Ocean World in Siam Square. It has a steep price tag, but at least you get to see the largest aquarium in Southeast Asia.
Another great way to see the Chao Phraya River and the original canals of the city is by canal tour. Most of these special boat trips start at the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya and head through the backwaters of Thonburi, taking in Wat Arun, the Royal Barges National Museum and a floating market.
More information about these canal tours can be found in the Thonburi article. At 1,000 baht or more, they are quite expensive though, a cheaper and also fun activity is to take the public express boat along the Chao Phraya River.
You can get off anywhere between Thewet and Sathon (Taksin) piers as there are many things to see in all those neighbourhoods. You can even go all the way north to Nonthaburi in the morning, enjoy the afternoon in this laid-back traditional urban town and take the boat back around rush hour.
There are many cultural performances in Bangkok that shows traditional Thai culture and dance. Siam Niramit in Ratchadaphisek is a truly spectacular performance where more than 150 performers depict the history of each region of Thailand.
Siam Niramit is a world-class performance of Thailand s arts and cultural heritage. Set in the heart of Bangkok affording convenient access by MRT subway and major thoroughfares, this must-see spectacular is performed on the gigantic stage now listed in the Guinness World Records, featuring over 150 performers with as many as 500 costumes.
On top of this, enhanced special effects with the world s most advanced technology are used to produce a stimulating, very realistic and inspiring experience. This is a Journey to the Enchanted Kingdom of Thailand that no one can miss
Dump a teenager in Siam Square with a few thousand baht and she'll stay occupied for the rest of the week! Siam Square is the place to shop in Bangkok, the small sois of Siam Square have dozens of small designer boutiques.
MBK Center and Siam Center are the most popular shopping malls, as they sell fashion well below Western rates. Siam Paragon and the shopping plazas at Ratchaprasong feel even larger, but are much quieter, as most local Thais cannot afford the Guccis and Louis Vuittons on sale there. Ladies will also feel well at home in the Emporium in Sukhumvit.
Siam Paragon is a shopping mall and one of the biggest shopping centers in Asia. Opened on December 9, 2005, it includes a wide range of specialty stores and restaurants as well as a multiplex movie theater (consisted of 15 large size theaters with one of the them having the biggest screen and seating capacity in Asia) and the Siam Ocean World (Underwater world) aquarium (the largest aquarium in South East Asia) and an exhibition hall and the Thai Art Gallery and also an opera concert hall.
It also has a large bowling alley and karaoke center. It is a joint venture by Siam Piwat, the company that owns the adjacent Siam Center/Siam Discovery shopping malls, and The Mall Group, which also owns The Emporium. Siam Paragon has attracted large crowds since it opened, but financial results aren't reported by the privately held Siam Paragon Development.
Just take a few steps out of your hotel and Bangkok feels like a huge street market. Sukhumvit has the usual souvenirs, t-shirts and other tacky tourist junk. Browsing Khao San Road's roadside stalls is particularly good for clothing and accessories, many of them for a bargain.
While many of these stalls still cater to the traditional hippie crowd, they have been slowly gentrifying to appeal a broader audience. The nearby Banglamphoo Market sells cheap knock-offs of everything, just like the night markets in Silom and Rattanakosin.
In the weekends, the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Phahonyothin is a must as its 8,000 stalls together form the largest market in Southeast Asia. Shoppers can buy just about everything from clothing to potted plants and everything in between, it is a paradise for browsers and bargain-hunters alike.
A weekday alternative is Pratunam, one of the city's renowned garment markets. Clothes shopping here goes on wholesale, and you're even cheaper off if you buy in bulk. At Pantip Plaza you can buy computer-related stuff from branded laptops to pirated DVDs.