One of the fastest growing cities the world has seen, modern Bangkok retains its traditional heart and an unmatched vitality. It was founded in 1782 when the Thai capital moved from Thonburi across the Chao Phraya River to this swampy trading post in the aftermath of Ayutthaya’s sacking by the Burmese in 1767.
Bangkok is a city of contradictions: A buzzing metropolis with a laid back attitude, elegant temples and palaces stand side by side with Romanesque concrete skyscrapers and charming wooden houses. It is the country’s main port and home to one-tenth of the kingdom’s population. And while the main thoroughfares are choked with traffic and fumes, nearby side roads contain tranquil houses nestled among lush gardens. Love it and hate it, you can’t ignore or forget it.
The metropolis always makes an impression: traveling from Don Muang Airport, visitors are overawed by skyscrapers, chaotic traffic and confusing road systems. With no real center it is hard to know exactly where to go, but a quick look at a map in the comfort of your hotel should give a clearer perspective.
Despite the modern skyline, some districts retain their old-world charm. The Grand Palace and Wat Pra Kaew have dazzled visitors for over 200 years, and no visitor should miss a tour around the teak masterpieces of Vimanmek Mansion, Suan Pakkard and Jim Thompson’s House. The Chao Phraya River hosts a number of inspiring sights. Long-tail boats take sightseers past famous landmarks like Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) and through adjacent canal communities.
In every direction, Krung Thep (Thai for ‘City of Angels’) sprawls beyond a horizon bristling with tower blocks. Following the river, the dense, frenetic alleys of Chinatown offer shrines, myriad markets, Little India, gold shops and the solid gold Buddha of Wat Traimit. It merges into the genteel riverside quarter around the Oriental Hotel. Then the diffuse downtown spreads up and beyond corporate Thanons Sathorn and Silom. Its diversity takes in Patpong, the Hindu Temple (Pan Road), Lumphini Park, venom milking at the Snake Farm and the Erawan Shrine (Ratchaprasong), where dancers reward granted wishes.
Westwards, Ploenchit and Sukhumvit Road brim with malls, restaurants, hotels, nightlife and expatriate quarters from Soi Arab and Korea Town to the Anglo-American haunts around Benjasiri Park. Eastwards, Rama I Road skirts the epicentre of Thai youth culture, Siam Square’s eclectic warren of boutiques and the tasteful Jim Thompson’s House Museum, two incarnations of Bangkok’s definitive activity: the energetic merging of east and west.