Bangkok, Thailand, can soothe or ruffle, and it often does both. While contemplating the sunrise at a temple or monks collecting alms, you'll marvel at what peace can be found in the midst of such a chaotic metropolis.
A cultural hub in Southeast Asia, Bangkok is a collage of urban squalor, gleaming affluence, mass consumerism and pollution. Most certainly, the city will assault your senses. It's fascinating and indulgent, but it requires time and patience.
Comfort of one sort or another is never far away: When your feet tire of wandering through the Grand Palace, head over to neighboring Wat Pho for an hour-long foot massage; if you exhaust your meager supply of Thai words bargaining for souvenirs, pop into an air-conditioned movie theater and take in an English-language film; if you are overwhelmed by the density of people along Sampeng Lane in Chinatown, drop into a coffee shop or open-air restaurant and enjoy a cool drink; if you are looking for excitement, you can watch Muay Thai (kickboxing) at Lumpini Boxing Stadium or hang around with backpackers at the bars on Khao San Road.
Upon arrival, you may find the constant din shocking, the geography impossible (no map does justice to the city's meandering lanes), and the traffic absolutely unbelievable. But stay more than a night or two and the city's bewildering kaleidoscope begins to make sense. Although the cacophony will never melt away, soon it will transmit the excitement and vibrant charm of one of the world's greatest cities.
Old Bangkok sits on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. It encompasses many government buildings, as well as important landmarks such as the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho) and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew).
Many businesses and hotels are located in the city center, east and southeast of Old Bangkok in the Silom and Sukhumvit areas. The Sukhumvit Road district is the tourist heart of the city, with many fine restaurants, department stores, world-class business hotels such as the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, and the city's hippest bars and clubs. Nightlife thrives in Sukhumvit and Silom (Silom is where you'll find Patpong, the infamous red-light district). Around the intersection of Rama I and Phayathai roads is Bangkok's major shopping hub with many blocks of shops.
Another area for posh hotels and fine shopping is along the river north of Thaksin Bridge; look for the River City Shopping Complex, a great source of Asian antiques.
Be aware that some addresses include a soi number at the end. A soi is a side street or alley. In such cases, the first numbers usually indicate a street address, followed by a street name and then the soi number. Example: 21/3 Sukhumvit 11 would mean that the building 21/3 is off Sukhumvit Road and down Soi 11. You may also see this written as 21/3 Sukhumvit Soi 11. Outside the center, "road" is written on the signs as thanon, for example Thanon Sriyan. And don't look for consistency in spelling of street names or tourist spots—there are no hard and fast rules for transliterating Thai into English. For example, you'll soon find out that Rajadamri Road and Ratchadamri Road are one and the same, as are Chitlom and Chid Lom, and Triamit and Tri Mitr.
Until the late 1700s, the area now known as Bangkok was a small village across the river from the then-capital of Thonburi. In 1782, under the threat of a Burmese attack, the capital and its inhabitants moved to the village, which was named Krung Thep. (The Burmese attack never came.)
It was not until the late 1800s that Bangkok took off as a trade center in the region.
Bangkok's rise as a trading power owed much to the enterprising King Mongkut and his son King Chulalongkorn, who both developed relations with the West. By positioning itself as a Western ally, Thailand was the only country in the region never colonized, and to this day, the country has a mutually beneficial relationship with the West.
After a revolution in 1932, Thailand's monarchs lost their absolute power as the government adopted a constitutional monarchy. After protests brought down a military government in 1992, the military stayed out of politics, and a constitution promulgated in 1997 was seen as a major step toward democratic rule.
In the 1960s, soldiers on leave from the Vietnam War flooded into nearby Thailand, using the country as a place for rest and recuperation. In the decades that followed, a significant economic boom and the development of a strong tourist industry transformed Bangkok into a bustling, smoggy, skyscraper-filled metropolis.
Bangkok spent two decades trying to recover from major health and financial crises. The HIV/AIDS explosion in the 1980s hit Thailand especially hard because of the widespread prostitution throughout the country. Likewise, the Thai economy suffered a violent shock in 1997, when the national currency lost much of its value.
Thailand's successful efforts to fight HIV/AIDS have been recognized internationally, and the economic woes of the 1997 crash were recovered from, though development has not returned to the booming growth rates of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Tourism has quickly become one of the country's chief sources of foreign capital.
In September 2006, the military ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai government in a bloodless coup d'etat. In late 2006 and early 2007, the military-appointed government wrote a new constitution. In December 2007, in a move to return the country to democracy, a general election was held and was won by the People's Power Party (PPP), led by Samak Sundaravej and sympathetic to deposed Prime Minister Thaksin. Samak won the election, but not with an overall majority. A coalition government led by the PPP was formed.
Thaksin returned to Thailand in 2008 but fled again. Violent demonstrations and court rulings led to Samak's dismissal. The Thai parliament elected Somchai Wongsawat (PPP) as prime minister, which led to an escalation between Thaksin's supporters (sporting red shirts) and anti-Thaksin royalists (yellow shirts). Thailand's Constitutional Court found the ruling PPP guilty of electoral fraud on 2 December 2008 and the party was dissolved, ending Somchai's term. Shortly afterward, protestors blocked Bangkok airports, leaving travelers stranded and causing Thailand's winter tourism season (typically its high season) to suffer. Unfortunately, the situation remains at least partly unresolved.
In 2010, violence flared again after red-shirt protesters set up stockades in central Bangkok that were eventually smashed in by the Thai military. During the protests and the military crackdown, there was street-to-street fighting and a large department store, Central World, was partly gutted by fire (although it has since reopened). Nearly 100 people, including some foreign journalists, died. While the protests were removed, the underlying issues remain unaddressed.
Political unrest continues to dog the country. In late 2013 and early 2014, a series of protracted demonstrations and sit-ins by opponents of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, and her Pheu Thai Party caused severe disruption in Bangkok. An election held in February 2014 was also boycotted by the opposition. Visitors to Bangkok should work to remain informed of developments and take heed of travel advisories issued by their country's embassy.
You need not travel far in Bangkok to find that it's an exciting—and sometimes exhausting—blend of modern civilization and historic treasures. Bangkok's temples, despite being in the center of a thriving 21st-century metropolis, are some of the finest in all of Asia.
The most spectacular are centered in Ko Rattanakosin (in English, Rattanakosin Island, even though it is not an island) and include the Grand Palace complex (the old royal city, from which the king and a vast number of relatives ran the country until 1932). The complex includes the Grand Palace itself and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew). Equally impressive is Wat Pho, which houses an enormous reclining Buddha. Wat Pho is also famous for its traditional massage school.
Be sure to see the National Museum, which houses Thai art and artifacts from Neolithic times to the present; the Vimanmek Teak Palace; and the Royal Barges Museum. Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) is on the other side of the Chao Phraya River. Very popular with locals and camera-toting foreigners, the small Erawan Shrine at the corner of Ratchadamri and Ploenchit roads is a nice place to witness classical Thai dancers who perform whenever a devotee makes a suitable donation.
The BTS Skytrain, MRT subway and taxis are convenient and inexpensive ways to see Bangkok's attractions. Special day passes offer a good value. The key is to work out where the stations are located in relation to the places you want to visit. Take the train to the closest point, and then walk or take a bus or a taxi for the final leg. The Skytrain and MRT avoid traffic, and one can cross the city in minutes at very little cost.
Also consider cruising down the river and canals on an extremely cheap commuter ferry or a modestly priced long-tail boat. Or you can enjoy evening dining on a luxurious, restored teakwood rice barge and see the riverside temples lit up in all their glory. If you're walking, drink plenty of fluids, wear comfortable shoes and take a good map with you.
Know that admission prices to the various museums and temples change frequently. As in many other major cities, if you check the city listings, or merely walk around the busy areas, you can find some very interesting temporary exhibits that are either free of charge or cost very little. If you intend to visit temples, ensure that you are dressed modestly—no shorts or tank tops.
Bangkok's "anything at any time" reputation has been severely hampered by the haphazard enforcement of the government's 2 am closing law—a policy implemented ostensibly to discourage drug consumption. It's a law that has restricted Bangkok's nightlife potential, and many establishments have adapted to the changes by opening earlier. After 2 am, you can still find a scattering of places open. These mostly consist of massage parlors for men only, videoke
shops (which serve food and alcohol) and traditional streetside eateries.
In Banglamphu and Sukhumvit, the backpacker area, you will find some bars open illegally after-hours and even all night, as well as the ubiquitous 7-Elevens, which sell wine and beer as well as snacks and sundries. Licensing laws ban the sale of alcohol 2-5 pm and midnight-5 am in convenience stores. Cigarettes are no longer allowed to be displayed, but shops are allowed to have a "Cigarettes for Sale" sign.
Although technically illegal, prostitution continues to thrive in Bangkok, especially in the areas of Patpong, Soi Nana and Soi Cowboy. However, there's a growing awareness that the city has far more to offer than the sex-tourist trade.
As Bangkok sheds its old ways, the nightlife scene is becoming more upscale and trendy. New cocktail bars and clubs are opening all the time, hosting some remarkable young Thai bands that play blues and rock. (Always have an official photo ID with you, or you may not be allowed to enter.) Clubs may refuse entry to those younger than 20.
Ad-hoc street markets sell knock-off clothes, handicrafts, amulets and silver jewelry, offering passersby plenty to see. And then there are late-night eateries to take the edge off your hunger. Never let it be said that you can be bored (or hungry) in Bangkok. Sadly, the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, the city's well-known night market on the edge of Lumpini Park, has closed, the latest victim in Bangkok's race toward redevelopment. Talad Rod Fai is a good alternative, thought it's more difficult to reach.
Some of the bars and clubs have gay nights. For more information on Bangkok's gay scene, visit http://www.travelgayasia.com/destination/gay-thailand/gay-bangkok.
From food stalls on the street (where you can buy a bowl of fish balls and noodles or a dish of rice and red curry for 30 baht) to haute cuisine restaurants (which may serve fixed-price French meals for 2,500 baht), Bangkok has something to please the palate every day of the week.
The culinary scene in Bangkok has undergone a remarkable transformation. Once famed for its delicious street food and thousands of Thai restaurants, the city now offers a bewildering choice of world cuisines, making it one of the best cities in Asia for dining out. So if you tire of the many different ways Thais serve food, you'll never be at a loss. Bangkok has some first-rate French and Italian restaurants, as well as Japanese, Korean and Indian.
You may notice Thais seem to eat constantly: snacking on fruit, nibbling a piece of grilled chicken bought from a street vendor. So there's ample opportunity to satisfy hunger cravings throughout the day until late in the evening. In general, Thais eat lunch 11:30 am-1 pm (you'll see the mass exodus from office buildings) and dinner sometime between 6 and 9 pm.
You'll be missing out if you don't taste such local specialties as the famous tom yam kung, a hot-and-sour prawn soup, and pad thai (Thai fried noodles). Aficionados have been known to dedicate their entire holiday to hunting for the tastiest versions of these dishes. There's also the full range of Thai curries (gaeng)—red, green and yellow—and stir-fried dishes of pork, chicken or shrimp with basil and garlic. And that's for beginners.
Stay long enough and you'll find yourself savoring dishes such as laap (chopped meat with herbs and spices) and som tam (a flavorful and highly seasoned green papaya salad with dried shrimp).
Many Thai dishes make use of the phrik (a chili) and even the explosively hot pepper phrik khii nuu. But have no fear: Thais have become so used to the average foreigner's suspicion of chili that they tend to reduce the chili content automatically. In the better restaurants, you can ask for your dish mai phet (not spicy), and they'll reduce the spice for you.
But don't dismiss the entire cuisine if you bite into a hot chili. There are plenty of Thai dishes that don't use lots of chili and rely on aromatic herbs and grasses such as fresh coriander, lemongrass, Kaffir lime and tamarind for flavor.
BK Magazine prints an annual list of all the hot new restaurants. http://bk.asia-city.com/restaurants.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one and not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 250 baht; $$ = 250 baht-500 baht; $$$ = 501 baht-1,500 baht; and $$$$ = more than 1,500 baht.
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