Bangkok has great attractions, lovely people, some of the world’s best shopping, and a whole cultural experience to enjoy. For me these far outweigh the problems of pollution, overcrowding, horrendous traffic and lack of green spaces seen in all megacities. Just look at a few aspects of the city.
Palaces and Wats (temples).
The Grand Palace must be one of the great architectural complexes in the world. From certain angles, this represents all that is best about Thailand and Thai culture. It is a sight guaranteed to impress the most blasé traveller. The whole complex just assaults the senses from all sides.
Wat Po is the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok and is often called Thailand’s first university. The main attraction is the gigantic 46-metre long reclining Buddha, entirely covered in gold leaf but there is much more to see.
There are over 400 wats in Bangkok and Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) is one of my favourites. It sits beside the Chao Phraya River and is particularly spectacular in the early morning.
Don’t miss a visit to Vimanmek Palace which is billed as the world’s largest golden teak building. Also worth visiting is Suan Pakkad Palace, where five traditional Thai houses overlooking a lovely garden display a large collection of Thai arts and antiques.
Thai food has become one of the most popular cuisines in the world. If you enjoy it in your home country, you will love it in Bangkok. Contrary to popular opinion, Thai food is not always hot. In fact some of the dishes I most enjoy are those where the subtle flavours of the herbs and spices slowly fill the mouth for a special experience.
I love sitting on a rickety stool on a street footpath watching the passing throng just as much as I do sitting in a fine-dining restaurant. A meal on the footpath will cost less than $2 while in the restaurant it may be $30.
The food courts in the shopping malls are also fun. You can wander around and select from stalls selling all sorts of food. If there are several of you, a gourmet meal to share can be easily assembled.
For a different experience, visit Cabbages and Condoms in Sukhumvit Soi 14. This is run by Thailand’s Population and Community Development Association which believes in getting the safe sex message out to all customers. The food is good and the setting sublime despite its popularity with tourists.
Bangkok has Asia’s best shopping. The combination of markets, thousands of small retailers, huge department stores and gigantic malls offers variety seen in few cities around the world. Add wonderful Thai handicrafts, world famous Thai silk, smart fashion and great prices and it is hard to beat.
I recommend you start at Chatuchak Weekend Market perhaps the largest weekend market in the world. On a typical weekend, more than 200,000 visitors come here to sift through the goods on offer. You will be amazed at the sheer variety of merchandise.
If you are looking for an up-market shopping experience, one of the huge central city megamalls is the answer. Those around Siam Square have long been favourites of locals and visitors but several new malls have opened recently which challenge this area.
The Cultural Experience.
Walk down the side streets and you will find a wonderful city. You will see life on the streets, spectacular little temples, street eateries, and Thais going about their normal business. It’s available to every visitor and it’s free.
Take a ferry along the river and see a different side of the city. For less than a dollar, you can go several kilometres, calling in on floating piers, weaving in and out of cross-river traffic and enjoying a cool breeze on the face.
There are also plenty of deeper experiences. I recently discovered the Wat Mahadhatu Meditation School. You can learn meditation from the monks by turning up to the daily classes.
Thai massage is something that many non-Thais find fascinating. I usually manage at least one massage in Bangkok but enthusiasts can enrol in the Wat Po Massage School and learn all the finer points of this art form from the experts.
All photographs by Phensri Rutledge.
He has worked with Pelican Publishing, Viking Penguin, Berlitz, the Rough Guide, and the Nile Guide amongst others.
Along the way, he has started a newspaper, a travel magazine, a Visitor and TV Guide, and completed a PhD in tourism. His travels have taken him to more than 100 countries and his writings have collected a PATA award, an ASEAN award, an IgoUgo Hall of Fame award, and other recognition.
He is the author of the Experience Guidebook series which currently includes Experience Thailand, Experience Norway, Experience Northern Italy, Experience Myanmar, Experience Istanbul, Experience Singapore, Experience Melbourne, and Experience Ireland. They are available as ebooks or paperbacks from amazon.com