Bangkok Travel Guide


Chinatown is one of the most fascinating district in Bangkok. It's noisy and smelly and exhilarating. It's an area of dark laneways and traffic-choked roads, of bright, cheap markets and enticing foodstalls as far as the eye can see. Despite its grungy style Chinatown offers a wonderful glimpse into 300 years of cultural development.

Chinatown offers the visitor an astonishing array of jewellery, hardware, wholesale food, and automotive and fabric shops - nearly always at cheaper prices than anywhere else in Bangkok. Site of antiques (some of them real!) and an annual Vegetarian Festival, Chinatown has been a permanent Chinese-Thai residential area since 1782. One hundred years later there were 245 opium dens and a huge number of pawnshops, gambling houses and brothels. These days the area is tamer, but you can still find many pawnshops and a few brothels if you're seeking them. There's not much opium, but there's plenty of its sinister cousin: heroin.

Jim Thompson's House
This is a great spot to visit for authentic Thai residential architecture and Southeast Asian art. Located at the end of an undistinguished soi next to Khlong Saen Saeb, the premises once belonged to the American silk entrepreneur Jim Thompson, who deserves most of the credit for the worldwide popularity of Thai silk.

Thompson was a New York architect who briefly served in the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) in Thailand during WWII. After the war he found New York too tame and moved to Bangkok. Thai silk caught his eye and he sent samples to fashion houses in Milan, London and Paris, building a steady worldwide clientele for a craft in danger of dying out.

Thompson collected parts of various derelict Thai homes in central Thailand and had them reassembled in the current location in 1959. Although for the most part they're assembled in typical Thai style, one striking departure from tradition is the way each wall has its exterior side facing the house's interior, thus exposing the wall's bracing system.

On display in the main house are Thompson's small but splendid Asian art collection and his personal belongings. A plush bar overlooking the canal offers cold drinks and occasional live jazz. The khlong at the end of the soi is one of Bangkok's liveliest.

National Museum
Thailand's National Museum is the largest museum in Southeast Asia and an excellent place to learn about Thai art. All periods and styles are represented, from Dvaravati to Ratanakosin, and there's also a well-maintained collection of traditional musical instruments from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia.

Other permanent exhibits include ceramics, clothing and textiles, woodcarving, royal regalia, Chinese art and weaponry. In addition to the exhibition halls, the museum grounds contain the restored Buddhaisawan (Phutthaisawan) Chapel.

Inside the chapel (built in 1795) are some well-preserved original murals and one of the country's most revered Buddha images, Phra Phuttha Sihing. Legend claims the image came from Ceylon, but art historians attribute it to the 13th-century Sukhothai period.

The museum buildings were originally built in 1782 as the palace of Rama I's viceroy, Prince Wang Na. Rama V turned it into a museum in 1884. Be aware that the museum isn't air-conditioned and that English signage is sporadic. Taking a foreign-language tour will contribute greatly to your appreciation of Thailand's rich artistic history.

Bangkok is a cultural melting pot and there's no better evidence of this than Phahurat, on the edge of Chinatown.

A wide variety of Indian goods are available in this small area, ranging from an astonishing array of silks to Thai shoulder bags. The choice is amazing, the haggling is fierce and the bargains can be unbelievable - if you're good enough, that is.

Off the Beaten Track

Ancient City
Ancient City (Meuang Boran), south of Bangkok, is billed as the largest open-air museum in the world. Over 100 of Thailand's most impressive monuments are rendered slightly less impressive in this 80-hectare (200-acre) collection of scale models. The grounds follow the basic shape of Thailand itself and the monuments are placed accordingly.

If you're an architecture buff on a brief stay, or just a lover of these sorts of educational theme parks, Ancient City is well worth the trip out of town. The attraction is south of the Thai capital, near the coast of the Gulf of Thailand. Depending on traffic, it can take as long as two hours to make the trip.

Ayuthaya Historical Park
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ayuthaya's historic temples are scattered throughout this once magnificent city and along the encircling rivers. Several of the more central ruins – Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Mongkhon Bophit, Wat Na Phra Meru, Wat Thammikarat, Wat Ratburana and Wat Phra Mahathat – can be visited on foot.

You could add more temples and ruins to your itinerary by touring the city on a rented bicycle. An ideal transport combination for visitors who want to see everything would be to hire a bicycle for the central temples and charter a long-tail boat to take a tour of the outlying ruins along the river.

Ko Kret
In the middle of the Mae Nam Chao Phraya at Bangkok's northern edge is Ko Kret, one of Thailand's oldest Mon settlements. From the 6th to the 10th centuries, the Mon people dominated Thai history and culture, and their ancient crafts still draw visitors from around the world. Pottery is the main claim to fame of the Mon and visitors to the island can visit the Ancient Mon Pottery Centre, which displays a wide variety of local earthenware. There are also plenty of opportunities to watch potters go about creating these fine examples of traditional handicraft.

Other Thailand Attractions

Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has a striking mountain backdrop, over 300 temples and a quaint historical aura. It's also a modern, friendly, internationally-flavoured city with much to offer the visitor - food, accommodation and shopping are all top quality and cheap, and the nights are relatively cool.

Chiang Mai's plethora of temples will probably exhaust you before you exhaust them. For variety, try a wander round the night bazaar, acquaint yourself with local culture at the musuems, or practice your Buddhist calm under a palm tree in the city's gardens.

Ko Samui
This beautiful island off southeastern Thailand is covered with coconut plantations and circled by (call us clichéd but it's true) palm-fringed beaches. It was once an 'untouched' backpackers' mecca, but is now well on its way to becoming a fully-fledged tourist resort. Coconuts are still the mainstay of the local economy, however, and up to two million of them are shipped to Bangkok each month.

The most popular beaches are Hat Chaweng and Hat Lamai: both have good swimming and snorkelling but are getting a little crowded. For more peace and quiet, try Mae Nam, Bo Phut and Big Buddha on the northern coast. The main town on the island is Na Thon.

Most of the beaches have plenty of rustic, thatched-roofed bungalows, but accommodation can still be hard to secure in the high seasons between December and February and July and August. The best time to visit is during the hot and dry season between February and June. There are flights from Bangkok to the island's Don Sak Airport. Several ferry and jetboat companies operate from Surat Thani: express boats take two and a half hours and jet boats take one and a half hours. Local transport comprises songthaews (trucks with two rows of seats in the back), though several places hire motorcycles.

Ko Samui's northern neighbour, Ko Pha-Ngan, is more tranquil, and has equally good beaches and fine snorkelling. Its renowned beach parties at Hat Rin are still popular with backpackers, although sadly, the beach has deteriorated recently with overuse and poor environmental controls. The island is a half-hour boat ride from Ko Samui.

Nakhon Pathom
Nakhon Pathom, 60km (37mi) west of Bangkok, is regarded as the oldest city in Thailand and is host to the 127m (417ft), orange-tiled Phra Pathom Chedi, the tallest Buddhist monument in the world. The original monument, now buried within the massive orange-glazed dome, was erected in the 6th century by Theravada Buddhists. The chedi has endured various incarnations at the hands of Khmer, Burmese and Chinese refurbishers. There is a floating market nearby at Khlong Damnoen Saduak.

Dubbed 'Pearl of the South' by the tourist industry, Phuket is Thailand's largest, most populous and most visited island. A whirl of colour and cosmopolitanism, Thailand's only island province revolves around and thrives on tourism, but still retains a spark of the real Thailand.

Phuket is more about doing thinsg - or doing nothing at all - than it is about sightseeing. That said, there are some interesting markets, temples, examples of Sino-Portuguese architecture and nature reserves to check out when you can go no deeper shade of brown.

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