Bangkok is a vast tangle of bejewelled golden temples, neon-clad skyscrapers and colourful markets, all tied together by the sounds of tuk-tuks hurtling along tiny backstreets and huge expressways, and the scents of spiced street foods bellowing from the pans of food stalls from Silom to Chinatown.
We could spend months listing things to do in Thailand’s capital, but as a starter for those off on their first adventure, here we offer our top must-see tourist attractions in Bangkok.
Grand Palace & Wat Phra Kaew
Wat Phra Kaew is at its core a vast compound of golden temple buildings, towering Buddhist sculptures and of course a collection of ornate royal halls that make up the Grand Palace – the former residence of the Thai monarch. The Grand Palace’s pretty European-inspired design is in sharp contrast to its striking, golden-gilded roof, while the Temple of the Emerald Buddha was built in the typical Rattanakosin style (much of old Bangkok is in this style) and enshrines the emerald Buddha, which is a 15th century meditating Buddha carved from a single block of jade. It sits elevated from the pilgrims beneath, within an ornate reliquary and is surrounded by religious artefacts and bundles of incense. The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew is one of the best and most popular tourist attractions in Bangkok so go early in the morning to avoid the crowds!
Floating Market Damnoen Saduak
Markets aren’t exactly in short supply in and around Bangkok, but the floating market in Damnoen Saduak is a little more special than most. Here, you’ll find hundreds of little wooden boats steered along by local sellers dressed in conical hats, selling exotic vegetables, fruits, spices and the occasional pot of coffee or noodles. The atmosphere while floating down the canal, passing by everyone from tourists to monks, as touts shout prices and chop vegetables, is absolutely beguiling and one of the most unique South East Asian travel experiences out there.
Wat Arun (The Temple of Dawn)
Wat Arun (named after Aruna the Indian God of dawn) reaches high into the sky from the west bank of the Chao Phraya River in a series of elegantly crafted spires (or prangs), the tallest of which is no less than 70 metres high. Be sure to get up close to appreciate the intricate floral mosaics, crafted from coloured glass and Chinese porcelain. It’s possible to climb the steep steps of the central prang, from the top of which you can trace the curves of the Chao Phraya River and the shimmering Grand Palace and Wat Pho on the opposite bank. At night the temple is flooded with a striking golden light and looks absolutely stunning from across the river, especially with the skyscrapers of the city forming a backdrop across the horizon.
There are thousands of reasons to visit Chinatown in Bangkok – not least of all the maze of winding streets and vibrant markets, but if we were to choose just two then we’d say the neon-lit ambience of Yaowarat Road at night and the sumptuous street food found in its alleyways that branch between Charoen Krung road and Yaowarat road. If you’re in the mood for a little culinary adventure then Chinatown is the best place to go – you’ll find everything from bird’s nest soup to delicious kuay jab nam sai – a dish of various pork bits, peppery broth and rice noodles – though each of Chinatowns chefs supplies their own take on the dish.
Wat Pho is one of Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple complexes – with a huge collection of stupas, a Buddhist monastery, and more than 1000 Buddhas – including the fabulous gold plated reclining Buddha which stretches out to 46 metres long and 15 metres high. Look for his huge feet which are inlaid with mother of pearl and the 108 bronze bowls that run parallel to the statue, which visitors drop coins in for good luck.
Khao San Road & Rambuttri Road
It’s likely that if you’re backpacking through Thailand, then Khao San Road will be your first stop after the airport. The road is absolute chaos. It’s filled with market stalls, bars, hostels, eateries, back-alley food stalls, clubs and everything synonymous with tourism and the slightly more raucous side of nightlife in Thailand. If you’re looking for something a little more Thai and a bit less touristy, then just a few minutes away is the the slightly more sober Rambuttri Road – lined with banyan trees and filled with cafes, restaurants and the occasional t-shirt and trinket stall. Lookout in particular for the rooftops of Wat Chana Songkhram which is on the curve of the road and peek down the alleyways to see monks going about their daily lives. Staying on Rambuttri Road is a little more expensive than Khao San, but its quieter, prettier and the bells of Wat Chana Songkhram make for a fabulous wake up call in the mornings.