Bangkok

Introducing Bangkok

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The headlong pace and flawed modernity of Bangkok match few people’s visions of the capital of exotic Siam. Spiked with scores of high-rise buildings of concrete and glass, it’s a vast flatness that holds an estimated population of eleven million, and feels even bigger. Yet under the shadow of the skyscrapers you’ll find a heady mix of chaos and refinement, of frenetic markets, snail’s-pace traffic jams and hushed golden temples, of dispiriting, zombie-like sex shows and early-morning alms-giving ceremonies. Plenty of visitors enjoy the challenge of taking on the “Big Mango”, but one way or another, the place is sure to get under your skin.

Bangkok, also known as the City of Angels and Venice of the East, will hit you like a ton of bricks. It's hot, polluted, and chaotic, and it thrills with energy; there's such a vast array of sightseeing, shopping, and eating possibilities that you'll have little time to rest. When you do find a moment, pamper yourself with spa treatments, skyline-view bars, luxurious hotels, and excellent restaurants.

The city is a mesmerizing blend of old and new, East and West, and dizzying contradictions. Temples and red-light districts, languid canals and permanent gridlock, streetside vendors and chic upscale eateries, all make their home together, all at the same time. Bangkok rarely fails to make an impression, and yes, you might need to go spend a few days on the beach to recover from it all.

Although Bangkok is not known for jaw-dropping tourist attractions, it does have an endless supply of worthwhile pilgrimages. The Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, and the Emerald Buddha are tops on every visitor's itinerary, and lesser-known temples, such as Wat Benjamabophit, the golden stupa of Wat Sakhet, and Wat Suthat, are all worthy of a stop. Besides temples, there are plenty of other interesting niches and touring possibilities to fit just about every interest. Take in a venom extraction and python feeding show at the Queen Saowapha Snake Farm, or go to the nearby Jim Thompson House to learn all about the famed Thai silk industry. If architecture is your forte, there is the Suan Pakkard Palace with its antique teak house collection, and the even more astounding Vimanmek Palace, which contains the world's largest golden teak building. Bangkok's Chinatown merits at least a day on every travel itinerary—be sure to check out the sprawling labyrinthine Flower and Thieves markets.

Most budget travellers head for the Banglamphu district, where if you’re not careful you could end up watching DVDs all day long and selling your shoes when you run out of money. The district is far from having a monopoly on Bangkok accommodation, but it does have the advantage of being just a short walk from the major things to do in the Ratanakosin area: the dazzling ostentation of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo, lively and grandiose Wat Pho and the National Museum’s hoard of exquisite works of art. Once those cultural essentials have been seen, you can choose from a whole bevy of lesser sights, including Wat Benjamabophit (the “Marble Temple”), especially at festival time, and Jim Thompson’s House, a small, personal museum of Thai design.

For livelier things to do, explore the dark alleys of Chinatown’s bazaars or head for the water: the great Chao Phraya River, which breaks up and adds zest to the city’s landscape, is the backbone of a network of canals that remains fundamentally intact in the west-bank Thonburi district. Inevitably the waterways have earned Bangkok the title of “Venice of the East”, a tag that seems all too apt when you’re wading through flooded streets in the rainy season. Back on dry land, shopping varies from touristic outlets pushing silks, handicrafts and counterfeit watches, through home-grown boutiques selling street-wise fashions and stunning contemporary decor, to thronging local markets where half the fun is watching the crowds. Thailand’s long calendar of festivals is one of the few things that has been largely decentralized away from the capital, but Bangkok does offer the country’s most varied entertainment, ranging from traditional dancing and the orchestrated bedlam of Thai boxing, through hip bars and clubs playing the latest imported sounds, to the farang-only sex bars of the notorious Patpong district, a tinseltown Babylon that’s the tip of a dangerous iceberg. Even if the above doesn’t appeal, you’ll almost certainly pass through Bangkok once, if not several times – not only is it Thailand’s main port of entry, it’s also the obvious place to sort out onward travel, with good deals on international air tickets, as well as a convenient menu of embassies for visas to neighbouring countries.

Thai food is unrivaled for spice, taste, and variation. From multicourse meals to small street vendors, the one constant here is fresh and delicious at every level. You can have superlative roast duck or wonton noodles on a street corner for lunch and then be dining on world-class chef creations in the Oriental or Shangri-La hotels for supper. It doesn't have to be all spicy Thai either, as Bangkok is home to excellent French, Italian, and other world cuisines, and you need a few years just to make a dent in all the options that are available.

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