Culture trails of Bangkok

Line of gleaming Buddha statues in Wat Pho

Line of gleaming Buddha statues in Wat Pho

Although only settled in the late 1700s, Bangkok is the leader in Thai culture and history and comes with a vast amount of landmarks and monuments. The best of it is in old Bangkok, which is the area on the island of Rattanakosin, between the canal and Chao Phraya River to the west of the city centre.

Rattanakosin and Thonburi

The Grand Palace should be included on any cultural tour of Bangkok. It is one of the largest modern temple complexes in the country and has the opulent Wat Pho next door, where one of the world’s largest Buddha images resides. The palace grounds themselves was the Thai king’s official residence right up until the 1940s. Today, the Thai king resides in Chitralada Palace, farther north.

Onsite is the revered Emerald Buddha (Phra Kaeo Morakot), a large chunk of beautifully-sculpted green jasper into an image of the Lord Buddha. He dons a gold cloak and stands less than half-a-metre tall. The Emerald Buddha is seated in the aptly-named Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) onsite, although it is not always open so check ahead for religious public holidays.

Wat Pho is adjacent to the Grand Palace and is known for its gigantic reclining Buddha image. It is Bangkok’s largest and oldest working temple and is also beautifully maintained, with stunning grounds and perhaps one of the best massages you’ll ever receive - on account of the revered massage school that resides here.

The Grand Palace is a little on the steep side, especially when you also have to fork out for entry to the Emerald Buddha section. However, also included on the ticket is entry to the Vimanmek Golden Teak Mansion, the Royal Pavilion and the Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall of Dusit Palace. Also not far from the Grand Palace is the National Museum, Southeast Asia’s largest. It is home to the Royal Barges.

Before heading north to Dusit and away from the old town, there is the much vaunted Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) across the river. This stunning structure couldn’t be more different from those of the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. The temple is almost 90m high, is noted for its Chinese broken porcelain façade and offers fantastic views.

The temple lies on the Thonburi side on the banks of the Chao Phraya and is easily accessed by ferry directly from Tha Tien ferry pier. Entry fee is minimal. If you plan on doing a Chao Phraya sundowner cruise, you will experience one of the definitive sights of Bangkok when the sun drops over Wat Arun.

From Tha Tien ferry pier you can also get on a tour of the Thonburi canals or do a tour of the Chao Phraya River. There are many fine temples and monumental hotels along the way, including biggies like the Grand Palace and Wat Arun. The Royal Boat House and the National Museum are also beside the river. More on Bangkok temples.

Dusit Palace

Dusit Palace is another major cultural hotspot in Bangkok. It is north of Rattanakosin and was considered the new Bangkok when King Rama V sought to escape the confinement of Rattanakosin and introduce European flare into the Thai capital. It occupies a large area and consists of palaces, residences and gardens and is also the political capital of Thailand.

It all resides on a site larger than the Grand Palace and many of its attractions come in with the price of the Grand Palace. Vimanmek Mansion is the top site on the Dusit Palace grounds and is one of the most eye-popping structures in Thailand, built as it is entirely out of golden teak wood. It is resplendent outside and in and you could easily spend half a day wandering its halls and lounging in the gardens.

The Anantasamakhom Throne Hall is another major landmark of Dusit Palace and requires another fee. Also to see are the Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall and Wat Benchamabophit. Farther southeast, beyond the palace itself, is Dusit Zoo, residing in the former garden of King Rama V. It is home to hundreds of animals, including tigers, hippos, orang-utans and huge snakes, and is great for those with kids.

Just across the north-south Rama V Road, just east of Dusit Palace, is Chitralada Palace, the official residence of HM King Bhumipol. This beautiful building lies on a site about the same acreage as Dusit - that is, huge, around four square-kilometres – and includes many impressive structures amid stunning gardens. Tourists are rarely permitted entry, however. Nearby is the Marble Temple (Wat Benchamabophit). More on Bangkok attractions.

Chatuchak, Chinatown and shopping

Chinatown comes to life at night

Chinatown comes to life at night

Bangkok’s two main market areas are north and south of Dusit Palace respectively. The Chatuchak Weekend Market (or JJ Market) is the largest collection of stalls in the city and one of the world’s biggest. It comes with thousands of stalls and gutsy bargains on clothes and crafts. It is not for the fainthearted, though, and is best done in the morning.

Chinatown is on Rattanakosin Island beneath the Grand Palace and has rows of typical shop houses selling medicines and knock-off produce. Chinatown is also a good bet for dining out of a night, loaded as it is with many cheap and tasty eateries. One of the top landmarks in the Chinatown area is Wat Trai Mit, home of the Golden Buddha. Chinatown is just east of the main Hualamphong train station and south of the famed backpacker strip of Khao San Road.

Another famed market area is the notorious Patpong Night Bazaar, just off of the glitzy boulevard known as Silom. This area is east of Chinatown and old Bangkok and is also home to some of the city’s top shops and hotels. Patpong runs off a couple of small streets (sois) to the north and fires up at night. It is very exciting for first-timers and items for sale include clothing, bags, handicrafts, and paintings, et cetera. It is also, of course, home to unending go-go bars and pubs.

Other Bangkok culture trail unmissables

Although in no way highly cultured, the heart of Bangkok is considered Siam Square, off to the north Patpong. This is where the bulk of the shopping centres are found, along with many of the big hotels. Entertainment options here are excellent and head down the iconic Sukhumvit Road, which has the modern Skytrain running along it.

Bangkok has bags of other noted sights to check out in all areas of the city. A must-see is Jim Thompson's House, around the Siam Square area. The home of (disappeared) ex-CIA-op Jim Thompson, especially known for his fine silks, was the amalgamation of several traditional teak Thai houses.

Wat Suthat and the Giant Swing are just up from the Grand Palace. The huge swing was used during elaborate ceremonies, where participants would swing and try to retrieve items from one of the poles. Many died as a result of falls. In addition, other museums to check out besides the National Museum include the Museum of Siam, the National Gallery and the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.

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