Thailand’s capital is its showcase city and, for the tourist, Bangkok certainly has appeal beyond the initial urban landscape. With almost 250 years of history and a proud legacy of culture from one of Asia’s most prosperous recent kingdoms, the city has plenty of sightseeing.
Bangkok has several distinctly different districts, reflecting its growth over the past two centuries. Catch a taxi across town from the hotel district of Sukhumvit Road and you’ll find yourself in the old Bangkok of the late 18th Century, when the magnificent Grand Palace and a collection of fine temples were built on Rattanakosin Isle. Adjacent to this is the stately government quarter of Dusit, free of high rises and pleasantly quiet.
The Chao Phraya River provides an interesting vantage point of the changing scenery and some of the best views of Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Arun, and it’s a good way to get to the intriguing Chinatown. Meanwhile, the more contemporary sights and night attractions are in the newer section of town where gargantuan shopping centres, red light districts and occasional gems are found.
Bangkok sightseeing by district:
This is the best place to start when you are out sightseeing in Bangkok. Here you will find the most popular and impressive sights of the city; the most important being the Grand Palace, around which the original city was founded. This startling collection of buildings, temples and cultural icons includes an eclectic mix of Thai and European styles. Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is the main draw, housing the Kingdom’s most respected Buddha statue.
Within walking distance, or a tuk-tuk ride, are several impressive temples; the most famous being Wat Pho, on account of its giant reclining Buddha and famous massage school. From here it’s sensible to catch a boat across the river to Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), which is best viewed when its striking pagoda is silhouetted against a setting sun. The worthwhile Royal Barges Museum is also across the river.
Also adjacent to the Grand Palace is the City Pillar (a hive of merit-making activity) and the National Museum with its exemplary collection of South Asian antiquities. They all sit around the vast Sanam Luang parade ground. In this area, too, is the somewhat less cultured, but equally fascinating, Khao San Road – Backpacker central – a colourful mix of East meets West.
Another short taxi trip away is Wat Traimit, noted for its five-tonne solid gold Buddha, and Wat Suthat, which is popular on Bangkok sightseeing tours due to the intriguing Giant Swing outside. While in the area, we really recommend you climb the Golden Mount nearby for an excellent bird’s-eye view of this timeless old district of Bangkok – it’s an unnatural hill with a Chedi atop the ruins of a larger collapsed pagoda. If you aren’t all ‘templed out’, Wat Ratchanada (on Ratchadamnern Avenue) is unique for its Gothic-looking Loha Prasat style. A further 200m down the avenue is the Art Deco-styled Democracy Monument.
This stately and leafy neighbourhood of Bangkok is characterised by broad avenues, low-rise government buildings and several impressive buildings. It was developed for the Mandarin class that emerged and King Rama V decamped here in the hot season to his newly built Vimanmek Palace, the world’s largest all teak palace. Your Bangkok sightseeing should certainly include a trip here to witness Royal Siamese lifestyles. Adjacent to it is the neo-Renaissance (Rama V had a weakness for European architecture) Abhisek Throne Hall, which is reserved for royal parades and receptions.
Government House is curious because of its oddly placed Venetian Gothic style (possibly inspired by Bangkok’s ‘Venice of the East’ moniker in the 19th Century), but it’s only open on Children’s Day (mid January). Dusit Zoo and the off-limits Chitralada Palace (where the Royal Family reside) are the other two main attractions of the area, but a drive around reveals some nice photographic subjects.
Chinatown and Pahurat
On the fringes of Rattanakosin is Thailand’s bustling Chinatown – perhaps one of the world’s most authentic – where crowded lanes are stacked with a cornucopia of bizarre foods, medicines, and cheap Chinese products, sold in bulk. This became the mercantile centre of Bangkok, populated by Chinese immigrants whose descents play such a dominant role in the city’s prosperity.
It is centred on Yaowarat Road, and you’ll discover gems such as the Len Buai Chinese shrine, which predates Bangkok’s founding by 200 years. Wat Traimit is in this neighbourhood, along with the smaller Indian quarter of Pahurat, including several Sikh and Hindu temples. You can walk from here to Hualumpong Train Station, which has a vaguely Art Nouveau detail to it.
If you don’t want to embark on a full-blown city tour, one fun way to see a number of the city’s sights in a relatively short space of time is to embark on a canal trip. At any pier side location, such as Tha Chang (near the Grand Palace) or Saphan Thaksin BTS station, you can sign up for a boat trip which lasts about 90 minutes and will take you along Bangkok’s backwaters into areas you’d never otherwise see.
These boat rides are interesting in their own right, allowing you to get a glimpse of old-style Bangkok and you’ll also get the chance to stop off, or get dropped off, at one of Bangkok’s many temples. In fact, Bangkok was once known as the ‘Venice of the East’ for all its canals, but most have now been filled in to make way for streets or have become sewers.
Details on everything an average tourist might want to see in Bangkok are listed on our Attractions page. If you’re limited on time then follow the suggestions on our One day highlights page, or consult the Three-day Itinerary to optimise your stay in Bangkok.
Temples and Monuments:
Perhaps the first place that will be on any itinerary is the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew complex. The ‘Temple of the Emerald Buddha’ is the number one tourist attraction in Bangkok, and with good reason – it is absolutely stunning.
Not too far from the Grand Palace, and usually visited on the same trip, is the impressive Wat Pho. This is the largest ‘wat’ (Buddhist temple) complex in Bangkok and it will take you a fair amount of time to cover the entire grounds and marvel at every ornately decorated spire and each majestic, elegant temple monument. It is most famous for its enormous reclining Buddha.
Another beautiful temple, Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) is one of Bangkok’s most famous temples. This imposing, eye-catching Chedi complex is one of the tallest in Bangkok and is intricately and ornately decorated. It is also one of the oldest, having been built before the city was properly established as the capital city.
Museums, Galleries, Parks and other quiet spots:
If the noise, pollution and general chaos of Bangkok streets is getting too much for you, you’ll be pleased to hear that there are plenty of quiet retreats in the city – calm oases allowing you to escape from the hustle and bustle outside.
Jim Thompson’s House
Jim Thompson was a silk trader and collector who built this lovely tradition teak, Thai-styled house in the 1940s and the area has now been all but swallowed up by high rises. It remains a quiet oasis not far from Siam Square with a wonderful display of Thai artefacts and is well worth seeing.
The National Museum
The largest of its kind in Southeast Asia, this huge former palace is packed with Thai cultural items and antiquities. It is located near the Grand Palace and well worth a visit to appreciate the legacy of ancient Siam.
Royal Barges Museum
Located across the river, this museum houses the magnificent royal barges that are used occasionally for ceremonies and are unique in their design and appearance. It’s an often overlooked but interesting peep into the pomp and ceremony of Thailand’s royal processions.
Suan Pakkad Palace
Also very interesting and situated on the chronically busy Si Ayutthaya Road is the peaceful contrasting atmosphere of Suan Pakkad Palace. Translated literally as ‘Lettuce Farm Palace’; although there are no lettuces to be found here these days, Suan Pakkad is a collection of traditional wooden Thai houses set in beautifully landscaped gardens which now house a museum and an art gallery.
Vimanmek Teak Mansion and Dusit
There are several good reasons to visit the peaceful Dusit area of Bangkok, with its wide tree-lined avenues and important mansions, but the most graceful of the buildings here are found near the zoo, where you will find the neo-Baroque National Assembly Hall and the impressive Vimanmek Teak Mansion behind it. The latter was built in the reign of Rama V and is the world’s largest teak structure. Today it is a museum to the lifestyle of one of Thailand’s most important kings. Also in the grounds are lovely gardens, several small former royal residences and the unusual-styled Abhisek Throne Hall.
The largest park in Bangkok, Lumpini Park is a great place to simply relax and get away from it all for an afternoon. Many people use Lumpini Park for more energetic activities; joggers can frequently be seen and there is a small, rudimentary outdoor gym in one section of the park. The park, with its big convoluted lake, can be accessed by Lumpini MRT station or Sala Daeng BTS station.
People Watching & City Life:
Busy, colourful and lively, Chinatown makes for an interesting morning or afternoon browsing all the traditional Chinese remedy stalls and gold shops. Good, inexpensive food can be found here too, especially Chinese and Indian. It’s a good place to get a glimpse of how Bangkok once was, especially if you wander down some of the small lanes. It’s located south east of Banglamphu (where Khao San Road is), directly west of the city centre and can also be accessed from the river, by hopping off a ferry at Tha Ratchawong pier.
For people watching of an entirely different kind, head to backpacker central, Khao San Road; here you’ll discover another world, a cornucopia of free-spirited culture, commercialism and young travellers’ hedonism. Almost anything is available here, from fake university degree certificates to cheap clothing and pirate DVDs. It’s a lively place by day or night and offers plenty of places to eat, party, meet people or simply find a tour agent and internet café.
Some of the most interesting places to catch a glimpse of real Bangkok life are at the many markets in the city. There are several night markets, which we’ve covered here, and no trip to Bangkok is complete without a visit to the Chatuchak Weekend Market.
The infamous red light districts of Patpong, Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy, in a similar way to Amsterdam, have now become an attraction for curious visitors who want to know exactly what goes on behind the neon lights and black curtains. For many, it’s a chief reason to visit the city, and it’s all conducted harmlessly in the open. Sometimes sleazy, sometimes an eye opener, sometimes fun, this aspect of Bangkok is a key tourism character and you might find it amusing or interesting to wander among the areas people watching. You can even sit and enjoy a drink and the atmosphere without too much hassle or getting ripped off.