Bangkok boasts some of the top attractions in Thailand, including its grandest temples, monuments, palaces and museums devoted to Thai culture and history. Then there are the diverse night and weekend markets and shopping malls galore, and of course a nightlife that is known around the world.
On arrival, it’s easy to look around and think of Bangkok as a huge concrete jungle without a lot of appeal. However, with a bit of exploring you’ll find that in between its elevated roads and under its skytrain, among the shopping centres and skyscrapers, are some of Thailand’s and Southeast Asia’s finest treasures in terms of temples, monuments, museums and diverse neighbourhoods. Bangkok is probably most spectacular at night, when the lights of the skyline, storefronts, hotels and office blocks contribute to a dazzling display of colour.
If navigating around Bangkok seems like a daunting task to you, it might be worth considering an organised tour of the city. If you don’t find an organised tour appealing, another easy way to see a fair number of the city’s attractions is to spend part of a day exploring by river taxi or on a canal trip–the Thonburi area is especially good by boat.
From the boat you will be able to see a way of life that is reminiscent of years gone by when canals were the main thoroughfares of the city. You’ll also be able to stop off at some of Bangkok’s most noteworthy temples. More on Bangkok temples.
Bangkok attractions: temples and monuments
The Grand Palace complex, which includes Wat Phra Kaew, is usually first on the list of ‘must-see’ attractions in Bangkok. The stunning ‘Temple of the Emerald Buddha’ is housed within the complex. It dates from the earliest days of the relocated capital in the 18trh century and remains the royal heart of the city, unspoilt by skyscrapers. Full guide on the Grand Palace.
Not far from the Grand Palace is Wat Po, the largest Buddhist temple complex in the city and another important Bangkok attraction. The enormous reclining Buddha is the highlight here, but the multiple chedi spires make excellent photo subjects. It’s also noted as the foremost school for Thai massage. Rounding out the list of the most important temples is Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) on the opposite side of the river. This imposing chedi complex is one of the oldest and tallest in Bangkok and is most striking when seen from a river boat with the setting sun as a back drop.
There are many more temples in the city, but the most memorable are found in the Rattanakosin district near the Grand Palace. Wat Saket is a large and important complex on which stands the lofty Golden Mount. As recently as the 1960s this low artificial hill was the highest in the city and was actually formed by building upon a collapsed chedi. There are fortifications and a structure now built on it, from where you get good views of the old city. Mid way between this temple and the Grand Palace is the magnificent towering Giant Swing at Wat Suthat, which was recently restored.
Also within walking distance is the distinctive and rambling Wat Mahathat which is clearly seen from Radjadamnoen Avenue. It’s considered one of the most important temples of Buddhist teaching in the region attracting monks from far and wide. Another important temple on the tourist route is Wat Traimit, which is closer to Hua Lamphong station on the periphery of the district and big reason to visit this one is the big golden Buddha – in fact the largest known example. It weighs five tonnes and was only re-discovered in 1955 coated in plaster to avoid detection by marauding Burmese during the Ayuthaya period when it was cast.
Bangkok attractions: museums, galleries and parks
Believe it or not, but you can find retreats from the noise and frenetic pace of the city in Bangkok’s interesting museums and galleries, and also in the city’s spacious Lumpini Park. Jim Thompson, a silk trader and collector, built a house here in the 1940s in the traditional Thai style, and it is now open as a museum. It’s easily accessible from Siam square and contains Thai artefacts that are well worth seeing.
The National Museum is located near the Grand Palace and features exhibits on the cultural heritage of ancient Siam. It’s perhaps one of the finest collection of Asian antiquity in the world with excellent collections of various eras dating back to the Dvaravati period from the sixth century onwards. Across the river is the Royal Barge Museum, a Bangkok attraction that is often overlooked. It houses the royal ceremonial barges that are still used for river processions during important state events. More on Bangkok museums
Both Suan Pakhad and Vimanmek Mansion are former palaces that are now open to the public. Suan Pakhad Palace, on Sri Ayutthaya road near the intersection of Phaya Thai road, is a complex of traditional Thai houses situated in the midst of lovely gardens. There is also an art gallery here. It’s easy to get to, and demonstrates how the wealthy lived in 19th century Bangkok, as well as including a small museum on Thai traditional musical instruments.
In the quiet and tree-shaded Dusit area, you can visit the world’s largest teak mansion, Vimanmek. It was built during the reign of King Rama V and is in excellent condition complete with period furniture. It is also surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens and is a museum dedicated to the life of one of Thailand’s most important kings.
Lumpini Park is the largest in Bangkok and is a great spot to relax in peaceful surroundings or to stroll through the gardens and around the lake. Others use the park for physical exercise, whether it be tai chi, jogging or even ballroom dancing. The park can be conveniently accessed from the Saladaeng BTS station or the Lumpini MRT station. Alternatively the new ‘green recreational space’ surrounding a large lake near Queen Sirikit Convention Centre offers a breath of fresh air near Sukhumvit road.
Neighbourhoods, markets and nightlife
Chinatown is one of the most fascinating neighbourhoods in Bangkok and the largest of its kind in the world. It’s busy, colourful and certainly worth the time you might spend browsing through the stalls and gold shops and sampling some of the delicious and inexpensive food on offer here. In its small lanes you can still see life lived as it was in the Bangkok of old.
Chinatown is situated southeast of Banglamphu, home to Khao San Road. Backpackers and now a wider variety of tourists flock to Khao San Road, where you can find just about anything. It’s a place to meet other travellers, buy pirated goods, party, arrange transport to your next destination or get connected at an internet café. More on the Khao San Road.
The Sukhumvit Road is where many of the city’s expat community live and work and here you’ll find a far more Westernised version of Bangkok with its tourist-friendly restaurants and bars, pockets of girlie bars, shopping malls and travel services. Many of the hotels are located here and transport options are good. Just down the Skytrain route is Siam Square, a shopping Mecca with its numerous malls including the ultra-luxurious Paragon and the mass-market MBK. It’s also the most central location in the city, transport-wise.
Silom is popular too for it is here that the after work executives of the financial district, tourists making a bee-line for the eye-openers of Patpong sex shows, and locals all mingle in the bars, restaurants and late night haunts of this lively night time area.
The red light districts of Bangkok (Patpong, Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy) are as famous (or infamous) as those of any other city in the world. They’ve certainly become an attraction to the curious from all walks of life who want to see just what goes on behind the curtains.
Beyond the city limits are several other popular attractions worth visiting on a day trip. These include the famous Floating Market – an early morning hour’s drive southwest, the highly recommended Ancient City cultural theme park in Samut Prakarn, the olde-world canals of Thon Buri and a number entertainment parks for the family. More on day trips from Bangkok.