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Bangkok, Thailand

Tour description

Article I.Bangkok, Thailand

There are two Bangkoks, the ancient soul of Thailand with its long and fascinating history and the frantic, modern metropolis that embraces the latest trends both Eastern and Western. The two blend together remarkably well-even the most jarring juxtapositions of old and new somehow make sense. Bangkok is not only the biggest city in Thailand, but also the most mesmerizing, with some of the country's most beautiful temples and shrines. The city's energy is palpable, especially at night, when traffic opens up a bit, its famous markets get going, and everything seems lit up-from its proudest monuments to its seediest streets.


Sights

Moving around most parts of Bangkok is relatively easy. Use the Skytrain, the subway, and the river express boats to avoid the city's massive gridlock. Taxis and tuk-tuks (small, open, three-wheeled taxis) are inexpensive, but drivers may not speak much English.


Old City and Thonburi. When Ayutthaya was besieged and pillaged by the Burmese in 1766, Thonburi became Thailand's capital. The Thais call Bangkok Krung Thep (City of Angels), and in 1782 King Rama I moved his capital to the Old City, just across the Chao Praya River.


Grand Palace. This is Thailand's most revered spot and one of its most visited. The palace and adjoining structures only got more opulent as subsequent monarchs added their own touches. The grounds are open to visitors, but none of the buildings are-they're used only for state occasions and royal ceremonies. Just east of the Grand Palace compound is the City Pillar Shrine, containing the foundation stone (Lak Muang) from which all distances in Thailand are measured. The stone is believed to be inhabited by a spirit that guards the well-being of Bangkok. Beware the ubiquitous local con men, often dressed in official-looking clothes, who will try to convince you that the palace is closed and that you need to buy tickets from them. Don't pay attention to anyone until you're practically already in the palace, as this is where the real entrance is. Proper attire (no flip-flops, shorts, or bare shoulders or midriffs) is required, but if you forget, they loan unflattering but more demure shirts and shoes at the entrance. Sana Chai Rd., Old City. Admission charged.


Wat Po (Temple of the Reclining Buddha). The city's largest wat has what is perhaps the most unusual representation of the Buddha in Bangkok. The 150-foot sculpture, covered with gold, is so large it fills an entire viharn. Especially noteworthy are the mammoth statue's 10-foot feet, with the 108 auspicious signs of the Buddha inlaid in mother-of-pearl. Many people ring the bells surrounding the image for good luck. Bangkok's oldest open university is behind this viharn. A century before Bangkok was established as the capital, a monastery was founded here to teach traditional medicine. Around the walls are marble plaques inscribed with formulas for herbal cures, and stone sculptures squat in various postures demonstrating techniques for relieving pain. The monks still practice ancient cures, and the massage school is now famous. At the northeastern quarter of the compound there's a pleasant three-tier temple containing 394 seated Buddhas. Usually a monk sits cross-legged at one side of the altar, making himself available to answer questions (in Thai, of course). Chetuphon Rd., Old City. Admission charged.


National Museum. There's no better place to acquaint yourself with Thai history than the National Museum, which also holds one of the world's best collections of Southeast Asian art. Most of the masterpieces from the northern provinces have been transported here, leaving up-country museums looking a little bare. You have a good opportunity to trace Thailand's long history, beginning with the ceramic utensils and bronze ware of the Ban Chiang people (4000-3000 BC). Na Phra That Rd., Old City. Admission charged.


National Gallery. Although it doesn't get nearly as much attention as the National Museum, the gallery's permanent collection (modern and traditional Thai art) is worth taking the time to see; there are also frequent temporary shows from around the country and abroad. Chao Fa Rd., Old City. Admission charged.


Royal Barge Museum. These splendid ceremonial barges are berthed on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. The boats, carved in the early part of the 19th century, take the form of mythical creatures in the Ramakien. The most impressive is the red-and-gold royal vessel called Suphannahongse (Golden Swan), used by the king on special occasions. Carved from a single piece of teak, it measures about 150 feet and weighs more than 15 tons. Fifty oarsmen propel it along the river, accompanied by two coxswains, flag wavers, and a rhythm-keeper.Tip:  Khlong Bangkok Noi, Thonburi. Admission charged.


Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn). If this riverside spot is inspiring at sunrise, it's even more marvelous toward dusk, when the setting sun throws amber tones over the entire area. The temple's design is symmetrical, with a square courtyard containing five Khmer-style prangs. The central prang, which reaches 282 feet, is surrounded by four attendant prangs at each of the corners. All five are covered in mosaics made from broken pieces of Chinese porcelain. Energetic visitors can climb the steep steps to the top of the lower level for the view over the Chao Phraya; the less ambitious can linger in the small park by the river, a peaceful spot to gaze across at the city. Arun Amarin Rd., Thonburi. Admission charged.


Dusit. More than any other neighborhood in the city, Dusit-north of Banglamphu-seems calm and orderly. Its tree-shaded boulevards and elegant buildings truly befit the district that holds Chitlada Palace, the official residence of the king and queen.


Wat Benjamabophit (Marble Temple). Built in 1899, this wat is a favorite with photographers because of its open spaces and light, shining marble. Statues of the Buddha line the courtyard, and the magnificent interior has crossbeams of lacquer and gold. It's also a seat of learning that appeals to Buddhist monks with intellectual yearnings. Nakhon Pathom Rd., Dusit. Admission charged.


Vimanmek Palace. The spacious grounds within Dusit Park include 20 buildings you can visit, but the Vimanmek Palace, considered the largest golden teak structure in the world, is truly the highlight. The mansion's original foundation remains on Koh Si Chang two hours south of Bangkok in the Gulf of Thailand, where it was built in 1868. In 1910 King Rama V had the rest of the structure moved to its present location and it served as his residence for five years while the Grand Palace was being fixed up. The building itself is extensive, with more than 80 rooms. The other 19 buildings include the Royal Family Museum, with portraits of the royal family, and the Royal Carriage Museum, with carriages and other vehicles used by the country's monarchs through the ages. Admission includes everything on the grounds and the classical Thai dancing shows that take place mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Proper attire is required (no shorts, tank tops, or sandals). Ratchawithi Rd., Dusit. Admission charged.


Chinatown. This bustling area is filled with many markets, teahouses, little restaurants tucked here and there, and endless traffic. Like much of the Old City, Chinatown is a great place to wander around. Yaowarat Road is the main thoroughfare, and it's crowded with jewelry shops. Pahuraht Road, which is Bangkok's Little India, is full of textile shops; many of the Indian merchant families on this street have been here for generations.


Wat Traimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha). The actual temple has little architectural merit, but off to its side is a small chapel containing the world's largest solid-gold Buddha, cast about nine centuries ago in the Sukhothai style. Weighing 5½ tons and standing 10 feet high, the statue is a symbol of strength and power that can inspire even the most jaded person. It's believed that the statue was brought first to Ayutthaya. When the Burmese were about to sack the city, it was covered in plaster. Two centuries later, still in plaster, it was thought to be worth very little; when it was being moved to a new Bangkok temple in the 1950s it slipped from a crane and was simply left in the mud by the workmen. In the morning, a temple monk who had dreamed that the statue was divinely inspired went to see the Buddha image. Through a crack in the plaster he saw a glint of yellow, and soon discovered that the statue was pure gold. There is also an excellent museum that follows the history of the Tha Chinese that is highly worth visiting. Tri Mit Rd.,

Chinatown. Admission charged.


Downtown Bangkok. Bangkok has many downtowns that blend into each other-even residents have a hard time agreeing on a definitive city center.


Jim Thompson's House. Formerly an architect in New York City, Jim Thompson ended up in Thailand at the end of World War II, after a stint as an officer of the OSS (an organization that preceded the CIA). After a couple of other business ventures, he moved into silk and is credited with revitalizing Thailand's moribund silk industry. The success of this project alone would have made him a legend, but the house he left behind is also a national treasure. Thompson imported parts of several up-country buildings, some as old as 150 years, to construct his compound of six Thai houses (three are still exactly the same as their originals, including details of the interior layout). With true appreciation and a connoisseur's eye, Thompson then furnished them with what are now priceless pieces of Southeast Asian art. Adding to Thompson's notoriety is his disappearance: in 1967 he went to the Malaysian Cameron Highlands for a quiet holiday and was never heard from again. Soi Kasemsong 2, Rama I Road, Pathumwan. Admission charged.


Suan Pakkard Palace. A collection of antique teak houses, built high on columns, complement undulating lawns and shimmering lotus pools at this compound. Inside the Lacquer Pavilion, which sits serenely at the back of the garden, there's gold-covered paneling with scenes from the life of the Buddha. Academics and historians continue to debate just how old the murals are-whether they're from the reign of King Narai (1656-88) or from the first reign of the current Chakri Dynasty, founded by King Rama I (1782-1809). Other houses display porcelain, stone heads, traditional paintings, and Buddha statues. 352-354 Sri Ayutthaya Rd., Phaya Thai. Admission charged.


M.R. Kukrit Pramoj Heritage House. Former Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj's house reflects his long, influential life. After Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, he formed the country's first political party and was prime minister in 1974 and 1975. (Perhaps he practiced for that role 12 years earlier, when he appeared with Marlon Brando as a Southeast Asian prime minister in The Ugly American.) He died in 1995, and much of his living quarters-five interconnected teak houses-has been preserved. Throughout his life, Kukrit was dedicated to preserving Thai culture, and his house and grounds are monuments to a bygone era; the place is full of Thai and Khmer art and furniture from different periods. The landscaped garden with its Khmer stonework is also a highlight. It took Pramoj 30 years to build the house, so it's no wonder that you can spend the better part of a day wandering around. S. Sathorn Rd., 19 Soi Phra Pinit, Silom. Admission charged.


Shopping

The city's most popular shopping areas are Silom Road and Surawong Road, where you can find quality silk; Sukhumvit Road, which is rich in leather goods; Yaowarat Road in Chinatown, where gold trinkets abound; and along Oriental Lane and Charoen Krung Road, which have many antiques shops. The shops around Siam Square and at the World Trade Center attract both Thais and foreigners.