Bangkok; the iconic city which for many years has become the pinnacle destination for travellers and ex-pats alike to escape reality in a spirituality and exotic haven. It’s possibly the most renowned Asian city of them all, and there’s little wonder why. People travel from all across the globe to experience the city in all its glory. Bangkok has become synonymous with backpacking culture and many see it as the definition of paradise. Part of its appeal its is vast diversity, and its harmonious acceptance of all walks of life. Devout Buddhist monks walk the same street as skimpily dressed prostitutes and ladyboys. Never has there been a city with such polar extremes, and that’s the beauty of it. Here are the very best highlights in the iconic city that is Bangkok.
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1 – The Grand Palace
The grandiose structures that make up the Grand Palace would put most modern monarchs to shame. Built in 1782, the palace is one of the most significant historical sites in Bangkok and amongst the city’s best highlights. For 150 years it acted as the royal residence to the Thai King as well as functioning as the Royal court and the governmental headquarters. To this day the palace is still a venue for important ceremonies as well as regularly hosting heads of state.
Within the grounds are over 100 separate Ratanakosin (old-Bangkok style) buildings representing 200 years of royal history. The greater complex of the palace also includes the nationally important Wat Phra Kaew. Sadly, only a few areas are open to visitors, such as the palace grounds and four other buildings. They include the Borombhiman Hall; a French-inspired structure where King Rama VI (1910–25) once lived, Amarindra Hall; the hall of justice occasionally used for coronations, and Chakri Mahaprasat; referred to as “Westerner wearing a Thai hat” due to its strange mix of architectural styles. Remember to dress appropriately when visiting i.e. no vests or shorts.
2 – Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha)
Though there are many hundreds of temples across Bangkok and Thailand alike, this temple is at the very top of any highlights list. Wat Phra Kaew is not only the spiritual core of Thai Buddhism, but also the monarchy. It’s also home to the country’s holiest image, the Emerald Buddha. Despite its small size the jade statue its highly revered, and has survived since the 14th century. The temple’s humble beginnings started in 1782, the first year of Bangkok rule. Ever since, it has become the city’s biggest tourist attraction and a pilgrimage destination for devout Buddhists.
The temple is quite possibly the most lavishly decorated one you will find in the entire country. The entrance is guarded by the yaksha, giant guardians from the tale Ramakian (the Thai version of the Indian tale, Ramayana). In the courtyard is where the regal central bohi (ordination hall) holds the 66cm tall Emerald Buddha. The king himself will ceremoniously drape different monastic robes across the Emerald Buddha with each changing season; hot, rainy and cool.
3 – Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha)
Directly next to the Grand Palace stands the oldest and one of the largest temple complexes in Bangkok. Along with being Thailand’s first “university“, it has long been considered a place of healing, and was famous centuries ago for its pharmacy. Even today, the temple acts as the national headquarters for the teaching and preservation of traditional Thai medicine, which includes Thai massage. King Rama III made sure of the traditions survival through a legislation as it looked to become extinct. You can get a massage here at the traditional medical school, though the prices are much higher.
One of the best highlights in all of Bangkok is the enormous 45-meter-long statue laying in one of the halls. It’s so big that its only possible to view the statue in sections between the pillars. From the ends of the hall you’re able to marvel at the entire figure. Be sure to look at the figures extraordinary feet which are encrusted with countless precious stones to illustrate laksanas (characteristics) of the Buddha. In total there are 108, each referring to the alms that lead the Buddha to nirvana.
Behind the statue is the opportunity to perform a ritual. Visitors donate coins in a series of metal bowls placed along the temple’s wall. Like the Buddha’s feet, there are a total of 108 bowls, each representing a different alm. If you don’t have enough coins, an attendant is on hand to exchange from bigger denominations.
Your ticket includes a complimentary bottle of water. Remember to wear long skirts/trousers and sleeved shirts when you visit.
4 – Jim Thompson House Museum
Jim Thompson was a former member of the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA) during WWII before he retired to a life of luxury in Thailand. He quickly became a name in the Thai silk industry and gained an international list of clientele across Milan, London and Paris. He was awarded the Order of the White Elephant, given to foreigners who have made significant contributions to Thailand.
His story ends in mystery and a great amount of conspiracy. While walking along the Cameron Highlands of western Malaysia in 1967, Thompson mysteriously vanished. That same year his sister was murdered in the USA, fuelling several theories. Many believe that the CIA was responsible, as Thompson took an anti-American stance later in life.
Thompson was an avid collector of various derelict parts of Thai homes and had them reassembled to build his own house. Within this miniature jungle compound visitors can visit his former home which has since become a museum. Inside are insights into his life, as well as the history of the city and the Thai silk industry.
5 – Wat Arun
Also known as “The Temple of Dawn”, Wat Arun has one of the most intriguing histories of any temple in the city. Following the fierce batteling between the ancient kingdoms of Siam and Burma, the Ayutthaya (Siamese) Kingdom fell. As King Taksin returned from battle, they came across the ruins of an old Buddhist Temple as the sun was setting. The King vowed to build a temple at the site to house the Emerald Buddha. He renamed the temple after Arun – the Indian god of dawn – in honour of founding a new kingdom. It also became the site of King Taksin’s palace and private chapel before the palace was moved to its current site. Ever since, it and has been one of the most iconic Bangkok highlights.
The rising peaks along the Chao Phraya River are decorated with beautiful mosaics made from pieces of broken Chinese porcelain that was salvaged from a British shipwreck. They were incorporated into the prang to ensure they glittered in the sun. Don’t be afraid to get a closer look, as its one of the few Buddhist temples you can climb on.
Frequent cross-river ferries run over to Wat Arun from Tien Pier. The Chao Phraya Express Boat also calls at the temple pier.
6 – Khao San Road
Most iconic cities have one famous street. New York has Broadway, London has Oxford Street, Bangkok has Khao San. These days referring to a collection of nearby street, Khao San is where the diversity of life congregate and interact in extraordinary fashion. Its your one stop shop for everything a backpacker would expect. Street vendors, laughing gas, tattoo parlours, ladyboys, Chang beer, pad thai. The street glows in neon lights and the pulsating energy which runs through it.
For many people, the road signifies everything wrong with the backpacking culture. Some see it as the pinnacle example of how a beautifully spiritual place has been ravaged and infected with the toxic influence of endless streams of tourists. Regardless, even if you don’t partake in the madness, its still a vital stop to observe the chaos. For that reason, it has to be one of the most important Bangkok highlights.
7 – Wat Traimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha)
The star attraction of Wat Traimit is the 3m-tall, 5.5-tonne, solid-gold Buddha image (the largest in the world) which was discovered about 65 years ago beneath a plaster exterior after falling from a crane while being moved. Many believe that the covering was to protect it from the invading Burmese, but nobody really knows. The 2nd floor is home to the Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Center, a small museum with exhibits on the history of Bangkok’s Chinatown and its residents. The 3rd floor has the Phra Buddha Maha Suwanna Patimakorn Exhibition, which shows how the statue was made.
8 – Floating Market (Damnoen Saduak)
Thailand is renowned for its floating markets, and they’re considered one of the must-see highlights on any Bangkok trip. The popularity of the markets within the vicinity of the city earned Bangkok the nickname “Venice of the East“. The best of these is Damnoen Saduak, which also happens to be the most popular in all of Thailand.
Along the river are a number of vendors who enthusiastically pull in your passing boat for a closer look at their merch. You can buy anything you can imagine, from fresh foods to souvenirs. It’s also a great opportunity to interact with locals and observe daily life along the rivers. After your time on the boat is complete, you’re free to peruse the other vendors that line the river bank. Keep in mind that floating markets are very touristy, so don’t expect a boat all to yourself. Despite that, as its only an hour and a half outside the city, it makes for the perfect day-trip.
9 – Soi Cowboy
Few countries are known for their Red-Light Districts, quite the opposite, most places are shunned. However, similar to the likes of Amsterdam, Bangkok’s street of depravity is celebrated. Soi Cowboy is located between Sukhumvit Soi 23 and Asoke Road and is notorious for its nightlife and go-go bars.
The street was named after the owner of the first bar that was opened here, an American airman named T.G ‘Cowboy’ Edwards. With more than two dozen bars lining the street bathed in glowing red lights, there’s plenty of debauchery to choose from. The streets play host to a harem of half-naked women standing around, fishing for customers and encouraging passing males to buy them a drink. For many it’s one of the best Bangkok highlights, for those of high morals it’s the epitome of human shame. Either way, it’s still a fascinating opportunity to observe the madness, and perhaps a chance to catch a cheeky little ping-pong show.
10 – Wat Saket (the Temple of the Golden Mount)
The shrine also known as the Golden Mount has a gleaming gold chedi standing 80 meters tall upon a man-made hill. Wat Saket was once the capital’s crematorium for those too poor to afford a funeral following their death. It became a vital commodity during the late 18th century when the city had to deal with over 60,000 plague victims. At the base of the Golden Mount is an eerie cemetery amongst an unkempt forest of vines and overgrown trees.
The shrine comes to life in November as it plays host to a week-long Buddha relic-worshipping ceremony. The festival is begun with the enormous stupa (the mound-like structure) being covered in a bright-red cloth and a candlelit procession walking around the Golden Mount. Colourful lanterns and decorative flags, as well as food vendors, fairground games and rides bring Wat Saket to life.
11 – Chatuchak Weekend Market
Chatuchak Weekend Market, otherwise known as ‘Jatujak‘ or ‘JJ Market, is the largest in the world with over 15,000 stalls. Shoppers can find everything from jewellery and religious icons to pet supplies and delicious street food. It can be daunting to navigate the market, but thankfully it’s divided into sections based on what they sell. From around 8 pm on Friday nights to midnight, several vendors open up shop. There are a few vendors open on weekday mornings, and there are vegetable, plant and flower markets open on the market’s southern side every day. Another section, Or Tor Kor Market, sells enormous amounts of fruit and seafood and also has a food court.
12 – Wat Benchamabophit
Also known as “the marble temple”, Wat Benchamabophit is one of Bangkok’s most striking temples. The first-class Royal temple is significant enough to be on the back of the 5 bhat coin. At the end of the 19th century, the King ordered the construction of the temple beside the Dusit Palace, a large complex of Royal palaces and mansions. The entire temple is made of Italian marble, hence the name.
Inside the ordination hall you will find the temple’s main Buddha image, the Phra Buddha Chinnarat. The image is a copy of the original 7 centuries old image which is located in Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat temple in Phitsanulok province. This is also the final resting place of King Rama V, whose ashes are buried under the bronze statue.
13 – Wat Suthat
Another of the best Bangkok highlights is Wat Suthat. The oldest and possibly most beautiful of the city’s Buddhist temples also holds the highest royal temple grade. Inside the wí·hăhn (a sanctuary for a Buddha sculpture) are gorgeous Jataka murals (stories of the Buddha) and the 8m-tall Phra Si Sakayamuni, Thailand’s largest surviving bronze statue from the former capital of Sukhothai from the 14th century. This temple is also another graveyard for a former king, as the ashes of King Rama VIII (1935–46) are in the base of the bronze image. The temple is also nationally important because of its association with the Brahman (Hindu) priests who perform important ceremonies, such as the Royal Ploughing Ceremony in May.
14 – Giant Swing
Standing beside Wat Suthat is one of Bangkok’s most eye-catching sights, the 27-meter-high Giant Swing. It was built in the 1700s to be used as part of traditional Brahmin ceremonies that reenacted Hindu origin stories. Teams of three took turns to balance on a narrow board and swing 25 meters or more off the ground “up to Heaven.” They would each attempt to use their teeth to grab a bag of silver coins that were tied to a large pole. The stability of the swing and the swingers themselves represented the unshakeable will of Shiva. Sadly, King Rama VII banned the contest in 1932, following a number of fatal accidents.
15 – Lumpini Park
The last of our Bangkok highlights will most likely be the most peaceful. Named after the Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal, Lumphini Park is central Bangkok’s largest and most popular park. It was originally a royal reserve before King Rama VI (1910–25) made it open to the public. The park provides visitors with a green oasis amongst the traffic and chaos of Bangkok and sits serenely between the surrounding high-rises.
Despite the apparent peacefulness of the park, it has a dark underbelly. It has been the site of anti-government protests that have occasionally turned violent. The outskirts of the park also plays hosts to a number of street-walking prostitutes.