World Facts Index > Thailand > Bangkok

To put it simply, Bangkok can seem like a nightmare to the uninitiated. Sprawling expressways and overpasses, the huge new Skytrain and crowded streets full of vendors give the visitor a distinct Blade Runneresque feel. To confuse matters further, there's no true 'center' to the city, with various districts famed for different reasons being dotted right across town. On the positive side, the Skytrain has made it much easier to get around, and taxis, tuk-tuks, buses and motorcycle taxis are plentiful. Get your bearings by reading the following and it won't take long for you to be seduced by the glorious chaos and charm of the City of Angels.

The most heavily visited area, at least during the day, is Ko Rattanakosin (Rattanakosin Island), Bangkok's old city lying on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River. Here you'll find fantastic historical architecture such as the glittering Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, as well as Wat Po, Wat Mahathat, the Golden Mount and Wat Suthat. The city's founding pillar, Lak Muang, is found in this district, while cultural highlights include the National Museum, National Theatre and National Gallery. If you're keen on seeing something completely out of the ordinary, pop across the river to the Museum of the Department of Forensic Medicine. Sanam Luang is about the only green spot on the 'island', which has never truly been an island but would have seemed like one during the old city's heyday, when many of the canals linking the area to the river had yet to be filled in.

Bangkok was once referred to as 'The Venice of The East', and today its klongs, or canals, are concentrated in Thonburi, an area lying to the west of the Chao Phraya River. You can take a klong tour, and most will stop at Wat Arun and the museum of the Royal Barges. Buses heading south from Bangkok leave from Sai Tai bus terminal, located here.

Backpackers head to the Banglamphu and Thewet districts. Just away behind the Democracy Monument, there's some good trinket shopping to be done on Khao San Road, a strip lined with guesthouses and cheap restaurants, none of which stand out for their ambience or cuisine. A mere stone's throw away along Phra Arthit Road, however, some great restaurants and bars come to life at night. Following the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya is an area popular with students from nearby Thammasat and Silpakorn universities, and has a laid-back, cosmopolitan feel.

The Dusit district also offers plenty of tourist attractions. Vimanmek Palace, Wat Benchamabophit, Suan Pakkard Palace and Dusit Zoo are all found here. There's not much in the way of hotels or restaurants, but a small arty area popular with local students has sprung up on Rachawithee Soi 34.

Northern Bangkok's highlight for tourists is Chatuchak Weekend Market, best reached by catching the Skytrain. Mor Chit bus terminal is located at the same stop, handy to know if you want to catch an interprovincial bus heading north or northeast. Don Muang, Bangkok's international airport, is about 15 km further north still.

Heading back south, the area around the Victory Monument features a variety of bars, including Saxophone Pub and Restaurant. This is also a major transport hub, with the Skytrain and plenty of buses passing through.

Young Thais and keen shoppers head to the area around Siam Square, a shoppers 'paradise' unless you're a tall Western woman looking for off-the-rack clothes or shoes. Otherwise, there's plenty to be found in malls such as Siam Discovery, Siam Center, Centerpoint (the most popular teenage hangout), Mah Bun Krong and the World Trade Center. A walk away from the latter you'll find Panthip Plaza, also known as the heaven for computer geeks. The non-shopper can retreat to the sanctuary of Jim Thompson's House and Museum. There's a cluster of hotels in this area, including Siam Intercontinental, Le Royal Meridien and the Novotel Siam Square. Popular restaurants including Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Café can also be found here.

Heading east along Ploenchit Road and Sukhumvit Road, there's plenty of shopping extravaganza to be had, both at street stalls, which spring up around the beginning of Sukhumvit and stretch to Soi Asoke, and department stores such as Central Chidlom and Emporium, plus a huge array of dining options. Restaurants along this stretch include Auberge Dab, Baan Khanita, Lemon Grass, Cabbages and Condoms and Rossini's. The Ekamai, the eastern bus terminal, is located on Soi Ekamai (63), very close to the Science Center for Education. Sukhumvit Road also features a large selection of hotels, including the Bangkok JW Marriot, Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit and Delta Grand Pacific.

The Sathorn/Silom area is probably the closest Bangkok comes to having a financial district, although the Stock Exchange of Thailand is located some distance away on Ratchadaphisek Road. The area features a number of embassies and hotels, such as the Westin Banyan Tree, the Sukhothai, and the Dusit Thani. Silom Road offers more shopping opportunities, including the Patpong nightmarket. Sri Maha Uma Devi temple is also located in this district. There's plenty to choose from in this area when it comes to restaurants, particularly around Convent Road. Head to nearby Lumphini Park for a break in a rare patch of green.

If you head west along Sathorn or Silom you'll come to Charoen Krung (or 'New') Road and the Chao Phraya again. A tram ran along this road earlier in the century, but these days hardly anything does'the traffic's just so thick! This is another popular hotel area, with plush hotels overlooking the river including The Oriental, The Peninsula, the Shangri La, the Royal Orchid Sheraton and the Marriott Royal Garden Riverside. Take a sunset cruise or dine at any of the many restaurants that dot the majestic river, such as Yok Yor Marina and Restaurant. River City Shopping Complex sells a huge array of antiques and is worth browsing through.

Further north along the river lie hectic Chinatown and Pahurat, an Indian district. Here you'll find Wat Traimit, but the area is better known overall for its shopping. Yaowarat Road has loads of gold shops, while Sampeng Lane has everything from hair accessories to shoes, all at bargain basement prices. Further north still there's Pak Klong Talaart with its colourful fresh flowers.

There are also a number of attractions to be found in the outlying areas of Bangkok and adjacent provinces, including King Rama IX Royal Park, Nonthaburi, the Ancient City, Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, and Ayutthaya, which usually incorporates a visit to Bang-Pa In Summer Palace.

History of Bangkok

In just over two hundred years, Bangkok has grown from a small collection of villages scattered amongst the canals and rice paddies alongside the Chao Phraya River to an enormous sprawl of a capital. Extending upwards and outwards to become Thailand's dominant city by a long way, Bangkok's history has mirrored that of the still-reigning Chakri dynasty of kings that founded it. The seeds for this were sown back in 1767, when invading Burmese armies razed the old capital of Ayutthaya just to the north, tearing down temples and carting off most of the population that survived, including the royal family, as slaves. Out of this chaos, a Thai general named Phraya Thaksin founded a new capital at Thonburi, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river opposite modern Bangkok, declared himself king, and immediately set about reclaiming much of the surrounding country. One of the few surviving legacies from this period is Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn; enlarged and reconstructed since, it originally formed part of Thaksin's royal temple.

Despite his military successes, Thaksin became more and more excessive in his behavior and was finally ousted in a coup, with power transferred to another general, Chao Phraya Chakri. Chakri kickstarted the modern history of Bangkok by transferring the capital from Thonburi in the west, to the eastern bank of the river, founding Bangkok itself in 1782. Set on the fortified island of Ratanakosin, Chakri refurbished many of the existing temples in the area (such as Wat Pho), as well as building modern day tourist sights such as Wat Phra Kaew, the Grand Palace, and Lak Mueang, the shrine to the guardian deity of Bangkok. Also dating from this period is the National Museum, built originally for Chakri's vizier, Prince Wang Na.

Under Chakri and his successors, Bangkok continued to expand, particularly due to trade, so newer communities such as Yaowarat (mainly Chinese traders) and Pahurat (the Indian quarter) were established, extending outwards from the 'Old City' of Ratanakosin. The third king in the Chakri dynasty, Phra Nang Klao, also developed a new system of royal titles, naming himself Rama III, and his predecessors Rama I and Rama II. Rama III was also responsible for restoring Wat Pho and Wat Arun to the form they are in today, as well as beginning the aborted construction of Wat Saket, the spectacular Golden Mount Temple (which was completed further down the track by Rama V).

Rama IV, also known as Mongkut, is probably best known by Westerners as the ruler in the film 'The King and I' and the more modern 'Anna and the King'. Thais tend to find these interpretations offensive and growing evidence now tends to suggest the accounts of Anna Leonowens, on which these movies were based, are pure fiction at best. The real Rama IV was a brilliant leader, who was able to skillfully negotiate treaties with foreign powers to prevent the colonization of Thailand. Bangkok benefited from his trade policies during this time with an expanded port and, for the first time, paved streets.

Rama V (also known as Chulalongkorn or the Great King) took to the throne in 1868 at the age of 15 and immediately continued his father,  reforms, setting the foundations for the modern Thai government, as well as moving the royal palace to the tree-lined avenues of Dusit and building Bangkok's first railway system. His old Chitlada Palace grounds feature the Vimanmek Teak Mansion and the Abhisek Throne Hall, both excellent examples of royal Thai architecture. Rama V's long reign brought peace and stability to Thailand and his death in 1910 saw Thailand and Bangkok go through a period of great change, with the first in a long series of coups starting unsuccessfully in 1912 involving a group of disgruntled soldiers during the reign of Rama VI. During this time, both the Victory Monument and Democracy Monument were designed and constructed by Corrado Feroci, an Italian artist credited with helping found Thailand's modern art movement. A coup in 1932 by Western-educated Thai students proved more successful, ending the absolute monarchy under Rama VII and replacing it with a constitutional model.

Rama VII abdicated in 1935, leaving the ten-year-old Rama VIII in his place, and power passed into the hands of Field Marshall Phibun, the first in what would prove to be a long line of military dictatorships for Thailand and Bangkok. Probably one of the best examples of colonial style architecture still standing from the 1930s is the Neilson Hayes Library in downtown Bangkok on Surawong Road. Phibun allied with the Japanese during World War II, sparing the capital from destruction, but lost his position of absolute power after the war to a democratic civilian government. He regained absolute power in murky circumstances surrounding the death of Rama VIII who died from a gunshot wound in his palace bedroom.

The current King Bhumibol (Rama IX) was crowned in 1946, and the first few decades of his reign were marked by the rise of communism in Indochina, leading to growing American military aid and a continuing succession of military dictators. The enduring legacy in Bangkok of this time are the bars of Patpong and Soi Cowboy, catering to American soldiers on R & R from the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. One of the reminders of this turbulent time is Jim Thompson's House and Museum, preserved exactly as the silk magnate left it following his mysterious disappearance.

In 1973, massive student demonstrations forced General Thanom, the current military ruler, to leave the country. A civilian government took over, but lasted only until 1976, when more student demonstrations against the return of Thanom were brutally crushed by right wing forces fearing a communist takeover. General Prem Tinsulanonda, a moderate, took power in 1980 and is credited for leading Thailand out of this mess, granting amnesties to the communists, and overseeing a period of growth and stability that turned Bangkok into the vibrant modern capital it is today.

One downturn in this trend of liberalization has been another military coup in 1991, overthrown in 1992 by bloody Bangkok street demonstrations with some help from Rama IX. Since then a succession of four civilian governments has seen the capital enjoy a much more stable political climate. The only other crisis of note was the 1997 Asian economic meltdown, whose legacy is still apparent in Bangkok today, with scores of unfinished condominiums and office towers. And, if you want to party in a defunct finance company, head to Specs, a new and lively club on Silom Road.


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