Thailand's teeming capital, Bangkok is home to a swelling population of more than eight million. The main entry point for tourists and a major destination for migrants, the city's melting pot of cultures includes British expats, Indian immigrants and generations of Chinese settlers.
A fascinating blend of east and west, old and new, Bangkok embraces modern life but holds traditional culture and history in high esteem. Skyscrapers, mega malls and cool nightclubs stand next to gilded temples and ancient monuments, while the skytrain speeds over colourful markets, fiery food stalls and sprawling slums.
I visited in October and spent a few days in Bangkok before exploring more of Thailand. With the rainy season still lingering it often rained in the evenings but the showers were mostly short-lived – and gave me a good excuse to chill out in a bar or relax back at my themed Chinatown hotel, Shanghai Mansion.
A Brief History of Bangkok
Two hundred years ago, Bangkok was a small trading port home to Thai locals and Chinese merchants. Set beside the banks of the Chao Phraya River, the city was founded in 1782 when the Chakri dynasty (which still rules Thailand today) and Royal Palace were established here.
City walls and canals were developed over the years, with water transport dominant in the early days – Bangkok gained the nickname "Venice of the East" and, even today, its waterways are well used by locals and tourists.
Western influences led to the construction of railways and roads in the 19th century. Airports and skyscrapers followed, creating a well-connected city with a booming international economy that has shaped the Bangkok we know today.
Ten Bangkok Attractions
Every corner of Bangkok has its own charms and, although brimming with tourists, the city's best-known landmarks are popular for good reason. Make sure you tick off at least one or two of these when you visit:
The Grand Palace
Home to Thailand's royalty for 150 years, this 18th century palace is one of the country's most visited landmarks. The elaborate exterior is breathtaking and, for an entry fee of 500 baht, you can explore this fairytale complex of gardens, courts and temples.
Wat Phra Kaew
Set within the grounds of the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew is also known as the temple of the Emerald Buddha. Thailand's most important Buddhist temple, the Buddha icon here was carved from a single block of Jade.
Set on the west (Thonburi) bank of Chao Phraya River, this iconic temple is recognisable by its ornately decorated spires. You can climb the central prang for a view over Bangkok and the river. Entry is 100 baht.
Home to the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand, Wat Pho sits just across the water from Wat Arun. Also known as the "Temple of the Reclining Buddha", it houses a 46-metre-long Buddha. Entry is 100 baht.
Boasting some of Bangkok's best street food, this is where I based myself during my recent visit. Browse the gold shops and temples by day, then return at night to tuck into everything from pad Thai to fresh crab, all cooked right before your eyes.
With a lake, lawns and tree-lined paths, this large park is a great place to escape the city streets. Hire a paddleboat and look out for monitor lizards, or visit early in the morning to watch the locals doing t'ai-chi.
Khao San Road
Once the site of a major rice market, Khao San Road is better known today as one of the world's busiest backpacker hubs. Here, you can hang out in backpacker bars, eat everything from McDonalds to green curry, and fill your suitcase with handicrafts, t-shirts and DVDs.
Few cities boast more rooftop bars than Bangkok. With one for every taste and budget, you can take your pick between alfresco eateries like the Vertigo and Moon Bar, luxury lounges like Octave Rooftop Bar, and cheap as chips locations like the revolving restaurant in Chinatown's rather dated Grand China Hotel.
From souvenirs and clothes, to fresh fruit and mouthwatering meals, markets are way of life in Bangkok. If you only have time for one, the enormous Chatuchak Weekend Market sells pretty much anything you can think of, while night markets like Patpong are ideal places to spend an evening. Outside the city, floating markets like Khlong Lat Mayom and Damnoen Saduak are well worth travelling to.
Cheap and easy to travel around, Bangkok has plenty of transport options. As with any big city, avoid travelling in peak hours (7-9am and 4-7pm) – if you have no choice, trains tend to be a better option than taxis.
Here's the lowdown on the best transport options:
The city's elevated, high-speed trains are one of the most efficient and comfortable ways to travel in Bangkok. Open from 6am to midnight, the BTS gives access to most major tourist sights and shopping areas. Popular with tourists and city workers alike, a day pass (120 baht) gives you unlimited travel, or you can buy tickets for individual journeys (prices start at 15 baht).
Linked to the BTS and airport railway, Bangkok's subway system runs from 6am to midnight and covers 18 stops in a horseshoe-shaped section of the city. Lumpini Park, Chinatown and Patpong Night Market are all easily accessible from MRT stations.
Relatively cheap and easy to hail on any street, taxis are a hassle-free option for getting around the city. It's best to always use a metered taxi (rather than haggling over a price), and avoid travelling by road during rush hour – take the BTS or MRT instead.
Travelling on the Chao Phraya River and city canals is a highlight. Express boats are fastest, public ferries are cheapest, and many riverside hotels offer water shuttles. If you want to sightsee rather than get from A to B, consider chartering a long tail boat.
Motorbike taxis (tuk tuks)
Popular with tourists but less common than they used to be, motorbike taxis are a fun way to explore the city and travel short distances. They aren't, however, particularly good value or comfortable!
Make time for Bangkok
With an energy, character and diversity like nowhere else in the country, I'd definitely recommend spending at least part of your Thailand holiday in Bangkok, even if you only have time for one afternoon or a single night before you fly home.
You could easily spend a full week in this buzzing capital but, if time is tight, a quick trip to the Grand Palace, an evening at a night market or a cocktail in a sky bar is still be a great addition to any Thailand trip. With so much to see and do, my only regret was not spending more time in here.