City guide: Bangkok
By Gary Buchanan
In former times Bangkok was known as the “Venice of the East”: up until the Second World War the only way for visitors to reach it was by boat, sailing up the winding Chao Phraya – the “River of Kings”. This waterway is to Bangkok as the Thames was to London: still a working river, full of barges laden with teak, sampans and an increasing number of dinner‑cruise vessels decked out in neon lights.
Today, Thailand is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world – in 2017 a record 35 million visitors flocked to the country. This success could well be down to the nickname conjured up by marketing folk a couple of decades ago – “Land of Smiles” – printed across shelves of brochures with a beaming Thai girl surrounded by colourful orchids. The current tagline, “Amazing Thailand”, has been created by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to emphasise the country’s vibrancy and contrasts as well as the unrivalled hospitality it offers.
Thailand is certainly a land of contradictions – monks and microchips; purity and poverty; glistening temples and glitzy malls. But if anything encapsulates the serenity that underlies everyday life it’s sawasdee, the greeting offered by the Thais as they bow slightly, with palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion.
For years Thailand has been an essential stop for backpackers and gap-year travellers. With its embarrassment of cultural riches, Bangkok is now very much on the radar for more mature travellers, who still appreciate the edginess that makes visitors to the city feel alive.
Unlike its neighbours Cambodia and Myanmar, Siam, as Thailand was officially known until 1939, was never colonised by a European power. In many ways this explains the country’s idiosyncratic charm: it offers an authentic flavour of the Orient that few other destinations can equal. Bangkok – or Krung Thep, to use the Thai form – was established as the nation’s capital in 1767 after the fall of Ayutthaya, an ancient city fifty miles to the north.
In a country where nicknames abound it is little wonder that Bangkok is also known as the “City of Angels”. With eight million inhabitants, it sometimes feels like the world capital of the traffic jam, but you can beat the congestion by exploring the city on foot or hopping on the fast and efficient BTS Skytrain whose tracks run above the city streets.
Stealing the scene on a bend of the Chao Phraya is the Grand Palace, home to the Kings of Siam since 1782. This vast complex remains the spiritual heart of the Thai kingdom and is the country’s most sacred site. There’s no disputing that the palace is at its Instagram-ready best when the purple twilight is flecked with gold leaf and the air is filled with the heady aroma of incense. Visitors arriving by boat during the day enjoy tantalising glimpses as they approach the palace. It’s worth joining one of the free guided tours to Wat Phra Kaew, a temple within the same complex which contains the greatly revered Emerald Buddha dating from the 14th century and protected by a nine-tiered bejewelled canopy.
On holy ground
Near by is Wat Pho – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, a statue so big that to walk the 46 metres from its head to toe is the only way to appreciate its scale. Rising on the western bank of the Chao Phraya is the spectacular 19th century Temple of Dawn – Wat Arun – whose main tower is covered
with impressive mosaics made from shards of Chinese porcelain.
The “River of Kings” is also a highway to more secular attractions. An exhilarating ride aboard a longtail boat to the Thonburi Klongs, a labyrinth of narrow canals, reveals another face of Bangkok. Skyscrapers give way to old wooden townhouses on stilts over the murky water. Here there’s the chance to discover a simpler way of life along waterways where children swim, men fish and old ladies sell scarlet and green chilli peppers from small wooden boats.
Bangkok by night
Brave souls can also climb aboard a tuk-tuk for a night-time exploration of the city. Travelling in convoy with fellow revellers, these open-sided, three-wheeled rickshaws powered by a moped engine hurtle past shops emblazoned with garish lights, stalls with spicy aromas billowing from their pans, loud bars and the boisterous crowds of the Bangkok streets. Travelling in convoy they offer a unique glimpse of the city in safety and companionship.
There isn’t a traveller alive who can leave Thailand without at least one souvenir. The list is endless – silk, wood carvings, leather goods and lacquerware. Thai tailors can fit you for a hand-finished suit or dress at a bargain price, ready to pick up in little more than a day.
Countless markets and shopping malls abound, but none come close to the experience of Chatuchak Market, a mammoth bazaar with about 15,000 different stalls open on weekends from 9am to 6pm. You can be the proud owner of fancy but fake Louis Vuitton luggage or look cool in a pair of natty but knock-off Ray-Bans.
Thai cuisine is renowned the world over and where better to sample it than at award-winning restaurants such as Issaya Siamese Club, Nang Gin Kui or Sala Rim Naam. Sky bars have become hip in Bangkok and offer superb vistas of this frenetic city – head to Zoom on the 40th floor of the Anantara Sathorn Hotel, Cloud 47 on the roof of the United Center, or the Sky Bar at Lebua State Tower.
Graceful service is in the DNA of the Thai people and with smart hotels at bargain prices, the argument for a visit is a compelling one. One legend in hospitality which is frequently voted best hotel in the world is the Oriental. Built for traders in 1876, it became a favourite of visiting celebrities from Noël Coward to Marlon Brando. It enjoys a superb location on the Chao Phraya and is the city’s undisputed grande dame.
For the hotel’s 140th anniversary a radical makeover restored the heart of the property to its original splendour. The Grand Royal Suite occupies the entire first floor of the renowned Authors’ Wing. If the price – 500,000 baht a night, about £11,300 – seems a bit much, the new Garden Suites, which boast floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the bustling river and exotic gardens, are almost equally enchanting, at a nightly rate of about £1,000.
The Authors’ Lounge, with its white wickerwork and palms, has also been restored to its late 19th century vibe. This perennial favourite for afternoon tea has been extended, the space flowing seamlessly through to the hotel’s riverside terrace and gardens via four salons named after famous authors who were guests of the hotel.
Travel for all
Bangkok bends well to fit whatever style of travel your clients are seeking – from organised group tours to romantic breaks. The city is also well-suited to solo visitors. A recent ABTA report says travellers aged over 65 are more likely to travel alone, with the key driver being travelling to a new destination. Few oriental havens fit the bill better than the Thai capital. Bangkok is a jewel in the crown for solo travellers, intriguing yet deceptive, and, unlike most cities, visitors don’t absorb it, it absorbs them.