Set within the remnants of walls that held the capital for the first of its two centuries, Phra Nakorn (‘Holy City’) retains a vibrant streetlife and contains most of Bangkok’s must-see landmarks. Across the Chao Phraya River it faces the preceding capital, Thonburi. There, traces remain of the short reign of King Taksin, who united Siam after the earlier capital, Ayutthaya, was destroyed. You need at least a couple of days to cover the sights of these diverse twin towns.
The core of Phra Nakorn is Ko Rattanakosin, a conch-shaped island bounded by the river and the first of three concentric canals girdling the city as it expanded eastwards. Around City Hall spread communities with bygone trades, storied little restaurants and the spiritual centres of Buddhism and Hinduism. The markets on the southern side merge seamlessly into Chinatown. Flanking City Hall’s other side, the ceremonial axis Thanon Ratchadamnoen Klang leads east and then carries on north to Dusit. Across that road lies Banglamphu and its bohemian quarters of backpackers and arty Thais. Although royalty has moved to Dusit, Phra Nakorn still hosts frequent pageantry, such as the Royal Ploughing Ceremony (see festivals & events in Bangkok).
Bangkok is one of few world cities where the old centre retains its original communities. However, an outdated masterplan aims to evict many of them and turn Phra Nakorn into a historical themepark in the name of tourism. Protests at plans to bulldoze irreplaceable shophouse neighbourhoods north and south of the Grand Palace into a sterile riverside promenade seem to have prompted slight changes. Thus far only half of historic Tha Tien has been demolished, and the market is supposed to be restored into a sanitised ‘living community’. While the masterplan does save the area from overbearingly tall new constructions, residents and architects must continually fight to preserve pockets of authenticity like Tha Tien, Tha Phra Chan and Mahakan Fort.
The old town is unusually suited to pedestrians and is sprouting characterful hotels. Until the MRT Subway extends to Phra Nakorn and Thonburi, the quickest way to reach it from Downtown remains by water, by river Expressboat or canal boat to Golden Mount.
A lush break from Bangkok’s congestion, Dusit was Siam’s first attempt at European-style urban planning and shows how Thai design meshed with the West. King Rama V built it as a spacious retreat outside the city walls. And despite the later urban sprawl, its greenery remains in the grounds of palaces, Dusit Zoo, the Royal Turf Club and state institutions. Modelled on the Champs-Elysées (which was seen by Rama V in Paris), Thanon Ratchadamnoen – the Royal Processional Avenue – zigzags from the Grand Palace to Royal Plaza. This route and Chitrlada Palace are decorated for the King’s and Queen’s Birthdays (see festivals & events in Bangkok).
Between Ratchadamnoen and the river, the streetlife is more diverse. Banglamphu is the hub of Thai indie culture and infamous for the backpacker ghetto around Thanon Khao San. This guesthouse scene has spread into riverside lanes off Thanon Samsen.
One of the world’s oldest, biggest and best-preserved Chinatowns occupies the swathe of riverside between Phra Nakorn and the Old Farang Quarter. It may seem like a quaint enclave, but before Bangkok sprawled, this was the hub of Thai commerce, shopping and pop culture. The neighbourhoods remain maze-like because no one can gather enough land to redevelop, though the planned MRT subway extension may change this living museum. Bangkok may be the capital, but it has never been a quintessentially Thai town. Chinatown embodies how Sino-Thais have shaped this city, both economically and physically, from market to shophouse to mall.
The ancient lanes between the river and Sampeng invite strolling. Further inland, the major roads of Yaowarat and Charoen Krung clamour day and night with vendors, shophouses and traffic. Abutting Phra Nakorn, the ethnic focus shifts at Pahurat, otherwise known as Little India.
Explorers need a spirit of adventure, a tolerance for heat and crowds, light clothing, comfortable shoes, plenty of fluids and a copy of the invaluably annotated Nancy Chandler’s Map. Or you could follow two sign-posted walks from a booth dispensing maps at River City. Confusingly, Chinese street names are giving way to Thai ones, so Soi Issaranuphap is officially Charoen Krung Sois 16 and 21, and Sampeng Lane the anonymous Wanit Soi 1.
To ‘do’ Chinatown, you could focus on temples (Buddhist, Taoist, Chinese and Sikh). Or food (from stalls to fancy restaurants). Or markets, which are Bangkok’s oldest and most diverse. Or weird juxtapositions: casket makers near chicken hatcheries; mosquito coils beside cock rings. Or gawk at the eclectic, mouldering architecture, notably along Thanons Charoen Krung, Songwat and Ratchawong. Or just follow your nose (both scents and stenches) down microscopic trok (paths) and risk getting lost until a landmark pops up.
The surging confidence in Chinese cultural expression emerges most at festivals. The formerly quiet, family-and-temple-oriented Chinese New Year (Jan/Feb) has become a state-sponsored street fest of food and lanterns. Mid-Autumn Festival (Sept) commercialises the celebratory mooncakes, while the Chinese Vegetarian Festival (Oct) sees yellow pennants citywide, signifying ten days of unspicy veganism, white-clad parades and incense-smoked rites. In these periods many temples host funfairs and vivid, high-pitched ngiew (Chinese opera).
Read more about festivals & events in Bangkok
Bangrak is Bangkok’s CBD (downtown), wedged between the river and Thanon Rama IV like a harp with strings along Thanons Sathorn, Silom, Surawong and Siphraya. These are all paved along or above khlongs (canals), part of a 19th-century city expansion of plantations and compounds of the Sino-Thai new-rich, some of whose mansions survive. The CBD spread from the original port of the Old Farang Quarter, around the Oriental Hotel. Now luxury hotels line both banks: the Bangrak riverside and Khlong San, the latter now reached by a BTS Skytrain extension as well as ferries.
Khlong Chong Nonsi, flanked by Thanon Narathiwat Ratchanakharin, divides Bangrak in half. The area north towards Lumphini Park is increasingly known by its BTS station name Saladaeng. Bangrak means ‘village of love’, and Saladaeng plays host to the gay scene and the fleshpots of Patpong.
Bangkok has many centres: the sacred root in Phra Nakorn, state institutions in Dusit, the CBD in Bangrak, the bus terminus at Victory Monument. The Siam and Ratchaprasong strip, too, lays valid claim to the ‘downtown’ title. Not only do the BTS lines cross here; this is the shopping hub, the heart of Thai pop, and the site of Bangkok’s adopted talisman, the Erawan Shrine. It is the most convenient place to stay, eat, shop and get things done.
The continually mutating skyline and streetscapes epitomise the juxtapositions of modern Thai life: faith versus materialism, tastefulness fending off vulgarity, extravagance skirting destitution. Amid the gleaming malls and mouldering slums you will find traditional houses, antiquities, parks and spiritual retreats.
Think of Siam BTS Station as the centre, linking directly to the top malls and the youth culture hub of Siam Square. Greater Siam covers the next stop or so down each of the four radiating lines. You can walk the entire 2km-long ‘Ratchprasong Shopping Street’ from National Stadium BTS to beyond Chidlom BTS — all without touching the ground, via cooled malls and breezy ‘Skybridges’.
The Silom line skirts the area’s plushest hotels and Lumpini Park. The line north opened up Phyathai district as a blossoming destination. Further up the BTS beyond Victory Monument, Aree and Chatuchak count as suburbia.
Thanon Sukhumvit is a road so long that it actually reaches all the way to Cambodia. It starts in Bangkok, and its inner end became an affluent residential suburb after World War II.
Today, hotels, condos, spas, bars, boutiques, mini-malls, nightclubs and foreign fine dining continue to edge out lower income quarters.
Sukhumvit is not just international; it is multicultural, with ethnic enclaves lending character amid all the chic-chasing. As elsewhere, localities are beginning to gel around BTS stations. Nana has the most cosmopolitan, sometimes grungy, streetlife from Soi 1 to Soi 21 (aka Asoke). The stretch to Phromphong (Soi 39) is more focused dining in the zig-zaging side-sois, while Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thonglor) and Sukhumvit Soi 63 (Ekamai) have become the high streets of a nouveau-riche scene.
Commuter train lines are reshaping BK’s ’burbs and connecting this vast metropolis to downtown. The BTS accesses Chatuchak’s must-see Weekend Market, bars and parks, and Aree’s bohemian scene. Skytrain extensions southeast will make the suburbs of Further Sukhumvit less remote. The MRT arcs past nightlife strips off Ratchadaphisek inner ring road. Meanwhile, expressboats make Nonthaburi province a pleasant jaunt. Expressways also reach these hubs of unfiltered Thai life.
Read more about trips to Samut Prakarn, Ayutthaya & Bang Pa-In, Floating markets, Ko Samut, and Hua Hin & Cha-am. Bangkok excursions
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