We'll call it right now: Bangkok is one of the most vibrant cities in the world. A curious mix of old and new, and East meets West, Bangkok assaults the senses with its majestic sights, exotic destinations, flavorful cuisine and exhilarating nightlife. This city has some of the best restaurants in Asia, the grandest temples and the most energizing massages this side of the world.
There are too many sights to be seen, food to be eaten, and merriment to be made. We zone in on the most memorable experiences this exuberant city has to offer.
The best attractions in Bangkok
Standing in City Hall square, the Giant Swing (Sao Ching Cha) was originally erected in 1784 as part of the adjacent Devasathan, a Brahmin compound of shrines to Shiva, Ganesha and Vishnu. The Brahmin priests based here still officiate at royal and other official ceremonies (although no longer at the Brahmin New Year rite). In the past, a ceremony, meant to celebrate an exploit of the god Shiva, would require four brave men to swing from this lofty red frame to grab at pouches of coins. However, due to fatal casualties, the ritual stopped in the 1930s. The poles were erected in 1919 by the Louis T Leonowens Company to honour of the son of Anna Leonowens (the contentious governess in The King and I and a teacher in the Siamese court of King Rama IV). In 2006, the rickety timbers were replaced by the structure you see today
Thais seamlessly fuse modernity with spirit beliefs. This ability is encapsulated at the frenetic, smoky Hindu shrine to Brahma, erected in 1956 to appease displaced spirits who were blamed for mishaps in building the old Erawan Hotel. Pilgrims gather here to make wishes. Those whose prayers have been granted usually return to make more offerings; many even pay for costumed dancers to perform. In 2006, a crazed (or well-paid) man smashed the statue and received instant karma: bystanders beat him to death. Thousands scrambled to see the restored image reinstalled. Erawan, historically, is the elephant mount of Indra, whose green statue outside neighbouring Amarin Plaza joins a circuit of Hindu shrines at Ratchaprasong.
The Grand Palace Bangkok's paramount must-see sight is this architectural and spiritual treasure, which is twice as dazzling if you see it on a sunny day. Ignore the gem touts claiming 'it's shut', and immerse yourself in the palace's palpable dignity (while observing the ban on sandals, shorts and bare shoulders). Nearly two kilometers of walls with lotus-shaped crenellations enclose what was once a self-contained city of throne halls, royal chambers, servants' quarters, ministries and a prison. Begun in 1782, it was modified by each Chakri king. Since King Rama IX moved to Dusit, it gets only ceremonial use, but remains the kingdom's holiest landmark. Allow at least a two-hour visit. Wat Phra Kaew Wat Phra Sri Rattana Sasadaram, better known as Wat Phra Kaew, is the temple of the Emerald Buddha, the palladium of Thai independence. Modelled on royal chapels in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, and embellished to an astonishing degree, it omits monastic living quarters, since there are no resident monks.
The revival and global fame of Thai silk owes much to Jim Thompson, a US architect who came in Thailand at the end of World War II with the OSS (now the CIA) and settled. Thompson spotted the marketing potential of the declining silk weaving industry, then still practised by the Muslims of Baan Khrua, and used it to create a lucrative company selling luxurious fabrics and home decor. In 1959, he adapted six reassembled teak houses into a modern living compound. Now a museum in lush grounds, it exhibits Thompson's Asian artefacts and looks much like it did when he disappeared in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands in 1967. Conspiracy theories surround his unexplained disappearance. After taking a short guided tour through Thompson’s former abode, relax in the canalside bar/restaurant Thompson, browse the onsite silk shop or view the Jim Thompson Center for the Arts, which holds world-class exhibitions on regional textiles and culture. Nearby, the William Warren Library, named after Jim's friend and biographer, also hosts talks.
Seen on the TAT logo and 10-baht coin, this five-spired landmark has been known as the 'Temple of Dawn' ever since the soon-to-be King Taksin landed by the then Wat Magog at sunrise in October 1767. Briefly home to the Emerald Buddha, Wat Arun features a pair of yaksa (giant) statues, ceramic gables and 120 Buddha images. Don't rush a visit on a canal tour. Instead, access the temple via the public ferry from Tha Tien, and wander the temple grounds for as long as you wish.
Looming behind the Giant Swing, Wat Suthat houses the awe-inducing, eight-meter Phra Sri Sakyamuni Buddha. (One of the largest surviving Sukhothai-era bronzes, this statue contains the ashes of King Rama VIII at its base.) Begun by Rama I in 1807, the temple took three reigns to complete. Rama II himself started the carving of its original teak doors (now in the National Museum).
This vast temple houses the magnificent Reclining Buddha. Made from brick and gilded plaster, it measures 46 meters by 15 meters and depicts the posture of the Buddha while entering nirvana. Wat Pho also has 99 stupas, two of which hold the remains of kings Rama II and III. The latter insitute Wat Pho as Siam's “first university” during his time – wall inscriptions give lessons in astrology, history, literature and, famously, massage pressure points. The temple remains a repository of traditional medicine and nuad paen boran (ancient massage), and, until now, accommodates a massage school in its premises.
Clad in Italian Carrara marble, Wat Benchamabophit is a well-proportioned meld of East and West designed by Italian architect Hercules Manfredi. Commissioned in 1899 by Rama V (one room contains his ashes), the temple features stained-glass windows depicting scenes from Thai mythology and a replica of Thailand's much-venerated Buddha image: the haloed Phra Phutta Chinirat of Pitsanuloke. Monks collect alms every morning by standing out front.