Begin your Bangkok exploration on Yaowarat Road, the main street in Chinatown. It was established during Bangkok’s infancy. The area grew rapidly as the Chinese migrated south to Siam, as Thailand was known at the time. These early Chinese settlers were followed by fellow countrymen fleeing flooding, famine, and communism, and settled in the area called Soi Sampheng (“Sampheng Lane”). Later it became Chinatown, where they continued their trading and cultural traditions.
More than 200 years later, Chinatown not only serves the needs of the city’s Chinese residents but is one of Bangkok’s most popular tourist attractions.
The narrow streets and alleys of Chinatown are chocked with market stalls and small shops selling everything one could conceivably want. Items include apparel, shoes, souvenirs, herbal medicine, lottery tickets, bird’s nest soup, gold, salted fish, used water bottles, old coins, and other essential and non-essential items. Chinatown also has streets that specialize in purses, fabrics, buttons, threads, fresh produce, and flowers.
When you wander through Chinatown, the smoky aromas from the street food stalls will send olfactory senses into overload. You will rediscover an appetite, even if you’ve eaten only 2 hours earlier.
If you are unfamiliar with Thai or Chinese cuisine, you may find the range of choices intimidating. Some street vendors even sell cooked spiders and scorpions to eat. Don’t let that scare you. Find the food stalls serving chicken, duck, beef, or egg noodles. Your tummy will thank you.
The smoke wafting from roasting barbecued shark’s fins, beef, and squid will make your mouth water. Rice, rice, rice everywhere. But there are many other food stalls that sold prepared dishes while others added oils, spices, and herbs to ingredients ordered by customers.
After scoping out several of the many food stalls that crowded the street that led to Tha Chang Pier 9, select one that serves pad thai (stir-fried rice noodles). Add shrimp and a bottle of water to savor the flavor.
Sidestep rows of buckets holding ice-covered water bottles and canned sodas on one side and the ancient-looking cook stove and more buckets containing the raw ingredients of the day’s catch. A small tarp served as a place for food preparation and a dining area. Grab a cloth-covered table to order your meal.
In less than 10 minutes a paper plate is brought to your table. With the plastic fork, I cautiously dug into the overflowing plate and was delighted when the pad thai far exceeded even the best and far more expensive pad Thai food back in the states.
Even though Chinatown is concentrated in a relatively small area of old town Bangkok, it’s impossible to truly appreciate its diversity unless you’re accompanied by someone who knows the territory. Many tourists choose to see the area with a tour guide. Tours usually begin at the end of Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road near the arched Odeon Chinese Gate.
If you get too caught up roaming Chinatown’s narrow alleyways, you will miss one of Bangkok’s most revered and unique possessions – the five-and-a-half-ton 700-year-old solid golden Buddha image housed in Wat Traimit or the Temple of the Golden Buddha. It’s located a stone’s throw from the Odeon Gate.
The 13th century 18-carat gold 13-feet high seated Buddha image was discovered by Europeans in 1955 during construction at the port of Bangkok. When the crane ties holding the plaster-covered statue broke during relocation, the statue crashed on the ground, breaking the plaster and revealing the solid gold image beneath.
It is believed that the image was encased in plaster to hide it during the invasion of Ayutthaya, the former capital.
A few blocks north of Chinatown is Bangkok’s most popular tourist attraction – the Grand Palace, home of the Thai Royal Family for 150 years, and Wat Phra Kaeo, Thailand’s holiest shrine. Construction on this amazing city within a city began in 1782 to honor the founding of the new capital and to provide a home for the sacred Emerald Buddha now housed in Wat Phra Kaeo.
In 1946 the king moved the royal residence to a more modern structure in the nearby Dusit district.
Located on a 10th of a square mile behind a 6,200 feet long gleaming white wall, the complex was intended to be totally self-sufficient and home to all of the royal quarters, royal temples, and administrative offices.
No royals live in the Grand Palace today. However, some of the buildings are still used for ceremonial functions and government business. One of the buildings, the Borom Phiman Mansion was originally built as the residence for Rama VI but is now a Royal Guest house for visiting Heads of State. President Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth stayed here.
The concentration of riches, artistry, and magnificent architecture is immense. With so much to see, it’s easy to become immersed in the great beauty and sparkling riches of the palace complex by just wandering around the enclosure. Nevertheless, you will find that the free guided tour will help you fully appreciate the magnificence and historical significance of the palace buildings. A guided tour takes just over an hour. The Palace also offers free group guided tours in English.
Freelance guides providing more detail are also available for a fee at the entrance. You can also rent a portable audio guide for a small fee.
Of the more than 400 Buddhist temples in Bangkok, Wat Pho, near the Grand Palace, is considered to be the oldest and the largest of them. There are also over 20,000 Buddha images in the city. Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, houses more than 1,000 of these images, more than any other temple in the city.
The Chapel of the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, built by King Rama III in 1832, was erected specifically to hold the massive gold-plated Reclining Buddha.
Considered the largest and most beautiful piece of the fine art of a Buddha in a reclining image (a position of power), capturing the 150-foot-long by 50 feet high gilded plaster and brick image in a single photo is nearly impossible. The Buddha image, with eyes and feet, are both inlaid with mother-of-pearl, filling the entire Chapel.
Visitors enter the Chapel at the front of the image’s serenely beautiful face with a 16-foot smile, continue along the body to the feet where the mother-of-pearl images on the black soles represent the 108 lakshanas (auspicious signs which distinguish the true Buddha) then exit on the opposite side for a rear view of the image.
Along the opposite wall as you exit the temple are 108 bowls into which visitors are encouraged to drop small denomination coins for good luck and long life. These coins are collected by monks early each morning and the proceeds are used to feed the hungry.
Among the more than 1,000 Buddha images at Wat Pho is a bronze meditating Buddha image in the Main Bot (temple hall). Along the portico in the compound of Wat Pho are several golden images in the seated position. At first glance, they all looked the same. However, upon closer examination, I saw that the facial expression was different in each image. I was told by the guide that Buddhists believe that the face of a Buddha image takes on the image of its builder.
The Wat Pho compound also contains a group of four huge tile color-glazed chedi or pagodas to honor the first three Chakri kings (one each for King Rama I and II and two for King Rama III) along with 91 smaller chedis of varying sizes containing ashes of relatives of the high-ranking royal family.
The giant Chinese rockery statues standing guard by the entryways were ballast from the ancient trading travels to China. The Rock Giants are carved from Chinese granite and represent significant characters in Thai history including the Chinese Monk, the Political Nobleman, the Civil or Workman Warrior, and four Chinese giant guardians representing Marco Polo, the first European visit and introduction of European tradition to China.
If you’re tired from all the walking, you can also get a 30-minute traditional Thai massage for about US$10 from professionals trained at the famous Thai Traditional Medical School located within the compound walls.
In contrast to the crowded sites in Old Bangkok, the Dusit District is a relatively modern untouristy area with broad tree-lined boulevards and large open spaces.
As the successor to the Grand Palace 2.5 miles away, Dusit is considered Bangkok’s new royal city. It was laid out at the beginning of the 20th century by King Rama V, who modeled it after European capitals he’d seen during his travels. He named it Suan Dusit, which means “Celestial Garden.” It was later renamed Dusit Palace.
Although the original palace complex covered approximately 190 acres and consisted of 13 royal residences and three throne halls, today’s complex is less than a tenth that size. In 1900 construction of the new royal residence, Vimanmek Palace was completed.
Formerly the building was the King’s Summer Palace located in the Chonburi Province on Thailand’s eastern shore. It was dismantled and rebuilt at its present site in the new royal complex. Constructed entirely without nails, it is thought to be the first building in the country with electricity and indoor sanitation.
After serving as the primary royal residence for only a few years while the new royal palace was being constructed, the building lay abandoned for more than 80 years.
Today the restored 81-room Vimanmek Mansion, as it is now known, is a museum dedicated to the beloved King Rama V. The halls and antechambers of the three-storied Mansion are tastefully decorated with pieces of art, jewelry, antiques, paintings, and other royal treasures and artifacts. About 30 rooms in the Mansion, the Dusit district’s top tourist attraction, are open daily to the public for guided tours except on days when it is used for ceremonial functions.
The King and Queen now reside in nearby Chitrlada Palace which is not open to the public.
In 1899, King Rama V commissioned an Italian architect to build Wat Benchamabophit, near the new royal palace. It is the last major temple to be built in central Bangkok. Constructed of gray Carrara marble, the Victorian-style stained-glass window temple is also called the Marble Temple. It was one of the most beautiful temples among Bangkok Attractions.
In the cloisters behind the temple are 53 bronze Buddha images, each slightly different in appearance, from around Thailand and other Buddhist countries.
Also located in the new royal city is Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall, home to an excellent collection of handcrafted silver creations and metallic collages, stone carvings, bamboo basketry, and other Thai traditional, crafted artifacts. Admirers of exquisite Thai crafts should not miss the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. The white marble building designed by Italian architects has a beautiful rotunda with a ceiling of golds, bronzes, and blues.
The former home of the Thai parliament for a brief period, the building displays masterpiece artworks created by native Thai who learned their artistic skills from the Chitrlada Arts and Crafts Center under Her Majesty the Queen’s Royal Patronage. The Hall displays only the best of the best such as the embroidered “Himavan” Forest ceiling to floor size screen which took two years, six months, and 162 artisans to create.
Also on display are collage art created from the wings of brilliant blue-green beetles, award-winning embroidered paintings of traditional Thai images, fabrics with designs from all regions of Thailand, and large gold nielloware replicas of royal thrones and barges. Unfortunately, photos are not permitted in the Hall. Just beyond the lush lawn of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall is the royal plaza with an equestrian statue of King Rama V in his field marshal’s uniform. Standing a total of six meters high, it was cast in Paris in 1907 during his tour of Europe.
Need to get some shopping in? Then you must consider the $2 billion IconSiam Mall. It puts most American Malls to shame. Water features, a floating-on-water market, a headquarter for several festivals, and a boatload of great retail stores can easily absorb a full day on your itinerary. It’s also a great place to people watch.
Along with the Dusit Zoo, originally the private botanical garden of King Rama V, and the Elephant Museum, Dusit has much to offer and provides a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Old Bangkok. Expect to spend the better part of a day taking in the sites of this new royal city.