Asia

Bangkok: A One-of-a-kind Capital

Wat Arun at Dusk | Photo credit: Mark Fischer

With a long, impressive history and a deep-seated respect for King and country, Thailand is a proud nation of some 63 million souls. The capitol city of Thailand is Bangkok which can perhaps be best described as the seething metropolis at the heart of this ancient nation.

The capital is an intoxicating blend of old and new, east and west, rich and poor. In Bangkok, the exotic wrestles for space with the bland; flashing neon lights shine down on serene historical temples; a fast-paced modern society remembers its ancient traditions, and religion is as much a part of daily life as the pad Thai sold on street corners.

Bangkok, known in Thai as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, or Krung Thep for short, is the largest urban area in Thailand. It was a small trading post at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River during the Ayutthaya Kingdom and came to the forefront of Thailand when it was given the status as the capital city in 1768. In the span of some two hundred years, Bangkok has been the political, social and economic centre of not only Thailand, but for much of South East Asia and Indochina as well.

Did You Know?

  • The full ceremonial name of the city given by King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke, and later edited by King Mongkut, is Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit .
  • It is illegal to tread on money in Thailand. Why? Because the King’s face is on Thailand’s money.
  • Thailand is the only country in South-East Asia that has never been colonised by a European power.
  • The kingdom was called Siam until the 1930s.
  • Bangkok is sinking at the alarming rate of 2 inches / 5 centimetres per year.

How to Get Here  

Bangkok International Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is officially open. All domestic and international flights now arrive and depart from the new airport. The name Suvarnabhumi was chosen by HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej which means “The Golden Land”, specifically referring to the continental Indochina. “Golden Peninsula” or “Golden Land” is a traditional name for the Thailand-Cambodia-Laos-Burma region.

The airport is located in Racha Thewa in the Bang Phli district of Samut Prakan province, 30 kilometres east of Bangkok.

There are numerous ways to get from Suvarnabhumi to anywhere in the Bangkok area. There is a 24 hour public bus service from the Transport Centre to the Bangkok Bus Terminal. An Airport Express operates 4 bus routes to downtown and several hotels from 5:00 AM to midnight.

Public taxis, which are plentiful, can be found on Arrivals Level 2. Alternatively take a shuttle bus (Express route) to the Transport Center taxi stand.

There are 6 types of limousines with total of 380 cars available around the clock. To get a limousine contact the Limousine Service Counter on the Arrivals level. Limousine pick up area is at the Arrivals Level.

Thai Baht

The currency in Thailand is the Thai Baht. One of the easiest ways to get cash from home in the local currency is to use ABMs in Thailand. You might be charged a small fee by your bank, and you may need a new PIN number, so contact your bank before you travel to make sure you’ll be able to access your funds. There are many ABMs in Bangkok, but they are few and far between in rural areas.

For locations of ATMs you can visit theseVISA and Mastercard Web sites.

Traveller’s cheques are accepted in larger establishments in Bangkok, and can be changed at hotels and banks, although banks offer the best rates. Take traveller’s cheques in US$.

Credit cards are widely accepted in cities, but not in some small shops and rural areas. Incidences of credit card fraud have been reported, so watch retailers and your card activity closely. Be aware you may be charged a fee to use your credit card abroad. You should let your issuing company know what countries you are travelling to, as credit card fraud departments can sometimes freeze cards used in foreign countries.

What will the seasonal weather be like?

Temperatures vary little throughout the year in Bangkok and rarely drop below 25 C, and often climb to 30 and above. It is humid much of the time.

Rain is common between May and October, and showers often last only for an hour or so in the afternoon but there is still plenty of sunshine. It can be extremely humid during this time.

The climate in Bangkok during November to April is much drier. If you head north of Bangkok it gets slightly colder, especially in the far north.

Getting Around

Bangkok is a large, sprawling city, and it can take a while to get where you want to go. Navigating certain areas, such as the traveller’s district around Khao San Road and the sights of interest in and around the Grand Palace, is easy enough on foot, but to travel in between areas there are several options.

Tuk-tuks are a popular choice. These three-wheeler vehicles have a driver’s seat at the front and two seats behind, where passengers sit. Riding in one of these can be a hair-raising experience, especially during rush hour when waves of vehicles seem to be heading straight at you, but they are a quick way to get around. Fares are cheap, but agree on a price with the driver before getting in.

There are also plenty of motorcycle taxis available; these are an exhilarating way to see the city. You hop on as a pillion passenger and your driver zooms off into the throng of traffic with you clinging on for dear life. You can usually find them hanging around street corners wearing coloured vests. Make sure the driver has a spare helmet for you or you could get fined.

Taxis are inexpensive and there are plenty in Bangkok, but only ever use a licensed taxi. Legitimate taxis have yellow license plates and a red and white Taxi-Meter sign on the roof. Make sure they use the meter. You can hail a taxi in the street or ask your hotel to order one for you.

One of the quickest ways to get around the city is on the Skytrain. The downside is that the system is quite limited, but it’s a great way to travel if you need to go across town. Instead of sitting bumper to bumper in traffic, you soar overhead on this modern raised rail system. Fares vary depending on the distance travelled, or you can buy a one-day pass.

There is also a single underground subway line through Bangkok. It starts near Chinatown and ends in the north of the city. It connects with the Skytrain and you can also purchase a one-day pass.

Buses operate across the city, and the standard varies – some have air conditioning, some don’t. Fares are inexpensive and depending on the distance travelled and standard of bus. There are more than 100 bus routes, so pick up a route map from a visitor information centre.

It’s also possible to take a boat to many destinations – river and canal travel was once the most popular way to get around. Several boats operate up and down the Chao Phraya River, and on some smaller waterways.

Renting a car is possible in Bangkok, but not really the most effective way to get around for visitors. Hiring a car with a driver might be a better option, especially if there are a few of you to split the cost. If you do intend to rent a car, it might be a good idea to purchase a handheld GPS system featuring turn-by-turn voice directions. GPS systems also feature points of interest that are nearby, and many other features that will provide a level of confidence while navigating in a foreign country.

What not to miss  

World Heritage Sites

The Grand Palace, Bangkok | Photo credit: Flickr user Ian XYZ

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. There are currently five World Heritage Sites in the Thailand.

You need not travel far in Bangkok to find that it’s an exciting blend of modern civilization and historic treasures.

Bangkok’s temples, despite being in the centre of a thriving 21st-century metropolis, are some of the finest in Asia. The most spectacular are centered in Ko Rattanakosin (in English, Rattanakosin Island, even though it is not an island) and include the Grand Palace complex.

The Grand Palace is an historical complex that dates to 1782 and inside you’ll find not only the former home of the Royal court, but also the Thai war ministry, state departments and the mint. You’ll also discover the most sacred site in the country – the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This beautiful building is elaborately decorated and home to an image of the Emerald Buddha, whose cloak is changed three times a year by the King himself in accordance with the summer, winter and rainy seasons. Several other temples and ornate buildings can be found inside the walls. Note You should be respectfully dressed.

Near the Grand Palace complex is Wat Pho – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This is the largest temple in Bangkok and home to a 46m long golden Buddha, who is stretched out inside. His feet alone are three metres long, and he is surrounded by paintings and carvings that make up the largest collection of Buddha images in the country. Photos don’t do the statue justice, so make sure you visit after you’ve finished at the Grand Palace.

Dusit is a graceful neighbourhood where you’ll find Chitrlada Palace, the present Royal residence, and several architecturally impressive buildings. The shady boulevards and tree-lined avenues mimic those found in European cities and are a stark contrast to the bustling streets you’ll find elsewhere in Bangkok. The expansive Royal Plaza and majestic Throne Hall are in this area as well.

Museums

National Gallery Museum is a former location of the Royal Thai Mint and now exhibits collections of both traditional Thai and contemporary arts by past, as well as present, famous artists of Thailand. Oil paintings by His Majesty the King are also exhibited here.

The National Museum is a former palace of the Wang Na or second king – Kromphraratchawangbowon Mahasurasinghanat. Built simultaneously with the Grand Palace, the complex comprises several major throne halls such as Phra Thinang Siwamok Phiman, Phra Thinang Phutthaisawan and Phra Thinang Itsara Winitchai.

Suan Pakkad Palace is a complex of five Thai-style houses that was once the residence of one of Thailand’s leading art collectors, Prince Chumbhot of Nagara Svarga. It houses an extensive collection of Asian art and antiques, including items from the prehistoric Ban Chiang civilisation, and also an impressive collection of sea-shells. Khon (classical Thai masked dance) Museum and Traditional Thai Music Museum are also here.

Vimanmek Mansion Museum is the world’s largest golden teak building located in the compound of the Dusit Palace. The three-storey royal mansion has 81 rooms, halls and ante-chambers containing fin de siecle royal memorabilia.

Arts

Jim Thompson’s House American silk entrepreneur Jim Thompson deserves most of the credit for the current popularity of Thai silk around the world. His fame increased when, in 1967, Thompson disappeared in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia under mysterious circumstances. He has never been heard of since. The house itself is an excellent example of Thai residential architecture, and inside is a display of his Oriental art and antique collection, as well as an array of his personal belongings.

Leisure

Thai massage is famous all over the world. You can’t walk for a block or more without stumbling over someone offering a massage, but some are more authentic than others. You’re usually required to change into loose-fitting clothes and lie on a mattress on the floor. You’re then bent and pummelled back into shape – by hands, elbows and even feet of the masseuse. It can get quite addictive, but at a fraction of the price you’d pay at home. If you really want to spoil yourself, you can indulge in any number of pampering treatments at good prices. Ask for referrals at your hotel.

Thai cooking is famous around the world, and for good reason. From street vendors to sit-down restaurants, the cuisine is tasty and amazingly inexpensive. Take the taste of Thailand home with you by signing up for a cooking course. There are several courses in Bangkok, from simple one-off lessons to serious classes with Thai chefs.

For the kids

There's tons of water fun for the whole family at Siam Park | Photo credit: Stephen Jones

Siam Ocean World is an ideal place to go if you need to escape the heat of the city. It is home to more than 30,000 marine animals, and the Seven Aquatic Wonders display takes you through seven different worlds, each more fascinating than the last. Here you can meet strange-looking ocean-dwelling creatures, touch some of the less dangerous mammals and stare in wonder at sharks, groupers and stingrays. A trip in a glass-bottomed boat is a highlight, and you can even scuba dive in the oceanarium.

Water parks offer another escape from the humidity. Siam Park is a large water park with a giant ‘super spiral’ waterslide, wave pool and fountains, while Fantasia Lagoon with its whirlpools and slides is located on top of the Mall Department Store.

Feeding animals is always a hit with children, and Bangkok has two interesting choices. Head to the Tha Thewet Pier on the river to join groups of locals and monks throwing food into the water and it’ll soon change into a broiling mass of flapping fish. If fish aren’t exotic enough, visit Wat Prayoon. Here you’ll find a turtle pond surrounded by miniature shrines and you can buy fresh fruit to feed the turtles.

Shopping

Chances are, one of the reasons you may be visiting Bangkok is shopping … so be prepared!

Bangkok is a frenzy of retail outlets, from bustling markets and street vendors to upmarket boutiques and fashionable shopping malls. In smaller stores and at the markets, bargaining is the norm and a vendor will quote three or four times the price they expect you to pay. It’s all part of the fun if you keep a smile on your face.

The place where many people looking for a bargain is at the MBK Center. This eight-storey mall is one of the largest in Asia and has more than 2000 stores. Everything here can be bargained for, so it’s an ideal spot to find some great deals. Whether you’re after clothes, jewellery, electronics or cosmetics, you’ll find it here. There’s even a four-storey department store within the mall.

The huge new shopping complex known as Siam Paragon and CentralWorld in Bangkok’s city center are among the biggest and most luxurious malls in Southeast Asia.

If you’re more of a market fan, don’t miss the Chatuchak Weekend Market, and be prepared to spend serious browsing time here. Chatuchak has more than 15,000 stalls and is one of the biggest markets in the world. If you’re the king or queen of bartering, you can leave here with bags full of whatever for just a few baht. It’s hot, sweaty and chaotic, but with so many things on offer, you’d be mad to miss the fun.

Late-night shopping is popular in Bangkok, and several markets only really get going once the sun has set. The markets around Khao San Road and Patpong are two examples. Both have the usual collection of goods for visitors, from clothes and shoes to handicrafts and souvenirs. You’ll see selections of DVDs and CDs too, and designer watches galore – just don’t be fooled into thinking they’re the real deal.

If you want tailor-made clothes, there are plenty of excellent boutiques around the city whose owners will be only too happy to run up a new outfit for you. In fact, it’s hard to walk through the streets of tourist areas without several people starting to measure you for a new suit. It’s quite a novel experience having clothes made especially for you, but shop around as prices and quality vary.

If you’re after gizmos and gadgets or computer accessories then head to Pantip Plaza. Here you’ll find row after row and floor upon floor of electrical goods from the latest software to USB sticks and digital cameras. Shop around and you can get the best bargain in town.

Bangkok After Dark

The Siam Niramit is a spectacular performance highlighting the rich arts and cultural heritage of Thailand performed on a very large stage. The show features more than 150 performers and includes as many as 500 costumes, and the theatre can seat more than 2,000 guests. Enhanced special effects and state-of-the-art technical expertise produce a stimulating and inspiring journey to the enchanted Kingdom of Siam. The show ends with an interpretation of Thailand’s most beautiful festival, Loy Krathong.

The Thailand Cultural Center stages Thai and foreign cultural performances such and music and dance. There is also a permanent exhibition hall with displays illustrating the history and culture of Thailand.

The National Theatre stages Thai and international performances on an irregular basis but is best known for its monthly Thai music and dance shows. They are held on the last Friday and Saturday of the month and feature Thai classical drama and khon—masked dance that tells stories from the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana.

A magnificent older building, the Chalermkrung Royal Theater, dates from 1933 and used to be a cinema. It now stages khon drama, musical performances, plays and the occasional film.

Founded in 2001, the Bangkok Opera is Asia’s fastest-growing opera company. It regularly stages productions at the Thailand Cultural Center.

Under the patronage of His Royal Highness Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra regularly performs Thai classical and contemporary music. The orchestra is comprised of 70 local and international musicians.

The nightlife in Bangkok is fast and furious, and places come and go quicker than you can say, ‘One Chang beer, please’. Khao San Road is always a favourite with travellers and the drinks seldom stops flowing. Even when the doors officially close, the party moves out onto the street with plastic stools and ice boxes full of beers.

Sukhumvit is also an old favourite, although it has two distinctly different areas. The lower area is largely about go-go bars and older farang (Westerners) being entertained by young Thai girls, while the upper area is more popular with expats and the cocktail crowd. Patpong – once notoriously famous for its sex shows – has now turned into something of a tourist attraction, and bars and clubs can be found in among the more risqué establishments.

If you’re after a more traditional cultural experience, catch a khohn performance. These masked dance and drama shows are held in various venues around the city, but are fast dying out thanks to a lack of financial support. Shows aren’t advertised all that well, but the Thailand Cultural Centre might be a good place to inquire. Easier to find out about are dinner theatre shows. These are usually in hotels.

Nineteenth-century Bangkok was laced with canals, giving the capital the designation ‘Venice of the East’. Surviving canals, and the Chao Phraya River, provide memorable vignettes of a traditional waterborne way-of-life that has remained essentially unchanged over the centuries. The river and canals may be explored by chartered boat or cruise. The Riverine area offers some of the capital’s most arresting sights, particularly at night when the weather is cooler and light reflections bestow the Chao Phraya River with flickering lights. You can take a dinner cruise for an evenings’ entertainment.

Bangkok has the largest gay scene in Thailand. More than 200 bars, clubs, discos and saunas are concentrated in the Bang Rak Area around Patpong and Phaya Thai.

Sports / Outdoor Adventure

‘Modern’ sports, dating back a century, had been introduced to the people of Bangkok by King Chulalongkorn. Horse racing followed by golf began in Bangkok 100 years ago when the king bestowed land for the first race course. The objective of His Majesty was to introduce and promote the quality of horse racing and breeding in Thailand, while providing sporting facilities of international standards for Thais and expatriates. Today, horse racing is one of the most popular sports in the capital and in the region. You can attend the ponies at either the Royal Turf Club or the Royal Bangkok Sports Club.  If you want to golf, there are several well played golf courses in and around Bangkok.

Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is both a sport and means of self defence. Contestants are allowed to use almost any part of their body: feet, elbows, legs, knees, and shoulders. The playing of traditional music during bouts makes for even greater excitement. There are two boxing venues in Bangkok: Ratchadamnoen Stadium and Lumphini Stadium.

Local Customs and Etiquette

Thailand is frequently dubbed the ‘Land of Smiles’. Thais are famously welcoming and hospitable to visitors. However, anyone who doesn’t show sufficient respect for the King will see the smiles quickly disappear. Thais have a deep, traditional reverence for the Royal Family, and criticism of anyone in the Royal Family is a crime. You can be sentenced to prison for defacing images of the King – including those on bank notes.

Religion is also important to many Thais and visitors should dress appropriately when visiting religious shrines. You will not be allowed in wearing shorts or skirts above the knee. Always remove your shoes before entering a chapel where a Buddha is kept. The same customs apply if you enter someone’s home.

All Buddha images are regarded as sacred objects, so never do anything that might indicate a lack of respect. Buddhist monks are forbidden to touch or be touched by a woman – on public transport the back seat is usually reserved for monks.
The usual greeting when Thai people meet is a wai – when they press their palms together in a prayer-like gesture. If someone wais you, it is polite to wai back. Shaking hands is not the norm.

It is vital to remember the importance of ‘Face’ in Thailand. Face relates to prestige, and losing Face is a no-no in Thai culture. This affects visitors by causing locals to become unresponsive and unhelpful if you make a fuss about something. Even if someone has blatantly done ‘something’, the proper way to deal with it is in a firm, friendly manner. If you get angry you will ‘lose face’. Smiling goes a long way, especially when language is a barrier, and your success in dealing with Thais will hinge on the amount of respect you show.

Another useful thing to know about Thai culture is the importance placed on the head.  Symbolically a person’s head is their highest point – so never touch or pat it, and always remove your hat when speaking to someone older than you. Similarly, feet are seen as lowly. Never point the bottom of your feet at anyone as it’s considered rude, and never, ever point your feet towards a sacred Buddhist figure or shrine, whether in someone’s home or in a temple.

Thailand

A Vacation of a lifetime

The history of Thailand dates back thousands of years, in fact since the mid-14th century. So enthralling and enchanting is Thailand that some 11 million visitors from across the world come to this mystical country every year!

Tourcan Vacations has been in the business of providing quality and premium vacations worldwide for over two decades. For years, thousands of satisfied clients have returned to share their Tourcan experiences with family and friends.

Itineraries are carefully planned by knowledgeable staff, with an eye for detail and ensure that clients get to enjoy the highlights of the country and experience the culture and lifestyle. Itineraries can be customized to suit individual travel needs.

Tourcan Vacations features a variety of tours to Thailand. For more information you can consult a Uniglobe Travel office.

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