The headlong pace and flawed modernity of Bangkok match few people's vision of the capital of exotic Siam. Spiked with scores of high-rise buildings of concrete and glass, it's a vast flatness that hold a population of at least ten million, and feels even bigger. But under the shadow of the skyscrapers you'll find a heady mix of chaos and refinement, of frenetic markets and hushed golden temples, of dispiriting, zombie-like sex shows and early morning alms giving ceremonies. One way or another, the place will probably get under your skin and if you don't enjoy the challenge of slogging through jams of buses and tuk-tuks, which fill the air with a chainsaw drone and clouds of pollution, you can spend a couple days on the most impressive temples and museums, have a quick shopping spree and then strike out of the provinces.
Most budget travellers head for the Banglamphu district, where if you're not careful you could end up watching videos all day long and selling your shoes when you run out of money. The district is far from having a monopoly on Bangkok accommodation, but it does have the advantage of being just a short walk from the major sights in the Ratanakosin area: the dazzling ostentation of Wat Phra Kaeo, livly and grandiose Wat Pho and National Museum's hoard of exquisite works of art. Once those cultural essentials have been seen, you can choose from a whole bevy of lesser sights, including Wat Benjamabophit (the “Marble Temple”), especially at festival time, and Jim Thompson's House, a small, personal museum of Thai design.
For livelier scenes, explore the dark alleys of Chinatown's bazaars or head for the water: the great Chao Phraya River, which breaks up and adds zest to the city's landscape, is the backbone of a network of canals and floating markets that remains fundamentally intact in the west-bank Thonburi district. Inevitably the waterways have earned Bangkok the title of “Venice of the East”, a tag that seems all too apt when you're wading through flooded streets in the rainy season; indeed, the city is year by year subsiding into the marshy ground, literally sinking under the weight of its burgeoning concrete towers.
Shopping on dry land varies from touristic outlets selling silks, handicrafts and counterfeit watches, through international fashion emporia and home grown, street-wise boutiques, to completely and sometimes undesirably authentic marketplaces-notably Chatuchak, where caged animals cringe among the pots and pans. Similarly, the city offers the country's most varied entertainment, ranging from traditional dancing and the orchestrated bedlam of Thai boxing, through hip bars and clubs playing the latest imported sounds, to the farang only sex bars of the notorious Patpong district, a tinsel town Babylon that's the tip of the dangerous iceberg. Even if the above doesn't appeal, you'll almost certainly pass through Bangkok once, if not several times-not only is it Thailand's main port entry, it's also the obvious place to sort out onward travel, with some of the world's best deals on international air tickets, as well as a convenient menu of embassies for visas to neighboring countries.
A little history, bangkok is a relatively young capital, established in 1782 after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya, the former capital. A temporary base was set up on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River, in what is now Thonburi, before work started on the more defensible east bank, where the French had built a grand but short-lived fort in the 1660s. The first King of the new dynasty, Rama 1 built his place at Rattanakosin, within a defensive ring of two (later expanded to three) canals, and this remains the city's spiritual heart.
Initially, the city was largely amphibious: only the temples and royal palaces were built on dry land, while ordinary residences floated on thick bamboo rafts on the river and canals; even shops and warehouses were moored to the river bank. A major shift in emphasis came in the second half of the nineteenth century, first under Rama IV (1851-68), who as part of his effort to restyle the capital along European lines built Bangkok's first roads, and then under Rama V (1868-1910), who constructed a new residential palace in Dusit, north of Rattanakosin, and laid out that area's grand boulevards.
Since World War II, and especially from the mid-1960s onwards, Bangkok has seen an explosion of modernization, which has blown away earlier attempts at orderly planning and left the city without an obvious centre. Most of the canals have been filled in, to be replaced by endless rows of cheap and functional. The benefits of the economic boom of the 1980s and early 1990s were concentrated in Bangkok, as well as the calamitous effects of the late 1990s economic crisis, both of which attracted migration from all over Thailand and made the capital ever more dominant: the population, over half of which is under 30 years of age, is now forty times that of the second city, Chiang Mai. Bangkokians now own four-fifths of the nation's automobiles, and there's precious little chance to escape from the pollution in green space: the city has only 0.4 square meters of public parkland per inhabitant, the lowest figure in the world, compared, for example, to London's 30.4 square meters per person.
City of angles, when Rama I was crowned in 1782, he gave his new capital a grand 43-syllable name to match his ambitious plans for the building of the city. Since then, 21 more syllables have been added."Krung-thep-ma-ha-na-korn-bo-worn-rat-ta-na-ko-sin-ma-hin-ta-ra-yut-tha-ya-ma-ha-di-lok-pop-nop-pa-rat-rat-chat-ha-ni-bu-ri-rom-u-dom-rat-cha-ni-wet-ma-ha-sa-tha-na-morn-pi-man-a-va-tarn-sa-thi-sak-ka-that-ti-ya-vi-sa-nu-kar-pra-sit is certified by the Guinness Book of Records as the longest place name in the world. Roughly translating as “Great city of angles, the supreme repository of divine jewels, the great land unconquerable, the grand and prominent realm, the royal and delightful capital city full of nine noble gems, the highest royal dwelling and grand palace, the divine shelter and living place of the reincarnated spirits”. Fortunately, all Thais refer to the city simply as Krung Thep, though plenty can recite the full name at the drop of a hat. Bangkok- “Village of the Plum Olive” - was the name of the original village on the Thonburi side; with remarkable persistence, it has remained in use by foreigners since the time of the French garrison.
Bangkok information for you
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) produces the usual selection of colorful brochures, but is also one of the best offices in Asia for putting out useful hard facts. Many of its staff speak English. TAT's new main office (Tel. 0-2250-5500, Fax. 0-2250-5511, TAT Call Center 1672, 1600 New Phetchaburi Road, Makkasan, Ratchathevi, Bangkok 10400, THAILAND, 4th floor; open 8.30am-4.30pm daily) can be reached on air-con bus No. 512, Microbus No. 10 and ordinary bus No. 11, 38, 58, 60, 72, 99 and 113. The main office is also a 10 minutes walk from the Nana Skytrain station, via Sukhumvit Soi 3 (Nana).
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