From golden palaces to emerald Buddhas and gilded chariots, Ian McCurrach finds the Thai capital a glittering affair
Life in Bangkok at any time of day or night is a frenetic affair and this tour should provide five peaceful havens away from the chock-a-block traffic and general hustle and bustle. These are large-scale sights across a vast city so trying to pack in any more in the allotted time would be unwise.
The first sights are easily accessed by water taxis, which are cheap, plentiful and a great way to see the city from the Chao Phraya river. They pick up from designated points along the water. Your first stop is Wat Pho, a huge and highly impressive temple complex in the heart of old Bangkok, just north-west of Chinatown.
Set in eight hectares of grounds littered with more than 1,000 images of Buddha from the ruins of the former capitals of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, the temple also houses the glittering gold-plated Reclining Buddha, whose posture signifies the passage to nirvana. It is the largest of its kind in Thailand, measuring a staggering 15 metres high and 46 metres long. Check out the feet and eyes, which are intricately inlaid with shimmering mother-of-pearl, and pay particular attention to the 108 auspicious signs inscribed on the feet. These are iconic representations of the Buddha’s teachings, which are said to ensure that visitors to Wat Pho will return home with something to contemplate.
Looking for longevity and luck? Drop a coin into each of the 108 bowls lining the walls. Open daily 8am-5pm. Entry is 50 baht (£1).
The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew
Your next stop is a short walk from here on Thai Wang Road. Prepare to be nearly blinded, especially on a sunny day, by the bling of the glittering gold spires of the Grand Palace and its royal temple, Wat Phra Kaew. This serene regal city, dating from 1782, is situated inside 2km of walls adorned with lotus-shaped crenulations and guarded over by giant yak statues (iconic warriors).
The Thai royal family now live elsewhere, allowing the public full access to the palace, which encompasses chambers, throne halls, servants’ quarters, ministries, government offices and a prison. Look out for the Chakri Mahaprasad hall, an ornate Italianate Renaissance affair housing the large Thai throne and an array of statues such as the kinnaree – mythological half-woman, half-bird creatures.
The big draws at the adjacent Wat Phra Kaew include a shrine containing a piece of the Buddha’s breastbone and the diminutive Emerald Buddha. Shorts, bare shoulders and open sandals are not permitted, and ignore anyone who tells you it’s not open and suggests you go somewhere else, as it’s almost always a scam. Open daily 8.30am-4.30pm (last entry 3.30pm). Tickets are 350 baht (£7).
Hop on board a water taxi at the Grand Palace pier, alighting two stops later at the National Museum. Dating from 1874, this former royal palace is one of the largest museums in South East Asia and comprises six main buildings. The displays provide an insight into Thai culture, the country’s history and the significance of Buddhism in everyday life. There are many ancient pieces on show from the former capitals, including statues and the remains of ancient palaces. Highlights include a life-size model elephant in full battle armour, giant shadow puppets, gems and jewellery, and vast gilded funerary chariots with glass-inlaid teak. Open Wed-Sun 9am-4pm. Entry is 50 baht (£1). Visit thailandmuseum.com
Jim Thompson House
Take a taxi to the National Stadium on Rama I Road – it will take 15-30 minutes depending on traffic. Opposite you will discover the Jim Thompson House. The former CIA agent turned entrepreneur revitalised the Thai silk industry after the Second World War and built this exquisite canal-front house in 1959.
Thompson painstakingly brought back six teak structures from different parts of Thailand and reassembled them in traditional style, but with modern and luxurious additions such as extravagant chandeliers, a staircase, European dining tables and Italian marble floors. He also filled the property with a large collection of South East Asian art, antiques and artefacts from his travels. The eclectic showcase includes everything from decrepit old Chinese doorways to 12th-century sandstone Buddhas. Thompson mysteriously disappeared in the Malaysian jungle in 1967, and the collection remains much as he left it.
If you are peckish there is an excellent restaurant in the exotic gardens and you can stock up on stylish silks from the gift shop. Open daily 9am-5pm. Entry 100 baht (£2). Visit jimthompsonhouse.com
If you are feeling ambitious you could try picking up a water taxi on the klong (canal) behind the Jim Thompson House – but be prepared to jump as rather than actually stopping, the craft merely slow down. Too adventurous? Hop back in a cab and go a bit further along Rama I Road to Siam Paragon shopping mall (ten to 20 minutes depending on traffic).
This colossal edifice has five floors where everything imaginable is up for grabs, from Aston Martins to traditional Thai art. Big names including Jimmy Choo and Louis Vuitton have outlets here, and there is a gourmet food market with trial tastings, plus three zoned food halls. Siam Paragon also houses cinemas, an IMAX theatre, concert halls and Siam Ocean World Bangkok, one of South East Asia’s largest aquariums. Visit siamparagon.co.th
What’s in a name?
Bangkok’s full name is certified by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest. “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit” translates as “The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarma”.
Must-try street food
- Pad Noodles come in many varieties at street carts, and vendors add their own twists.
- Tom yum Aromatic soup with fish sauce, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves and vegetables.
- Larb Refreshing shredded salad with ground meat or fish, lime, fish sauce, and a generous helping of kaffir lime leaves.
- Yang Marinated meat sticks grilled over charcoal. Pork is especially tasty.
Go to tourismthailand.co.uk