Bangkok is Thailand's capital and gateway city. Founded in 1782 by King Rama I, it is the epitome of the country's
kaleidoscopic blend of old and new. More than anywhere else, it is an expression of the Thais' respect for tradition coupled with their vibrant involvement with modern progress.
Located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, a few kilometres upstream from its outflow into the Gulf of Siam, Bangkok sprawls across a flat alluvial plain. It is the capital in every sense of the word.
It is where the Royal family resides, it is the seat of government and administration, and it is the focal point for virtually all major industrial, commercial and financial activity. It is the country's main port and home to one tenth of the Kingdom's population.
Such an all-important role is reflected in the capital's proper name, Krung Thep. This translates as "City of Angels" and is the first in a whole string of illustrious titles that properly define the place and, incidentally, earn a listing in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's longest place name.
To the Thais,
Bangkok is always Krung Thep, the spiritual and symbolic as well physical heart of the nation. Initial impressions are of a modern dynamic metropolis bustling with business. The skyline is dominated by thrusting high-rise office buildings, condominiums, luxury hotels, department stores and shopping malls. But it takes only a short while to become captivated by the spell the city casts, and to realize that it is, indeed, the Orient's most exotic capital.
Joyfully exuberant, Bangkok embraces latter-day developments though, surprisingly, modern building does not obliterate a wealth of monuments to traditional glories. In the soaring roofs and tapering gilded spires of the Grand Palace, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Temple of Dawn and the rest of Bangkok's more than 400 Buddhist temples, you are presented with images of
awe-inspiring Oriental splendour. Contained within such monuments are masterpieces of sculpture, painting and decorative arts attesting to the
nation's artistic achievement.
Once you begin to explore Bangkok you begin to realize just how much there is to discover. In addition to the city's most famous monuments and sights there are numerous lesser known places of great interest. Wat Ratchabophit, for example, is a remarkable temple distinguished by rich ornamentation and an unusual layout comprising gilded chedi (shrines), four corner pavilions and circular cloister. It is located not far from the Grand Palace, vet it is often overlooked by visitors.
The same is true of many of the museums. The National Museum is not to be missed, though Vimanmek Throne Hall and Jim Thompson's House also contain many spectacular treasures.
Exploring the Chao Phraya River, Thailand's historic waterway, and the small canals of Thonburi give further insights into the history and character of this wondrous city. Indeed, the scope for sightseeing is near endless. The influence of the past and the enduring threads of the social fabric are not limited to the static. They continue to pervade daily life. Files of saffron-robed monks making their early morning alms round, for example, present an image unaltered in essentials by the passing of time.
In their unique character the Thais combine a respect for traditions with a joyful exuberance, a love of sanuk, "having a good time". Here the modern aspects of the capital complement the old and offer a host of pleasures. Not least is the joy of dining. Bangkok has restaurants serving just about every national cuisine from both East and West. From simple but good curbside food stalls and right up through the whole dining gamut to elegant, expensive restaurants and dinner cruises on the river, there is something to suit all tastes and pockets. That also applies to entertainment and night-life. From displays of classical Thai dance to cocktail lounges and discos with the latest high-tech sound and light systems, the choice is wide open.
Unique to Thailand, the traditional sport of kick boxing, in which the protagonists use feet, knees and elbows in addition to gloved fists, is especially thrilling. Bouts are held most nights of the week at one or other of Bangkok two boxing stadiums. This is the country's most popular spectator sport and should not be missed.
Bangkok also offers more highbrow cultural fare. The Thailand Cultural Centre presents an excellent and varied calendar of performances featuring both Eastern and Western dance, drama and music. Leading hotels also stage occasional shows by visiting performers and theatre groups of international stature.
Shopping is a further city delight. In recent years smart plazas, malls and department stores have mushroomed to augment the facilities provided by markets and street stalls. At the top of anyone's shopping list should be Thai silk and gems and jewellery. Silk is a traditional material now produced in a wide range of colours and designs and offering excellent value. Bangkok is also a world centre for coloured gemstones: rubies and sapphires are mined in Thailand while other stones are imported for cutting and setting. Here you will discover a superb selection of gems and finished jewellery which, while not cheap, give superb value for money.
Other top buys include tailor made clothing, leather-goods, Thai, Burmese and Khmer antiques (some requiring export licenses) and an enormous array of handicrafts in teakwood, ceramic, bronze and other traditional materials. Old Bangkok markets are sightseeing attractions in their own right. At fresh produce centres, like Samyan Market on Phayathai Road, the Marketing Organization for Farmers' Market near Chatuchak Park, or Pak Khlong Talat, Bangkok's answer to London's Covent Garden, you can see the colourful and fragrant abundance of fruit, vegetables and flowers, including fabulous orchids that the fertile land produces.
Also Chatuchak Weekend Market should not be missed. Getting around Bangkok is inexpensive and convenient. Taxis and tuk tuks, three-wheeled motorized vehicles, are abundant and fares are less than those in other major
capitals. Tuk tuks are a fun way to get around the city.
On the Chao Phraya there are river taxis and regularsfenttle services, or you can hire your own
"long-tail" boat for a voyage of discovery. A magic place where possibilities are limited only by the imagination, the city and its surroundings present a wonderful blend of traditional sights and scenes complemented by modern facilities and amenities to offer an unrivalled travel experience.