Thailand has a population of around 70 million people, of which around 9 to 10 million live in and around Bangkok, the biggest city and capital, with the city spreading out on both sides of the Chao Phraya River that runs south into the Gulf of Thailand about 20 kilometres away (12 miles).
When you fly into Bangkok, you will see that the whole land area is a flat floodplain and almost covered in Rice Paddies. The airport itself is around 30+ minutes (30km/19miles) from the City Centre, depending on traffic, and traffic can get pretty chaotic and noisy in the centre of the city.
From the Bangkok International Airport (Suvarnabhumi) it is possible to take the MRT underground to the City or a Taxi or bus. The airport is big, modern and has great Thai symbolic architecture with a series of giant sails across its roofline. There is also a second airport too – Don Mueang International Airport (DMK) and the A1 bus takes passengers to and from Mo Chit (N8) Station/MRT Chituchak (M) line, where you can then travel into the City. Other buses at the Airport can take you to Victory Monument Station (N3) which is closer to the city centre, but on the same Sukhumuit Skytrain line.
Bangkok has a Skytrain (BTS) and MRT Underground, with stations well marked, with names of stations also as English translations of the Thai word and script. The Skytrain has two lines – Silom which runs west (W1) to south (S12) and the Sukhumuit line that runs from north (N8) to east (E14), with Siam station(CEN) being a cross over point from one line to the other. The MRT (M) underground has 18 stations, and you can connect from the Skytrain to the MRT at Sala Doeng (S2 M) and Asok Station (E4 M). You can buy a one day BTS Rabbit Card day Pass from machines or service desks, or buy a Rabbit card and top up the card as you use it. There are also maps of the BTS and MRT too – so worth getting to help plan your day, with stations marked by the name and also number (E4, S7 etc) so easy to navigate your way around.
Bangkok is a big city, with a mass of high rise office buildings in the centre but as a Tourist you will mostly be in and around the centre of the city and walk, use Taxis Tuk Tuks (a fun three wheel scooter that also carries passengers) or use the MRT and Skytrain to move to the places you want to see. Being close to a Skytrain station makes it easier to get around, but even if you are not near one, you won't be too far away. The Skytrain and MRT are both used by commuters too so can get extremely busy when people head to or from work in the city centre. There are also lots of taxis and buses too. Bangkok is also credited as having some of the worst traffic jams in Asia, and while they have built expressways and the MRT and Skytrain have made a big difference, you will still see traffic in a gridlock on some of the big roads. It is also noisy with motorbikes, cars, tuk-tuks, buses and trucks all sweating it out trying to move forward.
The Chao Phraya River curves through the middle of the city and there are Klongs (Canals) that run from the River, the biggest one being the Saen Seab Canal. Bangkok is not quite Venice, but the River and Klongs are used every day and night to transport people and goods to and from different wharves and places along their sides, which are lined with buildings and activities. A number of big Hotels can be found overlooking the River while alongside the Klongs you will also find smaller businesses, houses on stilts and lots of interesting sights to see. There is always something happening.
On the River there are small Ferries that cross over from one side to the other, also brightly coloured Express Ferries that travel up and down the River to various piers, water taxis and Tail Boats (Rockets) often called James Bond boats, which rocket along with an oversized engine on the back.
In my mind being on the River and Khlongs and just soaking up the ambience and atmosphere of the city and its sights is a MUST DO experience, and if you look for an Express boat these will take you on a Tourist River journey. You could also negotiate a price and take a rocket boat for an extra thrilling ride.
Head to Sathorn Pier (Central Pier) next to the BTS Skytrain station of Saphan Taksin (S6) the best place to catch an Express Boat. Some of the big hotels also have their own boats too, and they also come to Sathorn Pier to pick up and drop off their guests.
WHERE TO STAY -
There is no shortage of hotels and places to stay in Bangkok and one of the great things about Thailand is that it has big hotel rooms, almost always great service and helpful ways to make your stay here a real pleasure, with the bigger hotels having Spas, Swimming Pools, Gyms and other benefits. Almost 100% of the hotels will also have air-conditioning, and most will have room service, restaurants in the hotel or close by and after a day out in the heat, coming back to a nice cool room to refresh or sleep makes for a great end to the day. If your room has views over the city or river, it can be even better. The city is full of neon and coloured lights, and nights when the sun goes down are slightly cooler than the day so you should plan for a good night out, as much as the day.
I personally like to be able to walk to see things close to the hotel that I am staying and these are some of the suggested locations to look for – my choice would be along Sukhumvit Road or along the Riverside, ideally close to the Sathorn Pier (Central Pier) area – where you have the choice of both the BTS Skytrain and the Express Boats to travel on. The Sathorn Pier is next to the big Shangri-La Hotel.
WHAT TO SEE IN BANGKOK –
There are numbers of temples and palaces in Bangkok, and while each is different, you may or may not want to see them all. There are also numbers of companies with Tours of the City and they will also take you, depending on the tour, to see temples too.
The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo Temple – this is a huge MUST SEE complex numbers of buildings and gallery areas to see. The first buildings here were constructed in 1782. The whole Palace is surrounded by a high wall, with terraces inside, chapels, the Emerald Buddha, golden Chedi, Dusit Throne Room, Royal Pantheon, Wat Phra Kaeo and Ho Phra Nak (Royal Mausoleum) all located here. The red tile roofs, gold Phra Si Rattana and intricate decorative sculptures, gold Prang spires, Buddha images, carvings, paintings, murals, mosaics and whole complex is pretty amazing to see. Try and see the Chakri Throne Hall west wing if you can. Not all parts of the Palace will be open to see, but those parts that are open will give you lots to talk about. Ideally go early when it is not so hot and the crowds of people smaller. There are also the parks here too where you can relax too.
To get to the Palace – take the Silom line to Saphin Taksin (S5) where the Sathorn Central Pier is located on the River and then take an Express Boat (Tourist or Orange) to Tha Chang Pier (N 9) and it is about a 5 minute walking distance to the Palace.
National Museum - This is also a MUST SEE! The National Museum houses an amazing collection of Thai History, artefacts, arts and crafts, puppets, weapons, bronzes and stone works in a number of Pavilion buildings. Here you can see the Sukhothai Buddha image, the Royal Chariots gallery and Buddhaisawan Chapel and the Dvaravati Wheel of Law that dates back to the 8th Century. The closest Skytrain station is Chong Nonsi (S3) or on the Metro (M) Sam Yan station – one stop from Hua Lamphong (Chinatown). The National Museum is located at the northern side of the Grand Palace – so walking distance, so the ideal is to plan to see both the Grand Palace and also National Museum in a half or full day.
Temples on the River – there are around 400 Temples in Bangkok spread out throughout the City. It is very doubtful that you will want to see all of them, but seeing some is definitely part of the whole 'Thai Experience'. In many ways it is better to spend more time at one Temple and pick up on the symbolic details and atmosphere, rather than rush to see a number. The Temple that I like most is Temple Arun.
In my mind, the easiest and most enjoyable way to see some of the most beautiful Temples is to go to the ones that are on the Chao Phraya River using the Express boats to get there – Use either the Tourist Boat or the Orange Flag Express boats. At the Sathorn Central Pier you will quickly work out which is your preferred option. Piers along the River also have names and a number eg Si Phaya N3 (North 3).
Pier Stops and Temples – You can buy individual tickets or a day pass that allows you to hop on-hop off at different piers. Most of the Piers are relatively close to each other along the River, so the same Temple may have a pier to the left and to the right side of the Temple, with a short or longer walking distance. Many of the Temples will also visible from the River
The Chao Phraya River is almost like the Grand Canal in Venice, and just as in Venice (see Venice Italy section on website) there are canals both bigger and smaller that lead off from the River eastwards, the biggest canal being the 21 kilometre long Khlong Saen Saeb and also canals that head westwards – the Khlongs of Thonburi – the two biggest canals on this side being the Khlong Mon and the Khlong Bangkok Noi.
Bangkok, also like Venice is slowly sinking too, the average height of the land in Bangkok being around 1.5 metres above sea level.
Seeing the Canals - The Khlong Saen Saeb is the biggest canal and each day around 50,000 passengers travel on the canal on what are called River Buses. The Canal leads from the Chao Phraya River right through to the Bang Po Kong River some 21 kilometres away, with lots of stops along the way. You could also hop on or off at different stops along the way, travel part way or stay on-board and just people watch and see what is happening on each side of the Canal.
You could also take a James Bond Boat to have a wild ride or take a regular tour to see the Canals too. The choice is yours. The Tours will also come with a commentary and you can pick one of these up from the biggest Piers eg Sathorn Pier (Central Pier).
The Khlongs of Thonburi are on the opposite bank and this is an older part of Bangkok, so it will give you a feel for the old ways of life on the canals, seeing how people live here next to the canals. As you will find there is no shortage of Tourists in Bangkok and equally no shortage of tour 'operators' offering you 'tours' or boats to show you Bangkok. While this may seem to be a bit chaotic, with bartering for a good price a challenging part of the process, if you choose a boat that looks safe and an operator that you think you can trust, you will no doubt have a great day out.
Where the Royal Barge Museum is located on the River where the Khlong Bangkok Noi enters, a little way along the Canal is the Wat Srisudaram and further at the big bend in the Canal where is meets the Khlong Chak Phra there is Taling Chan Floating Market. The Biggest Floating Market and most famous is Damnoen Saduak which is about 100 kilometres from Bangkok – so best to take a tour there if this is of interest.
On Khlong Mon (close to Wat Arun) there is Wat Ko and also a little further along is an Orchid Farm, while on Khlong Sanan Chai (near the Phra Pokklao Bridge) there is the Wat Sai Floating Market and also nearby a Snake Farm too. Seeing a Floating Market is something unique in Thailand – where the food growers and market traders are all located on their boats. There might be a lot of tourists watching, but it is a real market nonetheless.
It is almost impossible not to buy some souvenirs in Thailand and there are some great things to buy too.
There are the big shopping Malls and some of the best ones are MBK Center (see www.mbk-center.co.th ) with some 2000 shops including the Tokyu Department store; Terminal 21 (see www.terminal21.co.th) ; Central World (see www.centralworld.co.th ; Siam Paragon www.siamparagon.co.th ; Silom Complex www.silomcomplex.net and there are others. You will find everything here in the Malls from fashion to electronics and more.
Street night markets are everywhere. The big weekend market is Chatuchak. The best way to get there is via the Skytrain N8 Mo Chit, or via the M to Chatuchak Park. The market is huge with around 6000 stall sellers and sells everything you could imagine.
For silk – and an interesting place – you will Jim Thompson stores in some of the big hotels, but if you want to see his amazing house and its contents - closest Skytrain station is W1 National Stadium, one stop from Siam Central. Jim Thompson was a New Yorker, but came to Thailand in the 1940's, after the War building his home here in Bangkok and making his fortune in silk. He disappeared in Malaysia on a holiday in 1967, but his home is now a Museum located in a compound with 6 Traditional Thai Teak houses in a garden. See www.jimthompsonhouse.com located at 1 Wang Mai, Pathum Wan.
Clothing – Bangkok is a good place to buy formal wear, suits, jackets and other tailored clothes. Some people come to Thailand just to do that. Ask at your hotel for a recommendation on where it is best to do this, and allow time to get your suit or jacket made while you are in Bangkok. T-shirts and other ready to wear clothing you will find everywhere and of course 'name brands' at the big Malls above and maybe fake brands in markets.
Diamonds, Rubies, Jade and other jewellery - Bangkok is a good place to see lots of Gold rings, gemstones, necklaces and other jewellery. Head to Chinatown where there are many gold shops, but 'Caveat Emptor' (Buyer beware)! Don't overpay, be careful who you buy from, and if you are not sure something is not genuine, walk away. Also note that in western countries most gold is either 9 karat or 18 karat and has a softer gold colour than the 22 and 24 Karat bright gold that you will mainly see here in Bangkok. Also check to see if the gold is solid gold or hollow (made as a Tube).
Dental work; medical procedures; cosmetic surgery - many people come to Bangkok for treatments to save cost and have a holiday at the same time. Boob jobs, nose jobs, dental implants and other procedures are all done in Bangkok – with American and British trained doctors and dentists, many excellent hospitals and surgeries. There are definitely horror stories too, but the vast majority of patients do save money and also have a good experience. Spend some time researching the various options – maybe start with www.mymedholiday.com
Electronics, cameras, antiques, craft work, batiks, lacquerware, trinket boxes, scarves, paintings, embroidery, amulets, bronze, umbrellas, wooden and stone elephants, furniture – you name it, you will be able to buy any and all of these. A little caution: Remember that as a traveller, you have to carry your luggage. Bigger stores can also arrange transport to your home. Depending on what you buy and where you are sending the goods – there may or may not be tax or customs clearance charges involved.
BARS & NIGHTCLUBS –
Bangkok has a reputation as the sex capital of the world, and there is no doubt that at night there are lots of bars with pretty girls and also pre or post operation ladyboys (Katoeys) dressed to entice tourists to buy them a drink and show them 'a good time'! You will also find gay bars, see many tourists with a Thai girlfriend on their arm, and rightly or wrongly sex is on sale.
The most famous locations are Patpong Road in Silom area and Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza off Sukhumvit Road if you want to visit or see these bars and the girls that work there.
Some of the bars also have great fun cabaret shows, dancing and music and there are also many roof-top bars now in Bangkok too. While you might not want to buy a girl a drink, you should always be polite.
Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases are also in Thailand, just as they are in other parts of the world. Also be aware that underage girls are also sometimes forced into the sex trade through poverty, which is all pretty sad.
Thai massages are also world famous too – and there are also many places in Bangkok where you can enjoy a spa and many types of massage. Ask at your hotel for one that is close.
AWAY FROM THE RIVER -
As much as you can make your own way to see places, there are also Tours that you can take, with many tours also connected to the bigger hotels, where the operators will both pick you up from and also drop you back to your hotel. It will cost you more, but at the same time being on an air-conditioned bus or van is a lot better than getting lost or walking in the heat of the day. Also you get to meet other fellow travellers too and share yours and their stories.
You could also do a mix of both tours and your own wanderings – and in my view this is the best option – maybe doing the River Temples, Grand Palace, National Museum and Shopping Centres by yourself and then taking tours to go outside of the City.
Just one of the options for tour operators is www.bangkokdaytours.com Tel: +66 (0) 81 8108597. They have lots of tours that you could take – including ones where you can ride an elephant on a short jungle walk, another to see the Siam Winery (Quite amazing in the tropics), another to see the Tiger Temple (real tigers are here) and of course to Floating Markets and to see Ayutthaya – the ancient city. These are just some of their tours.
When booking a Tour also look at the travel time involved, as sitting on a bus for hours may not be your idea of fun. Some of the places are a long way from Bangkok, so require an early morning start in order to fit the tour into the one day. There are also tours that stay overnight in a location too – so if you have a particular place that you want to see, think about that as an option.
Depending on your interests, some of the most notable 'tour destinations' out of Bangkok are listed below –
ANCIENT RUINS –
NATIONAL PARKS –
Khao Yai National Park – This park covers an area of around 2000 square kilometres and is located just over 200 kilometres northeast from Bangkok. The best way to see it is by a tour from Bangkok, but it is a really long day too. A tour will involve riding on an elephant in the jungle, maybe a ride on a cart pulled by an Ox, seeing a village and then seeing he Haeo Suwat Waterfall and if you are very lucky some of the animals that live in the park – such as Sambar Stag, gibbons, Pheasants and if you are extremely lucky a tiger.
There are also other National Parks too in Thailand – and if jungle trekking is something you want to do, then there are parks and mountainous areas where you can do this.
Kanchanaburi – The Bridge over the River Kwai (Khwae Yai River) and the Burma-Siam Railway -
Many people come to Thailand to see the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai, much of their interest based on the book 'Bridge over the River Kwai' written by the French Author, Pierre Boulle (1912-1994) who also wrote the book "Planet of the Apes" and the 1957 movie of the same name that starred Sir Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins and William Holden.
The Bridge over the River Kwai is about 125 kilometres west of Bangkok and you can get here by bus, train or on a tour. It can also be a long day tour so ideally if you have the time and inclination, stay in Kanchanaburi to get to know the area.
The story of the bridge is an extremely sad one, as it was here that Japanese POW's (Prisoners of War) in World War II that were captured in Singapore and Malaya as well as Thais and Malay slave labour were forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway under appalling conditions, including the wooden bridge over the river.
An estimated 16,000 POW's and 50,000 local labourers worked on the railway to Burma. Today you can see parts of the original bridge in the Jeath War Museum and Thailand-Burma Railway Centre and see a steel bridge where the original bridge was located (and bombed) as well as visit the war cemeteries.
In the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery there are the graves and inscriptions of 6982 British, Australian, Dutch and other prisoners who died during the construction of the Death railway and in the Chong Kai Cemetery there are even more. The bodies of Americans who died here were returned to the USA after the war.
The infamous Hellfire Pass is 70 kilometres north of Kanchanaburi. A small train can take you there to see where a cutting was dug out by hand from solid rock to create the Pass.
There were 688 bridges and viaducts and 380 cuttings made for the Railway from Thailand to Burma using the forced labour. Most of the workers would die from lack of food and water, the long up to 18 hour days as well as disease, while others were simply shot dead by the Japanese guards. At the other end of the Line in Burma (Myanmar) in Thanbyuzayat there is another War Cemetery with around 3000 more headstones. In one sense the construction of the Railway was a massive engineering feat, but the death toll and conditions in which it was constructed mean that will always be known as the Death Railway.
Visiting the War Cemeteries and hearing stories and seeing pictures of emaciated prisoners can be very confronting. Time however moves on and today there are floating restaurants on the river next to the bridge and the area itself has many other activities in Kanchanaburi that are more enjoyable. Some of the activities include jungle treks, rafting on the river, visits to Mon and Karen villages, seeing the Erawan, Sai Yok Yai and Sai Yok Noi waterfalls, elephants and shopping for sapphires. The famous Tiger Temple is just 25 kilometres northeast from Kanchanaburi .
There are also lots of places to eat and stay in Kanchanaburi, and staying here will certainly give you a feel for life in the country away from Bangkok.
Tourism exists on the basis that people want to see, experience, learn about and discover more of the world in which they live. They also want to have fun and enjoy themselves away from their normal day to day routines, and there is no better place to do that than in Thailand.
Tourism however also has a downside and as a destination becomes popular with more people seeking the same experience, hand in hand with this comes development of bigger and bigger hotels, stalls become shops and shops become malls, and bikes are replaced by cars and congestion. In turn once a destination becomes too developed, there is then a move to turn towards the concept of "Sustainable Tourism" – which is where Pattaya is heading today.
Pattaya Beach was once a small beachside village on the Gulf of Thailand, then in the Vietnam War in the late 1960's and early 1970's it became the favourite R&R (Rest and Recreation) destination for American servicemen on leave. While the beach was the first attraction, then the bars and the nightlife came, with Pattaya becoming a boom town for development and the sex industry. Pattaya was a fun place to be. Today many of those young servicemen, now retired, come back here for reunions and even with their families to remember the great fun times that had here in Pattaya away from the war.
Yes, there is a sex industry and that means lots of girls working the crowd and the bars, with lots of "where you from", "buy me a drink" "You like me?" music, sex shows, drinks, dancing, Thai food, Fast Food, restaurants, souvenir shops, resort hotels, villas to stay in and tourists. There is also the Tourist Police here too, keeping an eye on what is happening.
Pattaya is 150 kilometres south of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand and you can get here from Bangkok by car, bus or fly. Buses leave Bangkok from the Eastern Bus Terminal on Sukhumvit Road, near Ekkamai (E7) skytrain station. Beaches stretch along Pattaya Bay and north and south and there is a huge choice of places to stay from five star hotels to Villas and smaller places.
Some people will come here just to enjoy the sun, food, drinks, service, sitting around a Hotel Pool, taking a Spa while others will head out for action water sports activities and you can do all of these, and others will come here just for sex.
There is also a Gay beach – Dongtan and on Jomtien you will find lots of deck chair and umbrella "Concessionaires" pushing you to hire their chair on their part of the beach. As you would expect, the further you are away from the Centre of Pattaya, the quieter it will be.
There is no shortage of high and low class entertainment here either – with the bars, restaurants, shops and nightlife, as well as places where you can see Elephants perform ( the Elephant Kraal), monkeys perform (Pattaya MonkeyTraining Centre), see weird stuff (Ripley's Believe it or not), a Bottle Museum ( 300 or so miniature ships and buildings in the bottles) being just some of the 'Tourist Attractions' .
One MUST SEE attraction is however the Sanctuary of Truth – what looks like a giant wooden Temple that is open in the day and lit up at night. The building construction began in 1981 and it is great to see both from the outside and also inside. It is based on there being seven creators of life – Heaven, Earth, Mother, Father, Moon, Sun and Stars, and to fully understand and appreciate the philosophy behind the building and its construction, you need to spend a few hours here. See www.sanctuaryoftruth.com It is such a contrast to the other parts of Pattaya.
There are of course many other beachside villages and towns along the Bay of Thailand and pretty much all have white sand, sun and water.
In deciding where you want to go – look at accommodation options first, how easy and how much travel time is involved in getting there, (Do you want to spend lots of time on a bus?) and whether you want a location that has lots of activities or you want to find a place that is really quiet.
There are resorts and luxury hotels but equally there are smaller places too that don't have all the in-house Spas and restaurants – so you really have lots of options, given that Thailand has around 3000 kilometres of coastline.