When Rama 1, made Bangkok the Thai capital in the 18th century, he placed the Emerald Buddha in Wat Phra Kaew on the grounds of his Grand Palace. It’s still there serving as the symbolic anchor of Thai sovereignty. Bangkok is a city of important temples, and they’re all connected symbolically to the Palace, a complex of about 100 buildings. There’s a dream-like quality to any stroll through the Palace grounds with its gilding, its polished tile, its guardian statue figures and ubiquitous light catching shards of stone and mirror connecting the temples and palaces.
If the Grand Palace is the spiritual heart of Bangkok, the Chao Phraya River is its vascular system coursing through the center of the lives of the common people who built their homes off of the honeycomb of canals fed by the river. All along the river, people catch long taxi boats called hong yao to get around. Canal tours depart from piers along the river. Larger boats cruise to Ayutthaya which was the Siamese capital before Bangkok.
Bangkok is one of those rare cities where casual visitors can turn off of an avenue and find a narrow alley that has all the feel of a village. It’s part of Bangkok’s magic that the village spirit lives so contentedly inside one of Asia’s busiest cities. In many cases, whole villages moved into particular neighborhoods preserving much of the country’s rural social structure in the city. Some of the best shopping in Bangkok takes place in tiny shops inside of these enclaves. The city is also home to several shopping malls. Bangkok has some of Asia’s best values in textiles, crafts, art and custom tailoring. The most famous name in Thai silk is American. Jim Thompson’s house is home to a legendary silk museum and shop.
Bangkok’s Lumphini Arena features regular boxing matches. Even if you’re not a boxing fan, the atmosphere around the ring feels like a scene from a gritty old boxing movie, but with fascinating elements of Buddhist ritual. It’s a wonderful night out especially when you combine it with dinner at the night market down the street. The National Theater offers many kinds of shows, but it’s specialty is Khon dance-dramas. Based on the Hindu epic Ramayana, the Khon dance features elaborate costumes and masks as the stage is often dominated by a female dancer being pursued by a bestial figure.
As a global metropolis you can find any cuisine you like in Bangkok, but Thai food rules the roost. The Suan Lum Night Bazaar in Lumphini is a great place to indulge in street food and for a five-star meal up above the clouds head to the Lebua Hotel’s rooftop restaurant and bar.
Bangkok is a hot, tropical city with annual temperatures hovering in the 80s and 90s. The winter months are dry with a rainy season running from May to September. Continental, United, Delta and Thai all offer service to Bangkok’s new Suvarbabhumi’s International Airport, as do a host of other international carriers.