Bangkok Thailand – the name alone evokes images of a mysterious oriental cityscape of busy streets, sidewalk vendors, bustling markets, exotic entertainments, and striking Buddhist architecture. As the capital of modern Thailand and the center of its burgeoning economy Bangkok is a multifaceted city filled with myriad delights and destinations. Known as the "Venice of the East" because of its many canals and water-bourn culture (the word Bangkok means "water-flower village"), Thais themselves refer to the city as Krung Thep, City of Angels. Access to and within the city is easy with its brand new international airport, a modern sky-train transportation network, and plenty of inexpensive tuk-tuks (the ubiquitous 3-wheeled motor-rickshaws) and taxis. Bangkok’s history is relatively brief. Following the fall of Ayuthaya (Siam’s historic capital and a World Heritage site - an easy daytrip from Bangkok) to the Burmese in the late 18th century. Siamese society was fractured and prostrate. A hero emerged, Taksin, who rallied and united the Siamese and established a new capital at Thonburi on the Chao Phraya River. The next king, Chao Phraya Chakri (Rama I, founder of the current dynasty) moved the capital across the river and founded Bangkok in 1782. Bangkok has been Siam/Thailand's capital and primary city ever since. Rama undertook and ambitious building program including the Grand Palace in an attempt to recapture the lost glory of Ayuthaya. Other important wats and buildings followed. Bangkok burst into the Western consciousness during the Vietnam war as American GIs flocked here on leave. The Southeast Asian economic boom of the 1980s and 90s fueled the explosive expansion of the city into the teeming metropolis it is today.
Bangkok’s top sights are clearly the Grand Palace complex, Wat Pho, and Wat Arun. The highlight of a Grand Palace visit is Wat Phra Kaeo, home of the Emerald Buddha, Thailand's most venerated religious object. In addition to the buddha, the complex displays a jaw-dropping collection of spectacular buildings, monuments, and statues. The entrance is guarded by two fantastic yaksha, or mythical giants. The compound walls are lined with beautifully restored murals of the Ramakian (Thai version of the Ramayana). The grounds are punctuated by multiple stupas, with their dramatically and diversely decorated prangs (spires). Many stupas are ringed by elaborate mythical warriors. The bots (temples buildings) are decorated by colored tiles and tiny mirrors – quite dazzling. The choice of decoration was both aeshetic and practical. Siam was nearly bankrupt after the plundering of Ayuthaya so they were forced to use inexpensive decorative elements instead of gold and jewels. The result was a brilliant (figuratively and actually) solution. Brightly gilded mythical statues add to the fantastical, mystical ambiance. Though Phra Kaeo is the clear highlight, the rest of the palace complex boasts some of the country;s best examples of monumental Thai architecture.
Next door Wat Pho is Bangkok’s oldest temple. Pho is another complex of beautiful bots and stupas (more than 100) and home to Thailand’s largest reclining Buddha. The striking, 150 foot long, gilded gold statue barely fits in its bot. The soles of the feet are particularly interesting, displaying 108 auspicious laksana (characteristics of the Buddha) in mother of pearl. Thailand’s largest collection of Buddha images (almost 400) is also housed here. While many visitors see no more than the buddha, the details of the main bot and the rest of the wat are worth a careful look. Wat Pho is the center for traditional Thai medicine, including Thai massage. There is no better place in the country for this obligatory experience. For about $10, one can experience 90 minutes of therapeutic, relaxing heaven. Lastly, Wat Pho is an active temple. The workaday feel is more authentic than the museum-like quality of Wat Phra Kaeo and one gets a sense of real Thai life, at least the life of the monks.
Bangkok’s third signature sight is Wat Arun – the Temple of the Dawn. Its 265 foot Khmer-style prang dominates the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. Wat Arun was founded by Taksin but the tower itself was built by Ramas II and III in the early 19th century. One of Arun’s unique and pleasing features is its creative design and decoration. The materials used are a lesson in early Asian recycling and another great example of Thai ingenuity. The entire stupa is decorated with Chinese porcelain. Eighteenth century Chinese trading ships used tons of broken porcelain as ballast, providing inexpensive, readily available materials. A climb up the stupa's steep stairs is rewarded with a wonderful view of Wat Pho and the Grand Palace across the river.
Bangkok hosts many additional, worthwhile sights and experiences but these three are the top tier, no-miss sights of the capital and they can be visited in one, busy sight-seeing day. Bangkok is an easy, exotic, and tantalizing gateway to Thailand and a great introduction to Southeast Asia.