It's worth putting up with the coronary-inducing traffic jams, pollution, annual floods and sticky weather to experience one of Asia's most exciting cities. Bangkok has dominated Thailand's urban hierarchy, as well as its political, commercial and cultural life, since the late 18th century.
Bangkok proper seethes on the east side of the Chao Phraya River and can be divided into two by the main north-south train line. Old Bangkok glitters in the portion between the river and the railway and it is here that most of the older temples and the original palace are located. The new Bangkok is east of the railway, covering many times more area than the old city. It incorporates the main commercial and tourist districts, which give way to a vast residential sprawl.
For a city of this size, Bangkok is surprisingly full of quiet escapes. Just step out of the street noise and into the calm of one of the city's 400 wats (temple-monasteries) or take a river taxi on the Chao Phraya River. Must sees include Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Traimit. This latter is the Temple of the Golden Buddha, home to the impressive 3m tall, 5 1/2-tonne solid-gold Buddha image. Silk entrepreneur Jim Thompson's House manages to avoid being a touristy nightmare by virtue of the singular vision which created this haven of traditional Thai art and architecture. An expat American, Thompson was a tireless curator and promoter of Thai culture until his mysterious disappearance in 1967.
Other sights include the touristy Wat Sai floating market in Thonburi, a boat trip through the city's extensive and pongy network of canals (klongs), the Saovabha Institute Snake Farm and the renowned Oriental Hotel.
Entertainment ranges from classical dance and Thai boxing to the unfortunate go-go bars of Patpong. For alternative night entertainment, check out the night markets behind Ratchaprarop Rd in Pratunam. Bangkok is a great place to shop if you don't overdose on T-shirts and fake designer clothing. It's worth stocking up on cheap clothes for your trip or getting smarter clothes for your wardrobe at home.
Khao San Rd in Banglamphu is the traditional budget-traveller centre, but the Sukhumvit Rd area has a better selection of mid-range hotels. Banglamphu and neighbouring Thewet are the best spots for budget eating. If you want to go for a city stroll and experience day-to-day Bangkok, head for Chinatown and Pahurat, the busy Chinese and Indian market districts.
As might be expected from one of Asia's major transport hubs, getting to and from Bangkok is harder to avoid than to engineer. All Thailand's major train and bus routes terminate here and this is a good spot to shop around for local and international travel bargains. Getting around Bangkok is a lead-lined lung and sooty-booger affair, with none of the desperately needed schemes to alleviate traffic congestion breaking out of air-conditioned boardrooms. River or canal journeys are infinitely preferable to road transport but increasingly, tarmac is the only option.
Bangkok's bus system is fairly easy to navigate, but its efficiency is hampered by the snail's pace of traffic (a zippy 13km/h average during commuter hours). Taxis are mostly metered and not too expensive, tuk-tuks (three-wheeled power saws gone beserk) are not much cheaper but have the perilous advantage of being able to weave in and out of choked traffic. Train is the best city-airport connection, taking only half an hour as against up to three hours by bus or taxi.
Nakhon Pathom, 60km west of Bangkok, is regarded as the oldest city in Thailand and is host to the 127m, orange-tiled Phra Pathom Chedi, the tallest Buddhist monument in the world. The original monument, now buried within the massive orange-glazed dome, was erected in the 6th century by Theravada Buddhists. The chedi has endured various incarnations at the hands of Khmer, Burmese and Chinese refurbishers. There is a floating market nearby at Khlong Damnoen Saduak.
The 16th-18th century temple ruins at Ayuthaya, 86km north of Bangkok, date from the most flourishing period of Thai history. Ayuthaya was the Thai capital from 1350, and 33 kings of various Siamese dynasties reigned here until the city was conquered by the Burmese in 1767. The old capital was, by all accounts, a splendid city which was courted by Dutch, Portuguese, French, English, Chinese and Japanese merchants. By the end of the 17th century, Ayuthaya's population had reached one million and virtually all visiting foreigners claimed it to be the most illustrious city they had ever seen.
Ayuthaya's scattered temples and ruins have been declared a World Heritage Site. The forbidding list includes the 14th century Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest in Ayuthaya in its time, which once contained a 16m standing Buddha that was covered in 250 kg of gold. Unfortunately the Burmese conquerors felt obliged to melt it down. The 16th-century, fortress-like Wat Phra Meru escaped destruction in 1767 and boasts an impressive carved wooden ceiling, a splendid Ayuthaya-era 6m high crowned sitting Buddha, and a 1300-year-old green-stone Buddha from Ceylon, posed European-style in a chair. Wat Phra Chao Phanan Choeng was built in the early 14th century, possibly by Khmers, before Ayuthaya became the Siamese capital. It contains a highly revered 19m Buddha image from which the wat derives its name. A restored Elephant Kraal brings relief for those tired of temple-trudging. The huge wooden stockade, built from teak logs planted in the ground at 45 degree angles, was once used during the annual round-up of wild elephants. The king had a special raised pavilion built so that he could watch the thrilling event.
There are frequent buses to Ayuthaya from Bangkok's northern terminal during the day. They take around two hours. Trains are slightly faster and leave frequently from Bangkok's Hualamphong railway station.
Thailand's second-largest city and the gateway to the country's north was founded in 1296. You can still see the moat that encircled the original city, and there are 300 wats, including Wat Chiang Man (home of the 1800-year-old 10-cm-high Crystal Buddha), Wat Phra Singh (built in the classic northern-Thai style) and Wat Chedi Luang (partially ruined by earthquake, cannon fire and recent restoration efforts). Doi Suthep, topped by one of Thailand's holiest wats, rises 1676m to the west of the city providing a dramatic backdrop and, should you venture up, fine views of the city.
Modern Chiang Mai is easily managed and very traveller-friendly. It's well known for its restaurants and also has heaps of good guesthouses (although the hotel 'safes' are notoriously not). Compared to Bangkok, Chiang Mai's evenings are cool and conducive to moseying around the central Night Bazaar. To get value for money, bargain patiently but mercilessly; no less is expected of you. When you're sick of honing your free-market warrior attitude, Chiang Mai is a good base for mountain treks. Just about every guesthouse advertises treks to visit the hill tribes who live in the surrounding area. You may want to think twice about joining such an excursion if you have qualms about interrupting the traditional patterns of life in hill-tribe areas. This part of Thailand is considerably overtrekked and some hill-tribe villages have been turned into little more than human zoos.
There are air links to Chiang Mai from eight Thai cities plus a handful of Asian cities. Heaps of buses negotiate the 10 to 12-hour trip from Bangkok. Express trains to Chiang Mai from Bangkok take between 12 and 13 hours.
This beautiful island off south-eastern Thailand is covered with coconut plantations and circled by (call us clichÃ©d but it's true) palm-fringed beaches. It was once an 'untouched' backpackers' mecca, but is now well on its way to becoming a fully-fledged tourist resort. Coconuts are still the mainstay of the local economy, however, and up to two million of them are shipped to Bangkok each month.
The most popular beaches are Hat Chaweng and Hat Lamai: both have good swimming and snorkelling but are getting a little crowded. For more peace and quiet, try Mae Nam, Bo Phut and Big Buddha on the northern coast. The main town on the island is Na Thon.
Most of the beaches have plenty of rustic, thatched-roofed bungalows but accommodation can still be hard to secure in the high seasons between December and February and July and August. The best time to visit is during the hot and dry season between February and June. There are flights from Bangkok to the island's Don Sak Airport. Several ferry and jetboat companies operate from Surat Thani: express boats take two and a half hours and jet boats take one and a half hours. Local transport comprises songthaews (trucks with two rows of seats in the back), though several places hire motorcycles.
Ko Samui's northern neighbour, Ko Pha-Ngan, is more tranquil, and has equally good beaches and fine snorkelling. Its renowned beach parties at Hat Rin are popular with backpackers, though not with the local police. The island is a half-hour boat ride from Ko Samui.
Dubbed the 'Pearl of the South' by the tourist industry, Phuket is Thailand's largest island and lies in the Andaman Sea off the country's south-western coast. The island is connected to the Thai mainland by a bridge, but has retained a distinct culture fused from Chinese and Portuguese influences combining with the culture of the chao naam, the indigenous sea-faring people. About 35% of the island's population are Thai Muslims.
The island's terrain varies from rocky beaches and long, broad sweeps of sand to limestone cliffs and forested hills. It has good beaches, tropical vegetation and a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere, but its ambience and ecology are under pressure from extensive and irresponsible development. The main resorts include Patong, Karon and Kata, but better beaches are scattered all around the island. Roads radiate from Phuket Town, in the south-east of the island, making it a good base for exploring. Don't ignore the island's interior which has rice paddies, plantations of rubber and cashew nut, cacao, pineapple and coconut, as well as Phuket's last slice of rainforest.
There are plenty of flights to Phuket from Bangkok. First-class air-con buses take about 14 hours to reach the island from the capital. Local transport includes songthaews, which run to many of the island's beaches, and motorcycle taxis. Motorcycles and jeeps can also be hired by the day. (A law passed in 1996 makes it compulsory to wear helmets, so be sure to get one from the company that rented you the motorcycle - the fine can be up to 500 baht if you fail to comply.)
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