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Thailand

Cultural

By Thailand specialist Charlotte

In this vibrant city, soaring temple spires and the bright tiled rooftops of the Grand Palace live side by side with ancient stilted wooden houses, towering modern skyscrapers, local markets and hidden canals.

The bustling streets fill with the mouth-watering smells of freshly cooked food and the heady aroma of ritual incense burning on the steps of the many shrines. Bangkok, Southeast Asia's busiest hub, deserves at least 48 hours to experience its culture and architecture, and is more than a quick transit on the way through to some of the region's other amazing destinations.

Temples to visit in Bangkok

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho

Sitting in respectful silence as the Buddhist monks of Wat Pho performed their morning prayers is an experience I won’t forget. This ancient ceremony in the incense-infused temple, with its rhythmic chanting and meditative atmosphere, is a stark contrast to the hustle of the modern metropolis outside and an incredible privilege to observe.

While hundreds of temples of all ages and sizes dot the city, few carry the majesty or importance of Wat Pho. Built before Bangkok became the capital, it's home to a 46 metre reclining Buddha. The enormous feet of this golden giant are exquisitely decorated in mother of pearl and compete for your attention with the richly embellished chedis housed throughout the grounds. Standing sentinel for centuries, these 91 concertinaed towers soar above you, cutting the skyline with their gleaming spires.

The nearby Grand Palace, once the official residence of the Thai royal family and still the spiritual heart of the country, remains one of the most venerated landmarks in Bangkok. Within the complex lies Wat Phra Kaew, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha, home to one of the most famous statues in the Buddhist world, carved in the 14th century from a single piece of jade.

Over the river, Wat Arun, ornately carved with tiny pieces of coloured glass and porcelain set into the stonework, is captivating as the sun sets and the full palate of colours is washed with an orange hue.

Cycling around Bangkok

Experience a quieter side of Bangkok

Experience a quieter side of Bangkok

Cycling isn't something you'd automatically associate with a visit to Bangkok, but jumping on to a bicycle and heading across the Chao Praya River to the quieter side of the city is a great way of getting a bit of exercise and seeing a world far removed from the frenetic activity of the city centre.

You cross the river by local ferry and, with your guide, head out amongst the palm trees and maze of water channels that thread their way through Bang Krao Jao, Bangkok's secret garden. You'll pass by small village communities, hawkers selling freshly cut fruit, incense makers and children playing. It's hard to believe you're in Bangkok still.

Exploring the klongs of Nonthaburi

Bangkok's Nonthaburi district

Bangkok's Nonthaburi district

The small back street canals, or klongs, that weave through the heart of Bangkok have long been the arteries that carry the city's inhabitants on their daily business. Here you can travel in a classic Thai longtail boat for an exhilarating ride, darting through the busy canals of central Bangkok, bursting out on to the expanse of the Chao Praya River, the River of Kings, and then nosing your way more sedately through some of Bangkok’s quieter klongs in Nonthaburi district, to the north of the city. Passing noodle shops, wooden stilted houses, local markets and fruit orchards you see another side to life in this city of surprises.

Take a Bangkok City Safari

Bangkok's Chinatown

Bangkok's Chinatown

As with any major city it's all too easy to get lost in Bangkok and not see half of what you came for. A Bangkok City Safari removes such worries by taking you on a voyage of discovery, with a private guide, around the city, taking in all of the major highlights, but also allowing you to experience everyday life as it is for the locals. You'll take in Chinatown, the Grand Palace, local markets, Wat Pho Temple and the famous Khao San Road.

The art of this tour, though, is not in what you see but how you get around. Avoid the heavy traffic that clogs the streets by using every means of transport on offer in the city. Zip along the klongs in longtail boats, explore the Chao Praya River by river taxi and public ferry and float above it all in the cool of the air-conditioned sky train. Join the dots with a tuk tuk ride and walk down the quiet old side streets unknown to most visitors.

The tour can be adapted to suit your appetite for exploration and energy levels on the day and I'd recommend it as easily the best way to explore the many facets of this fascinating city. 

Learn about Thai cuisine on a cookery courses

Essential Thai cooking ingredients: chillies and kaffir lime leaves

Essential Thai cooking ingredients: chillies and kaffir lime leaves

Thailand is rightly famed for its food and you can learn the secrets of Thai cuisine by joining one of the excellent half day cookery courses that are run in Bangkok. One of the best is organised by the Blue Elephant Restaurant. Housed in a beautiful old colonial mansion in the centre of the city, the experienced chefs will have you knocking up quality Thai food in a matter of hours.

You start with a trip to the local produce market to discover the myriad variety of fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices that you will use later in the morning in your dishes. The chefs then walk you through a number of dishes that follow traditional 'Royal Thai Cuisine' and might include steamed seabass, jungle curry or pomelo salad. They will teach you how to get the best from your ingredients, before letting you enjoy the fruits of your labour. You don't need to be an exceptional chef to enjoy this experience and you'll come away with an even greater appreciation for the food you see and smell all around you in Thailand.

Cabbages and Condoms

In a city brimming with fantastic places to eat it can be a bit bewildering to choose somewhere truly unique to dine. From the street food stalls, to 'pad thai' noodle bars, to rooftop gourmet restaurants, Bangkok has it all. Nestled quietly amidst all of this is the ethically conceived Cabbages and Condoms.

With a mission to promote understanding and awareness in Thailand of contraception and sexually transmitted diseases, and supporting small rural initiatives in the country's north, it prides itself on providing excellent Thai food and a friendly open air setting. Set amongst the greenery of the courtyard dining area, with fairy lights all around, it's understandably popular with locals and visitors alike.

Bangkok's markets

Floating market, Amphawa

Floating market, Amphawa

Bangkok has more markets than you could discover in a month, so knowing which ones to visit is key to making the most of your time in the capital. Old markets, floating markets, flower markets, 'hip' markets and even amulet markets, Bangkok has them all.

The biggest is Chatuchak weekend market, home to thousands of stalls where you can find anything from antiques to t-shirts, art works and exotic plants. The sheer scale makes this a fascinating place to people-watch and browse. For the best floating markets though you need to head out of the city. Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is about an hour from the city and, though now frequented by many tourists, it is still one of the liveliest and most enjoyably chaotic to visit.

But head a little further out of town and you arrive at the small village of Amphawa. This is Old Thailand, away from the bright lights and modernity of Bangkok. A thriving river market takes place here every weekend.

Take a local boat along the river, passing between the stilted wooden houses that lean over the water, chattering old women sit on their rickety balconies offering fresh food, herbs and spices. Children play on the wooden steps leading from their houses into the river and shout greetings as you go past in your longtail boat. Amphawa, which is a 90 minute drive from Bangkok, is a step back into a more authentic, more traditional Thailand.

Where to stay in Bangkok

The Peninsula with views of Bangkok city

The Peninsula with views of Bangkok city

There are a large number of excellent hotels available to cater for a wide range of budgets. Two of my favourite places to stay are Ariyasom Villa, a lovely boutique hotel down a quiet alley, and The Peninsula, a Bangkok landmark with spectacular views of the cityscape. 

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