Don't Miss in Bangkok
In 1782, King Rama I decided to move Thailand's capital to Bangkok from Thonburi, just across the river. The Grand Palace was built to serve as the official royal residence and has served in this capacity ever since, although the current king (Rama IX) makes Chitralada Palace his home these days. Easily toured on foot, the palace is most interesting for its unique Thai architecture, but be aware that you cannot enter any of the government buildings. On the grounds of the Grand Palace, you will also find Wat Phra Keo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Bangkok is, in fact, home to a plethora of temples and shrines, and there are several you should visit, no matter how crunched you are for time. Once you've seen the Emerald Buddha, visit Wat Arun, Temple of Dawn; Wat Po, Temple of the Reclining Buddha; and Wat Traimit, Temple of the Golden Buddha.
If you're intrigued by Thai architecture, silk and a good mystery, a visit to Jim Thompson's House is in order. Jim Thompson was the "best known foreigner in Southeast Asia" from the late 1940's through the 1960's. An architect by trade, he joined the U.S. Army during World War II and was the OSS station chief in Bangkok as the war ended. He decided to stay in Thailand and founded the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company. He also purchased land in the city and built an exquisite Thai-style home. In 1967, he mysteriously disappeared, while on vacation in the jungle of Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Today, you may tour his fascinating home.
If you've seen and done all there is to do in Bangkok, take a break and visit one of the city's many skyscrapers, which house rooftop bars
. Enjoy a drink and an eye-popping view. A few of our favorites include the Sky Bar (tel: 66-2-6249999) at Sirocco restaurant at the top of the State Tower, the Long Table (tel: 66-2-3022557) on the 25th floor of the Column Tower, and Vertigo (tel: 66-2-6791200) on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel. Beware: you're paying for those views! Our bill for four cocktails at the Sky Bar, about $95, was as lofty as the 64th-floor view. It was worth every penny ... once.
Bangkok is an incredible metropolis, but it's important to understand that many Thais still live the old ways in various fishing villages outside the city. Take a "Tour With Tong" to a typical fishing outpost, where you'll spend the day with a local fisherman and his family. You'll arrive by Thai long-tail boat, visit the fisherman's bamboo stilt home, eat a traditional seafood lunch and meet a local monkey troop along the way.
If you've got time on a Saturday or Sunday, take the Skytrain to the Mo Chit station, and head directly to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. This place throbs with action, as 15,000 vendors hawk their wares to over 200,000 visitors each day. Spread over 35 acres, stalls are organized according to the merchandise sold -- housewares, clothing, ceramics, amulets and antique Buddhas, live animals, etc. Prices are fair, and bargaining is encouraged and expected. If you're looking for Thai crafts (bronzeware, lacquerware, silk items), you'll find them here. Chatuchak can be chaotic, so do yourself a favor and purchase Nancy Chandler's Map of Bangkok, which charts, stall by stall, each vendor at this market, as well as those on Sukhumvit Road and in Chinatown, Greater Bangkok, Central Bangkok and Banglamphu.
The Damnoen Saduak floating market is a must-visit for any newcomer to Bangkok. About an hour and a half outside of the city (in Ratchaburi Province), you'll find this busy khlong, clogged with long-tail boats that are piled high with every type of fruit and vegetable imaginable. This is mainly a produce market, but you'll also find typical souvenir items -- albeit nicer and less expensive options can be had directly in Bangkok. Take a taxi, or hire a private car, and spend a few hours exploring. It's a typical tourist trap, but you'll get some amazing photographs to show your friends and family back home.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a Bangkok visitor who didn't stop in at least one jewelry store. There, you'll find excellent deals on sapphires and rubies, and Thai jewelers are very adept at custom-designing or copying pieces of jewelry. Shop at reputable stores -- not those recommended by your tuk-tuk driver -- and know how much similar gems or gold would cost here at home. Try SJ International (tel: 66-2-2432446; 125/8 Sawankhalok Road) or Venus Jewelry ( tel: 66-2-2539559; 167/1/2 Withayu Road).