Bangkok - The City of Angels of the East

The entertainment capital of the world (Los Angeles) and the capital of Thailand have a lot in common: both have gnarling traffic, eclectic shopping, a diverse culture, an assortment of delectable restaurants and share the nickname, 'The City of Angels.'

Grand Temple Outside

But unlike the beach city known for movie studios, celebrities and jug-band musicians, Bangkok is most famous (and rightly so) for a collection of some of the world's most venerated Buddhist temples in the world. Bangkok is also a city of eye-opening contrasts, where state-of-the-art high-rise buildings cast shadows down upon hovels, where monks share standing room on the ground-breaking Skytrain with local businessmen and where trend-setters at some of the city's elite shopping districts walk along side packs of stray dogs. While the disparities take some getting used to, and though Bangkok is 40 times the size of any other city in Thailand and has grown by about 600% in the last 25 years, Bangkok gives visitors an unmatched sense of history and timelessness.

Getting Around
While navigating through Bangkok's endless network of streets and alleys is a challenge, the S-curve of the Chao Phraya River, which runs through central Bangkok, is a convenient reference point. Many of the popular attractions are near the river and it is often quicker and more convenient and to take water taxis to get from one place to another rather than street transportation.

Knowing the location of each destination is vital to be the most efficient at discovering Bangkok and also important in negotiating tuk-tuk (three-wheeled taxi) fares. It is important to remember that many sights have no precise address and the spelling of road names may be different depending on the map or guide you use (Charoen Krung Road, for example, can also be referred to as Charoenkrung Road or even New Road). It is even more imperative to remember that crossing the city is extremely time-consuming due to never-ending traffic jams that make traffic conditions on the 405 South appear tame. Don't hesitate to jump on Bangkok's new Skytrain or subway that can both make a huge difference if you spend time to learn the various routes.

Grand Temple Budda

Places to Go
Religion plays an important part in the everyday lives of the Thai people, a fact easily verified by the array of makeshift Buddhist shrines throughout the city. Not surprisingly, Bangok's ancient temples (referred to as 'wats') are the main attraction of Bangkok. Wat Phra Kaew (open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.), located on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, is Thailand's grandest and most intricately designed temple. Also called the 'Temple of the Emerald Buddha,' this sanctuary adjoins the Grand Palace on common ground which was consecrated in 1782 by King Rama I, and is used today by the king for certain ceremonial occasions.

After spending a few hours at Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, take a tuk-tuk or walk 15 minutes over to Wat Pho (open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.), the oldest temple in Bangkok, featuring the largest reclining Buddha in the world and the most significant collection of Buddha images in Thailand. Before leaving Wat Pho, head over to the massage school located on the premises and enjoy a 90-minute massage for about 20% of what you'd pay in Los Angeles.

Monk Walking - Wat Arun

Across the Chao Phraya River is Wat Arun (open daily 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.), also known as Temple of Dawn. Its intricate 280- foot pagoda, decorated in delicate Chinese porcelain, is a sight to behold. If the central tower is open, climb the tower for views of the city and river, especially at sunset. Wat Benchamabophit, also known as the Marble Temple, is Bangkok's most photographed temple and hosts chanting Buddhist monks early each morning.

Once you burn out on temples, another 'must-see' site is Vimanmek Palace, one of the primary former homes of King Rama V. The palace is the world's largest golden teak building, housing 81 rooms and a rich collection of royal regalia. Also not to be missed is the Chatuchak Weekend Market, one of the largest open-air flea markets in the world, offering great bargains on clothing, silver jewelry and antiques. Finally, if you want to experience native life along Bangkok's riverfront, take a canal tour to explore life along the city's oldest quarter along the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River.

Grand Temple Statue

If you have an extra day in Bangkok, take a day trip to Ko Kret Island, located 15 miles north of Bangkok in the middle of the Chao Phraya, or to Ayutthaya, the former glorious capital.  Ko Kret Island preserves the lifestyle of Thailand's Mon people. Lose yourself exploring by foot or rented bicycle the banana plantations, quiet temple compounds, ceramic craft workshops and fresh Thai food specialties.

Places to Stay
The legendary Oriental Bangkok (www.mandarin-oriental.com; rooms from $330) is ideally situated on the Chao Phraya River. For almost 130 years, celebrities, dignitaries and royalty have enjoyed a snifter of cognac in the lobby of this world-class hotel which prides itself on its magnificent facilities and exceptional service. The spacious rooms are elegantly appointed with Thai silks and vestiges of colonial grandeur, and many have spectacular river views. One of the hotel's three private wood-carved boats shuttles guests across the river to the renowned Oriental Spa, a riverfront haven which offers more than 50 treatments inspired by 2,000 year-old herbal recipes. After indulging in a morning spa treatment, be sure to enjoy breakfast at the Riverside Terrace with unmatched views of the river.

The Four Seasons Bangkok (www.fourseasons.com; rooms from $250), which recently completed the first phase of a $7 million refurbishment project, is located in the heart of Bangkok's prime shopping, entertainment and business district. It is also conveniently located near the Skytrain which can take you to and from the Chao Phraya River. The elegant rooms are among the largest in the city (at least 452 square feet) and are enhanced by traditional Thai woodwork, sculptures and other native art. The hotel also features a state-of-the-art and stylish health club with polished teak floors and floor to ceiling windows. 

Where to Eat
Le Normandie is a legendary French restaurant perched atop the Oriental Hotel, commanding stunning views of the Chao Phraya River through floor to ceiling glass panels. Also located in the Oriental Hotel is Sala Rim Naam, offering a traditional Thai dining experience. Owned and operated by a Chinese-Thai couple, Harmonique (No. 22 Charoenkrung 34), located a few blocks from the Oriental, is a hidden gem offering a slough of traditional Thai and Chinese specialties. After dark, don't miss Sirocco, located on the 64th Floor of the State Tower Building. The outdoor bar and restaurant offer breathtaking panoramic views of the Bangkok skyline and the Chao Phraya River set to live music.

There is certainly no shortage of things to do and places to see in Bangkok. Even if you only have two days to visit the requisite temples, sample authentic cuisine and take in a Thai boxing match, the 'City of Angels' of the east is definitely worth a visit.

For more information, contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand at http://www.tourismthailand.org

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