Krung Thep: City of Angels
As you fly in over the vast sprawling metropolis that is Bangkok, and the great river of Thailand, the Chao Phraya, as it winds slowly towards the Gulf of Thailand some forty kilometers to the south, it is difficult to believe that this is still a comparatively young city. At the end of the second world war the population was around 600,000, but by now (2014) it is estimated that the total is around 10 million.
True Name of Bangkok
Though the city is normally referred to as Krung Thep, this is a very much shortened form of its official name, thought to be the longest place name in the world:
Krung Thep Mahanakorn Amorn Rattanakosin Mahintarayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udom Ratchaniwet Mahasathan Amornphiman Awatansathit Sakkathattiya Witsanu Kamprasit
For Thai children, learning the full name of their capital city, which they all have to do, is by no means a trivial task. It was King Rama I, 1782 - 1809, founder of the still ruling Chakri Dynasty, who transferred his capital from Thonburi, on the west bank of the river to the more easily defended east bank, a small town already known to foreigners as Bangkok. Many of the splendid temples and palaces which grace the modern city, were built during his reign. The new capital was named Krung Thep, City of Angels, and this is the name by which Thais know it to this day.
When you first came to Bangkok, it is easy to miss the delights of the city, seeing only the drab urban sprawl, the traffic and pollution. Yet once you get to know it, Bangkok is a fascinating city of temples and palaces, soaring hotels and office buildings, street markets and modern shopping malls, and a vibrant night life.
The city is also a gourmet's paradise with excellent affordable food not just from Thailand, but from Japan, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Laos. Thai food itself is wonderful and varied, from roadside noodles to classic Thai cuisine: nothing like the 'Thai' food you are likely to find in Europe. Many of the herbs and spices, vegetables and fruits used, are not readily available outside the tropics.
Bangkok Transport Map
Skytrain & Subway
The BTS Skytrain is the easiest way to get around Bangkok. There are two lines: the Sukhumwit Line from Bearing in the east to the Northern Bus Terminal at Mor Chit, and the Silom Line from Wong Wian Yai, on the Thonburi side of the river to the National Stadium and Mabunkrong shopping Mall. The two lines meet at the Siam Square Interchange station, just before the end of the Silom Line at the National Stadium.
Train fares are very reasonable at between 15 Baht and 40 Baht, depending on distance travelled; period tickets are available at every station. The service is quick, clean and frequent.
The MRT or Bangkok subway opened in July 2004. The route curves in a great arc from Hua Lamphong railway station in the south to Mor Chit northern bus terminal and Bang Sue on the Northern Railway Line. It crosses the Sky Train route at three points: Chatuchak Weekend Market, Sukhumwit Road, and Rama IV Road, near Silom Road.
Prices are roughly the same as Sky Train prices. Trains are frequent.
The Airport Link is an elevated Train Service linking Suvarnabhumi International Airport, with Downtown Bangkok. It crosses the MRT at Makkasan station and the
BTS at Phyathai.
The City Line runs every 12 to 15 minutes and takes around 25 minutes. An Express service originally operated between the airport and Makkasan Station, but did not prove popular and has been discontinued. The Express rolling stock now runs on the City Line.
Where to Stay
Where you stay in Bangkok can either add to or detract from the pleasure of your trip. The main choices are downtown (Sukhumwit and Silom areas), and the historic riverside area between Taksin Bridge and Khao San Road.
The downtown areas of Sukhumwit and Sathorn have street markets, shopping centers, restaurants, bars, and hotels for any price range from $15 per room per night upwards. They are also well served by the Sky Train service so getting around is very easy.
Going from downtown to the historic areas of Bangkok, however, is not so easy. Taxis are reasonably priced by western standards, but traffic can be horrendous: at certain times of the day (sometimes all day in the rainy season) a trip from the Sukhumwit area to the historic area of Rattanakhosin, can take two hours or more. My own solution is to take the sky train to the river (Taksin Bridge station) and then catch a river boat. This is also a pleasant way to see the old city.
Longtail up the River
Just up river from Taksin bridge are some of the best (and most expensive) hotels in Bangkok: the Shangrila, the Oriental and the Peninsula: if staying there is outside your budget, it is still pleasant to sit in the gardens by the river and enjoy an afternoon drink.
Not my favorite form of transport, but undoubtedly speedy, the long tail boats roar up and down the river all day. When the river is high their wash inundates the living quarters of the wooden houses by the river side, and the disgruntled residents respond by heaving bricks at them.
Khao San Road
At the northern end of this stretch of river, and the other end of the price range, is Khao San Road, an area of cheap hotels and guest houses, bars and restaurants, much favored by back-packers. For details of Inns and Guest houses see Khao San Road section. From Khao San Road you can walk to Sanam Luang, The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo - the very center of historic Bangkok.
I quite like Khao San Road and the newer Soi Rambutri area. For travellers on a budget, it is a great place: tour shops offer every imaginable kind of cultural and adventure tours inside Thailand and neighboring countries; they will arrange your Visa for Laos or Cambodia, a cheap bus to the airport or railway station; best of all, the wide range of competing low cost hotels and restaurants ensures very good value for money.
The Khlongs (Canals) of Bangkok
Venice of the East
A map of Bangkok in the middle of the 19th century, drawn under the direction of Monseigneur Pallegoix, French bishop to the kingdom of Siam, shows a city bounded to the east by the Khlong Padaeng Krung Kasem which still exists today, and on the other three sides, by the Chao Phraya River.
It bears a striking resemblance to maps of the old capital city of Ayutthaya, drawn by Dutch merchants in the 17th century, a reminder that when King Rama I founded his new capital at Bangkok, the memory of Ayutthaya was still fresh. Huge numbers of bricks were shipped down river from the ruins of the old capital for use in the new; many Buddha images from Ayutthaya also found a new home.
Like Ayutthaya, the new city had many canals, but few bridges; the great river of Bangkok, the Chao Phraya, had no bridges at all. Boats were the only form of transport for nobles or commoners, the king himself maintaining a fleet of royal barges. Many of these spectacular vessels are still in use for royal occasions and can be seen for the rest of the year at the Royal Barge Museum on Khlong Bangkok Noi.
"There is not a single carriage in the city; everyone goes around by boat. The river and canals are the only roads used
" (J.B. Pallegoix: Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam)
In the mid 19th century most of the 1 million inhabitants of Bangkok lived in some 200,000 houses floating on the river and canals:
"At night the city is hung with thousands of covered lights, that illuminate the wide river from shore to shore. Lamps and lanterns of all imaginable shapes, colours, and sizes combine to form a fairy spectacle of enchanting brilliancy and beauty. The floating tenements and shops, the masts of vessels, the tall fantastic pagodas and minarets, and crowning all, the walls and towers of the Grand Palace, flash with countless charming tricks of light, and compose a scene of more than magic novelty.
" (Anna Leonowens: The English Governess and the Siamese Court)
Sadly many of the canals have been overtaken by unchecked development, and blocked, filled in, or built over. And for this wholesale destruction, the city has paid a high price, not just in loss of aesthetic quality but also in regular flooding of low-lying areas, most recently in 2011.
The Chao Phraya River
The BTS Sky Train crosses the river at Taksin bridge near the Shangrila and Oriental hotels. Directly behind the station is a river boat pier. Boats run up and down the river all day past Rattanakhosin Island, the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaeo and Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn.
At weekends the Chao Phraya tourist boat operates between 9 am and 3 pm. For a single charge of 100 Baht you can take as many trips as you like over a single day. The boats only stop at the 10 most popular tourist piers between Sathorn Bridge and Khao San Road. The regular boat services operate between 7 am. and 7 pm., and cost between 5 Baht and 20 Baht per trip, depending on class of boat and distance travelled.
A very pleasant way to spend the day is to take the boat from the Oriental pier all the way up river to the ancient spectacular ruins of Ayutthaya, returning in the afternoon by VIP Bus. The trip up-river takes about two hours. Lunch is included.
Equally enjoyable is to take a canal tour from one of the piers, such as Tha Chang near the Grand Palace. The favorite route takes in the canals on the west bank of the river, Khlongs Bangkok Noi and Bangkok Yai, the first stop usually being the royal barge museum, well worth a visit, and always a good photo opportunity.
The further you get away from the river, the more you see of the traditional river life of the city: wooden houses built on stilts, most houses with their own boat; streets and alleys of water. You might see a hospital boat, a school boat, taxi boats, police boats, fruit and vegetable boats, never a single car.
Khlong San Saep, Bangkok
Khlong Saen Saep
Today the city, once known as The Venice of the East, has expanded well beyond the watery boundaries that Bishop Pallegoix described, but the main canals shown in his map, or sections of them, still survive. The few still in use today, together with the river, provide an excellent way to see the older parts of the city, and a welcome respite from the traffic, sky-rise and pollution of modern Bangkok.
Khlong San Saep runs from Bang Kapi in North Eastern Bangkok to Rattanakhosin (the old royal city), though you need to change boats at Pratu Nam pier. Boats are fairly regular during the day (about every 30 minutes) and each trip costs only a few baht.
Wat Rajanada & Loh Prasat
The Pratu Nam pier is on the east side of Rachadamri near the World Trade Center. Boats on the south side go east to Bang Kapi, boats on the north go west to Rachadamnoen. This is quite a useful route, terminating at the Mahakon Fort, on the edge of the old royal city, one of the most spectacular areas in Bangkok. The Golden Mount, near the pier, provides excellent views of the old city, and just little further is Wat Rajanada with the 37 spires of Loh Prasat in the background.