‘One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster’ sang one-hit-wonder Murray Head in 1984, and indeed Bangkok is a stop-over much looked forward to by many an international traveler. But to allocate only one night to this bustling and heady metropolis is to not do it justice.
A glittering complex of gold-leafed buildings which served as the official residence of the Kings of Thailand from 18th until the early 20th century, the spectacular Grand Palace is undoubtedly Bangkok’s most famous landmark.
Situated on Rattanakosin Island, a tract of land wedged between the Chao Praya River to the west and a series of canals or klongs to the east, the palace is a phantasmagorical riot of bell-shaped stupa and ornate gabled roofs capping traditional pavilion-style quarters.
To enter the grounds of the palace – still very much the spiritual heart of the Thai kingdom – is to know first-hand the exotic magic the Orient can elicit. A must-see is the 18” tall Emerald Buddha (actually made of green jasper – a form of silica) dating back to the 14th century. Clad in gold, its robes are changed seasonally by the king – an important ritual in the Buddhist calendar.
Chao Praya Dinner Cruise
The Chao Praya, roughly translating as ‘grand duke’, is the great river of Thailand, starting in the hill country and slicing spectacularly through Bangkok to flow into the Gulf of Siam. It is a life-giving artery, constantly in movement with vessels of all shapes, size and purpose.
One of the great pleasures to be had in Bangkok is a leisurely cruise along the Chao Praya at sunset while enjoying an unforgettable feast of local cuisine. Many are cruises are available – most departing from the River City Pier. For the full traditional experience, look for a restored teakwood barge.
The visitor to Bangkok does not necessarily have to brave the sleaze of Patpong Road for the decadent thrill of a walk on the wild side. The city is renowned internationally for its sizeable population of ladyboys. Known to the Thai as kathoey, these colorful and glamorous transsexuals permeate all walks of life. They are far more visible and accepted in Thai culture than in western countries or other parts of Asia – possibly due to the tolerant nature of Buddhism – the national religion of Thailand.
Ladyboys are especially known for their glittering and heart-felt cabaret performances, which are held most nights of the week throughout the city. Calypso Cabaret, Mambo Cabaret and Golden Dome Cabaret are all well established and offer good value for money. But check the nightlife guide upon arrival to see what else is on – sometimes the less-touristy shows off the beaten path offer more authentic fun.
Jim Thompson House
Jim Thompson was a renowned American businessman who in the 1950s almost single-handedly revitalized the Thai silk industry – to the point where Thai silk is now considered amongst the best in the world. He was also a shadowy figure and former spy who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1967 in the highlands of Malaysia.
Thompson’s main legacy is that through the production of traditional hand-woven silk he raised thousands of Thailand’s poorest out of poverty – particularly by offering shares in his Thai Silk Company to his top weavers. He remains an enormously popular entity in today, and his palatial teak home – constructed from six separate antique Thai houses – is now a museum, and one of Bangkok’s most popular attractions.