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Bangkok: Highlights

Modern Bangkok, much of which just 60 years ago was empty land, has grown rapidly and largely unplanned. The city's layout began when King Rama I dug a canal at a bend in the Chao Phraya river to form the artificial island of Rattanakosin. Here you'll find the glittering highlights of Bangkok: the Grand Palace and Wat PhoOn the southern bank is Thonburi, with its canals that thread past old wooden houses and temples.

The commercial heart of downtown Bangkok is Pathumwan, where the Suan Lum Night Bazaar and Jim Thompson's House number among the attractions.

Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace complex

Thanon Na Phra Lan, Rattanakosin

Tel: 0-222 8181

Jostling among throngs of snap-happy tourists may not be the best context for viewing exotic Thailand, but the dignified splendour of two of Bangkok's principal attractions - the Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace - is breathtaking nevertheless. The structures in this complex are an arresting spectacle of form and colour, with glistening golden chedi, glass mosaic-studded pillars, towering mythological gods, and fabulously ornate temple and palace structures piercing the sky.

Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) serves as the royal chapel of the Grand Palace. At the top of the golden altar (in the Bot of the Emerald Buddha), sits the country's most celebrated image, the diminutive 75cm (30ins) tall Emerald Buddha, which, surprisingly, is not made of emerald but carved from a solid block of green jade. Many non-Buddhists may be disappointed by the statue's size, but the belief in its power and importance are apparent from the demeanour of the pilgrims inside the hall.

Embodying Thailand's characteristic blend of temporal and spiritual elements, the Grand Palace has been added to or modified by every Thai king, so that today the complex is a melange of architectural styles, from traditional Thai, Khmer and Chinese to British, French and Italian Renaissance.

Wat Pho

Thanon Thai Wang

Tel: 0-2222 5910

This is Bangkok's largest and oldest surviving temple. Apart from its historic significance, visitors come here for two things: to pay homage to the monumental Reclining Buddha, and to unwind at the city's best traditional massage centre. The Reclining Buddha is 46 metres (150ft) long and 15 metres (50ft) high, and depicts the resting Buddha passing into nirvana. The flat soles of the Buddha's feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl designs.

The Wat Pho Thai Traditional Massage School offers cheap hour-long massages, and also offers courses for those wanting to learn the art. The hands-on training has proved a staple career option for many of Thailand's blind population.

Thonburi's canals

One of the most pleasing activities in Bangkok is a tour of Thonburi's canals. The canals worth exploring include Khlong Bangkok Noi, which winds into Khlong Bangkok Yai downstream, as well as connecting to Khlong Om upstream. Once a source of fresh produce for local communities, the floating markets at Wat Sai and Taling Chan now function mainly as tourist souvenir stops.

The further down the canals you venture, the narrower and calmer the waterway becomes. With rickety teak houses, vendors selling produce from boats, fishermen dangling rods out of windows and kids frolicking in the water, the sights along Thonburi's canals are reminiscent of a more peaceful bygone era. 

Suan Lum Night Bazaar

Across from Lumphini Park's gates at Thanon Withayu (Wireless Road)

Geared for tourists, but also full of locals, the open-air bazaar offers souvenirs, clothing, handicrafts, antiques, jewellery and home decor. There is also a large beer garden with live music and plenty of local and international food options, traditional massage and a German pub.

Also found at the Night Bazaar is the Joe Louis Theatre. Sakorn Yangkeawsot, who died in 2007, was better known as Joe Louis, and was responsible for reviving the fading art of hun lakhon lek,  unique form of traditional Thai puppetry. The company won the Best Performance Award at the World Festival of Puppet Arts in 2008.

Jim Thompson's House

6 Soi Kasem San 2, Thanon Rama I

Tel: 0-2216 7368

This is one of the finest traditional houses in the city. Jim Thompson was the American silk entrepreneur responsible for the revival of Thai silk. An architect by training, Thompson arrived in Thailand at the end of World War II, serving as a military officer. After the war he returned to Bangkok, where he became interested in the almost redundant craft of silk weaving and design. Thompson mysteriously disappeared in the jungles of Malaysia's Cameron Highlands in 1967 but his well-preserved house still stands. He was an enthusiastic collector of Asian arts and antiquities, many of which adorn his traditional house-turned-museum.

The surrounding garden is a luxuriant mini tropical jungle and an attraction in itself. Next to the old house is a wooden annexe, housing a pond-side cafe with an elegant upstairs bar and restaurant.

Read more about Bangkok

Read more about the highlights of Bangkok in Insight Guides: Bangkok City Guide

Insight Guides: Bangkok City Guide

Insight City Guides just got even better! With more detailed coverage spanning over 250 pages, and with over 600 images capturing the variety of everyday life, this guide provides a highly visual intr...

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