Once plagued with a rather unsavoury reputation, Bangkok has cleaned itself up over recent years. The sprawling Thai capital lures travellers with sophisticated new openings, restaurants that give its world famous cuisine the fine-dining treatment and more than 400 gleaming gold-topped temples.
Bangkok has grown from a small fishing village in the late 1700s into a fast and steamy metropolis of eight million people. Weaving its way through the city on its 370-kilometre journey, the murky Chao Phraya (River of Kings) continues to be the focal point and one that plays a central part in the annual Loi Krathong Festival, held during the full moon every November. Dedicated to the goddess of water, locals flock to the river’s edge to leave floating candles and watch a procession of illuminated boats in what is Bangkok’s most magical spectacle.
A comfortable bed
Housed in a century-old building that was once the Russian embassy, the bright and bold W Hotel (www.whotels.com/bangkok; 0066 2 344 4000) opened earlier this year using Bangkok-based artists to pay tribute to the city – from the eye-catching art installation of 800 tuk-tuk lights to the silk cushions in the 407 rooms, each upholstered from silk Muay Thai kick-boxing shorts. Doubles from US$205 (Dh753), including breakfast.
For something a little more intimate, try the family run Arun Residence (www.arunresidence.com; 0066 2221 9158). This Sino-Portuguese riverfront property has six split-level rooms with traditional Thai design and spacious balconies. The big highlight, however, are the views of the Wat Arun temple across the Chao Praya. Doubles from $128 (Dh470), including breakfast.
Find your feet
Take a stroll through the central district of Thonburi. Not only is it home to many of Bangkok’s most significant sights and historical monuments, but it’s also played an important role in Thai history. For 15 years, before Bangkok was officially founded in 1782, Thonburi was the national capital.
Wander along Pak Khlong Talat, Thailand’s largest flower market, located along Chakphet road. The densely crowded pavements are crammed with colourful orchids, lotus flowers and sweet-smelling jasmine and marigold garlands. Across the road is the Museum of Siam (www.museumsiam.com; 0066 2 225 2777), detailing the history of Thai culture.
From there, walk north to Bangkok’s most iconic temple: Wat Pho (00 66 2 226 0335), home to 91 mosaic stupas and the famous 43-metre-long reclining Buddha. Next door is the opulent and outrageously ornate Grand Palace (0066 2623 5500), a royal residence since the days of King Rama I in the 1780s. This vast complex of groomed gardens, temples and courtyards shouldn’t be missed.
Meet the locals
Local interaction is made easy in Bangkok. Practice early morning tai chi with elderly folk in Lumpini Park, mingle with grocery shoppers stocking up at the Klong Toey market and join the devoted paying homage to the solid-gold Sukhothai Traimit Buddha – more than 700 years old and worth more than $39 million (Dhs143.2m).
Alternatively, simply wander any given street for an encounter with smiling roadside chefs and foodies feasting on grilled meat skewers and bowls of gooey congee. Charoen Krung Road, one of Bangkok’s oldest, is a good bet.
Book a table
Favouring ingredients sourced from an organic farm in Khao Yai National Park, north-east of Bangkok, the riverside restaurant Baan Khanitha (www.baank-hanitha.com; 0066 2 108 4910) serves tasty Thai dishes. Options include yam som o (spicy pomelo salad with shrimps) for 260 Thai baht (Dh31), although the star of the show is the Phuket lobster green curry for 2,500 baht (Dh296).
The interior of Krua Apsorn (0066 2 685 4531) may be no-frills with simple, white-tiled walls, but the food is anything but. This award-winning restaurant uses family recipes passed down through generations. The stir-fried green mussels with basil and chilli for 100 baht (Dh12) and yellow curry with chicken and lotus flowers for 370 baht (Dh44) are especially popular.
Elsewhere, enjoy a refreshing lychee smoothie for 70 baht (Dh8) or a cup of milky Thai tea for 65 baht (Dh8) on the peaceful terrace at Vivi Coffee Shop (0066 2 226 4672), near Wat Pho, and watch the long-tail boats ply the river.
Shopping in Bangkok used to mean only one thing: the overwhelming Chatuchak Weekend Market, a sprawling and exhausting collection of more than 15,000 stalls selling everything from silk to snakes. It’s still a sight to behold but far from leisurely.
Bangkok’s newest shopping destination is Asiatique (www.thaiasiatique.com), a glossy complex of 1,500 stores right on the river and south of Chinatown. Browse the contemporary home interior stores and boutiques stocked with pieces by up-and-coming Thai designers.
What to avoid
Taxi drivers who insist on agreeing to an escalated fare before the journey. Travelling by taxi in Bangkok is ridiculously cheap, so insist on using the meter.
Fight through the temple fatigue to visit the exquisite marble-crafted Wat Benchamabophit. Built from pale Carrara marble in 1899 and designed by King Chulalongkorn’s half-brother, the stained glass windows and bronze Buddhas make this one of Bangkok’s finest and most unusual temples.
Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok. Journey time is about six hours and return flights cost from Dh2,535, including taxes.
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