As one of the most sprawling and dynamic cities in all of Asia, the city of Bangkok can feel overwhelming to the uninitiated. But a one-day walking tour of Ratanakosin Island and Thonburi – Bangkok’s “old city” districts located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River – can provide visitors with a wonderful introduction to this magnificent metropolis. Here’s a quick guide to checking out some of Bangkok’s oldest and most iconic landmarks.
The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew
High whitewashed battlements surround the august spires and golden domes of the Grand Palace, located on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River. Built in the late eighteenth century by King Rama I (the first king of the current Chakri dynasty), the palace was home to Thailand’s royal family until 1932, when a revolution transformed the country into a constitutional monarchy. Luckily for visitors, the richness and ornate architecture of the palace grounds have been preserved as a national landmark, and have become a site of pilgrimage for both Thais and international visitors alike.
Upon entering through the tall main gate, visitors will find themselves in the Outer Court. Along the inner walls are frescoes depicting various scenes from the Indian epic the Ramayana painted in an intricate, distinctly Thai style. Two of the three throne rooms are open to the public to explore, and in one corner of the court sits Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. With its bell-shaped structure and a high, corrugated spire of shimmering gold, this temple is impossible to miss. Inside, it houses the Emerald Buddha – Thailand’s holiest Buddha image, carved from a single block of jade.
Once inside the palace walls, it’s possible to hire a tour guide to show you around, or you can feel free to explore on your own. Of particular interest is the contrast between the distinctly Thai architecture of Wat Phra Kaew and the coronation halls, and the much more European-inspired design of the Grand Palace itself. Unfortunately, however, while the exterior of the Grand Palace is available to tour and photograph, the Inner Court is still closed to the public. Despite this, the sprawling Outer Court, as well as Wat Phra Kaew, offer visitors plenty to marvel at and explore.
Insider Tip: As the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew are important religious centers in Thailand, visitors must adhere to a dress code to enter. Men must wear long pants and shirts with sleeves (no tank tops), and women must be modestly dressed (no bare shoulders or short skirts). If you don’t want to overdress for a day out in the Bangkok heat, appropriate clothing is available for rent at the main entrance (a deposit is required).
The Grand Palace is open daily from 8:30am to 3:30pm and costs an entrance fee of 400 baht (about $13 USD). If you encounter any overly-friendly tuk-tuk drivers or tour guides hanging outside the entrance telling you the palace is closed due to a national holiday, but that, luckily, they can offer you a tour of some other sights in the area for a reasonable price – avoid them! Unfortunately, this is an all too common scam, but it is easily avoided by simply continuing on your way.
A half-mile walk down Maha Wat Road, heading south along the Grand Palace’s western wall, will you lead to Wat Pho – Bangkok’s second-most famous temple. The main attraction here is the stunning 15-meter high, 43-meter long reclining golden Buddha. For an entrance fee of one hundred baht (about $3.30 USD), visitors may enter the hall and circumnavigate the magnificent structure, which features all mother-of-pearl inlays upon the soles of its 4.5-meter-long feet. As with at the Grand Palace, proper dress is required at Wat Pho, and visitors must also remove their shoes before entering the temple hall.
Insider Tip: Wat Pho has become synonymous with its reclining Buddha, but the temple grounds themselves warrant some exploring. The temple was Thailand’s first public university, and nowadays it is still a world-renowned school for therapeutic Thai massage. During your visit, it’s possible to get a traditional head, neck or shoulder massage from one of the many on-site therapists, and even to take a Thai Massage class for yourself.
Wat Arun and Thonburi
After finishing up at Wat Pho, it’s possible to head back out the entrance and take a short walk down soi Thai Wang to Tha Tien Pier, where you can catch a ferryboat ride across the Chao Phraya River to Wat Arun, or the Temple of Dawn. Legend has it that when King Taksin fled the old Siamese capital of Ayutthaya after the Burmese sacked it in 1767, he fled south and arrived at this temple precisely at dawn – hence its current name. While this probably has more to do with legend than with actual history, it is true that here, in the district now known as Thonburi, is where the city of Bangkok truly began.
The grounds of Wat Arun are open to the public for an entrance fee of fifty baht (about $1 US). As of September 2013, however, the high central spire, which affords magnificent views of the Chao Phraya River, the Grand Palace and the city skyline, is unfortunately closed for renovations through 2016. While the temple grounds themselves are worth visiting – the temple itself is uniquely decorated with real Chinese porcelain, and it’s possible to chat with the local monks about daily life in the monastery – these days, one’s time in Thonburi might be better spent exploring the area from a lower angle, rather than from up high.
Insider Tip: Hire a canal boat to send you darting through the canals of Thonburi – the very first canals, or khlongs, that were dug in all of Bangkok – and see for yourself why this city was once known as the “Venice of the East.”
While it’s possible to hire a boat through a tour agency, you might get a better deal (and an ability to bargain the price) by simply going back down to the pier and chartering a boat for yourself. Local boat drivers will be happy to give you a fascinating glimpse of how Bangkok used to look, taking you through old, riverside neighborhoods with children fishing and playing on the docks, and men and women commuting to the market and back home via paddleboat. You’ll also be able to see many of the small, local temples that sit picturesquely along the edges of the canal. For a two-hour tour, however, don’t pay more than 1,000-1,500 baht ($30 – $45 USD), and have the driver drop you back at Phra Athit Pier when you’re finished. From here, you can grab a bite to eat at one of the many delicious noodle stalls (rahn kwa-tiaw in Thai), or get a cab back to your hotel to rest up. After all, this was only one day in Bangkok, and there is so much more to explore in this dynamic town.
All photos © Paul King.