To put it simply, Bangkok can seem like a labyrinth to new arrivals in the city. The sprawling expressways and overpasses, huge new Skytrain and crowded streets full of vendors give the place a distinct Blade Runner-esque feel. Causing even further confusion is the lack of a true "center" to the city, with various districts scattered throughout town. On the positive side, the Skytrain has made it much easier to get around, and taxis, tuk-tuks, buses and motorcycle taxis are plentiful. Get your bearings by reading the following guide and it will not take long for you to be seduced by the glorious chaos and charm of the "City of Angels."
The most heavily visited area, at least during the day, is Ko Rattanakosin (Rattanakosin Island), Bangkok's old city on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River. Here you will find fantastic examples of historical architecture such as the glittering Grand Palace , Wat Phra Keo , Wat Pho , Wat Mahathat , the Golden Mount and Wat Suthat . The city's founding pillar, Lak Mueang , is also located in this district, as are the National Museum , National Theater and National Gallery . If you are keen on seeing something completely out of the ordinary, pop across the river to the Museum of the Department of Forensic Medicine. Sanam Luang is about the only green spot on the "island," which is not really an island but would have seemed like one in the old days before the many canals linking the area to the river had not yet been filled in.
Bangkok was once referred to as "The Venice of the East," but today the klongs, or canals, are concentrated in Thonburi, an area lying to the west of the Chao Phraya River. You can take a klong tour, typical stops include Wat Arun and the museum of the Royal Barges . Buses heading south from Bangkok leave from Sai Tai bus terminal, located here.
Banglampoo & Thewet
Backpackers head for the Banglampoo and Thewet districts. Near the Democracy Monument on Khao San Road you can find some good souvenir shopping. This strip is lined with guest houses and cheap restaurants, none of which stand out for their ambiance or cuisine. A mere stone's throw away along Phra Arthit Road, some great restaurants and bars come to life at night. Following the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya, you will come to an area with a laid-back, cosmopolitan feel that is frequented by students from the nearby universities of Thammasat and Silpakorn.
The Dusit district offers plenty of tourist attractions. Vimanmek Palace , Wat Benchamabophit , Suan Pakkard Palace and Dusit Zoo are all found here. There is not much in the way of hotels or restaurants, but a small artsy area popular with local students has sprung up on Rachawithee Soi 34.
Northern Bangkok's touristic highlight is Chatuchak Weekend Market , best reached by catching the Skytrain. Mor Chit bus terminal is located near the same stop, which is handy to know if you want to catch an inter-provincial bus heading north or northeast. This is also a major transport hub, with the Skytrain and plenty of buses passing through. Mah Boon Krong is the largest shopping center in the district, and serves as a local transit hub and good orientation point.
Young Thais and keen shoppers head for the area around Siam Square , a shopping paradise - unless you are a tall Western woman looking for off-the-rack clothes or shoes. The huge array of dining options along this stretch include Auberge Daband and the Erawan Tea Room .
There is plenty of selection in malls such as Siam Center and Siam Discovery Center , Centerpoint (the most popular teenage hangout), and the World Trade Center . A walk away from the latter stands Panthip Plaza, also known as heaven for computer geeks, and possibly the best place to get deals on computers in Southeast Asia. The non-shopper can retreat to the sanctuary of Jim Thompson's House and Museum . There is a cluster of hotels in this area, and popular restaurants such as the Hard Rock Cafe are also found here. Heading east along Ploenchit Road and Sukhumvit Road, you can orchestrate a shopping extravaganza at either the street stalls that spring up at the beginning of Sukhumvit and stretch to Soi Asoke or at department stores such as Central Chidlom .
The Sathorn/Silom area forms the core of Bangkok's Central Business District, although the Stock Exchange of Thailand is located some distance away on Ratchadaphisek Road. The area encompasses a number of embassies and hotels, such as the Banyan Tree, Sukhothai and Dusit Thani . Silom Road offers more shopping opportunities, including the Patpong Night Market . Sri Maha Uma Devi Temple is also located in this district. Restaurants abound, particularly around Convent Road. Head for nearby Lumpini Park for a break in a rare patch of green.
If you head west along Sathorn or Silom Road, you will come to Charoen Krung ("New") Road and back to the Chao Phraya River. A tram used to run along this road, but these days hardly anything does - the traffic is too thick! This is another popular hotel area, with such luxurious hotels as The Oriental , The Peninsula , the Shangri-La , the Royal Orchid Sheraton and the Marriott Spa Resort all overlooking the river. Take a sunset cruise or dine in one of the many restaurants along the majestic river, such as Yok Yor Marina and Restaurant . The River City Shopping Complex sells a huge array of antiques and is worth a browse.
Chinatown & Pahurat
North along the river lies hectic Chinatown and Pahurat, an Indian district. Here you will find Wat Traimit , but the area is best known for its shopping. Yaowarat Road has loads of gold shops, while Sampeng Lane has everything from hair accessories to shoes, all at bargain prices. Farther north you will come to Pak Klong Talat with its colorful fresh flowers.
Outside the City
There are also a number of attractions to be found in the outlying areas of Bangkok and adjacent provinces, including King Rama IX Royal Park , Nonthaburi, the Ancient City , Damnoen Saduak Floating Market and Ayutthaya , a trip to which usually incorporates a visit to Bang Pa-In Summer Palace .
Thai cuisine has spread across the globe in the past three decades at an unprecedented speed. The reason is not hard to fathom -- the food is absolutely delicious. There are two types of Thai cooking: royal Thai cuisine and "common" fare. The former is traditionally served to royalty, and usually garnished with exquisitely carved fruits and vegetables. "Common" Thai food is what Thais eat every day. Each of the four regions in Thailand has a distinct cuisine, but unless you are dining in a restaurant specializing in regional cooking, you are likely to find a blend of cuisines on most menus.
In the central region, the food is known for being hot, salty, sweet and sour. Dishes such as nam phrik (dips) and soups served with boiled rice are standard fare. In the northeastern region, sticky rice is the staple accompaniment to such popular dishes as som tam (green papaya salad), gai yang (barbecued chicken) and laap (salads of meat and fresh herbs). Much of the street food in Bangkok is from the northeast, due to the large number of vendors coming from the region. Food from the north tends to be mild, salty and sour, but not sweet. Fermented sour pork sausages (you can see them being barbecued on the street) are a favorite. In the south, fish and sour curries (without coconut milk) are the normal diet.
There are plenty of restaurants in this district where you will find the best in Thai cuisine. Phranakorn Bar & Gallery has a popular rooftop bar where the drinks are reasonably-priced. Be sure to try an authentic Thai whiskey and enjoy the local, contemporary music playing in the background. The restaurant Thiptara built on the Chao Praya River has been made to resemble a traditional Thai compound. Rim Nam Terrace can be found within the Royal River Hotel , and serves local Thai cuisine in a modern dining room. The tiny and ancient Chote Chitr has been turning out court style food for over 90 years while the Brick Bar serves up beer and satisfying Thai snacks.
On the other hand, if it is international cuisine you are hungry for, Bangkok will satisfy you all the same. From Indian to Greek, Middle Eastern and Latin — name your cuisine and somewhere there will be a waiter ready with an appropriate menu. Sample Pacific Rim offerings at Jesters or riverfront Supatra House . Enjoy Cantonese favorites at Mei Jiang . Trader Vics Polynesian bar in Bangkok is always ready to welcome the wayfaring traveler.
If you're in the mood for fresh seafood, try Harmonique , where the menu is Thai and the main ingredient is fish. Good places to start your Thai culinary adventure include Baan Khanitha , where the food is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. Large hotels usually have excellent Thai restaurants, among them the Celadon . While European restaurants are relatively new on the scene, there has been a recent boom in Italian cuisine, with oldies such as Angelini's attracting huge crowds. Several French restaurants have also opened to rave reviews, one of the best is Le Cafe Siam . Coffee is enjoying a boom in Bangkok, and although Starbucks may now be everywhere, other chains like Au Bon Pain are springing up with great success.
Then there are the "international" restaurants serving Asian and Italian-inspired dishes, but which refuse to be easily pigeonholed: Eat Me and Indigo are just two that defy labels. Bangkok's pubs and bars are up there with the best, although it is worth noting that steep taxes on wine push even basic table vino into the expensive bracket. At its very core, Bangkok is a beer-and-whiskey town. In many establishments you can order a bottle of whiskey which will be kept for your next visit. There are a number of micro-breweries to keep ale lovers happy and plenty of bars for spirit sippers, such as the more upmarket Barbican .
Then there are the pubs where live bands play popular Thai songs and, at some stage in the evening, the ubiquitous Hotel California. Henry J Bean's is just such a pub. Note that pubs and bars in Bangkok serve delectable food, making an evening of bar-hopping a fine way to pass the time. Try the area around Phra Arthit Road or Narathiwat Soi 15.
Bangkok is dotted with literally hundreds of eateries and nightspots. Do not be afraid to be adventurous because it is difficult to find a bad meal in the "City of Angels." In fact, dining and drinking will most likely become one of the highlights of your trip here.