Bangkok, Thailand - Stein Travel
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Bangkok

Chaotic, carnal and congested, Thailand's capital is divided by the Chao Phraya River and is nestled in one of the world's most fertile rice-producing deltas. Bangkok's 579 square miles (1,500 sq km) are criss-crossed by a series of canals carrying passengers and cargo, its roads clotted with endless traffic jams, while the city sprawls in all directions with a hodgepodge of urban, commercial and industrial buildings. A new overland metropolitan railway speeds above the city, providing visitors with a relaxed and efficient way to observe the hustle and bustle below.

Despite its pollution and overcrowding, Bangkok is undoubtedly one of Asia's most exciting cities, and one of the world's largest, promising to reveal to each traveller the wild and untamed mysteries of the east. Khao San Road is one of the city's most vibrant streets, and is probably one of the best examples in the world of a backpacker's 'ghetto'. Day and night the short stretch of road is abuzz with activity. On the banks of the Chao Phraya visitors will find the Grand Palace as well as Wat Phra Kaew, the palace temple housing the Emerald Buddha, constructed entirely from translucent green jade. Slightly upriver are the exquisitely ornamented Royal Barges, still used today for special floating processions.

Of the 30 or so temples in Bangkok, the largest is the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, which houses an impressive statue of the deity. The famous Floating Market is a delight to visitors and well worth a visit. As the sun lurches towards the horizon in the west and the sweat cools, this city of royalty and religion comes alive with a palpable decadence. Music and dazzling neon advertise a miasma of trendy bars and nightclubs, as well as the notorious 'girlie joints' that have ensured the Patpong district its reputation for hedonism.

Information & Facts

Climate

Bangkok has a hot, tropical climate with daytime temperature reaching the mid-30s Celsius throughout the year. November to February is the driest time of year and the most popular with tourists. March, April and May are the hottest months, and the rainy season runs from May to October. During the wet season short showers are likely during the afternoon, though some days it will rain all day.

Eating Out

Food is an inescapable part of everything in Bangkok, with every home, market and small alley continually throwing chopped ingredients into a hot wok. This has made nearly everyone both an expert chef and food connoisseur, having the curious effect of finding the very best meals made in the most unexpected locations. While ambiance is often wanting, peeling walls and plastic chairs provide just enough bare bones restaurant amenities to serve the best food in the city. Portable food stalls line the busy streets, creating a continuous unofficial buffet. It is a mistake to be put off by such street vendors, as many tourists are, as they are Bangkok's great equaliser bringing the very richest and poorest together at a table. If your stomach is wary however, try one of the food courts in the shopping malls and markets for equally cheap and tasty eats. These are also a great alternative on Mondays, when street vendors are banned from trading. Try the clusters of stalls in Surawong and Silom Roads, the Khao San Road Area, and the Suan Lum Night Bazaar. Choosing between one restaurant and another is a difficult task, but in general, follow the local crowds. For a quieter meal or more luxurious settings many unique restaurants can be fun. Some truly unique places can be found in Chinatown, with trendy dining along Sukhumvit and cheap western food in Banglamphu. The most romantic restaurants are along the Chao Phraya River or on it, aboard one of the many dinner cruises.

Getting Around

Bangkok is notorious for the huge volume of traffic and traffic jams, but this has eased slightly over the years with the introduction of the elevated monorail, the Skytrain, which currently has two lines running above Bangkok's central areas and provides a much quicker and easier alternative to the bus. The Bangkok Metro, established in 2004, has one route and covers areas not connected by the Skytrain. The Metro intersects with the Skytrain at three points and has 18 stations, with frequent services running until midnight. The extensive bus system has always been the main form of public transport, and they are the cheapest, most frequent mode of travel around the city (Bt3.50 to most destinations), but they should be used with care due to pickpockets and bag snatchers taking advantage of the squash.

The easiest, fastest and most interesting way to get around is on the waterways of the Chao Phraya River where numerous river taxis, long-tail boats and large waterbuses make most tourist sites easily reachable for about Bt10. Tuk tuks (colourful three-wheelers) are the standard way of making short journeys and are cheaper and quicker than regular taxis, but fares should be negotiated before boarding. Metered and un-metered taxis are air-conditioned, but be aware that drivers don't carry much change. Any taxi or tuk tuk can be hired for a day's tour of the sights (Bt500-800). If in a desperate rush during gridlock, motorcycle taxis can be hired, which are cheaper and faster, but passengers will need nerves of steel, and they should only be used for short distances. They can be recognised by the colourful, numbered vests worn by drivers.

Kids Attractions

Contrary to popular belief, Bangkok is a fantastic place for parents to bring their kids on holiday. From zoos and theme parks to museums and indoor playgrounds, there are plenty of things for children to see and do in Bangkok, more than enough to keep the little ones happy. When the sun is shining in this, one of the hottest cities in the world, take the kids to one of the fantastic water parks, such as Siam Park, Leoland Water Park, or even Fantasia Lagoon to cool off; or for something really cool, take the children ice skating at the Sub Zero Ice Skate Club. Want something a little less energetic? Take a stroll through the Queen Sirikit Gardens and stop in at the Butterfly Garden and Insectarium where the kids will enjoy the hundreds of beautifully-coloured butterflies dancing around them. When the weather in Bangkok is either too hot, or it's raining and outdoor activities with children are not an option, take the kids to one of the many indoor playgrounds dotted around the city, such as Yoyoland in the Seacon Square shopping complex, or Jamboree Land in the Emporium Shopping Complex. Older kids will enjoy the MBK Video Arcade, located in the MBK Shopping Centre.

Language

Thai is the official language, although English is widely spoken in tourist areas.

Money

The unit of currency is the Baht (THB), which is divided into 100 satang. Currency can be exchanged at the airport, banks, hotels and bureaux de change. Banks are open Monday to Friday. ATMs are available in most cities and tourist resorts. Most large hotels and shops accept travellers cheques, but a better rate will be given at banks. Most major credit cards are accepted at hotels and larger businesses.

Night Life

Neon lights, go-go bars, ladyboys and mysterious cocktails: Bangkok's nightlife enjoys an international reputation for wild abandon.

Go-go bars in Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza and in the strip clubs surrounding Pat Pong night market aren't only the territory of the unscrupulous but also expat hangouts with cheap drinks and an open air feel. The bright lights, cat calls, costumed patrons and scandalous behaviour will make one's head start to swim. Thai Red Bull is next added to the concoction, giving a jolt of energy to the night. Hip clubs with hip-hop beats and electro rhythms (often at the same place) vie for hot spot coolness. RCA sports a block of trendy and densely packed clubs for young party goers. To spread out, literally, Bed Club has long been at the centre of the cool crowd and offers an ultra modern bed spread interior. Khao San road is known more as a backpacker hangout but underneath (again, literally) are popular Thai clubs like Lava with a cavernous appeal and trans music mixing with the Billboard's top ten. Less eccentric but reliable Coca-Cola gives the bucket its sweet taste. Up and down Bangkok are the standard assortment of pubs, chic hotel lounges and bars. Many foreigners prefer sections closer to Sukhumvit Road but parts of Banglamphu (Khao San excluded) and Ratchadeaphiseck have more trendy local bars. Giant beer gardens are always a fun way to sample the local brew and entertainment. Lastly, a handful of friends are needed to drink away the bucket and the night.

Shopping

Anyone who's been to Thailand will know that the shopping in Bangkok is second to none - you can literally shop till you drop! Prices are cheap, markets line the streets touting everything from fake designer wares to cheap leather sandals and tourist t-shirts, bargains are endless and haggling is a way of life. Many of the items for sale are the same throughout all the markets in Thailand so it's best to scout around for some original-looking buys.

Patpong night market is a must and great fun to wander through on a balmy Bangkok evening, though bear in mind this market is situated in the red light district of the city so don't be alarmed at the touts and half naked ladies outside the bars. Khao San road is also brimming with stalls selling all kinds of counterfeit clobber. Plenty of snacks and eats can also be found on the side of the road stalls, but watch out for some of the more unconventional Thai delicacies, such as deep fried locusts. The biggest market in Bangkok is the Chatuchak Weekend Market, with 15, 000 stalls selling spices, leather goods, and practically everything under the sun that can fit inside a tourist's backpack.

The MBK Shopping Centre in Bangkok offers more expensive and better quality wares than the markets on the sides of the streets and prices here when converted are not much cheaper than in other countries. Other popular shopping malls include Central World, Erawan, Mah Boon Krong, and Panthip Plaza. Sukhumvit is the place to go for fahion, designer goods and custom-made suits.

Many shops are open seven days a week and 12 hours a day while street markets have longer hours, often staying open until 11pm. VAT in Thailand is 7% and this can be refunded on goods bought to the value of 2, 000 Baht (including VAT) in shops labelled 'VAT refund for tourists'. Forms must be completed at the point of purchase and your passport must be shown. Shoppers can obtain their cash refunds to the minimum value of 5, 000 Baht in the airport departure hall.

Sightseeing

The most visited attractions in Bangkok expose visitors to Thailand's fascinating history despite Bangkok's relatively recent construction as a city. The most impressive of these is the enormous and extremely ornate Grand Palace, and the adjacent Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Numerous temples spread over older districts near Chao Phraya River, making up an inexhaustible number of interesting visits, each one uniquely religiously significant.

Attractions in Bangkok aren't all serene sights as the city has also holds a vibrant and flashy appeal. Among the most fun of attractions is watching a Muay Thai boxing fight; put some money down to increase the thrills. Bustling markets, which sell literally almost everything, can be wandered for a full day, especially the giant Chatuchak weekend market.

The unique character of Bangkok neighbourhoods encompass many small treasures. Both Khao San road in Banglamphu district and alleys off of Sukhumvit are attractions in themselves. The first is a backpacker's Disneyland, and the second an expat playground famous for its debauchery. Little Arabia, a middle-eastern district, is also a unique and fun place to explore. Hiring a river cruise is the only real tour of the city, although only a few attractions are visited.

Time

GMT +7.

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