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Bangkok Travel Guide

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It is hot and steamy, overcrowded, traffic choked and filthy, yet Bangkok remains the singular most popular Asian holiday destination. It is a city of contradictions – it's people are deeply religious yet it has possibly the seediest and most debauched nightlife in the world. They are avid royalists yet most live in poverty. Dirt and disease are everywhere yet their cuisine is amongst the healthiest in the world. They suffer flooding, sweltering heat and chronic pollution problems yet they are amongst the happiest, friendliest and polite folk you could ever wish to meet. In many ways it is Bangkok’s paradoxical lifestyle that makes the city so appealing. More than most Asian cities, it holds a fascination for westerners, puzzled by a nation that has embraced so much of western capitalist society only to see it for what it really is… a means to an end. The market stalls and vendors may well be stacked high with dodgy designer gear, counterfeit computer software, CDs, videos and electrical goods. But unlike western consumer society, the Thai’s veneration is strictly reserved for things of a far more spiritual nature.

Bangkok is undoubtedly one of Asia’s most exciting cities, but despite the relentless bustle and almost deafening racket of the main streets there, it remains surprisingly full of quiet oases where you can relax and soak up the often stunning beauty. There are 400 Wats (temples/monasteries) scattered throughout the city. The most important are situated within the area known as Thonburi, which is the oldest district and formerly Thailand’s capital itself. It is in this area that you’ll discover Bangkok’s most spectacular buildings. The Grand Palace is an awesome sight indeed, the complex covering 945,000m of grounds and containing over 100 buildings that date from 1782, the first year of Bangkok rule. Built in traditional Thai architecture mixed with European designs, the Palace was once home to the Kings of Siam. Today it is used for only a few ceremonial occasions by the King himself.

Adjoining the Grand Palace is Bangkok’s most important temple, Wat Phra Kaew or Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The building itself is a riot of colours and textures – lavish murals, mosaic encrusted pillars, multicoloured polished tiles, gargoyles and statues of mythical creatures. The Buddha itself is carved out of a single piece of jade and stands about 70cm tall in a glass pedestal out of reach of worshippers and gawpers alike. It is considered to be the holiest and most revered religious object in all Thailand. Situated at the south end of the Grand Palace is Thailand’s other principal temple, Wat Pho or Temple of the Reclining Buddha. One of the oldest and largest in Bangkok it was built by King Rama I nearly 200 years ago and houses a gigantic gold-plated Reclining Buddha. At 46m in length and 15m high this gold plate image with inlaid mother of pearl soles is truly unique. Today Wat Pho is used for much more than worship and religious ceremonies. It has long been the centre of public education as well as practitioners of traditional Thai medicine. It also houses snake handlers businesses.

A must see for any visitor is Jim Thompson’s remarkable Thai-style house. Built by the American silk entrepreneur (who virtually single handedly saved the Thai silk industry) from salvaged sections of condemned buildings in the area, the former architect created a fascinating work of art. Inside the building is the real treat. Now a museum, the house contains a permanent collection of Asian artefacts – blue-white China, Cambodian statues, wood carved Burmese statues and a plethora of exquisite antiques all once the property of Thompson whose disappearance in 1967 in the Malaysian Jungle remains a mystery to this day.

There are few places on earth where shopping can be so exciting and in Bangkok, it is virtually a form of entertainment in itself. Haggling is always recommended, but be polite and patient if you want to get the best deals. Bangkok has many great shopping centres where you can buy inexpensive designer gear (often hooky), bootleg music and great antiques and ethnic goods - Oriental Plaza, River City, China town and Bang Lamphu are all hives of retail activity but for a really special Bangkok shopping experience there is only the Weekend market or Chatuchak Market. Be warned, to do this market justice will take the best part of a day out. It is immense and you’re going to get lost at least once. But it is more than worth it. Hot and chaotic, it may well be but if you're looking for bargains this is the place to be. You’ll find items sold in the more tourist orientated areas for as little as one quarter of the price and anything you can buy on the city centre street can generally be found in time.

When it comes to entertainment, Bangkok has it all. Those expecting nothing but sleazy go-go bars pay-to-pick-up joints are in for a surprise. The bar scene is thriving here with pubs opening up all the time. These are mainly themed pubs, which have little resemblance to their British namesakes. Live music is on the increase with many of the larger bars either employing house bands or booking them on a regular basis. You can more or less find a band playing any kind of music you're looking for. The dance scene is colossal with huge disco complexes springing up all over. These state of the art music palaces utilise the very best in laser light technology and cutting edge dance music attracting young trendy Thais in their throngs. Of course, Patpong is still seedy central serving up flesh feasts and favours at a variety of prices (many of them hidden).

Bangkok is certainly not for the faint hearted. It is not somewhere those looking for a relaxing holiday should even consider. Whatever you're looking for it is going to take a reasonable amount of effort to find it, both physical and mental. But it should certainly not be dismissed on the basis of common mythology regarding the long gone GI invasion. Sure, the vice trade is huge and open but it is really only a small part of the Bangkok experience. There are just too many wonderful sights, sounds and tastes to be enjoyed. The street food alone is mind blowingly delicious (and sometimes mind blowingly hot too). The atmosphere is nothing short of electric and the surrounding countryside is simply breathtaking. Bangkok is so unlike anywhere else you have been. It is a virtual cornucopia of the ludicrous and the lavish, as inspiring as it is intimidating. For a taste of the alternative it cannot be beaten. It is the city to end all cities where contradiction abounds and fun is a way of life. Bangkok, ‘The City of Angels’, guaranteed to bring out the devil in you.

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