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Golden Buddhas in the Wat Saket Temple in Bangkok
Golden Buddhas in the Wat Saket Temple in Bangkok Getty Images

Bangkok is a remarkable Asian city of royal and religious splendors, high growth, surging population, and giant traffic problems resulting from the transformation of an ancient capital of the East into an economic powerhouse. Because of the low costs of Thailand, factories and corporate headquarters have sprouted everywhere. Clusters of tall skyscrapers look down on two-hundred-year-old Buddhist temples and shrines, majestic palaces, old canals, and narrow alleylike streets lined with the mahogany homes of the 19th century.

Centuries ago, Bangkok was a "village of wild palms," which is what Bangkok means in Thai. (And "Thai" means "free"). Two hundred years ago, when King Rama I decided to build his new capital city here (it had been up river at Ayuddhaya), he renamed it Krung Thep ("City of Angels," as in Los Angeles), but the unofficial "Bangkok" remains the name known to all the world.

Royal pageantry is one good reason to visit Bangkok. Special parades of gold and scarlet royal barges take place periodically along the majestic Chao Phraya River ("River of Kings") and are a thrilling spectacle. Even when celebrations are not in progress, you can see the boats in their boathouse near the Royal Palace.

Encountering the Thais is a better reason to visit Bangkok. They are a gentle and kind people, peaceful and nonviolent, and more visibly related to the practice of Buddhism than those of just about any nation on earth. Buddhism is both the religion and the outlook of nearly 100% of the nation, and it is still a requirement for every boy to leave his family for a period of time and undergo religious training in a Buddhist monastery. (Part of the youngster's daily ritual consists of going through the streets with what westerners call a begging bowl and obtaining food from the faithful for daily sustenance.) Commentators for centuries have remarked on the self-effacing nature of the Thais, and it is interesting to watch them at their daily activities. You might have a taxi driver, as I once did, who took his hands off the steering wheel each time we passed a Buddhist temple, to make a "wei" with his hands, a wei being the universal symbol of holding palm pressed flatly against palm, in front of you, in homage.

A third reason to visit Bangkok is to shop. It's easy, in fact, to become a shopaholic in Bangkok, where jewelry, fashions, and handicrafts are outstanding, and reasonably priced. Lacquerware combined with inlaid mother-of-pearl is unique to Thailand. Thai silks are stunning, and clothes can be custom tailored in record time and for very little. Pottery and silverware are beautifully crafted. Handsome leather accessories are popular. Dazzling gems and pure gold are combined in intricate designs. Collectors of art, sculpture, and Asian antiques will find real treasures (though Thai authorities are very fussy about letting real antiques out and will not, in particular, permit any image of Buddha out of the country, antique or not). Specialty shops, boutiques, galleries, outdoor markets, and ultramodern shopping malls have almost everything you could ever want.

Finally, gourmets love Bangkok for its distinctive cuisine, and the presentation of food can be exquisite. Don't be surprised if, even in a fast-food place, your lunch is garnished by a rose carved from a cucumber or a flower from a tomato. As far back as the ancient regime of King Rama II, court ladies began the practice of carving flowers from fruits and vegetables.

Orientation & Getting Around

Arriving at Bangkok Airport, you have a choice of (1) taxi, from a special taxi desk in the arrival area, around US$6, to downtown; (2) limousine, from a special limousine desk in the arrival area, US$12; or (3) airport bus, about US$2.50. Choosing the latter, be sure to have someone write down the name of your hotel and its area. And on returning to the airport by taxi, be sure to have the hotel doorman write down the name of your airline in Thai, as Thai taxi drivers often cannot read the English-language (or Roman letter) signs at the airport.

Getting around within Bangkok is best accomplished on foot, by water taxi, or regular taxi (the last two are very cheap). There is also the "tuk-tuk," little three wheel motorcycles or bicycle contraptions, but the driver of these may have difficulty understanding where you want to go.

For reasons we'll outline elsewhere, it is not a good idea to rent a car for getting around the horrendous traffic and difficult-to-find locations of Bangkok. But there are numerous car rental offices in hotels and elsewhere, from which you can rent a car for making day trips into the outskirts of Bangkok.

The city consists of several distinct neighborhoods, each with different attractions, such as the Old Royal City (perfect for walking tours, once you get there by public bus, taxi, public riverboat, or organized tour); New Royal City, Silom (for upscale restaurants, shopping, nightlife, and riverside hotels); Siam Square (for some of the best shopping centers and interesting hotels); and Sukhumvit Road (known for excellent Thai restaurants, good shopping and nightlife). A bustling Chinatown and adjacent Little India are also interesting. Try to do your walking in the cool of the early morning or evening.

Bangkok's traffic is rightfully described as unbelievably bad. Over a million cars are registered, and they all seem to be on the expressways and streets at the same time. What is actually a 20-minute taxi ride can turn out to require an hour, during the rush hours. You should plan your sightseeing and shopping at off-hours. And the same for bus tours; try to time them so you don't sit in a traffic jam for hours. Walking tours, if you can manage them, are the best idea.

Hotels usually have good free maps with attractions marked. When taking a taxi (inexpensive here), have the doorman write your destination in Thai, and take along your hotel business card with its address in Thai.

Visitors quickly learn that one way to get around Bangkok easily, pleasantly, and inexpensively is to take a water taxi (very cheap) from docks located on the Chao Phraya River. The Royal Orchid Sheraton, Shangri-La, and Oriental hotels all have docks, which the public can use.

Sightseeing boats cruise to many of the top attractions, and you may disembark and catch a different boat back. You can also hire boats or join a group on a boat for sightseeing and very casual shopping. Tour desks at the hotel will make arrangements for you.

Chief Sights & Attractions

In the Old Royal City alone, Bangkok has such spectacular sights that one day is not enough for seeing everything. No one should miss the Grand Palace with its temple complex, Wat Pra Keo, and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It is considered one of Southeast Asia's most dramatic sights and is the nation's most sacred and important temple complex. Three times a year, the holy garments on the Emerald Buddha are changed to a gold robe (cool season), or a gold diamond-studded tunic (hot season) or the gold monk's robe (rainy season). The entire palace-temple complex is filled with stunning treasures and art.

The National Museum, also in the Old Royal City, is fascinating, with its Buddha images, costumes, and decorative art. This one is said to be Southeast Asia's largest museum, and it is so comprehensive in its exhibits that you won't challenge that statement.

In the New Royal City (also known as Dusit), you'll want to see the Marble Temple (Wat Benjamabopit) of Italian white Carrara marble, built by King Rama V to house 53 Buddha statues and the large gold statue of Pra Buddha Cinarat.

In Chinatown, the popular, heavily visited Wat Traimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha) houses the world's largest golden Buddha. Though the wat itself is currently in a state of disrepair and the area over touristed (indeed, something of a tourist trap), the Buddha is said to be of pure gold (or at least 75% that way), and the crowds come to stare at that phenomenon.

Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn), covered with thousands of pieces of Chinese porcelain, is on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, in Thonburi, and is another of the country's largest religious monuments.

In this area is also the Royal Barges Museum, with 50 beautifully restored longboats, which come out on the river for special royal celebrations. My favorite is Sri Suphannahongse, the main barge, with a mythical swan carved into the prow. It's the largest boat of its kind in the world, requiring 54 oarsmen (and a drummer) to keep it going.

The Floating Market is of course world-famous (you've seen its photographs of sellers and buyers, each in narrow, sliver-boats, the seller's boat piled with colorful vegetables). The waterway is a "klong," the vessel a longboat, and the entire complex has become--to my eye--something of a tourist trap, and less of an actual people's market.

Most Americans insist on visiting the home of Jim Thompson, in addition to his downtown store of high-quality silks in every breathtaking, bright hue (the latter is probably the most heavily patronized shop in Thailand). Thompson is the former OSS agent of World War II fame, who then undoubtedly became an agent of the CIA in the post-war years. During a hiking trip (probably a mission) to Malaysia in 1967, during the time of the Communist insurgency there, he disappeared without a trace, and not even the slightest clue as to what happened has ever emerged. His home--a complex of seven combined and attached teak houses--is now his memorial and his museum, displaying his own carefully gathered collection of costly Asian antiques. A visit will give you some idea of what an upper-class Thai traditional home looked like in those times.

Two hotels have unusual shrines. The one at the Grand Hyatt Erawan was erected when its predecessor, the Erawan, suffered a series of mishaps during its construction. When the contractors erected the Erawan Shrine at the corner of the lot, all the disasters ended, and word went out that Erawan (or Ganesh) would grant any favor. On the Hilton grounds is the Chao Tuptim (pomegranate goddess) shrine, where the traditional offering is a painted wooden phallus (of which there are now hundreds on display), offered for both fertility and good luck.

Introduction to Lodgings

Like so many cities in countries that have become newly rich, Bangkok has an oversupply of expensive, super-deluxe hotels, a couple of them consistently rated "the best in the world" by frequent business travelers. And yet some of the budget variety, if carefully sought out, can prove to be exceptional finds, often providing nearly first-class amenities for modest prices.

Foreign visitors want to be as close to the major tourist sights as possible, so many of Bangkok's better hotels are clustered around that golden area surrounding the Royal Palace, and almost anyplace to stay worthy of mention is on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River or within a few blocks of it. While there is much building of new hotels in the more remote business and financial districts, those are for people with commercial reasons to visit Bangkok, and I've sought to confine my own selections to the central areas of touristic interest.

By the way, it is often possible to bargain down the rates of hotels in Bangkok with a phone call made in advance of actually arriving in their lobbies.

Generally speaking, hotel rates here are among the least costly of any major capital city, and they fall into the following categories: (1) the deluxe hotels, charging the Thai equivalent of $200 to rarely more than $300 for a double or twin-bed room; (2) the quality hotels charging from $150 to $199 for a double; (3) the moderately priced category charging $100 to $149 per double; (4) the upper budget variety charging $70 to $99 per double; (5) the lower budget kind charging from $40 to $69 per double; (6) and the rock bottom, with rooms for under $40 double.

Unless otherwise stated, rates do not include 10% service charge or applicable government taxes.

Top Hotels

The Regent Bangkok, 155 Rajdamri Road, Bangkok 10330, overlooking the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, phone 251-6127, fax 253-9195, Rates for singles or doubles are US$168 to US$300 for a deluxe room, and US$300 to US$450 for a suite.
Despite my affection for the famous Oriental Hotel (see below), The Regent has to be given top billing in Bangkok these days. Its luxurious amenities and facilities are simply beyond compare (it is often named as the "world's best hotel"), and its remarkable service must be experienced to be fully appreciated. Its guest rooms are like museums of home decor. The hotel is built in three towers of nine, eight, and seven floors, connected like Thai villas, and contain a total of 356 rooms, all spacious and exquisitely furnished. Each tower opens onto tropical gardens and the cabana rooms in particular are in a beflowered, fantasy island-type setting. Outside is a grand swimming pool, of course, a fitness gym and a business center that opens onto a glass-enclosed garden with cascading waterfall and golden carp-filled pond; only the most single-minded business traveler can manage to conduct any business there--the more sensitive are distracted by that beauty. You'll feel good about this place even as you enter between statues of white elephants, decorated daily with fresh flowers.

The Oriental, 48 Oriental Avenue, Bangkok 10500, on eastern bank of Chao Phraya River, phone 659-9000, fax 659-0000, Rates for single or double are US$280 to US$300 for a superior room, US$340 for a deluxe room, and suites start at US$430.
To many, this is still the Queen of Bangkok hotels, the choice of Somerset Maugham and other famous writers and adventurers, the old haven of safety for roving colonials a hundred years ago. There is still the old building, but some prefer the more modern amenities of the new tower. Each of 393 large rooms and 35 suites (on 15 floors) is exquisitely decorated in Thai style, comfortable beyond measure, and serviced with the kind of attitudes and attentions that can only be supplied by a hotel that has 1,000 employees for its maximum of 800 guests. Like the Regent, the Oriental is often named "best hotel in the world" in various magazine competitions. Bellboys dressed like the King of Siam in The King and I are among the colorful touches. And several excellent restaurants are operated, together with an "Author's Lounge" filled with old Bangkok memorabilia and fascinating photos of earlier Bangkok scenes on its silk-covered walls.

The Sukhothai, 13/3 South Sathorn Road, Bangkok 10120, on Embassy Row, phone 287-0222, fax 285-0303, Published rates start at US$390, but you can get rates as low as US$189 to US$205 for a single, and US$209 to US$225 for a double.
The decor of the Sukhothai is authentically Thai, influenced by the pagodas of the ancient Thai capital for which it is named. You can even see reflections of copycat Sukhothai stupas (akin to pagodas) in the hotel's reflecting pools. Set in six acres, the hotel is not only designed to evoke the old capital, but the furniture in its 226 rooms was hand-made to replicate traditional Thai fittings. Guest rooms have all the deluxe amenities that one might name, in addition to separate showers and second telephones in bathrooms, among other such touches. Public facilities include three restaurants, health club, huge swimming pool, squash courts, and floodlit tennis courts. The hotel itself is a series of four- to eight-story buildings, set on six acres that have been lushly developed to resemble as much of the untamed tropics as you can duplicate in a city garden. Opened in 1991.

Quality hotels

Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok, 4904 Rajdamri Road, Bangkok 10330, on the site of the old Erawan Hotel, phone 254-1234, fax 254-6308, The average standard rate for both singles or doubles is US$179 to US$199, minimum two-night stay.
Away from the river, in the center of the city, the Hyatt enjoys the protection of the Erawan Shrine, whose guardian deity bestows good fortune on the faithful. In 1991, the old Erawan was torn down and replaced by this new building, which has 387 large rooms and suites (on 16 floors of a 22-story tower of unusual design). Guest rooms come with walk-in closets, spectacular furniture, wide beds, marble bathrooms, and all the other usual amenities and facilities of its category. The hotel displays over $1 million worth of Thai art and European antiques. There is, of course, a 24-hour Business Center and Fitness Club, a lagoon pool, tennis and squash courts, jogging track, seven restaurants, and a necktie rejuvenation center, where ties are taken apart, cleaned, and sewn back together again.

Shangri-la Hotel, 89 Soi Wat Suan Plu, Bangkok 10500, on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, phone 236-7777, fax 236-8566, Rates are singles from US$162, doubles from US$174.
One of the newest of Bangkok's hotels, the Shangri-La is both glamorous and stunning, a glittering complex, its 860 rooms arranged in two tall buildings (one of 25 floors, the other of 14 floors) right along the Chao Phraya River in the general neighborhood of its distinguished predecessors, the Oriental and the Sheraton. Nearly every guest room has a view of that busy river. Among the public facilities are a spectacular swimming pool, health club, tennis courts, business center, and lots of restaurants.

Montien Riverside Hotel, 372 Rama III Road, Bangkok 10120, in new business and financial district, phone 292-2999, fax 292-2962, Rates are standard room are single US$140, double US$154; and for a superior room single or double US$172.
Although the Riverside is on the Chao Phraya River, it's not close to the tourist area near the Oriental Hotel but down south around the first bend of the river. It's still on the right (eastern) bank of the river, however, so you won't be inconvenienced by the location at all. If you're a leisure traveler wanting to save money, but desiring a major hotel of modern amenities, you couldn't do better than this. Its size? Big enough to house 500 beautifully appointed rooms and suites on the 27 floors of a uniquely designed tower. Facilities include pool, health club, dance studio, business center, three restaurants, and a coffee shop. And service is helped by the fact that there are 650 staff for a maximum of about 925 guests.

Moderately Priced hotels

Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers, 2 Captain Bush Lane, Siphya Road, Bangkok 10500, well located on eastern bank of the Chao Phraya, phone 266-0123, fax 236-9211, Published rates start at US$210, but you can always get rooms for much less. During high season for single or double rooms rates range from US$146 to US$166), junior suites are US$140 and Executive suites are US$170). During low season the rates drop US$20 to US$40.
Like its neighbor, the Oriental, the Sheraton is right on the river, a handy location for using water taxis to get around Bangkok quickly (this point can not be overstressed, and won't be by you, once you've come to know the awfulness of Bangkok's traffic, quite possibly the worst in the world). Each of 450 spacious and well-furnished rooms (on 28 floors) is filled with the usual high-quality furnishings, brilliantly chosen and designed; and public facilities include two swimming pools, a jogging track, tennis courts, a golf driving range, business and fitness clubs, and eight restaurants. It's also a shopper's paradise here, as an air-conditioned bridge leads from the hotel to the adjacent River City Shopping Center, a miniworld of classy boutiques, art galleries, antique shops, and refreshment oases. Finally, there's a helipad for direct connection to the airport.

Amari Boulevard Hotel, 2 Soi 5 Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok 10110, a few steps off Sukhumvit Road, phone 255-2930, fax 255-2950, Rates for superior rooms are singles US$120 to US$156, doubles US$128 to US$158; for deluxe rooms, singles US$137 to US$180, doubles US$146 to US$195. The Amari Boulevard frequently runs specials, so be sure to check for lower rates.
This hotel has 300 average-size rooms in a 25-story building, plus a bevy of benefits: business and fitness center, outrider pool, restaurant, travel agency, and 24-hour lobby bar.

Dusit Thani Hotel, 946 Rama IV Road, across the street from Lumpini Park, phone 236-9999, fax 636-6400, The published rates for both single and double are the Thai equivalent of US$190, but rates of US$110 to USD$120 are available most of the time. Rates include breakfast.
The Dusit Thani is a little bit off center geographically, but perfect for guests wanting to jog in nearby Lumpini Park, Bangkok's answer to New York's Central Park and London's Hyde Park. One of Bangkok's first new-era hotels (dating back to the 1970s), it now has an even newer tower annex, causing the room total to climb to 520 (including a few suites). Each room is decorated in modified Thai style, more modern than most. There's a health center, business center, huge pool, and seven restaurants featuring Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and "Californian fusion cuisine," in addition to Thai and normal Western varieties.

Four Wings Hotel, 40 Sukhumvit Road, 26 Klongoey, Bangkok 10110, off Bangkok's most popular shopping street, phone 260-2100, fax 260-2300. Rates are singles from US$108 to US$124 for a single or a double.
Named for the four interconnecting wings of the hotel, this is a fairly new, 17-story building, with 325 very well-appointed rooms and suites. Though its published rates are those set forth above, one of my associates upon walking in was offered a price of only US$104 for a single room, a real bargain for such an attractive hotel. Facilities include fitness and business centers, pool, fitness center, and restaurants.

Upper Budget hotels

The Montien Hotel, 54 Surawongse Road, Bangkok 10500, across the street from Patpong's Night Bazaar, phone 233-7060, fax 236-5218, Rates are single US$98, double US$108.
The Montien is one of the older of the Bangkok hotels, nicely sited and with a relaxing atmosphere. In the pleasantly decorated lobby, with French overtones, you can relax amidst the greenery while looking out onto a blossom-sprinkled reflecting pool. The 500 spacious rooms on 16 floors are well furnished. Other hotel facilities include three restaurants, a karaoke club, a fitness club, and a big swimming pool.

Regency Park, 12/3 Sukhumvit, 22 Soi Sainamthip, Bangkok 10110, in an upscale business district, phone 011-66-2-259-7420, fax 011-66-2-258-2862. Rates year-round are US$49 per single room, US$96 double or twin, US$124 for a suite.
This is another thoroughly modern Bangkok hotel with 120 air-conditioned rooms, designed to charge reasonable rates, a boutique hotel without the round-the-clock room and laundry service of the costlier hotels, but thoroughly comfortable for undemanding tourists. It has a restaurant and bar, outside swimming pool, fitness center, free parking, and multichannel TV in rooms.

Siam City Hotel, 477 Sri Ayuthaya Road, Bangkok 10400, across the street from the Marble Temple, phone 247-0123, fax 247-0174, Rates are single US$76, and double US$85.
Swathed in glass, an ultramodern facade, the 23-story Siam City (in two wings) contains 500 attractive rooms with many of the amenities that would normally be found in a higher-category deluxe hotel, like a second phone in the bathroom. Its businesswoman owner, Kamala Sukosol, has installed as much Thai art, handcarved cabinets, and silk bedspreads as she can. Among public facilities are a really excellent health club, outdoor pool, two-level shopping pavilion, five restaurants, business center, and Club Erte, Bangkok's only art-deco nightclub. Free shuttle service to shopping malls and elsewhere. Siam City was a recent winner of the "Thai Traveler Awards," named second only to the Oriental for "Best Overall Service," and runner-up as the city's favorite hotel for the business traveler.

Royal Princess, 269 Larn Luang Road, Pomprab, Bangkok 10100, near the Royal Palace, phone 281-3088, fax 280-1314, Rates, single and double, start at around US$70.
An affiliate of the Dusit Thani (see elsewhere in this report), to which there is a regular shuttle service, the Princess is a charming hotel of 170 rooms. Its Thai decor is refined and subtle, and its serene ambiance is enhanced in the afternoons, when a pianist plays softly in the lobby lounge. Public facilities include fitness and business centers, a swimming pool, and three restaurants (Chinese, Japanese, and Italian).

Lower Budget hotels

Tai-Pan Hotel, 25 Sukhumvit 23, Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok 10110, on one of Bangkok's most important streets, phone 260-9888, fax 259-7908, Rates are US$48 for a single, US$52 for a double, and US$107 for a suite.
A thoroughly modern tower of 16 stories, with 146 large and modern rooms and suites equipped with every up-to-date amenity, this is the sort of first-class hotel for which you'd normally expect to pay far more; and yet--intent on high occupancy--its policy is to charge the moderate prices listed above, which prevail throughout the year. It is located on Sukhumvit Road, one of Bangkok's main streets, obviously close to every kind of shopping and entertainment. Public facilities include a business center, souvenir shop, restaurant, bar, outdoor swimming pool, and fitness center.

Rock Bottom lodgings

YMCA Collins International House, 27 South Sathorn Road, Bangkok 10120, behind the Alliance Francaise and the German Embassy, phone 677-6240, fax 677-6246. Rates are single US$23 to US$27, double US$27 to US$32. Extra bed is US$10.
This outstanding lodging is more a hotel than a Y, and for women as well as men, despite the official title. The unusually attractive Y consists of 147 air-conditioned rooms with private bathrooms at Collins House and 105 rooms in the new Embassy Wing (13 floors), complete with bathtubs and showers, TV, refrigerator, in-room safe and more. Among the Ys facilities are an enormous swimming pool, gym, business center, travel agency, airport shuttle, gift shop, handicrafts center, coffee shop, and 24-hour snack bar. This is really a first-class hotel, but without the cost of first-class amenities. (It even has a convention hall!)

Nana Hotel, 4 Nana Tai, Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok 10110, near Nana Entertainment Plaza, phone 252-0121, fax 255-1769, Rates are single or double US$26, including government tax.
The 334 rooms here are small and basic, like a motel's, and the 12-floor building has little to recommend it except cleanliness and convenient location. Most rooms have a TV and a small refrigerator, and I particularly liked room 184, with its small balcony. There's a swimming pool on the second floor and a popular restaurant and bar in the lobby.

Jim's Lodge, 125/7 Soi Ruam Rudee, behind the U.S. Embassy and next to the Egyptian Embassy, phone 255-3100, fax 253-8492. Rates are singles or doubles from US$21 to US$24.
Pronounced "Yim," the hotel's name (and its owner's) means "smile" in Thai, and this is a good bargain, enough to make you smile. There are 75 nicely furnished rooms in this seven-story building, though they are rather small, but hotel facilities include a little garden, small swimming pool and sundeck, and a cheerful little restaurant in the lobby.

Maxim's Inn, 131/21-23 Sukhumvit Soi 9 (Soi Ruen Chit), Bangkok 10110, just off the expressway to the airport, phone 252-9911, fax 253-5329. Rates are single from US$15.50 to US$18, double US$19.
In a small alley off Sukkhumvit Road, Maxim's can be cheaper than it advertises. As a walk-in, I was once quoted lower-than-advertised prices and told that breakfast would be included. (The normal price for a breakfast is US$1.) The hotel's carpeted rooms are quite pleasant and adequate, with TV, small refrigerator, and a shower in the bathroom. It's just a short walk from here to department stores and shops.