A stroll down any of Bangkok's thousands of sprawling and labyrinthine alleyways can bring untold adventures for visitors who are keen to unearth the real Thailand. First-time visitors are often amazed by central Bangkok's glittering modernity, and at the same time, delighted by the treasures found amid the grunginess of ramshackle back streets; it's very easy to stumble across hidden markets, museums, or spectacular temples.
Bangkok is famous for being just as vibrant after dark as in the day. Many of its largest boulevards are swathed in fairy lights, and a bevy of swish rooftop bars all offer fantastic night views. Admittedly, things aren't as crazy as roughly a decade ago, when the party scene ran nonstop until dawn, and alcohol flowed day or night. Under laws imposed under ex-Prime Minister Thaksin, all bars and clubs must now close at 1am (though don't be surprised if you find the odd exception). That said, Bangkok has many markets, bars, and clubs open until at least midnight, plus the big department stores and malls don't close until around 9pm -- which should sate even the hardiest shopaholic.
The key to Bangkok's rise lies in the Chao Phraya River, which courses stealthily through its center, feeding a complex network of canals and locks that, until relatively recently, were the focus of city life. Lying just a few miles from the Gulf of Thailand, the river was a major conduit for trade, and the main reason behind its rapid growth. Today, nothing much has changed: Great black barges filled with rice, coal, or sand are towed up and down the river by small yellow tugs; at any time of the day you might spot grey Royal Naval vessels, police on Port Authority jet skis, stout wooden sampans, and even blue barges stacked with Pepsi-Cola bottles, all plying these waters.
In the late 18th century, Thailand's first monarch of the Chakri dynasty, Rama I, moved the capital eastward from Thonburi (a suburb of today's Bangkok) across the river to the district that became known as Rattanakosin Island, so-called due to the man-made canals that surrounded this entire area. Like medieval moats, these canals (klongs) acted as a defensive barrier. Other canals were soon added, channeling the waters of the Chao Phraya into peripheral communities, feeding fish ponds or rice paddies, and nurturing the city's many tropical fruit orchards. These waterways fast became the aquatic boulevards and avenues of this low-lying, swampy city. Apart from structures built for royalty, ordinary Bangkok residents lived on water, in bamboo raft homes, or on boats. As foreign diplomats, missionaries, and writers traveled to Bangkok, they drew parallels with the Italian city of Venice and renamed it the "Venice of the East." Not until the early 1800s were nonroyal houses built on dry land.
Due to the health hazards posed by these open klongs, and the gradual need for more stable land with the advent of vehicular transport, many of the canals were paved over in the last century. By the late 1970s, most of the city's paddy fields had disappeared. In fact, much of today's Bangkok has been reclaimed from former marshland. Fears are growing as global warming raises sea levels and the effects of seasonal flooding on the city are becoming more drastic.
For a glimpse of traditional Thai life, schedule a few hours to explore the waterways. You'll see people using the river to bathe, wash their clothes, and even brush their teeth at water's edge (not recommended). Floating kitchens occupy small motorized canoes from which the pilot-cum-chef serves rice and noodles to the occupants on other boats. Men, wrapped in nothing more than a loincloth, tiptoe across floating carpets of logs en route to the lumber mills; ramshackle huts on stilts adorned with 100-year-old fretwork tumble down into klongs; while at low tide, the rib cages of sunken boats appear out of the oozing mud.
Opportunities abound for exploring Bangkok's small klong networks and river arteries. The most frequently seen boat on the river is the longtail, a needle-shaped craft driven by a raucous outboard engine and covered in a striped awning. These act as river taxis for tourists and locals alike. Private longtails congregate at Maharaj, Chang, and Si Phya public piers and at River City (tel. 02235-3108). If you are confident of your haggling skills, you can try to charter a longtail yourself for about 1,000B an hour -- be sure to agree on the charge before you get in the boat. Note: Beware of independent boat operators who offer to take you to souvenir or gem shops.
Otherwise, if you head to the riverside exit of Saphan Taksin BTS, there's also an official kiosk down on the riverfront, with tour information, including tickets for the hop-on, hop-off Chao Phraya Express (tel. 02623-6001). This runs every half-hour, daily from 9:30am to 4pm, and is a more comfortable option than the (more cramped) longtails or tatty wooden express boats that act as the city's river taxis.
You can also go on a formal tour of the klongs. The following operators can arrange itineraries, with 2-hour tours costing about 1,300B per person, including an English-speaking guide: World Travel (tel. 02233-5900), Sea Tours (tel. 02216-5783), and Diethelm Travel (tel. 02660-7000; www.diethelmtravel.com). Any hotel concierge can also make arrangements.
However you tour the klongs, take the time to explore Klong Bangkok Noi and Klong Bangkok Yai. Also stop at the Royal Barge Museum, a wonderful riverside hangar crammed with long, narrow vessels covered in gilt carvings, brought out only to commemorate rare events such as a milestone in the monarch's reign or the visit of a dignitary.
Many visitors are disappointed by the hugely commercial (some may say overrated) floating market at Damnoen Saduak, about 80km (50 miles) southwest of Bangkok, in Ratchaburi Province. A better and more authentic experience is to head upstream to picturesque Ko Kret.
Cultural & Wellness Pursuits
Culture is all around you in Thailand -- and there are ample opportunities to take part in the daily activities, festivals, ceremonies, events, and practices that weave the fabric of this society. Keep an eye on free magazines, such as BK Magazine, or local newspapers, The Nation and Bangkok Post, for major events during your stay. You may want to check with the TAT (tel. 1155) or the Bangkok Tourism Bureau (tel. 02225-7612), though these organizations may not always be as well informed as the local press. The best part of Thai festivals is that, whether getting soaked by buckets of water at Songkran or watching candlelit floats drift downstream at Loy Krathong, foreign visitors are usually invited to join in. Thais are very proud of their cultural heritage, and opportunities abound to learn and participate.
Thai Cooking -- Fancy a chance to take back some of the delicious recipes you have been feasting on? Thai cooking is fun and easy, and there are a few good hands-on courses in Bangkok. You'll learn about Thai herbs, spices, and unique local produce. You'll never look at a produce market the same again. Lectures on Thai regional cuisine, cooking techniques, and menu planning complement classroom exercises to prepare all your favorite dishes. The best part is afterward, when you get to eat them.
- The Oriental Cooking School is located in a quaint colonial house across the river from the famed hotel. Morning courses run daily (except Sun), and end with lunch. Their chefs are excellent, and you'll learn, through demonstration and practice, every aspect of Thai cooking. The course is open to anyone from beginner to expert. Different dishes are taught each day, so you can attend for a week and always learn something new. The cost is 4,000B person, per day. Call the hotel at tel. 02659-9000
- The Blue Elephant is part of a large, Belgian-owned Thai restaurant chain popular throughout Europe. The cookery school stands in the same locale as the restaurant, a yellow-painted mansion close to the Surasak BTS. Classes begin at 8:45am, with a visit to the market to pick up fresh ingredients for the day. Back in the classroom, you'll first watch demonstrations before stepping up to your own cooking station to practice what you've learned under the watchful eye of a teacher. Afterward, you can share your creations with the rest of the class, as part of a delicious lunch spread. Visit them at 233 S. Sathorn Rd., just below Surasak BTS, or call tel. 02673-9353 (www.blueelephant.com). One-day (group) courses cost 2,800B per person; private classes are also available.
- The woman behind Mrs. Balbir's is hilarious, dedicated, and an indefatigable charity worker as well as a TV star. The giggles that abound in the home of this regionally acclaimed, Malaysian-born chef are all part of the fun. Because Vinder Balbir is fluent in several languages (including English and Thai), these lessons are much more informative and interactive than most. She will carefully explain why a particular type of herb is required or what ingredients can be used as replacements in your home country. True to her ethnic roots, she can also teach fabulous Punjabi cuisine, as well as Thai. After an afternoon (2-6pm) spent cooking with Mrs. B., you'll leave filled with good humor and great food. Courses start at 2,000B per person and take place above her restaurant (tel. 02651-0498), in the first sub-soi at 155/1-2 Sukhumvit Rd. (Soi 11, close to Nana BTS). For all course inquiries, call her restaurant Tuesday to Sunday from 11am to 2pm or 6 to 11pm. Or see the website www.mrsbalbir.com.
Thai Massage -- A traditional Thai massage involves manipulating your limbs to stretch each muscle and then applying acupressure techniques to loosen up tense muscles and start energy flowing. Your body will be twisted, pulled, and sometimes pounded in the process.
For Thai massage to be beneficial, it should be fairly rigorous and at times it can be punishing: If the therapist is loath to use pressure from the start, you'll know you are wasting your time. If you chose a streetside spa, chose one away from tourist areas -- such as Khao San, Sukhumvit, or Silom roads, where Thais are patrons. Note: Many massage parlors on Silom and Sukhumvit roads are fronts for brothels, where (male) tourists will be propositioned for a variety of sexual favors.
There are countless spas and massage parlors around Bangkok; many offer good services at very reasonable rates, such as the humongous Healthland (120 Sathorn Rd.; tel. 02637-8883; www.healthlandspa.com), which operates a bit like a neon-lit, spa production line, or the quieter Ruen-Nuad (tel. 02632-2662), a small but homey spa tucked in a small soi opposite the BNH Hospital on Soi Convent (btw. Silom and Sathorn rds.). It offers excellent foot massages as well as authentic Thai massage.
Wat Po has long been promoted as the only place to learn Thai massage, and though it's cheaper than some, it's still pretty overrated. These days, better options abound. Good courses are offered at the Sukhumvit Road location of the award-winning Chiva-Som Academy (tel. 02711-5270; www.chivasomacademy.com). These cover therapies such as Reiki and other alternative treatments; but Bangkok's finest spas are almost always those in the most respected hotels, where time and money are invested in training and language skills. The Banyan Tree Spa (tel. 02679-1052-4; www.banyantree.com) and the Oriental Spa & Ayurvedic Penthouse (tel. 02659-9000; www.mandarin-oriental.com/bangkok/spa) are two of the finest places going, but they come with a hefty price -- you're paying for expertise that leaves your muscles soothed, gets your blood flowing, and gives you a feeling of unparalleled well-being.
Budget spas that use untrained staff with no English skills make for not just an unpleasant experience, but a potentially painful one. If your masseuse doesn't understand a word of English, or there is no one to help translate your needs or aspects of your current health, such as varicose veins or respiratory or skin conditions, you are taking a serious risk.
Thai Boxing -- Muaythai, or Thai boxing, is Thailand's national sport, and a visit to either of the two venues in Bangkok, or in towns all over Thailand, displays a very different side to the usually gentle Thai culture. The mystical prebout rituals, live musical performances, and, of course, the frenetic gambling, appeal to fans of this raw, and often bloody, spectacle. In Bangkok, catch up to 15 bouts nightly at either of two stadiums. The Ratchadamnoen Stadium (Ratchadamnoen Nok Ave.; tel. 02281-4205) hosts fights on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, while the Lumphini Stadium, on Rama IV Road (tel. 02251-4303), has bouts on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. Tickets cost 1,000B to 2,000B at both venues; ringside seats are only bookable in advance. In the second-class seats, you may still have a good view of the action in the ring and will see close-ups of the gambling action. The guys with multiple cellphones screaming and shouting often overshadow the action in the ring.
Keen to try some kicks and punches yourself? Check out the website www.muaythai.com, which details training camps for rookies.
Meditation -- The House of Dhamma (tel. 02511-0439; www.houseofdhamma.com) and Wat Mahathat serve as meditation centers for overseas students of Buddhism. The latter is one of Thailand's largest Buddhist Universities and has become a popular center for meditation lessons, with English-speaking monks overseeing students of Vipassana, also called Insight Meditation. Instruction is held daily; call ahead (tel. 02222-6011) to get the schedule and to make an appointment. Both offer good introductions to basic techniques.
Thai Language Study -- So you've learned your "Sawadee-khrup" or "Sawadee-kha," but want to take it a little farther from there? Thais are very gracious and welcoming with foreigners butchering their language (the tones make you pronounce the most mundane phrases in laughable ways), but there are a few good schools in Bangkok to help you get the pronunciations right. Among the many offered, try the superlative American University Alumni Language Center (179 Ratchadamri Rd.; tel. 02252-8170) or the Union Language School (7th Floor, 328 CCT Office Building, Phayathai Rd.; tel. 02214-6033).
Lovers of all things reptilian can witness a sight rarely encountered anywhere else. The Red Cross Snake Farm, at 1871 Rama IV Rd. (tel. 02252-0161), is located in the heart of Bangkok. Don't expect a bucolic "farm" setting; in fact, this is nothing more than a cluster of pretty colonial buildings, in the heart of the city, that provide a research institute for the study of venomous snakes. Established in 1923, this was the second facility of its type in the world. For a fee of 200B, you can see slide shows and snake-handling demonstrations weekdays at 11am and 2:30pm, and on weekends and holidays at 11am. You can also watch the handlers work with deadly cobras and (equally poisonous) banded kraits, with demonstrations of venom milking. The venom is later injected into horses, which produce antivenin for the treatment of snakebites in humans. The Red Cross Snake Farm sells medical guides and will also inoculate you against such maladies as typhoid, cholera, and smallpox, in their clinic. The institute is open daily Monday to Friday 8:30am to 4:30pm, Saturday and Sunday 8:30am to noon.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.