Bangkok is a heaving scrum of humanity that blends ancient beauty, booming youth culture and the rituals of a bygone age. What will hit you is the size, pace, endless cacophony, friendliness of the locals and interminable gridlocked traffic. The pavements are humming with open-air kitchens, clothes stalls and hawkers, while backstreets are smothered in alluring exotic aromas. Get over the shock and you’ll have a ball. This is one of the most engaging cities on the planet, and its infectious, amiable energy soon captivates even the most staid and cynical traveller.
Some of the old King and I romanticism does persist in the khlongs, palaces and temples of the Old City. But, ultimately, what marks Bangkok out is its thrusting modernity side by side with the ancient traditions of Thai culture. Here a futuristic transport system rubs shoulders with lumbering elephants; alms-collecting monks wander past cybercafés, and vast neon, steel and glass structures overlook crumbling teak villas.
With your senses fully overloaded don’t forget the sheer luxury that’s on offer. Bangkok is home to some of the best and most affordable hotels in the world. Add the numerous spas, the super-hip nightlife and the incredibly diverse range of markets and shops selling everything from amulets and sarongs to Prada and hi-tech gadgets – your head will be spinning.
Begin your stay in the bejewelled beauty of the Old City. Here you’ll find the regal heart of Bangkok: the stupendous Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaeo. The charming Golden Mount is a short hop to the east, while to the south are the bewildering alleyways and gaudy temples of Bangkok’s frenetic Chinatown. Head west over the Chao Phraya River to the magnificent spire of Wat Arun and the khlongs of Thonburi. To the north sits the broad, leafy avenues of Dusit, the home of the Thai parliament and the king’s residence.
Carry on east and south and you’ll reach modern Bangkok. A multitude of mini-boutiques forms Siam Square and the centre of youth fashion; Silom and Sukhumvit roads are vibrant runs of shopping centres, restaurants and hotels, while the Chatuchak Weekend Market (known to locals as JJ) in the northern suburbs is one of Asia’s greatest markets. When the urban theatre of Bangkok finally overwhelms, take a day trip to the ancient summer residence of the Thai kings at Bang Pa In or drift upriver to Nonthaburi for its provincial charm.