BEGUILING AND BEWILDERING, subtle and brash, spiritual and sensual—Bangkok is all these and more. Once known as the Venice of the East because of its dependence on canals for transport, Bangkok today is a bustling metropolis with some of Asia’s top hotels, restaurants, and shopping centers. Though the city’s main sights are temples and palaces, what stays in the minds of most visitors are encounters with ordinary people. This is when the famous Thai smile appears, cutting across cultural boundaries to forge a genuine bond.
Author Ron Emmons Photography Dave Lauridsen
DAY ONE / Discover this enigmatic city from the Four Seasons Hotel, in the heart of the main shopping district just a few steps from the nearest skytrain station. Sumptuously furnished rooms are decorated with hand-painted silk murals. The staff is attentive and polite, and the pool, spa and boutique plaza are a joy to return to after exploring the city.
Have a filling breakfast at the hotel before heading out for a busy day. Turn left out of the hotel and enter the Rajadamri Skytrain Station. Buy a stored-value ticket (440 baht) and avoid ticket queues for the rest of your trip. Take the skytrain to Saphan Taksin, go down the steps to Tha Sathorn (tha means “pier”), and take a Chao Phraya Express Ferry to Tha Chang, keeping an eye on the busy river traffic along the way. From Tha Chang, walk straight ahead to the entrance of Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha); buy a ticket (keep it for free admission to Vimanmek Palace tomorrow) and prepare for a visual feast as you enter one of Asia’s most spectacular temple complexes.
In the cloisters, take a look at the intricate murals that illustrate the Ramakian epic (a Thai version of the Indian Ramayana). Then stroll along the upper terrace, past the golden Phra Si Ratana Chedi, the mosaic-studded scripture library, and the Royal Pantheon, where brightly colored statues of monkeys and demons support two gilt stupas. Next comes the most important aspect of the entire complex for many Thais: the tiny jade Buddha image that resides in the Emerald Buddha Temple itself. Observe devout Buddhists offering incense and flowers in front of the temple; then remove your shoes and sit inside, soaking up the spiritual atmosphere.
Walk on through the intriguing fusion of Western and Eastern architectural styles in the Grand Palace. This is the former home of the Thai royal family and is still used for certain royal ceremonies. The most striking building here is the Dusit Hall, which is capped by an ornate, four-tiered roof. By now, you’re probably ready for some refreshment, so head across the road from the temple complex to Na Phra Lan Café, just left of the post office. The café is air-conditioned and serves a variety of rice and noodle dishes as well as steaks and salads. Eat upstairs if you want peace and quiet.
After lunch, walk around the west side of the crenellated walls of the Grand Palace to Wat Pho, Bangkok’s biggest and oldest temple. The main attraction here is the gleaming, 151-foot-long reclining Buddha image, the feet of which are inlaid with beautiful mother-of-pearl designs. There’s plenty more to see at Wat Pho, including almost 100 stupas and statues, but the sun will be getting fierce so it’s time to retreat. Head up the east wall of the Grand Palace to the Lak Muang (City Pillar). Every Thai town has such a pillar, believed to be the home of its guardian spirit. In fact, this shrine has two pillars—one for Bangkok and one for neighboring Thonburi. It’s obvious that Thai Buddhists believe strongly in the spirit world when you stroll through the Amulet Market on Maharat Road, near the pier at Tha Chang. Here you’ll see intense-looking Thais studying tiny amulets with magnifying glasses as they consider their purchases. These amulets cost from a few cents to thousands of dollars, depending on their supposed protective powers.
Retrace your journey by river express and skytrain to the tranquil hotel lobby and rest over a cup of tea or take a dip in the pool. At 7 p.m., take the skytrain back to Saphan Taksin and walk or take a cab a couple of blocks north to the Oriental Hotel, where you have reservations for an evening dinner cruise (starting at 7:30 p.m.) aboard the Maeyanang. The converted rice barge provides a buffet dinner of delectable Thai dishes for a handful of guests as it chugs up and down the Chao Phraya, passing the illuminated rooftops of the Grand Palace and the towering stupa at Wat Arun. After the cruise, enjoy a nightcap at the Oriental Hotel’s atmospheric Bamboo Bar and keep time with the resident jazz band before returning to the Four Seasons.