Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Bangkok
Bangkok has over 400 temples, a big part of the numerous cultural sites that make it a popular tourist destination as well as Thailand's major tourist gateway. The design of many of the wats was influenced by buildings in other parts of Thailand; for the visitor this means an insight into differing styles of temple architecture, not simply the Bangkok (or Rattanakosin) style. There are a number of palaces, some still used by the Royal family. The Grand Palace is the King's official residence.
Bangkok, the economic and cultural as well as the administrative capital of Thailand, is situated on the fertile delta of the Menam Chao Phraya river at the junction of the country's four major regions, North West (Pak Nya), North East (Isaan), South East (Pak Dai Towan Org) and South West (Pak Dai) Thailand.
With Dom Muang, south-east Asia's largest international airport, sited just outside the city, Bangkok is the point of arrival for the great majority of visitors to Thailand. The name Bangkok, probably a corruption of "Ban Makok" meaning "village of olives", is seldom used by the Thais themselves. The capital's official name is "Krung Thep Mahanakorn Amorn Rattanakosin Mahintara Mahadirok Popnoparat Ratchathani Burirom Udommahasthan Amornpiman Awathansathit", usually shortened, for obvious reasons, to "Krung Thep" (City of Angels). Alternatively the city is known as "Phra Nakhon" (the Heavenly Capital). Bangkok is the only city in Thailand which enjoys full provincial status in its own right.
When the old Siamese capital of Ayutthaya was sacked by the Burmese in 1767, General Phya Taksin, together with about 10,000 troops, made his escape to Chonburi by way of Bangkok. After launching a number of successful counter-attacks he finally drove the Burmese from the country and, in 1772, had himself declared king. One of his first official acts was to make Thonburi (now a district of Bangkok) the new capital of Siam. Bangkok at the time appeared, in the words of Europeans passing through on their way to Ayutthaya, a "small place with two forts". In fact the village was already a strategically situated trading post of some consequence, but one to which Europeans as yet attached little importance. In 1782 Bangkok itself became the kingdom's capital, seat of the royal house and of government and parliament. It was Rama I (1782-1809), founder of the still-ruling Chakri dynasty, who, in the early years of his reign, moved his royal residence from Thonburi to the opposite bank of the Menam Chao Phraya. In so doing he set the scene for the transformation of Bangkok from erstwhile village to metropolis. Monasteries and temples were built and leading business-houses established themselves on the banks of the Menam, quickly turning the city into a center of international trade.
Bangkok experienced a particular heyday during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V; 1868-1910); it was he who built the first wide streets, and also a 10-km (61/2-mi.) tramway. Under his successors the city expanded in uncontrolled leaps and bounds, the lack of planning being all too evident today.
Now merged, Thonburi and Bangkok form a melting pot of more than six million people, who inhabit an area of only 650 sq. km (250 sq. mi.). "Greater Bangkok" has a population of nearly nine million.
Situated immediately south of the Grand Palace precinct, Wat Pho (or Wat Chetuphon), built by King Rama I, is the oldest and also the largest temple in Bangkok. In the 16th c. the site is said to have been occupied by a small residence belonging to a prince of Ayutthaya, with a wat called the "Temple of the Sacred Bhodi-Tree" (hence "pho", i.e. bhodi).
Wat Pho was renowned as a place of healing even in the olden days and famous for its pharmacy established at the time of Rama III. The same king turned the wat into Thailand's first "university", a seat of learning to which all had access. Today Wat Pho boasts a widely respected school which teaches the art of foot reflex massage.
Among the 91 prangs and chedis adorning the courtyard around the bot, two of the larger ones deserve special mention. One is the green chedi, erected by Rama I over the remains of a statue of Buddha desecrated by the Burmese in Ayutthaya in 1767. The other is the blue-tiled chedi, finest of them all, built by Rama IV (Mongkut) in memory of Queen Suriyochai who, in order to save her husband's life, sacrificed her own.
The lions at the entrance to the bot are Burmese in design. Note too the marble bas-reliefs from Ayutthaya depicting scenes from the "Ramakien". The lofty, rectangular interior, divided into three by teak columns, is immensely impressive, with the red and gold of the ceiling reflected in the marble floor.
The main entrance to Wat Pho is on Chetuphon Road, on the opposite side of which are the monks' living quarters. Although open to the public, only those with a serious interest in Buddhism are likely to find the visit rewarding. Anyone who does venture in is assured of a willing audience and eager interlocutors - at any time of the day or night.
Temple of the Reclining Buddha
National Museum & Wang Na Palace
Wat Traimit (Golden Buddha)
In the center of the busy square in front of Wat Suthat stands one of Bangkok's most eye-catching sights, the 27m (88-ft) high teak frame of the so-called Giant Swing. This used to be the focus of a religious ceremony held every year in December after the rice harvest. Teams of three took turns to balance on a dangerously narrow board and be swung 25 m (82 ft) or more off the ground "up to Heaven", at which point they would attempt to catch a bag of silver coins in their teeth. Following a number of fatal accidents, the contest was banned by King Rama VII in 1932.
The ceremony was Indo-Brahman in origin, based on the legend of the god Shiva who was sent by Brahma to visit Earth. Brahma bade Shiva first test the firmness of the Earth by putting down his right foot, crossing his left leg over his right knee, and waiting to see what came to pass. Shiva did as he was told, and nothing happened. Brahma then ordered Shiva to test whether, as prophesied, the mountains would fall into the sea when the nagas (water snakes) abandoned their mountain homes and returned to the ocean. Shiva again obeyed, whistling the nagas down from the mountains to the east and to the west into the billowing waves, waiting once more to see what would happen. The mountains did not fall into the sea, the nagas swimming happily in their new element where they have remained ever since. Each year thereafter, on the fifth day of the new moon in the second moon month (mid- December), Shiva honored Earth with a visit lasting ten days.
Naturally enough the god required an offering. His visit moreover coincided with the rice harvest (there was only one rice crop a year in those days), so Shiva had to be thanked and his blessing sought for the following year's crop. Four elements were deemed crucial to this: sun, moon, Earth and - most important of all - water, carved symbols of which were kept in the little Hindu temple inside Wat Suthat (the temple can still be seen). These would then be taken out for the ceremony and put on display. At the same time the "Minister for Rice", the highest official in what was then an agrarian society, accompanied by hundreds of Brahman Court Astrologers, would go in procession around the city walls and then to the temple precinct where, at the Giant Swing, the remainder of the ceremony took place. Shiva's representative would test the solidity of Earth just as the god had done, placing his right foot on the ground near the Swing and crossing his left leg over his right knee, remaining in that position to witness the rest of the "trial". The mountains, symbolized by the upright frame of the Giant Swing, would again not fall into the sea even though the nagas, represented by the contestants in tall pointed hats, be swung back into their new element.
While the success of the harvests may have shown Shiva to be generally pleased with the spectacle, his earthly representative must have found the ceremony extremely tiring and provision of the silver offering expensive. Whatever the reason, Rama IV eventually decreed that the ceremony be carried out by a different dignitary each year. And while the "trials" are unlikely always to have gone to plan - the bag of silver perhaps eluding capture between the teeth and dropping to the ground or, worse still, one of the nagas on the swing or the left foot of Shiva's representative touching the ground - Thai chroniclers have drawn a veil over any such mishaps.
The festival continues to be celebrated within the temple precinct, but inside the temple and with only 20 astrologers. First, before sunrise, Buddhist monks are made gifts of suitable offerings; afterwards the four elements - sun, moon, Earth and water, symbolized by little statues - are placed inside a golden goose known as Hinsa which is then perched on a miniature swing to be ridden up to Heaven by the god Brahma.
Every day between sunrise and sunset, and in some cases long into the night, numerous markets are held in Bangkok and on its outskirts. Between them they supply most of the inhabitants' daily needs in the way of fresh vegetables, livestock (e.g. chickens and fish), clothing, textiles and other goods. Especially on Fridays and Saturdays when housewives shop for the weekend, these daily markets are every bit as colorful, bustling and full of interest and atmosphere as the big weekend market.