Bangkok: Basic information for first-time visitors
Bangkok, the city of a thousand skyscrapers, street foods, smells and traffic jams… The list could go on forever. To some visitors, the “City of Angels” inspires awe and a long-lasting bond. To others, the seeming chaos and madness are reasons to avoid this place altogether. Whatever perspective you take, the capital of Thailand won’t leave you indifferent. But before you disembark to make your own impression, it’s useful to know a few things about this city full of flavors.
Location (location, location!)
Bangkok, or Krung Thep, is located in the Chao Phraya River basin in the central region of Thailand. The city covers 1,569 km2 (or more than 600 square miles) and is similar in size to London. It takes a good amount of traveling to explore the various sights in the capital. The location is therefore an important factor when you choose a hotel or other accommodation option. In general, I would recommend to stay close to a BTS skytain or MRT underground train station.
There are two airports near Bangkok. The oldest, Don Mueang, mostly serves domestic and low-cost international flights. Suvarnabhumi Airport serves all major in and outbound flights. It is about 30 km east of Bangkok and connects to the inner city via the Airport Rail Link. A taxi ride should cost around 400 baht including tollway fees. Make sure you ride with the taxameter on! Much cheaper, a one-way ticket in the Airport Rail Link from Suvarnabhumi to the city (Phaya Thai station) will only cost you 45 baht.
Bangkok is well known for bad traffic. Therefore, I advise you to take the BTS or MRT whenever possible. The former has two lines which intersect in the city’s commercial district, Siam. The MRT is slowly expanding to become a metropolitan-wide transport system. It connects to the BTS at Chatuchak/Mo Chit, Sukhumvit/Asoke and Saladaeng station.
A truly cosmopolitan city, Bangkok is home to more than 10 million people. However, the real figure is probably much higher. A great number of migrant workers from all over the country remain registered in their home towns or villages and are thus unaccounted for. Moreover, there is a huge influx of commuters from the surrounding areas during the daytime. One estimate puts the actual population size at around 15 million people.
Most of the residents are ethnic Thais, however there are many foreign communities, including other Asians and Westerners. Among them, the Chinese tend to live in an area called Sam Peng in the vicinity of the historic city center (Rattanakosin Island).
Chinese traditions are a natural aspect of Bangkok life. Chinese New Year is, indeed, one of the most anticipated events on the Thai calendar.
English is widely spoken in Bangkok, if mostly for basic communication. Thus, you can survive without speaking any Thai. However, knowing some basic words or phrases in Thai is useful when it comes to bargaining. Besides, Thai people are always impressed when a farang speaks Thai.
Farang? It’s a Thai word used to designate foreigners, mostly of the Caucasian or Western type. While it also refers to the guava fruit, there is no link between the two. Moreover, farang has no pejorative connotation when referring to foreigners.
Bangkok is officially the fourth capital in Thailand after Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Thonburi. It was founded in 1782 when King Rama I decided to transfer his seat of power from Thonburi to the opposite side of the Chao Phraya River, the site of which is now occupied by the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha Temple. As the political and economic center of Thailand, Krung Thep has been the main stage of the kingdom’s modern history.
Note that Thai people like to situate events in the past within the reign of a certain king. In a country with a long history of monarchical rule, many things have been the result of decisions made by a single personality. Thus, if you want to learn more about the history of Bangkok, you should be familiar with the lineage of the Chakri (Rama I to X) whose rule has spanned over the entire Bangkok period.
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In the early days, the core of the city centered in the Phra Nakhon District on the grounds of Rattanakosin Island (or the Old Town). The Chao Phraya River provided a natural border and defense to the west while a city wall, which no longer exists, flanked the east side of the royal capital.
Bangkok used to have many waterways intersecting the “Venice of the East”. However, with the introduction of cars came the first roads and many canals have been filled up to make way for concrete streets.
Since after World War II, Bangkok has undergone an explosive urban development. New modern districts have sprung up and there is no longer an understanding of a single city core. Rather, certain districts have evolved into a commercial center, a financial center, etc. For the greater part, the growth of the city has proceeded without any urban planning, giving rise to congested roads and severe air pollution.
According to one interpretation, the name of Bangkok derives from a fishing village called Bang Makok, “village of plums”, that originally stood in its place. While “Bangkok” is mostly used by foreigners, the Thais call their capital Krung Thep (translated the “city of angels”). It is a short version of a much lengthier title – the longest in the world for a city:
Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit
Usually translated as:
“The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of god Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous royal palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishvakarman.”
A “happy city”, indeed, for those who can resist the heat! Bangkok has a tropical climate with three distinct seasons: a “cold” season, a hot season and a rainy season. However, to many visitors it just feels warm and warmer with average monthly temperatures ranging from 25.6°C (or 78.1°F) to 30.2°C (86.4°F). Average monthly humidity levels vary from 66 percent to 79 percent.
Depending on which season you travel, you may find expensive or cheap flights to Bangkok.
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A warm climate, friendly people and fun tours… Bangkok attracts people from around the globe. The Thai capital recorded 22.8 million tourists in 2019, making it the most visited metropolis in the world for the fourth year in a row (Business Insider).
The tourist sector has become a major source of revenue in the city and accounted for 11 percent of the country’s GDP in 2019 (Reuters). The country contributing the most in terms of visitor numbers is China, followed by Malaysia and India.
As mentioned earlier, Bangkok’s history is inextricably tied to the Thai royal family. They have reigned since the city’s foundation, with absolute power from 1782 until 1932 when Thailand (or Siam as it was then called) adopted a constitutional monarchy. The Grand Palace is the official royal residence. However, the current king, Rama X, resides in Chitralada Palace in Dusit District. Many government headquarters are clustered around this area.
King Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X (born 1952), was crowned in May 2019. He succeeds his father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was the longest reigning monarch in the world at the time of his death.
Note that laws to protect the Thai king (lèse majesté) are heavily enforced and visitors should refrain from any negative comments about the king or the royal family, who enjoy large support and esteem in the public.
Thailand has seen more than 20 coups and still lacks a fully democratic government system. The most recent coup d’état by the Thai military occurred in 2014 without any bloodshed. It led to a five-year period under martial law. The first general election under the latest constitution was held in March 2019 and resulted in the appointment of coup leader General Prayut Chan-o-cha as prime minister.
The political climate is often in turmoil with demonstrations a common sight. However, it is extremely rare for tourists to become any sort of target.
The majority of Thais (95 percent) are Buddhist and there are more than 400 Buddhist temples, or wats, in the Bangkok metropolitan area.
Buddhist monasteries are classified into royal temples and ordinary temples. Among the first group, the Emerald Buddha Temple (Wat Phra Kaew) stands in its own league. It is considered the most important temple in the country and open to the public.
A wat often displays a lavish decoration and serves not only as a religious institution, but also as a focal point for cultural and social events.
Obviously, some of the most important museums in Thailand are located in the capital. A stop to the National Museum Bangkok is mandatory on any cultural visit. The Suan Pakkad Palace and the Jim Thompson House are perhaps less known, but offer some of the finest Thai and Asian art collections in the city. For fans of contemporary art, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre regularly hosts exciting exhibitions for free!