Bangkok, A City of Contrasts

As the capital of Thailand, Bangkok is a city of contrasts. From ultra-conservative wats to raunchy sex shows; from opulant palaces to dilapidated homes, Bangkok has these extremes and everything in between.

Flowing through the heart of Bangkok, the Chao Phraya River passes many of the city’s historical sites. We used a ‘hop-on, hop-off’ public ferry which was a convenient and inexpensive way to get to most of them. It’s not always the fastest though. The ferries are large, sometimes carrying over 200 passengers and some of the skippers are very young and inexperienced. The skipper for our first trip of the day was an awful driver. He sped to each pier and then forced the motor into reverse to try to stop. Instead of stopping though, the ferry usually floated past the pier. He then tried to steer in reverse but was never able to get to the pier. Twice he had to circle around and try again. When he finally reached each pier, the ferry slammed into the pier so hard we were rocked in our seats. Eventually we made it to our stop, the fourth pier, but it took twice the time as scheduled. We did wonder if we should have used one of the more expensive tour boats. In the end we were glad to never see this captain again.

Wat Phra Kaew & The Grand Palace

The main attraction in Bangkok for both Thai and international tourists is Wat Phra Kaew and The Grand Palace. When you first enter the temple grounds you will be overwhelmed by its opulence. Within a few steps you are surrounded by hundreds of stupas, towers and chapels. Each one is entirely covered in glittery gold, emeralds, diamonds and other precious jewels. There are so many glistening structures in a small area that you don’t know where to look.

Wat Phra Kaew is very important to Buddhists as it houses the Emerald Buddha. The wat is a gorgeous glittery building, covered in delicate decorations made from gold, coloured glass and precious jewels. Elaborate yakshaws guard the entrance while golden garudas surround the base. Its outer design lets you know something special is inside. Many legends surround the Emerald Buddha which is not actually emerald, but a semi-precious stone. The legends follow its trail as it travelled throughout much of South Asia before settling in Bangkok. Wat Phra Kaew was built especially for the Emerald Buddha in the 1700s. Photography is not allowed inside, so you’ll have to visit it yourself to see the emerald statue.

Next to the wat is the Grand Palace. Not nearly as ornate, but still an impressive display of wealth and power with a golden roof and perfectly manicured gardens. It was once the residence of Thailand’s king, but today is used for official ceremonies.

After seeing all of that opulance, we passed a number of homes that were no more than dilapidated sheds. Their location, just in front of the Palace grounds, made the contrast even more startling.

Wat Pho

Another important temple, near the palace is Wat Pho. Instead of being adorned with jewels, the stupas and towers are covered in delicate porcelain flowers. For us it is a much prettier temple without the glitter of Wat Phra Kaew. The main draw for this complex is a massive reclining Buddha.  At 46 m long and covered in gold leaves, the golden statue is impressive. Again, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside.

The wat is an active temple. When we visited, a puja was taking place in one of the chapels. Worshippers sat on the floor while monks chanted mantras. This was a special moment for us to be experience.

The complex is also the site of Thailand’s first university with records from the 1700 that indicate the teaching of medicine and massage.

Wat Arun

A third important temple complex is across the river from The Grand Palace. Wat Arun is a much simpler temple and its main feature is an 82m high prang (tower). The tower is also decorated in porcelain but instead of flowers it has small Buddha statues and geometric designs. Its location on the river gives it a beautiful setting.

National Museum of Royal Barges

Further up the river is the National Museum of Royal Barges. The museum displays eight boats that are as ornate as Bangkok’s temples. They are elaborately decorated with designs made from gold and jewels. Some of the barges date back to the 1500s, before Bangkok was the capital. It must have been quite the site to see the king floating down the river one of these golden barges.

Wat Traimit

A few kilometers away from The Grand Palace is a temple that houses the world’s largest solid gold Buddha. The building is not as lavish as the other three temples, but what’s inside is quite special. A Buddha statue weighs 5.5 tons and is from the 13th century. It was moved to Bangkok from its original site in the former capital of Sukhothai.

In complete contrast to the conservative dress code of the day, at night we experinced Bangkok’s nightlife. During the Vietnam War, Pat Pong Street was a place for US GIs to spend their time when on leave in Bangkok. Today this ‘street’ has grown to 3 streets and is famous for its strip clubs and drag shows. The bars have interesting names such as Fetish Bar-Bar, Strip A Go-Go, and Screwboys… Scantily clad ladies hang out at the doors, enticing you in. Sleazy men on the street try to get you to go to their bar’s ‘ping pong’ show. Pat Pong had a fun atmosphere which was quite different from the depressing atmosheres in cities like Udon Thani. There seemed to be a lot more curious tourists than patrons. It was definitely an interesting contrast to our morning and a great place to observe the other side of Bangkok.

Tips for visiting Bangkok

Dress code

The three main sites (Wats Phra Kaew, Pho and Arun) have a strict dress code. Women are required to wear long skirts. Men must wear pants and neither are allowed to expose their shoulders or wear tight or revealing clothing. Barefeet are not allowed so if you wear sandals you must also bring socks. These dress codes are more strictly adhered to at these three sites than at other temples.

Getting around Bangkok

There are many different tour boats and public ferries that go up and down the Chao Praya River several times a day. Most stop at several of the 9 major piers. Check at the piers to compare the schedules and fees for boats.

Bangkok’s Skytrain and MRT combine to provide a quick and inexpensive way to get around the city. The two transit systems are not run by the same company. This means that platforms are not always linked and you need to buy separate tickets for both, but it’s often faster and cheaper than using a taxi. When these won’t work there are many metered taxis in most parts of town. An alternative is to download the Grab app. We found Grab to be a cost-effective well-run taxi alternative in Bangkok.

Coming Next – Chiang Mai

For more pictures from our travels go to Gallery.

To read more of our stories from around the world go to Destinations.

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55 comments

  • Jak zawsze interesujaca relacja, pelna szczegolow i ciekawostek. Bardzo dobre zdjecia przyblizajace Bangkok. Nowy Rok witacie w Bangkoku? Wszystkiego najlepszego!

    Liked by 1 person

  • You are right – Bangkok is a city of contrasts. I like to say that it is about 10 cities in one. You have Chinatown, old town, the red light districts, the ultra-modern areas, leafy suburbs, dilapidated cities on canals, Khao San road, etc. If people tell me they don’t like Bangkok, I tell them they aren’t looking hard enough because it has something for everyone.

    Liked by 2 people

  • I am always thrilled to see and read your posts. Your adventure in the ferry with the driver taking several tries before docking was so well explained- I could “see” the whole event unfold. Amazing the juxtaposition of opulent and shanty abodes, the dichotomy between faith and daily life. Great share as always.👍👍😊

    Liked by 1 person

  • Bangkok, tiny oases of calm surrounded by chaos. We so enjoyed our 1982 visit here, the temples, the food, the people. It was a great trip. Thanks for the memories. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

  • Wow … I was certainly overwhelmed with all the gold and jewels on Wat Phra Kaew, the solid gold Buddha, oh and those barges … and then suddenly, the totally opposite of the very poor living close-by in the sheds 😳. And then there are the famous nightlife …
    Reading your post, I can understand why Bangkok attract millions (normally) of travellers around the world!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a little overwhelming to see so much gold and then so much poverty. Pat Pong Street was a little different from having to cover up during the day! It’s more of tourist site now than anything. Bangkok does really have anything for anyone!

      Liked by 1 person

  • Your photos of the temples and the palace are stunning. When we visited there last, in 2017, I was sad to see Wat Arun covered in scaffolding; nevertheless, it was still a beautiful sight from across the river, especially at night. I love your funny story about the novice boat captain. We also used the hop-on-hop-off public boats and they were a great way to sightsee; luckily we had good drivers! We too were amazed at the contrast when we spent an evening at Pat Pong/Khaosan rd, though believe it or not, it seemed toned down from what I experienced there in ’91.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha they probably are toned down now. We were really underwhelmed by Khaosan Rd. It was just a bunch of bars and restaurants and people walking up and down the same 2 streets. Maybe it had more character in the 90s 🙂 We did have fun at Pat Pong though, it felt as if it was for show more than full-on sex shows, but I’m sure that’s where there money is.

      Liked by 1 person

  • As ever, a great post with wonderful photos!!! I have so many memories of so much time in Bangkok but perhaps the most poignant is the look of horror on my young daughter’s face when she sat next to a monk on a crowded bus to the Royal Palace. She was still so young and my heart broke but a wonderful local lady hugged her so tight that she stopped crying! One of my strongest memories!

    Liked by 1 person

  • I would love to wander the grounds and open temples of the Grand Palace. I’ve never been to Bangkok, but I had a chance to ‘see it’ through the eyes of Richard from The Beach. What I gathered that it’s a place that takes a little time to get to know and love. Thanks for sharing and have a good day, Maggie 🙂 Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    • You could easily spend a week in Bangkok. There;s so much more that we didn’t cover in this post. I’m not usually a fan of big cities, but Bangkok has a great personality. Thanks for reading! Maggie

      Liked by 1 person

  • Very cool to see your perspective of these familiar sights. Excellent photographs as always. Oh and the National Museum of Royal Barges is something I didn’t get round to. Great work!

    Liked by 1 person

  • So much gold, so much neatness, it required patience to find all these angles in the temples and palaces. I like the contrast with the simplicity of the monks’ clothing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes that’s another contrast, the minimalism of the Monks to the opulence of the temples. The temples are quite impressive I could walk around for an hour and see something new each time. Maggje

      Liked by 1 person

  • Interesting, in 2014 we were allowed to take photos of the reclining Buddha in Wat Pho. We also landed up at the BACC because of a very special ice cream shop there (never had katsu ice cream elsewhere) and stayed for the exhibits. The road traffic was much worse than Mumbai’s. Has it improved?

    Liked by 1 person

    • We were there in 2018 and there were many places where cameras weren’t allowed. We didn’t travel by road a lot in Bangkok because we used the river and skytrain, but when we went by taxi it wasn’t too bad. I certainly remember Mumbai’s to be much worse.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Not knowing where to look was exactly how I felt when I went to Wat Phra Kaew for the very first time. All those colorful, shiny edifices embellished with mythical creatures from Buddhist mythology can overwhelm any first timer. When I visited Bangkok in 2011, taking photos inside Wat Pho was still allowed. I wonder when that changed, and why.

    Liked by 1 person

  • I like your description of Bangkok being a city of contrasts. That boat trip sounds seasick inducing! Still, those temples are super intricate and beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I wasn`t so worried about crashing in the boat, I may have been seasick too! The temples in Bangkok are some of the glittery and gorgeous ones I`ve seen anywhere. Are you excited about the eclipse tomorrow?

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      • I will definitely be up early to see if I can even catch a glimpse of it. Hopefully, the sky will be clear! Cmon Calgary! Clear up!

        Liked by 1 person

  • Bangkok looks stunning, the temples are just incredible and such vibrant colour everywhere. Such a historic place with so much to explore. Not sure about the dodgy nightlife but I suppose it’s all part of the cities character now. Great photos.

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  • The trees outside Wat Arun and the Grand Palace look like something out of a storybook. We could only spend about 5 hours in Bangkok, and we spent much of it inside a building eating. I hope to get back one day for more.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Oh my! Quite the nightlife scene! I’m sure as you mentioned it’s more for the benefit of the tourists these days. Those temples and their grandeur is really quite something. Although I’ve never been it is certainly a place that peaks my curiosity, even more after watching The Serpent on Netflix hmmmmm

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  • The thing I like about Bangkok is that it has its own energy. It is a buzzing town full of stuff that travelers would love to experience. While I chose to avoid the royal palace because, by the time I finished with a couple of temples, it was incredibly hot and humid. While heat is okay as I come from a similar region, humidity is not. Some other time…..

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