Historic sites that underscore Bangkok’s diverse cultural identity
The Grand Palace
Bangkok’s most famous landmark, and the number one must-see attraction for newcomers, has to be the dazzlingly spectacular Grand Palace, located in the heart of the Old City. Since its construction in 1782 it has been the home of the Thai King, the Royal court, and the administrative seat of government. However, for the hordes of visitors that arrive each day it’s the beautiful architecture, intricate artistic detail, and expertly manicured grounds throughout that makes it so visually entrancing. The entire complex is quite large, and it can take several hours to see everything. One of the main draws is Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), which contains the small, but very famous and greatly revered Emerald Buddha that dates back to the 14th century. The palace is open daily from 8:30am till 3:30pm, and adult admission is B500. There is also a strict dress code for visitors (no tank tops, bare feet, bare shoulders, etc).
Commonly referred to as ‘The Temple of the Reclining Buddha’, Wat Pho is one of Bangkok’s largest temple complexes. Located in the historic Old City—not far from the Grand Palace—the temple is famous for its giant reclining Buddha, which is covered in gold leaf and measures 46 metres long by 15 metres high. Construction was completed in 1788, and the property also includes four chapels that contain 394 gilded Buddha images, and intricately detailed murals that cover the walkways. Nowadays, Wat Pho is also considered the leading school of massage in Thailand, making it a great place to get a traditional Thai massage treatment. The temple is open daily from 8 am till 5pm, and adult admission is B100. Visitors must wear appropriate clothing, meaning no exposed shoulders, or exposed skin above the knee.
Historic and stunning to behold, Wat Arun, also known as ‘Temple of the Dawn’, is said to have been first envisioned by King Taksin back in 1768. After fleeing the former capital of Ayutthaya, which was besieged by the Burmese army, he arrived at this spot—on the west side of Chao Praya River, now opposite Tha Thien Pier—just as dawn was breaking. The temple once housed the Emerald Buddha, but it was relocated when the capital and Palace were moved to the opposite side of the river. During the reign of Rama III (between 1824 and 1851) the central prang was extended and the spires were decorated with porcelain so they would glimmer in the sunshine. The temple recently underwent an extensive cleaning and renovation, and now that the scaffolding has been removed it once again takes its place as one the most revered riverside landmarks. The temple is open from 8am to 5:30pm, and admission is B100.
Also known as the ‘Temple of the Golden Mount’, Wat Saket sits atop an artificial man-made hill, located between Boriphat Road and Lan Luang Road, and getting to the top requires a climb up some 300 steps. According to an inscription, the circumference of the pagoda base is 330 metres, and the total height is 76.5 metres—which means stunning panoramic views of the Old City from the summit. There is also a spooky cemetery built into the base of the Golden Mount, because in the late 18th century it served as the capital’s crematorium and the dumping ground for some 60,000 plague victims. Each November a large Temple Fair takes place here, complete with coloured lanterns, decorative flags, food vendors, and fairground games and rides, and during this period the golden chedi is also draped in massive bright-red cloth. Wat Saket is open daily from 9am till 5pm and admission is free.
Wat Ratchanatdaram is a Buddhist temple located at the intersection of Ratchadamnoen Klang and Maha Chai Road, and within its beautiful grounds sits Loha Prasat, which translates as “iron castle” or “iron monastery”. Construction began in 1846, and the highlight of the 36-metre-high building is its 37 metal spires (symbolizing the 37 virtues that are required to reach enlightenment). These spires used to be black, but were recently painted gold, giving the structure a very different look. There is a golden seated Buddha within the temple, as well as many beautiful murals, paintings, and door carvings, and the labyrinthine interior also features many small meditation cells used by monks.
Phra Sumen Fort
Only two forts remain out of the 14 that were built more than two centuries ago to protect Bangkok from possible invasions. For many, Phra Sumen Fort, constructed in 1782 and located on the Eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River—on Phra Athit Road (near Phra Athit pier)—is the most interesting to visit. The octagonal white coloured structure stands three floors high, and contains a number of rooms where weapons and ammunition were stored. On the top floor is a museum displaying items found in the fort during its renovation. The fort is open daily and admission is free.
Despite being one of Bangkok’s most beautiful temples, Wat Benchamabophit—also known as ‘The Marble Temple’—is not as visited as some of the city’s other major temple landmarks. Located at the intersection of Thanon Rama V and Thanon Si Ayutthaya, the temple was constructed in 1899 under the orders of King Chulalongkorn the Great (Rama V). The marble ubosot was designed by Prince Narisara Nuvativongse, half-brother of King Chulalongkorn, and utilized Carrara marble imported from Italy (hence the building’s nickname). It’s open daily from 8am to 5:30pm, and admission is B20 (appropriate dress required).
Located on Ratchadamnoen Klang—a grand, European-style boulevard in the Old City—the aptly named Democracy Monument was built in 1939 to commemorate the 1932 revolution that ended the absolute monarchy and introduced Siam’s first constitution. The design of the monument incorporates Art Deco and Socialist era artistic styles, which were both popular at the time, and is also full of numerical symbolism. For example, the four wings are each 24 metres high, signifying the 24th of June, the date the new constitution was signed. Not surprisingly, during periods of military dictatorships demonstrators have assembled here to protest and call for a return to democracy (most notably in 1973, 1992, and 2014).
Jim Thompson House
Now an exquisite museum, the Jim Thompson House was once, as the name suggests, the home of American businessman and silk magnate Jim Thompson, who arrived in Bangkok shortly after the end of World War II. In 1959 construction began on this grand former residence, which was meant to both house Thompson’s unparalleled collection of Southeast Asian art and artefacts, and also preserve traditional Thai-style houses—primarily constructed of wood, and collected from all parts of Thailand in the 1950s and 1960s—which were incorporated into the overall structure. Tragically, Jim Thompson mysteriously disappeared forever in 1967, but his amazing legacy lives on. The museum is located at 6, Soi Kasemsan 2 (a block away from Bangkok National Stadium), and is open daily from 9am to 6pm. Entrance is B150 for adults.
Conveniently located just outside the Chit Lom BTS station, the immensely popular Erawan Shrine was erected in 1956 in order to mitigate the bad karma suspected to be the cause of all the trouble besetting the building of the government-owned Erawan Hotel (mishaps included cost overruns, injuries to labourers, and the loss of a shipload of Italian marble). After consultations with astrologers, a shrine to honour the four-faced Brahman God Than Tao Mahaprom was considered to be an auspicious solution. The Erawan Hotel eventually opened to unanimous acclaim, although it was replaced in 1991 by the privately owned Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok. In August of 2015, a bomb exploded at the gates of the shrine, leaving 20 people dead, but devotees still flock here dutifully night and day to worship and, on occasion, hire the shrine’s resident Thai dancers to perform—thus ensuring that their prayers at the shrine are answered.