Gold towers of the Grand Palace


The headlong pace and flawed modernity of Bangkok match few people's visions of the capital of exotic Siam. Spiked with scores of high-rise buildings of concrete and glass, it's a vast flatness that holds a population of at least nine million, and feels even bigger. But under the shadow of the skyscrapers you'll find a heady mix of chaos and refinement, of frenetic markets and hushed golden temples, of dispiriting, zombie-like sex shows and early-morning alms-giving ceremonies. One way or another, the place will probably get under your skin – and if you don't enjoy the challenge of slogging through jams of buses and tuk-tuks, which fill the air with a chainsaw drone and clouds of pollution, you can spend a couple of days on the most impressive temples and museums, have a quick shopping spree and then strike out for the provinces.

Most budget travellers head for the Banglamphu district, where if you're not careful you could end up watching DVDs all day long and selling your shoes when you run out of money. The district is far from having a monopoly on Bangkok accommodation, but it does have the advantage of being just a short walk from the major sights in the Ratanakosin area: the dazzling ostentation of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo, lively and grandiose Wat Pho and the National Museum's hoard of exquisite works of art. Once those cultural essentials have been seen, you can choose from a whole bevy of lesser sights, including Wat Benjamabophit (the "Marble Temple"), especially at festival time, and Jim Thompson's House, a small, personal museum of Thai design.

For livelier scenes, explore the dark alleys of Chinatown's bazaars or head for the water: the great Chao Phraya River, which breaks up and adds zest to the city's landscape, is the backbone of a network of canals that remains fundamentally intact in the west-bank Thonburi district. Inevitably the waterways have earned Bangkok the title of "Venice of the East", a tag that seems all too apt when you're wading through flooded streets in the rainy season; indeed, the city is year by year subsiding into the marshy ground, literally sinking under the weight of its burgeoning concrete towers.

When to go

The climate of most of Thailand is governed by three seasons: rainy (roughly May– Oct), caused by the southwest monsoon dumping moisture gathered from the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand; cool (Nov– Feb); and hot (March– May). The rainy season is the least predictable of the three, varying in length and intensity from year to year, but usually it gathers force between June and August, coming to a peak in September and October, when unpaved roads are reduced to mud troughs and whole districts of Bangkok are flooded. The cool season is the pleasantest time to visit, although temperatures can still reach a broiling 30°C in the middle of the day. In the hot season, when temperatures often rise to 35°C in Bangkok, the best thing to do is to hit the beach.

Within this scheme, slight variations are found from region to region. The less humid north experiences the greatest range of temperatures: at night in the cool season the thermometer occasionally approaches zero on the higher slopes, and this region is often hotter than the central plains between March and May. It's the northeast that gets the very worst of the hot season, with clouds of dust gathering above the parched fields, and humid air too. In southern Thailand, temperatures are more consistent throughout the year, with less variation the closer you get to the equator. The rainy season hits the Andaman coast of the southern peninsula harder than anywhere else in the country – heavy rainfall usually starts in May and persists until November.

One area of the country, the Gulf coast of the southern peninsula, lies outside this general pattern. With the sea immediately to the east, this coast and its offshore islands feel the effects of the northeast monsoon, which brings rain between October and January, especially in November, but suffers less than the Andaman coast from the southwest monsoon.

Overall, the cool season is generally the best time to come to Thailand: as well as having more manageable temperatures and less rain, it offers waterfalls in full spate and the best of the upland flowers in bloom. Bear in mind, however, that it's also the busiest season, so forward planning is essential.

Bangkok

Transport

The main form of transport in the city is buses, and once you've mastered the labyrinthine complexity of the route maps you'll be able to get to any part of the city, albeit slowly. Catching the various kinds of taxi is more expensive, and you'll still get held up by the daytime traffic jams. Boats are obviously more limited in their range, but they're regular and as cheap as buses, and you'll save a lot of time by using them whenever possible – a journey between Banglamphu and the GPO, for instance, will take around thirty minutes by water, half what it would take on land. The Skytrain and subway each have a similarly limited range but are also worth using whenever suitable for all or part of your journey; their networks roughly coincide with each other at the east end of Thanon Silom, at the corner of Soi Asoke and Thanon Sukhumvit, and on Thanon Phaholyothin by Chatuchak Park (Mo Chit), while the Skytrain joins up with the Chao Phraya River express boats at the vital hub of Sathorn/Saphan Taksin (Taksin Bridge) and the subway intersects the mainline railway at Hualamphong and Bang Sue stations. Walking might often be quicker than travelling by road, but the heat can be unbearable, distances are always further than they look on the map, and the engine fumes are stifling.

History

Bangkok is a relatively young capital, established in 1782 after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya, the former capital. A temporary base was set up on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River, in what is now Thonburi, before work started on the more defensible east bank, where the French had built a grand, but short-lived fort in the 1660s. The first king of the new dynasty, Rama I, built his palace at Ratanakosin, within a defensive ring of two (later expanded to three) canals, and this remains the city's spiritual heart.

Initially, the city was largely amphibious: only the temples and royal palaces were built on dry land, while ordinary residences floated on thick bamboo rafts on the river and canals; even shops and warehouses were moored to the river bank. A major shift in emphasis came in the second half of the nineteenth century, first under Rama IV (1851–68), who as part of his effort to restyle the capital along European lines built Bangkok's first roads, and then under Rama V (1868–1910), who constructed a new residential palace in Dusit, north of Ratanakosin, and laid out that area's grand boulevards.

Since World War II, and especially from the mid-1960s onwards, Bangkok has seen an explosion of modernization, which has blown away earlier attempts at orderly planning and left the city without an obvious centre. Most of the canals have been filled in, to be replaced by endless rows of cheap, functional concrete shophouses, high-rises and housing estates, sprawling over a built-up area of 330 square kilometres. The benefits of Thailand's economic boom since the 1980s have been concentrated in Bangkok, attracting migration from all over the country and making the capital ever more dominant: the population, over half of which is under 30 years of age, is now forty times that of the second city, Chiang Mai. Every aspect of national life is centralized in the city, but the governor of Bangkok is not granted enough power to deal with the ensuing problems, notably that of traffic – which in Bangkok now comprises four-fifths of the nation's automobiles. The Skytrain and the subway have undoubtedly helped, but the governor was unable to get the competing systems to intersect properly or ticket jointly, and it's left to ingenious, local solutions such as the Khlong Saen Saeb canal boats and side-street motorbike taxis to keep the city moving. And there's precious little chance to escape from the pollution in green space: the city has only 0.4 square metres of public parkland per inhabitant, the lowest figure in the world, compared, for example, to London's 30.4 square metres per person.

Places of interest

Wat Phra Kaeo and the Grand Palace

Hanging together in a precarious harmony of strangely beautiful colours and shapes, Wat Phra Kaeo ( www.palaces.thai.net) is the apogee of Thai religious art and the holiest Buddhist site in the country, housing the most important image, the Emerald Buddha. Built as the private royal temple, Wat Phra Kaeo occupies the northeast corner of the huge Grand Palace, whose official opening in 1785 marked the founding of the new capital and the rebirth of the Thai nation after the Burmese invasion. Successive kings have all left their mark here, and the palace complex now covers 61 acres, though very little apart from the wat is open to tourists.

The only entrance to the complex in 2km of crenellated walls is the Gate of Glorious Victory in the middle of the north side, on Thanon Na Phra Lan. This brings you onto a driveway with a tantalizing view of the temple's glittering spires on the left and the dowdy buildings of the Offices of the Royal Household on the right: this is the powerhouse of the kingdom's ceremonial life, providing everything down to chairs and catering, even lending an urn when someone of rank dies (a textile museum under the auspices of the queen is scheduled to open among these buildings, perhaps in 2007). Turn left at the end of the driveway for the ticket office and entrance turnstiles: admission to Wat Phra Kaeo and the palace is B250 (daily 8.30am–3.30pm, palace halls and weapons museum closed Sat & Sun; 2hr personal audioguide B200, with passport or credit card as surety), which includes a free brochure and map, as well as admission (within seven days) to the Vimanmek Palace in the Dusit area. As it's Thailand's most sacred site, you have to show respect by dressing in smart clothes – no vests, shorts, see-through clothes, sarongs, mini-skirts or fisherman's trousers – but if your rucksack won't stretch that far, head for the office to the right just inside the Gate of Glorious Victory, where suitable garments can be provided (free) as long as you leave some identification (passport or driver's licence) as surety or pay a deposit of B100 per item.

Wat Pho

Where Wat Phra Kaeo may seem too perfect and shrink-wrapped for some, Wat Pho (daily 8.30am–6pm; B20; personal guides available, charging B200/300/400 for 1, 2 or 3 visitors; www.watpho.com), covering twenty acres to the south of the Grand Palace, is lively and shambolic, a complex arrangement of lavish structures which jostle with classrooms, basketball courts and a turtle pond. Busloads of tourists shuffle in and out of the north entrance, stopping only to gawp at the colossal Reclining Buddha, but you can avoid the worst of the crowds by using the main entrance on Soi Chetuphon to explore the huge compound, where you're likely to be approached by friendly young monks wanting to practice their English.

Monks walking thorugh Dusit Park

Wat Pho is the oldest temple in Bangkok and older than the city itself, having been founded in the seventeenth century under the name Wat Photaram. Foreigners have stuck to the contraction of this old name, even though Rama I, after enlarging the temple, changed the name in 1801 to Wat Phra Chetuphon, which is how it is generally known to Thais. The temple had another major overhaul in 1832, when Rama III built the chapel of the Reclining Buddha, and turned the temple into a public centre of learning by decorating the walls and pillars with inscriptions and diagrams on subjects such as history, literature, animal husbandry and astrology. Dubbed Thailand's first university, the wat is still an important centre for traditional medicine, notably Thai massage, which is used against all kinds of illnesses, from backaches to viruses. Excellent massages are available in the ramshackle buildings on the east side of the main compound; allow two hours for the full works (B300/hr; foot reflexology massage B300/45min). Wat Pho's massage school also conducts thirty-hour training courses in English, over a five- to ten-day period, costing B7000, as well as foot-massage courses for B5500; courses, as well as air-conditioned massages, are held in new premises just outside the temple, at 392/25–28 Soi Pen Phat 1, Thanon Maharat (T02 221 3686 or www.watpomassage.com for more information).

Sanam Luang

Sprawling across thirty acres north of the Grand Palace, Sanam Luang is one of the last open spaces left in Bangkok, a bare field where residents of the capital gather in the early evening to meet, eat and play. The nearby pavements are the marketplace for some exotic spiritual salesmen: on the eastern side sit astrologers and palm-readers, and sellers of bizarre virility potions and contraptions; on the western side and spreading around Thammasat University and Wat Mahathat, scores of small-time hawkers sell amulets, taking advantage of the spiritually auspicious location. In the early part of the year, especially in March during the Thai Sports and Kite Festival, the sky is filled with kite-fighting contests.

As it's in front of the Grand Palace, the field is also the venue for national ceremonies, such as royal funerals and the Ploughing Ceremony, held in May at a time selected by astrologers to bring good fortune to the rice harvest. The elaborate Brahmin ceremony is led by an official from the Ministry of Agriculture, who stands in for the king in case the royal power were to be reduced by any failure in the ritual. At the designated time, the official cuts a series of circular furrows with a plough drawn by two oxen, and scatters rice that has been sprinkled with lustral water by the Brahmin priests of the court. When the ritual is over, spectators rush in to grab handfuls of the rice, which they then plant in their own paddies for good luck.

The National Museum

Near the northwest corner of Sanam Luang, the National Museum (Wed– Sun 9am–4pm; B40 including free leaflet with map; www.thailandmuseum.com) houses a colossal hoard of Thailand's chief artistic riches, ranging from sculptural treasures in the north and south wings, through bizarre decorative objects in the older buildings, to outlandish funeral chariots and the exquisite Buddhaisawan Chapel, as well as occasionally staging worthwhile temporary exhibitions (details on T02 224 1333). It's worth making time for the free guided tours in English (Wed & Thurs 9.30am): they're generally entertaining and their explication of the choicest exhibits provides a good introduction to Thai religion and culture. By the ticket office are a bookshop and a pleasant, air-conditioned café, serving drinks, sandwiches and cakes, while the restaurant inside the museum grounds, by the funeral chariots building, dishes up decent, inexpensive Thai food.

The first building you'll come to near the ticket office houses an informative overview of the history of Thailand, including a small archeological gem: a black stone inscription, credited to King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai, which became the first capital of the Thai nation (c.1278–99) under his rule. Discovered in 1833 by the future Rama IV, it's the oldest extant inscription using the Thai alphabet. This, combined with the description it records of prosperity and piety in Sukhothai's Golden Age, has made the stone a symbol of Thai nationhood.

Pak Khlong Talat

A browse through the 24-hour flower and vegetable market, Pak Khlong Talat, is a fine and fitting way to round off a day in Chinatown, though if you're an early riser it's also a great place to come before dawn, when market gardeners from Thonburi boat and truck their freshly picked produce across the Chao Phraya ready for sale to the shopkeepers, restaurateurs and hoteliers. Occupying an ideal position close to the river, the market has been operating from covered halls between the southern ends of Khlong Lod, Thanon Banmo, Thanon Chakraphet and the river bank since the nineteenth century and is the biggest wholesale market in the capital. The flower stalls, selling twenty different varieties of cut orchids and myriad other tropical blooms, spill onto the streets along the riverfront as well and, though prices are lowest in the early morning, you can still get some good bargains here in the afternoon. The riverside end of nearby Thanon Triphet and the area around the base of Memorial Bridge (Saphan Phut) hosts a huge night bazaar (nightly 8pm– midnight) that's dominated by cheap and idiosyncratic fashions – and by throngs of teenage fashion victims.

For the most interesting approach to the flower market from the Old Siam Plaza, turn west across Thanon Triphet to reach Thanon Banmo, and then follow this road south down towards the Chao Phraya River. As you near the river, notice the facing rows of traditional Chinese shophouses, still in use today, which retain their characteristic (peeling) pastel-painted facades, shutters and stucco curlicues. There's an entrance into the market on your right and just after sundown this southernmost stretch of Thanon Banmo fills with handcarts and vans unloading the most amazing hordes of fresh blooms. The Chao Phraya express boat service stops just a few metres from the market at Tha Saphan Phut (N6). Numerous city buses stop in front of the market and pier, including the northbound non-air-conditioned #3 and air-conditioned #512, which both run to Banglamphu.

Royal Barge Museum

Since the Ayutthaya era, kings of Thailand have been conveyed along their country's waterways in royal barges. For centuries these slender, exquisitely elegant, black-and-gold wooden vessels were used on all important royal outings, and even up until 1967 the current king used to process down the Chao Phraya River to Wat Arun in a flotilla of royal barges at least once a year, on the occasion of Kathin, the annual donation of robes by the laity to the temple at the end of the rainy season. But the 100-year-old boats are becoming quite frail, so such an event is now rare: the last full-scale royal processions were floated in 1999, to mark the king's 72nd birthday, and in 2006 to celebrate his sixtieth year on the throne. A royal barge procession along the Chao Phraya is a magnificent event, all the more spectacular because it happens so infrequently. Fifty or more barges fill the width of the river and stretch for almost 1km, drifting slowly to the measured beat of a drum and the hypnotic strains of ancient boating hymns, chanted by over two thousand oarsmen dressed in luscious brocades.

The eight beautifully crafted vessels at the heart of the ceremony are housed in the Royal Barge Museum on the north bank of Khlong Bangkok Noi (daily 9am–5pm; B30; www.thailandmuseum.com). Up to 50m long and intricately lacquered and gilded all over, they taper at the prow into imposing mythical figures after a design first used by the kings of Ayutthaya. Rama I had the boats copied and, when those fell into disrepair, Rama VI commissioned the exact reconstructions still in use today. The most important is Sri Suphanahongse, which bears the king and queen and is graced by a glittering five-metre-high prow representing the golden swan Hamsa, mount of the Hindu god Brahma. In front of it floats Anantanagaraj, fronted by a magnificent seven-headed naga and bearing a Buddha image. The newest addition to the fleet is Narai Song Suban, which was commissioned by the current king for his golden jubilee in 1996; it is a copy of the mid-nineteenth-century original and is crowned with a black Vishnu (Narai) astride a garuda figurehead. A display of miniaturized royal barges at the back of the museum recreates the exact formation of a traditional procession.

The museum is a feature of most canal tours but is easily visited on your own. Just take the Chao Phraya expressboat to Tha Phra Pinklao (N12) or, if coming from Banglamphu, take the cheaper, more frequent cross-river ferry (B3) from under Pinklao bridge, beside the Bangkok Information Centre, to Tha Phra Pinklao across the river, then walk up the road a hundred metres and take the first left down Soi Wat Dusitaram. If coming by bus from the Bangkok side (air-con buses #503, #507, #509, #511 and #32 all cross the river here), get off at the first stop on the Thonburi side, which is right beside the mouth of Soi Wat Dusitaram. Signs from Soi Wat Dusitaram lead you through a jumble of walkways and stilt-houses to the museum, about ten minutes' walk away.

Vimanmek Palace and the Royal Elephant National Museum

Breezy, elegant Vimanmek Palace (daily 9.30am–4pm; compulsory free guided tours every 30min, last tour 3.15pm; B100, or free with a Grand Palace ticket, which remains valid for one week; www.palaces.thai.net) was built by Rama V as a summer retreat on Ko Si Chang, from where it was transported bit by bit in 1901. The ticket price also covers entry to a dozen other specialist collections in the palace grounds, including the Support Museum and Elephant Museum. All visitors are treated to free performances of traditional Thai dance daily at 10.30am and 2pm. Note that the same dress rules apply here as to the Grand Palace. The main entrance to the extensive Vimanmek Palace compound is on Thanon Rajwithi, but there are also ticket gates on Thanon Ratchasima, and opposite Dusit Zoo on Thanon U-Thong.

Jim Thompson's House

Just off Siam Square at the north end of Soi Kasemsan 2, Thanon Rama I, and served by the National Stadium Skytrain station, Jim Thompson's House (daily from 9am, viewing on frequent 30–40min guided tours in several languages, last tour 5pm; B100, students & under-25s B50; www.jimthompsonhouse.org) is a kind of Ideal Home in elegant Thai style, and a peaceful refuge from downtown chaos. The house was the residence of the legendary American adventurer, entrepreneur, art collector and all-round character whose mysterious disappearance in the jungles of Malaysia in 1967 has made him even more of a legend among Thailand's farang community.

Apart from putting together this beautiful home, Thompson's most concrete contribution was to turn traditional silk-weaving from a dying art into the highly successful international industry it is today. The complex now includes a shop (closes 6pm), part of the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company chain, above which a new gallery hosts temporary exhibitions on textiles and the arts, such as royal maps of Siam in the nineteenth century. There's also an excellent bar-restaurant (last food orders 4.30pm), which serves a similar menu to Jim Thompson's Saladaeng Café. Ignore any con men at the entrance to the soi looking for mugs to escort on rip-off shopping trips, who'll tell you that the house is closed when it isn't.

The grand, rambling house is in fact a combination of six teak houses, some from as far afield as Ayutthaya and most more than two hundred years old. Like all traditional houses, they were built in wall sections hung together without nails on a frame of wooden pillars, which made it easy to dismantle them, pile them onto a barge and float them to their new location. Although he had trained as an architect, Thompson had more difficulty in putting them back together again; in the end, he had to go back to Ayutthaya to hunt down a group of carpenters who still practised the old house-building methods. Thompson added a few unconventional touches of his own, incorporating the elaborately carved front wall of a Chinese pawnshop between the drawing room and the bedroom, and reversing the other walls in the drawing room so that their carvings faced into the room.

Eating

Thai eateries of all types are found all over Bangkok. The best gourmet Thai restaurants in the country operate from the downtown districts around Thanon Sukhumvit and Thanon Silom, proffering wonderful royal, traditional and regional cuisines that definitely merit a visit. Over in Banglamphu, Thanon Phra Athit has become famous for its dozen or so trendy little restaurant-bars, each with distinctive decor and a contemporary Thai menu that's angled at young Thai diners. At the other end of the scale there are the night markets and street stalls, so numerous in Bangkok that we can only flag the most promising areas – but wherever you're staying, you'll hardly have to walk a block in any direction before encountering something appealing.

For the non-Thai cuisines, Chinatown naturally rates as the most authentic district for pure Chinese food; likewise neighbouring Pahurat, the capital's Indian enclave, is best for unadulterated Indian dishes; and good, comparatively cheap Japanese restaurants are concentrated on Soi Thaniya, at the east end of Thanon Silom. The place to head for Western, travellers' food – from herbal teas and hamburgers to muesli – as well as a hearty range of veggie options, is Thanon Khao San, packed with small, inexpensive tourist restaurants; standards vary, but there are some definite gems among the blander establishments.

Around Khao San

  • May Kaidee 117/1Thanon Tanao, though actually on the parallel soi to the west; easiest access is to take first left on Soi Damnoen Klang Neua; www.maykaidee.com. Simple, neighbourhood restaurant serving the best vegetarian food in Banglamphu. Try the tasty green curry with coconut, the Vietnamese-style veggie spring rolls or the sticky black-rice pudding. May Kaidee herself also runs veggie cookery classes. Most dishes B50–60.
  • Popaing Soi Ram Bhuttri. Popular place for cheap seafood: mussels and cockles cost just B50 per plate, squid B70, or you can get a large helping of seafood noodles for B100. Eat in the low-rent restaurant area or on the street beneath the temple wall.
  • Srinnmmun Bar and Restaurant 335 Thanon Ram Bhuttri. This funky little cabin of a place with just a handful of tables and a penchant for soft country music serves delicious Thai food (cooked on the street), especially shrimps drizzled with coconut sauce, spicy yam salads and stir-fried veg with pineapple, cashews and tofu. Most dishes B40–60. Cheap.
  • Sunset Bar Sunset Street, 197–201 Thanon Khao San. Turning off Khao San at the Sunset Street sign, ignore the street-view tables of Sabai Bar and follow the narrow passageway as it opens out into a tranquil, shrub-filled courtyard, occupied by the Sunset Bar coffee shop and restaurant – the perfect place to escape the Khao San hustle with a mid-priced juice or snack. The courtyard's handsome, mango-coloured, 1907 villa is another enticement: a discreet branch of Starbucks, complete with sofas, occupies its ground floor, while the upper floor is given over to the Kraichitti Gallery, a commercial art outlet.
  • Tom Yam Kung Thanon Khao San. Occasionally mouth-blastingly authentic Thai food served in the courtyard of a beautiful early-twentieth-century villa that's hidden behind Khao San's modern clutter. The menu (B60–150) includes spicy fried catfish, coconut-palm curry with tofu and shrimps in sugar cane. Well-priced cocktails, draught beer and a small wine list. Open 24hr.

Nightlife and entertainment

For many of Bangkok's male visitors, nightfall is the signal to hit the city's sex bars, most notoriously in the area off Thanon Silom known as Patpong. Fortunately, Bangkok's nightlife has thoroughly grown up and left these neon sumps behind in the last ten years, offering everything from microbreweries and vertiginous, roof top cocktail bars to fiercely chic clubs and dance bars, hosting top-class DJs: within spitting distance of the beer bellies flopped onto Patpong's bars, for example, lies Soi 4, Thanon Silom, one of the city's most happening after-dark haunts. Along with Silom 4, the high-concept clubs and bars of Sukhumvit and the lively, teeming venues of Banglamphu pull in the style-conscious cream of Thai youth and are tempting an increasing number of travellers to stuff their party gear into their rucksacks. Though Silom 4 started out as a purely gay area, it now offers a range of styles in gay, mixed and straight pubs, DJ bars and clubs, while the city's other main gay area is the more exclusive Silom 2 (towards Thanon Rama IV). As with the straight scene, many gay bars feature go-go dancers and live sex shows. Those listed here do not. Most bars and clubs operate nightly until 1am, while clubs on Silom 4 and Silom 2 can stay open until 2am, with closing time strictly enforced under the current government's Social Order Policy. This has also involved occasional clampdowns on illegal drugs, including urine testing of bar customers, and more widespread ID checks to curb under-age drinking (you have to be 21 or over to drink in bars and clubs) – it's worth bringing your passport out with you, as ID is often requested however old you are.

On the cultural front, the most accessible of the capital's performing arts are Thai dancing, particularly when served up in bite-size portions in tourist shows, and the graceful and humorous performances at the Traditional Thai Puppet Theatre on Thanon Rama IV. Thai boxing is also well worth watching: the live experience at either of Bangkok's two main national stadia far outshines the TV coverage.

Bars and clubs

Siam Square, Thanon Ploenchit and northern downtown

  • Ad Makers 51/51 Soi Langsuan T02 652 0168. Friendly, spacious bar with Wild West-style wooden decor and good food, attracting a cross-section of Thais and foreigners and featuring nightly folk and rock bands.
  • Brown Sugar 231/19–20 Soi Sarasin T02 250 1826. Chic, pricey, lively bar, acknowledged as the capital's top jazz venue.
  • Concept CM2 Novotel, Soi 6, Siam Square T02 209 8888. More theme park than nightclub, with live bands and various, barely distinct entertainment zones, including karaoke, an Italian restaurant and everything from bhangra to hip-hop in the Boom Room. Admission B550 (including two drinks) Fri & Sat, B220 (including one drink) Sun– Thurs.

Culture shows and performing arts

  • National Theatre Next to the National Museum on the northwest corner of Sanam Luang T02 224 1342 or 02 222 1012. Roughly weekly shows of music, lakhon (classical dance-drama) and likay (folk drama) – a programme in English is posted up in the theatre foyer, or contact the nearby Bangkok Information Centre, who keep a copy of the programme in Thai; plus outdoor shows of classical music and dancing at the National Museum in the dry season (Dec– April Sat & Sun 5pm; B20).
  • Thailand Cultural Centre Thanon Ratchadapisek T02 247 0028, ext 4280, www.thaiculturalcenter.com; BTS Thailand Cultural Centre. Mainstream classical concerts, traditional and contemporary theatre, and visiting international dance and theatre shows.

Shopping

Bangkok has a good reputation for shopping, particularly for silk, gems and fashions, where the range and quality are streets ahead of other Thai cities, and antiques and handicrafts are good buys too. As always, watch out for fakes: cut glass masquerading as precious stones, old, damaged goods being passed off as antiques, and counterfeit designer labels. Bangkok also has the best English-language bookshops in the country. Department stores and tourist-oriented shops in the city keep late hours, opening daily at 10 or 11am and closing at about 9pm; many small, upmarket boutiques, for example along Thanon Charoen Krung and Thanon Silom, close on Sundays.

Downtown Bangkok is full of smart, multi-storeyed shopping plazas like Siam Paragon, Siam Centre, Emporium and Gaysorn Plaza, which is where you'll find the majority of the city's fashion stores, as well as designer lifestyle goods and bookshops. The plazas tend to be pleasantly air-conditioned and thronging with trendy young Thais, but don't hold much interest for tourists unless you happen to be looking for a new outfit. You're more likely to find useful items in one of the city's numerous department stores, most of which are also scattered about the downtown areas. Seven-storey Central Chidlom on Thanon Ploenchit, which boasts handy services like watch-, garment- and shoe-repair booths as well as a huge product selection (including large sizes), is probably the city's best (with other Central branches on Thanon Silom and around town), but the Siam Paragon department store (which also offers garment and shoe repairs), in the shopping centre of the same name on Thanon Rama I, and Robinson's (on Sukhumvit Soi 19, at the Silom/Rama IV junction and on Thanon Charoen Krung near Thanon Sathorn) are also good. They all have children's departments selling bottles, slings and clothes, or there's the branch of Mothercare inside the Emporium between Sukhumvit sois 22 and 24. The British chain of pharmacies, Boots the Chemist, has lots of branches across the city, including on Thanon Khao San, in the Siam Centre opposite Siam Square, on Patpong, in the Times Square complex between Sukhumvit sois 12 and 14, and in Emporium on Sukhumvit; Boots is the easiest place in the city to buy tampons.

Handicrafts, textiles and contemporary interior design

Samples of nearly all regionally produced handicrafts end up in Bangkok, so the selection is phenomenal. Many of the shopping plazas have at least one classy handicraft outlet, and competition keeps prices in the city at upcountry levels, with the main exception of household objects – particularly wickerware and tin bowls and basins – which get palmed off relatively expensively in Bangkok. Handicraft sellers in Banglamphu tend to tout a limited range compared to the shops downtown, but several places on and around Thanon Khao San sell reasonably priced triangular "axe" pillows (mawn khwaan) in traditional fabrics, which make fantastic souvenirs but are heavy to post home; some places, including one dedicated outlet between Bella House and Baan Sabai on Banglamphu's Soi Chana Songkhram, sell unstuffed versions which are simple to mail home, but a pain to fill when you return. The cheapest outlet for traditional northern and northeastern textiles – including sarongs, axe pillows and farmers' shirts – is Chatuchak Weekend Market, where you'll also able to nose out some interesting handicrafts. Bangkok is also rapidly establishing a reputation for its contemporary interior design, fusing minimalist Western ideals with traditional Thai and other Asian craft elements. The best places to sample this, as detailed in the reviews below, are on Floor 4 of the Siam Discovery Centre and Floor 4 of the Siam Paragon shopping centre, both on Thanon Rama I, and Floor 3 of the Gaysorn Plaza on Thanon Ploenchit.

Jewellery, gems and other rare stones

Bangkok boasts the country's best gem and jewellery shops, and some of the finest lapidaries in the world, making this the place to buy cut and uncut stones such as rubies, blue sapphires and diamonds. However, countless gem-buying tourists get badly ripped off, so be extremely wary. Never buy anything through a tout or from any shop recommended by a "government official"/"student"/"businessperson"/tuk-tuk driver who just happens to engage you in conversation on the street, and note that there are no government jewellery shops despite any information you may be given to the contrary. Always check that the shop is a member of the Thai Gem and Jewelry Traders Association by calling the association or visiting their website (T02 630 1390–7, www.thaigemjewelry.or.th). To be doubly sure, you may want to seek out shops that also belong to the TGJTA's Jewel Fest Club ( www.jewelfest.com), which guarantees quality and will offer refunds; see their website for a directory of members. For independent professional advice or precious stones certification, contact the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences, located on the sixth floor of the Jewelry Trade Center Building, 919/1 Thanon Silom (T02 267 4325–7, www.aigsthailand.com), which also runs reputable courses, such as a five-day (15hr) introduction to gemstones (B7500) and one day on rubies and sapphires (B1500). A common scam is to charge a lot more than what the gem is worth based on its carat weight. Get it tested on the spot, ask for a written guarantee and receipt. Don't even consider buying gems in bulk to sell at a supposedly vast profit elsewhere: many a gullible traveller has invested thousands of dollars on a handful of worthless multi-coloured stones, believing the vendor's reassurance that the goods will fetch a hundred times more when resold at home. Gem scams are so common in Bangkok that TAT has published a brochure about it and there are several websites on the subject, including the very informative www.2bangkok.com/2bangkok/Scams/Sapphire.shtml, which describes the typical scam in detail and advises on what to do if you get caught out; it's also continuously updated with details of the latest scammers. Most victims get no recompense at all, but you have more chance of doing so if you contact the website's recommended authorities while still in Thailand.

Antiques and paintings

Bangkok is the entrepôt for the finest Thai, Burmese and Cambodian antiques, but the market has long been sewn up, so don't expect to happen upon any undiscovered treasure. Even experts admit that they sometimes find it hard to tell real antiques from fakes, so the best policy is just to buy on the grounds of attractiveness. The River City shopping complex, off Thanon Charoen Krung (New Road), devotes its third and fourth floors to a bewildering array of pricey treasures, as well as holding an auction on the first Saturday of every month (viewing during the preceding week). Worth singling out here are Old Maps and Prints on the fourth floor ( www.classicmaps.com), which has some lovely old prints of Thailand and Asia (averaging around B3500), as well as rare books and maps; and Ingon on the third floor, which specializes in small Chinese pieces made of jade and other precious stones, such as snuff boxes, jewellery, statuettes and amulets. The other main area for antiques is the section of Charoen Krung that runs between the GPO and the bottom of Thanon Silom, and the stretch of Silom running east from here up to and including the multi-storey Silom Galleria. Here you'll find a good selection of largely reputable individual businesses specializing in woodcarvings, ceramics, bronze statues and stone sculptures culled from all parts of Thailand and neighbouring countries as well. The owners of Old Maps and Prints have a second outlet, the Old Siam Trading Company in the Nailert Building at the mouth of Thanon Sukhumvit Soi 5 ( www.oldsiamtrading.com). Remember that most antiques require an export permit.