Historical Places to Visit in Bangkok - Things to Do in Bangkok

Bangkok has dominated Thailand's urban landscape for over two centuries. It has a well deserved reputation as one of the flesh pots of the East. But it contains many treasures for those interested in history.

Before becoming Thailand's capital in the late 18th Century, Bang Makok or "Place of Olives", now Bangkok, was an outlying district of Thonburi, a town founded as a trading post in the mid-16th century. Due to its proximity to Siam's capital, Ayuthaya, the town also developed military significance. In the 18th century a fortress was built on the banks of the Chao Phraya and a great iron chain hung across the river to block unwelcome arrivals.

The Chakri Dynasty was founded in the late 18th century. Shortly after, in 1782, King Rama I moved the capital to Bangkok on the other side of the river, believing it was an easier location to defend. Using the labor of thousands of Khmer prisoners of war, city walls were built, the canal system was expanded, and new temples were erected by artisans from Ayuthaya. When the construction of the new capital was finished in 1785, it was given a new name, a tongue-twister comprising 164 letters which referred modestly to divine gems, unconquerable lands and divine shelters. The name was mercifully shortened to Krung Thep or "City of Angels", but the city is still known as Bangkok to most of the outside world.

The first half of the 19th century in Bangkok saw a flurry of temple construction under the rule of Rama III. The definitive moment of his successor's reign was the building of the city's first road alongside the river in 1861. More roads were soon added and, well before the turn of the century, horse-drawn carriages and rickshaws had replaced watercraft as the favored mode of urban travel.

During the first decades of the 20th century the city grew in all directions and numerous roadways were added to carry new motorized forms of transport. In 1932 Thailand established a constitutional government. In World War II the Japanese briefly occupied parts of the city. Following the war Bangkok quickened its pace towards modernization. From the mid-1960s the city became a favorite 'rest and recreation' spot for American troops involved in the Vietnam conflict. The sex trade continues to this day in the form of various nightclubs and massage parlors. After riding a double-digit economic boom through the 1980s, Bangkok was hit hard by the economic crisis that swept Asia in 1997.

Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Kaew
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One of Thailand's most revered temples, Wat Phra Kaew is located inside the grounds of the Grand Palace. This Royal temple contains a beautiful Emerald Buddha which dates back to around the 14th century. No one is allowed near the Buddha, which is raised high on a series of platforms, except the King. A seasonal cloak, changed three times a year to correspond to the summer, winter, and rainy season covers the statue. A very significant ritual, the changing of the robes is performed only by the King to bring good fortune to the country during each season.

Wat Arun

Chua Wat Arun
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This is one of Bangkok's most famous temples. It has an imposing spire over 70 meters high, wonderfully decorated with tiny pieces of colored glass and Chinese porcelain placed carefully into intricate patterns. One can no longer climb the steps to the top of the spire for those vertigo inducing views over the river but it's worth visiting. Although known as the Temple of the Dawn, as it will appear to shimmer given the right weather conditions, it's lovely at sunset and particularly dramatic when lit up at night.

Wat Po

Wat Po
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Wat Po is Bangkok's largest temple, famous for its gigantic and stunning reclining Buddha, 46 meters long and covered in gold leaf. The Buddha's feet are 3 meters long and exquisitely ornamented in mother-of-pearl illustrations of auspicious laksanas or characteristics of the Buddha. As well as the reclining Buddha, Wat Po is also acknowledged as Thailand's first university and the place to learn Thai massage from the traditional source. Courses in traditional herbal medicine and Thai massage are available in English and Thai, and lasts between 7 to 10 days.

If one has never tried a traditional Thai massage this is a good place to get the original. It's quite different from most other forms of therapeutic massage and tends to be invigorating rather than relaxing, incorporating yoga style positions to relieve stress and improve circulation. One can wander around the grounds in the late afternoon where one can see some of the massage practitioners at work. There are also a few astrologers and palm readers available for consultation. One can also receive a blessing from a monk for a small donation which helps to maintain the temple.

Wat Mahathat

Wat Mahathat
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The headquarters of Thailand's largest monastic order and the home of Vipassana Meditation, Wat Mahathat is the most important center for the study of Buddhism and meditation. Although most programs are in Thai, there are some in English and the temple has become a popular place to learn the Vipassana meditation method.

The temple was originally constructed to house a relic of the Buddha and one of the oldest temples in Bangkok. One can also have your fortune told inside. Just next to the temple, every Sunday features the Bangkok's largest amulet market, where religious amulets, charms, talismans, and traditional medicine are spread out on the ground to be inspected by buyers searching for one that will bring good luck or ward off evil. Different amulets are used for specific purposes, to bring wealth, restore health, deal with unrequited love or keep ones enemies away, so choose carefully.

Wat Taimit

Wat Taimit
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Wat Traimit has a magnificent solid gold seated Buddha nearly 5 meters high and weighing five and a half tons. In the past, artisans crafted the Buddhas in gold and concealed them from invading armies by a covering of stucco and plaster. The Buddha at Wat Traimit was uncovered by accident when it was accidentally dropped as it was being moved, revealing, under a casing of plaster, a beautiful solid gold Sukhothai style Buddha. Pieces of the plaster are still kept on display.

Wat Suthat

Wat Suthat
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This is one of the oldest temples with a sweeping elegant roof and the site of the original Giant Swing ceremony. A huge teak arch, all that remains of the original Giant Swing, lies in the grounds in front of the temple. The swing was used in a ceremony to give thanks for a good rice harvest. Young men would ride the swing high in the air, suspended 80 feet from the ground when in full swing, and try to grab a bag of silver coins with their teeth. Some serious injuries and a few deaths led to the hazardous swing ceremony being discontinued after 1932, but the thanksgiving ceremony is still celebrated in mid-December after the rice harvest

The Grand Palace

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A must see, the fabulous Grand Palace is exquisitely decorated with gold and glass which literally dazzle in the sun. Bangkok's most famous landmark was built 1782. The palace complex is laid out following the general outline of Ayutthaya palaces. The Central Court, near where one enter the complex today, housed the government departments in which the King was directly involved, such as civil administration, including the army, and the treasury. The Wat Phra Kaeo takes up one corner of the complex next to the outer court.

In the middle is the Central Court where the residence of the King and the halls for conducting state business were located. One is permitted to look at the fronts of the buildings in the central court, but only two of the throne rooms are open to the public, and only on weekdays.

Behind the central court was the inner court. This was where the king's royal consorts and daughters lived. The inner court was like a small city entirely populated by women and boys under the age of puberty. Even though no royalty currently reside in the inner court, it is still completely closed off to the public.

Vimanmek Museum

Vimanmek Museum
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One of those great old wooden houses built by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) at a time when teak forests covered large parts of southeast Asia. It's the biggest wooden building made from golden teak in the world and contains more than 80 rooms, lots of winding staircases, beautiful Thai, Khmer, Burmese, and Western artifacts, and exquisitely carved teak and mahogany furniture. A former royal residence, it was recently renovated by Queen Sirikit, and transformed into a museum commemorating the late King. As well as antique furniture, the museum displays glassware, porcelain, old photographs and memorabilia from the late King's reign from 1868 to 1910. Parts of Vimanmek are still used for various state functions and receptions for visiting royalty, when the buildings are closed to the public.

The National Museum

The National Museum
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The National Museum is located in an eighteenth-century palace. It houses the largest collection of Thai art and artifacts in the country. There are some fascinating displays of Chinese weapons, ceramics, clothing and textiles, woodcarving and traditional musical instruments from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia.

Visiting Bangkok

Bangkok’s international airport handles flights from all over the world and is one of the cheapest to fly in and out of. Bus and train service from the rest of South East Asia is not quite as reliable or cheap. While Bangkok traffic is nightmarish at the best of times, the brand new Skytrain mass transit system is a good way to get around. The Chao Phraya river also makes a good highway for those who want to travel by boat.
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