Bangkok is a city bigger than London or Paris, with its fifty districts, or khen, and its 11 Million inhabitants living within an area over 7,000 kilometres squared, representing a cultural mix as wide and vibrant as any in Asia. It possesses a dual reputation to the visitor for being a centre of hedonism and an exotic nightlife as well as a cultural and spiritual hotspot, especially for those drawn to the mysteries of Buddhism.
The enormity of Bangkok accommodates such apparent contradictions with ease. It is the world’s second most visited city, and accordingly contains a vast array of modern tourist attractions ranging from bars, hotels, night clubs and shopping malls to some of Asia’s most remarkable historical buildings and temples.
For those who want to explore the latter, there is an abundance of choice. In terms of architecture, the Grand Palace and its surrounding temples in the Rattanakosin district are some of the most impressive structures in the city .
In that area also are two of the most significant temples in the world for Buddhism. Wat Pho, adjacent to the Grand Palace contains the 42-foot reclining Buddha, a marvel of size and value: it is the single most expensive carving of the Buddha on earth. Each year it is visited by thousands who come to witness and worship.
Within the grounds of the grand palace itself is the famous Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This temple, even more holy to Buddhists then Wat Pho, contains a tree grown from the scion of the Bodhi arbours that Siddhartha Gautama is said to have sat under to meditate after years of austerities, finally receiving enlightenment.
The temple was built in the 18th century under orders of the King in order to provide him with a private place of worship. It houses the mysterious, indeed talismanic, emerald Buddha statue, said to bestow good luck on the land in which it inhabits. The legendary history of this Buddha image is traced to India, created five centuries after the Buddha’s passing, possessed by various great Asian kingdoms until it was finally enshrined in Bangkok at the Wat Phra Kaew temple in 1782 during Rama I’s reign. This marked the beginning and rise of the Chakri Dynasty of the present Kingdom of Thailand. Hence, its association with royal good luck.
Elsewhere in the city there is Wat Arun- the temple of the dawn. To be found on the west (or Thonburi) bank of the Chao Phraya River, whose 70-foot high spire (prang) is decorated with innumerable pieces of coloured glass and porcelain. Its photogenic appearance has made it a world-recognised image of Thailand and of Bangkok, used frequently in postcard, poster and travel agency pictures .
For those who want to actively experience a taste of Bangkok’s enduring Buddhist life, there is the temple of Wat Mahathat, where one can engage in the meditation classes for around 30 bhat, in the vipasana school of Buddhism. The temple itself is also an attraction, if not for its large collection of finely-carved Buddhas but for its significance to the city: it is one of Bangkok’s oldest temples. Nearby, there are intriguing markets where one can have their fortune told, and buy amulets to ward off evil influences attract luck and even to resolve a case of unrequited love.
These are but a handful of Bangkok’s most enticing assets for lovers of local culture, and if you get hooked on temples there are at least 400 major sites throughout the city; but for those who crave modern cultural interests one can visit the dozens of theatres, multiplexes or art galleries in the city centre. The biggest and most popular art gallery is the National Gallery, located near Sanam Luang, elsewhere there is the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre to take in, an impressive modern building opened in 2008 located in the heart of downtown Bangkok.
As for museums, they are innumerable and diverse: ranging from a doll museum to a science park and natural history centre!
Like any capital city in the world, Bangkok has a concentration of national treasures and cultural attractions; unlike most, its wealth of culture is not only abundant, but virtually inexhaustible.