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The Grand PalaceBangkok’s Grand Palace is a must-see attraction for first-time visitors to Bangkok. Although it is now used strictly for ceremonial purposes, the Grand Palace served as a residence for the Thai royal family from the late 1700s, when King Rama I moved the capital of Siam (Thailand) to Bangkok, on through the reign of King Rama the VIII in the mid 1940s.
The palace complex, which houses numerous government offices, residences and temples, serves up amazing examples of Thailand’s architectural grandeur and also provides an overview of the history of the Thai royal family.
Open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., admission also includes access to Wat Phra Kaeo, which houses the much-revered Emerald Buddha as well as the Royal Thai Decorations and Coins Pavilion and Vimanmek Mansion Museum.
Wat PhoOne of Thailand’s oldest and largest temples, Wat Pho is perhaps best known for its iconic, golden reclining Buddha, a breathtaking — and massive — structure measuring nearly 150 feet high.
The temple itself is unique in that combines history, medicine, massage and meditation training, all under one roof. The temple site was once the location of an educational center dedicated to Thai medicine, and it still houses a medicine training pavilion.
Many consider Wat Pho the home of Thai massage and some of the country’s top masseuses have attended the temple’s Thai massage school. Visitors can enjoy a traditional massage for around $10 for one hour.
Chao Phraya RiverThailand’s most important waterway, the Chao Phraya River spans 231 miles from Thailand’s central plains, through Bangkok and eventually flowing into the Gulf of Thailand. It is a major transportation artery for the city and connects many of the city’s most popular visitor attractions.
A great way to explore Bangkok is to enjoy one of the many boat rides offered along the Chao Phraya River. Most of the river boat excursions are incredibly affordable, and many function as a hop-on/hop-off service so visitors can disembark to explore attractions at their leisure.
A number of dinner cruises allow visitors to enjoy the illuminated nighttime skyline along the river, while dining on outstanding Thai food. Plenty of moored river boat restaurants are also available for visitors who prefer not to participate in a moving feast.
The Chao Phraya River also serves as a source for the canals in and around Bangkok as well as the rest of the country. These canals often serve as the site of floating marketplaces, where visitors can walk along a permanent boardwalk and purchase goods such as produce, snacks and gifts from vendors selling their wares from small vessels.
Rattanakosin Exhibition HallFor visitors short on time, a great place to explore the history of Bangkok is at the interactive Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall, which opened in late 2010.
Rattanakosin, which is one of Bangkok’s formal names, also refers to the era in time that started when Bangkok was established as the capital of Thailand in 1782 and continued on through 1932.
The four-story facility offers a 90-minute guided tour through seven exhibition rooms, filled with engaging multimedia presentations and life-size models. The facility explores Bangkok’s origins while delving into such themes as religion, commerce and the arts.
Siam NiramitThe 2,000-seat Siam Niramit Theatre is another can’t-miss attraction in Bangkok. Billed as the largest stage production in the world, the nightly program offers an entertaining and historical overview of Thailand on a grand scale.
The 80-minute program unfolds through the stories of 15 classic Thai myths, with 150 performers filling the stage’s massive four-story-tall proscenium. Live elephants, flying angels and an actual river bisecting the stage, are all part of the magic visitors will enjoy. Furthermore, while the show’s themes are fairly universal, the few places that require definition come complete with English subtitles.
The grounds of Siam Niramit include a restaurant, so guests can enjoy a pre-show meal as well as the “Village of the Four Regions” cultural area. Guests can also enjoy additional outdoor performances, have a Thai massage, or even take an elephant ride.
Chatuchak Weekend MarketWith more than 5,000 booths selling specialty goods every Saturday and Sunday, the Chatuchak market is massively popular with locals and visitors, with an estimated 200,000 people visiting the market. Vendors sell almost any item imaginable, but particularly popular items include pottery, handbags, accessories and musical instruments. Even birds and puppies are on sale. The market is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.
Sukhumvit RoadOne of Bangkok’s more upscale neighborhoods, Sukhumvit Road is a popular location because of its fancy shops and upscale restaurants, as well as its teeming nightlife. Although the restaurant prices are commensurately higher than many other areas of the city, most offer high-quality cuisine and even more importantly, most are air-conditioned which can provide a nice respite from Bangkok’s balmy weather. Some of the city’s top luxury hotels and ultra-modern shopping centers are found in the area. It is also well known with visitors as a great place to buy a custom-made suit.
Lumphini ParkWith its green lawns and central lake, Lumphini Park is a perfect place for joggers, picnickers or anyone else wanting a respite from the busy bustle that is Bangkok. Additionally, Lumpini Park is home to free concerts in December and January and performances range from the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra to rock concerts.
The area also houses the Lumphini (Lumpinee) Boxing Stadium, which is run by the Royal Thai Army and stands as the symbol of Muay Thai boxing. It was once home to the popular Suan Lum Night Bazaar, but the market closed to the public earlier this year.
Have a Thai MassageOften known as passive yoga, the truest form of Thai massage involves much stretching and being bent into pretzel-like formations. Participants wear loose-fitting clothing while sitting and/or lying on floor-level mattresses, and most of the massage is done over top of the clothing.
Through the years, however, the art form has merged into various hybrid forms and most places now offer a traditional “Thai massage” and either an “oil massage” or a “combo massage.” The oil massage version incorporates some principles of Swedish massage and guests will be expected to at least partially disrobe although largely they will still largely remain at floor level.
In Bangkok, visitors can barely walk 10 steps before running into a Thai massage establishment, making the decision about where to get started an almost overwhelming one for first-time guests.
Hotels are often a great place to start, as most properties offer some sort of in-house Thai massage. Five-star properties usually feature luxury spas with a large selection of local and international treatment types, while the facilities at three- and four- star properties are often more dedicated to traditional Thai arts. Many properties even offer in-room service, a decadent way to spend an evening.
A popular option in Bangkok is the RarinJinda Wellness Spa Resort, which is located in the Grand Centre Point Hotel. The Classic Thai Massage (a two-hour treatment that includes a foot soak and scrub, a thai massage and an herbal hot compress) starts at around $50.
Public locations, however, often offer the best pricing with some temples and public market shops starting as low as $10 for a one-hour massage.
Get a Check UpThere’s a reason why so many people are talking about Thailand’s bustling medical tourism scene. Bangkok’s top hospital, Bumrungrad, has several special programs for international visitors, and complete physicals range from $100 to $500 depending on the patient’s needs.
International patients are assigned a caseworker who speaks English, to escort them to each appointment. At the end of the day, visitors meet with a general practitioner who reviews available test results and assign the patient a case number so they can download all future results and/or send the information to their doctor at home.
If $500 seems out of range, smaller hospitals, such as Yahnee Hopsital, which aren’t as well known as Bumrungrad still offer first-rate services but often at less than one-third of the cost, with comprehensive physicals starting at just $150.
Guests concerned with the “standards” of these hospitals can take comfort in the knowledge that many of Thailand’s medical professionals have earned their degrees overseas (often in the U.S. or the U.K.).
Travel agents who would like to explore medical tourism options can contact Thailand Vacation Tours out of Orange County, Calif. Thailand Vacation Tours can customize a one-day or full-vacation package to the travelers needs and they pay travel agent commissions.
Chao Phraya: Many of Bangkok’s top attractions are accessible through excursion boats on the Chao Phraya River. // © 2011 Monica Poling
Rattanakosin: A life-size exhibit at the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall demonstrates the history of the women police officers who where charged with protecting the female members of the Royal Family. // © 2011 Monica Polling