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The Culture of Bangkok

Experience the Majesty of the Royal City
The Culture of Bangkok
As Thailand's political center and its spiritual and cultural capital, the teeming metropolis of Bangkok abounds with fascinating sights and enclaves of interest.
By Duncan Forgan, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Bronwen Gregory
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    Experience the Majesty of the Royal City
    Experience the Majesty of the Royal City
    Thailand’s revered monarchy is key to the country’s identity, and Bangkok’s royal sights reflect this. The Grand Palace, on Rattanakosin Island—the original fortified center of Bangkok when it was founded in 1782—is a sprawling complex that has evolved organically through a number of reigns, with numerous buildings, temples, and pavilions set around open lawns, gardens, and courtyards. Another essential regal attraction is Dusit Palace Park. Conceived by King Rama V after his first European tour in 1897, the palaces and halls here are a unique mélange of Thai and European architectural styles.
    Photo by Bronwen Gregory
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    Utilize Pedal Power to See Bangkok from a Different Perspective
    Utilize Pedal Power to See Bangkok from a Different Perspective
    The idea of negotiating heat, congestion, and the frantic motorists of Bangkok by bike may seem foolhardy. However, the city’s pancake-flat topography and multitude of quiet, traffic-free sois (alleys) make exploration by pedal power one of the most rewarding ways to experience the Thai capital. Numerous bicycle tour agencies can guide you through little-visited areas of urban Bangkok. A favorite excursion is to explore the warren of streets on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya before crossing back over the river near the Grand Palace. If you’d rather go it alone, make your way to Bang Krachao. Accessible by a boat across the river from Bang Na pier or a little terminal next to Wat Khlong Toei, this vast green lung is veined with raised cement pathways winding through the jungle. Bikes are available for hire at the boat jetty.
    Photo by Walter G. Allgöwer/age fotostock
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    Bangkok’s Offbeat Alleyways
    Bangkok’s Offbeat Alleyways
    Bangkok is very much its own city; even so, shades of Brooklyn’s hipster culture can be detected in certain quarters. One such vibrant enclave is located on Sukhumvit Soi 51 near the Thonglor Skytrain where ZudRangMa Records and WTF sit cheek by jowl up a small side alley. ZudRangMa specializes in retro Thai sounds and releases excellent compilations on its own imprint. It also stocks a decent range of soul, funk, jazz, and other global genres on vinyl. Next door, WTF has a winning combination of potent cocktails, eclectic sounds, and occasional art happenings and events. Studio Lam, run by the team behind ZudRangMa, is dedicated to showcasing alternative and creative music. A contender to the alley's hipster crown is Chinatown's Soi Nana, where a burgeoning number of bars and galleries have set up shop, including arty dive bar 23 Bar & Gallery, Chinese-influenced Ba Hao, gin bar Teens of Thailand, and Tep Bar, which melds contemporary tastes with traditional Thai culture.
    Photo by Ingolf Pompe/age fotostock
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    Bangkok’s Contemporary Markets
    Bangkok’s Contemporary Markets
    Chatuchak Weekend Market is the place to go for a quintessentially Bangkokian dose of retail therapy. One of the largest markets in the world, JJ, as it is more commonly known, peddles everything from tourist trinkets to unique boutique labels. If you ever needed a one-stop shop to buy a unique piece for your home, a vinyl copy of a Rolling Stones record, and a baby squirrel, this is the place. Less famous than JJ, but also impressive, is Talat Rot Fai. The focus here is on retro items. Goods run the gamut from 1960s home decor to used Vespas, and there’s a host of good bars where you can grab refreshments when you're tired of haggling.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Find Space to Breathe
    Find Space to Breathe
    Although not regarded as a great walking city, Bangkok nevertheless rewards those who are willing to endure a little bit of perspiration. Ari is one of the city’s up-and-coming neighborhoods, but it has thus far managed to retain a relaxed "village" feel. While away a few hours strolling around the leafy streets, making a few stops at the area’s handful of laid-back cafés along the way. Another great place to stretch your legs is Banglamphu. Famous as a hub for backpackers, the riverside area is also popular with Thai university students who go to smoke shisha and listen to acoustic sets from singer-songwriters at the bars that line Phra Athit Road. It's a great place to pitch up after exploring the Old City or taking a longtail boat tour around Bangkok's waterways.
    Photo by Steve Vidler/age fotostock
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    Drinks with a View at Bangkok’s Sky Bars
    Drinks with a View at Bangkok’s Sky Bars
    Bangkok’s flat topography means that, when seen from above, the neon-lit cityscape stretches in all directions. The city's best side can be appreciated from several first-class elevated drinking venues. One of the most arresting viewpoints is at the peak of the Banyan Tree Hotel, where Vertigo and Moon Bar offer expansive sofas and plentiful bar stools. A similarly impressive vista can be found nearby at the Sky Bar at Lebua hotel. The venue’s fame, however, precedes it—it was used as filming location for the movie The Hangover Part II—so expect to jostle for a space. Another trendy spot is Octave Rooftop Lounge & Bar, at the Bangkok Marriott Hotel Sukhumvit, where 360-degree panoramic views pair well with the signature drinks. For views over Lumphini Park, try Park Society at the SO Sofitel Bangkok.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Party into the Wee Hours at Bangkok’s Nightspots
    Party into the Wee Hours at Bangkok’s Nightspots
    Bangkok is known for being a party town, but not everyone is aware of how nuanced its nightlife actually is. The city’s naughty reputation is alive and well in notorious red-light districts such as Patpong, Soi Cowboy, and Soi Nana, but there’s a whole lot of life beyond the go-go bars. Well-heeled Thais and expats flock to the Thonglor area for high-concept bars like the fairy-tale-themed Iron Fairies and state-of-the-art nightclubs like Demo and Beam. Try Maggie Choo's in Silom for James Bond–meets–Shanghai bordello flamboyance—or visit Sing Sing Theater, a club with a bit more chinoiserie kitsch. Another local favorite is RCA, Royal City Avenue, a long strip of nightspots that offers everything from cavernous clubs to intimate, grungy bars. An emerging party spot is the Old City, where bars such as Tropic City and SoulBar attract a fashionable, hip crowd. When everywhere else has shut down, Wong's Place makes a lively venue for a last drink or three.
    Photo by Ullrich Kleps/age fotostock
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    Galleries and Museums
    Galleries and Museums
    Bangkok’s contemporary art scene may be small, but it is vibrant and growing. A day of gallery-hopping is a rewarding way to discover unsung regional talent. The daddy of the gallery scene is MOCA Bangkok (Museum of Contemporary Art), which houses Thailand's most comprehensive collection of modern paintings and sculptures in an architecturally striking building. Other recommended galleries include the Art Center at Chulalongkorn University, H Gallery, Speedy Grandma, RMA Institute, and YenakArt Villa. History buffs are also well catered to in Bangkok. The Bangkok National Museum is one of the region’s largest museums and boasts a huge—if sometimes erratically curated—collection of artifacts. Less artistically focused but equally attention-grabbing are the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute, where serpents are milked for venom, and the Siriraj Medical Museum, the so-called Museum of Death where murder weapons, crime scene evidence, and the centerpiece—the preserved body of a serial killer—make for a macabre day out.
    Photo by Lorenzo De Simone/age fotostock
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    Bangkok’s Mellower Spots
    Bangkok’s Mellower Spots
    While kicking back may seem antithetical to Bangkok’s relentless pace, there are opportunities to press the pause button and watch the world go by. If you like the idea of perpetual motion, many passenger boats ply the Chao Phraya. Taking to the water is a great way to observe headline sights such as the Grand Palace and Wat Arun, known as the Temple of Dawn, from a relaxed vantage point. Bangkok is also home to many canals that make for peaceful exploring on a private tour. Another popular haven is Lumphini Park. Established in the 1920s as an exhibition space for Thai crafts and flower displays, the park has evolved into a much-loved green lung where Bangkokians come to jog, perform tai chi moves, or simply relax. Take a leisurely stroll from the park down Sathorn Road, where leafy side streets hide cafés, restaurants, and arty spots such as Sathorn 11 Art Space beneath newly minted monoliths like MahaNakhon, Thailand's highest building.
    Photo by Maeve Nolan
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