The Culture of Bangkok

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The Culture of Bangkok
As the country's political center and its spiritual and cultural capital, all roads in Thailand lead to Bangkok. The teeming metropolis 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
    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 Differently
    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 the back routes of urban Bangkok. However, if you’d rather go it alone, make your way to Bang Krachao. Accessible by a boat across the Chao Phraya River from Bang Na pier or a little terminal next to Wat Klong Toey temple, 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 is very much its own city; however, shades of Brooklyn’s hipster culture can be detected in certain quarters. One such vibrant enclave is located on Sukhumvit Soi 51 near the Thong Lor 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.
    Photo by Ingolf Pompe/age fotostock
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    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 décor to used Vespas, and there’s a host of good bars where you can grab refreshments when you're tired from haggling.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Malls for the Shopaholic
    Bangkok rivals Singapore for the title of the region’s shopping capital, and its selection of malls offer amazing scope and variety. MBK is likely the city’s most famous mall, boasting eight floors packed with over 2,000 shops selling everything from clothing to electric appliances, cameras, and mobile phones. Bargains can be had, especially on cameras and phones, but be prepared to negotiate hard. For a more upmarket shopping experience, head to newer malls such as Siam Paragon, Emporium, EmQuartier, and Central Embassy. The last one, in particular, positions itself as the city’s most high-end retail complex.
    Photo by Patrick Forget/age fotostock
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    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 here, strolling around the leafy streets, making a few stops at the area’s handful of laid-back cafes 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 Atit Road.
    Photo by Steve Vidler/age fotostock
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    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 can be found 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 2—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.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Party into the Wee Hours at Bangkok’s Nightspots
    Bangkok is well-known for being a party town, but not everyone is aware 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 Nana Plaza, but there’s a whole lot of life beyond the go-go bars. Well-heeled Thais and expats flock to the Thong Lor area for high-concept bars like the fairytale-themed Iron Fairies and state-of-the-art techno clubs like Demo and Beam. Try Maggie Choo's in Silom for James Bond-meets-Shanghai-bordello flamboyance—or visit Sing Sing Theater, which is a bit more Chinoiserie kitsch. Another local favorite is RCA, a long strip of nightspots that offers everything from cavernous clubs to intimate, grungy bars.
    Photo by Ullrich Kleps/age fotostock
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    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 the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), which houses the most comprehensive collection of modern painting and sculpture in Thailand inside a striking, purpose-built gallery. Other recommended galleries include Chulalongkorn Art Centre, H Gallery, Speedy Grandma, RMA, and Soy Sauce Factory. History buffs are also well catered to in Bangkok. Thailand’s National Museum is one of the region’s largest museums and boasts a huge—if sometimes erratically curated—collection of artifacts.
    Photo by Lorenzo De Simone/age fotostock
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    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 River. 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 Lumpini 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.
    Photo by Maeve Nolan
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