Bangkok has long been a favorite destination for Westerners to get a glimpse of life in Southeast Asia. Here's a guide to activities and fun in this beautiful city.
Walled inside what was once the royal heart of Bangkok's monarchy and is now the heart of its tourist trade, the gaudy and glittering Grand Palace is the ultimate symbol of Thailand's kings. Together with the adjacent Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), the palace is at the top of most sightseers' to-do lists.
The beautiful palace is definitely worth a visit and more than a few snapshots. But once you've braved the throngs of tourists crowding its courtyard and run the gauntlet of vendors, stash your camera back at the hotel and head out shopping.
If You Need Some Clothes
Bangkok has been sprouting home-grown designers with their own shops since the 1980s. Fly Now, located in the Siam Center and Gaysorn Plaza, and Greyhound, with several stores around the city, are two of the hippest such outlets. Greyhound's stylish café is the place to see and be seen in your new duds.
If you're looking for something a little more traditional, duck into one of the myriad tailor shops that dot Bangkok's alleys, where you can be fitted for a custom-made set of threads out of Thailand's world famous silk. The eponymous Thompson's has the best and most expensive selection. Be careful to choose a reputable shop, and stay away from ones with touts in front, which often do shoddy work.
For accessories, head to the Siam Paragon mall in Siam Square. The largest mall in Southeast Asia, this ultra-expensive and ultra-modern monument to Bangkok's increasingly Western and wealthy aspirations comes complete with an aquarium and even an opera theater.
Pick yourself up a few finishing touches at the shopping center's Cartier or Rolex shops, or, if you're sick of riding the city's Skytrain, drop by one of the mall's several auto showrooms featuring the latest from Lamborghini, Aston Martin and Maserati for a new set of wheels.
There are even more massage parlors in Bangkok than tailors, and they can range from store-front shops to luxurious world-class spas.
Be prepared -- authentic Thai massage is less a relaxing indulgence and more like having yoga performed on you by a contortionist, but a well-done Thai massage can leave you feeling totally rejuvenated and relaxed.
A basic massage in any massage parlor can cost as little as $10, but some of the most sumptuous ones to indulge in include treatments at the Banyan Tree Spa (starting at $140) and the Oriental Spa (starting at $200).
... Wind Up
Now that you're rested up, it's time for a night on the town. Bangkok has of late developed an increasingly cosmopolitan and upscale nightlife scene.
Build up your strength with an internationally inspired meal amid Bangkok's young and hip at C'yan and Glow in the Metropolitan Hotel (27 Sathon Tai Road, 0 2625 3333), run by one of Southeast Asia's most renowned chefs. Or, for something a bit more authentic, try Blue Elephant In Love (Krung Kasem Road, 0 2281 2900), which serves whole-fish Thai seafood specialties overlooking beautiful bridge views.
Wash dinner down at one of the most breathtaking watering holes in the city, the Moon Bar at Vertigo, the first of Bangkok's sky bars, located on the 59th floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel. Grab a drink and take in an Asian sunset before moving on to dance to techno and hip hop at clubs such as Narcissus (Sukhumvit Road) and Lucifer (1-3 Soi Patpong 1).
As the myriad Buddhist monks to whom Bangkok is home will tell you, true happiness doesn't come from massages, mojitos and dance moves; it comes from the silence within.
For a little quiet time, visit Mahathat (Na Phra That Road). At this serene, working monastery, the home of one of Southeast Asia's most important Buddhist universities, you can learn the techniques of Buddhist meditation taught by practicing monks and nuns, and take the first few steps on the very long road to enlightenment. Classes are held daily from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., 1 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Get Out of Town
Of course, if you really need a break from the bustle of Bangkok, the best way to do it is to actually leave the city. A day's bus, boat or airplane journey takes you south to any number of the country's tropical island paradises, where you can swing in a hammock on the beach, go scuba diving in some of the world's most beautiful waters -- or simply get blitzed at numerous beachside parties.
Koh Chang, country's second-largest island, is a mist-enshrouded haven, home of some of Southeast Asia's most well-preserved rainforests. Take an elephant trek at Ban Kwan Elephant Camp (0 1919 3995), hike through the beautiful national park at the island's center or take a Thai cooking class at Koh Chang Thai Cookery School (0 1940 0649).
If getting wet is more your thing, head farther south to Koh Taohttp. Supposedly home to some of Thailand's best scuba diving and quietest, most undeveloped beaches, Koh Tao is for serious divers -- up until a few years ago, you weren't even allowed to stay on the island unless you were one. Now, there's also snorkeling and kayaking for the "shallower" among us.
Grab one last beer, plop down in a hammock and watch the sun come up over the deeply blue Southeast Asian sea, a view -- and a vacation -- fit for a king.
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