Bangkok’s old royal district is set on what was once an island bounded by the Chao Phraya river to the west and two connecting khlongs (canals) to the east. These days its island status might be debatable but it can mount a strong claim to being Bangkok’s most interesting and exotic quarter. Women should not wear short skirts, shorts, or sleeveless tops when visiting the wats. The last tickets to the royal palace are sold at 3:30 p.m., so it’s best to start this walk by 1:30 p.m. at the latest.
Using a taxi, bus, or public riverboat, go to (1) Tha Phra Chan (“tha” means “pier”) at the western edge of Thammasat University to begin this walking tour. The first things you’ll notice are the ramshackle wooden buildings overhanging the river, from which delicious flavors waft throughout the day—if you’re hungry, step right in.
From here, walk away from the river into the Bangkok bustle, where street vendors and small shops compete to sell food and goods ranging from holy amulets to unholy fake watches and sunglasses. Turn right onto Th Maharat and duck down one of the lanes leading to the river for a taste of the covered market experience, before returning to the street and walking south past one of Thailand’s oldest Buddhist universities, (2) Wat Mahathat, on the right. About 300 yards (274 meters) south cross to the left and enter the country’s most famous fine arts institution, (3) Silpakorn University, which is open to visitors and holds regular exhibitions.
Exit to the south and turn left on Th Na Phra Lan. On the opposite side of this road are two of Bangkok’s must-see sights, (4) the Grand Palace and (5) Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). The sacred Emerald Buddha (actually made of a type of jade) is housed in a fantastic complex that is the spiritual center of Thai Buddhism. Royalty seldom uses the adjoining palace complex these days, but it’s interesting to wander through the remaining buildings with their varied architectural styles, combining tall Thai spires with Western influences.
Exit by the same way you entered and continue a couple of minutes east to see the (6) City Pillar Shrine, erected by Rama 1 in 1782 to mark the founding of the new capital.
Head south along the palace wall on Th Sanamchai before turning right (west) on Th Thaiwang and (7) Wat Pho. Bangkok’s oldest and largest wat, it is most famous for housing the 50-yard-long (46-meter-long), 16-yard-high (15-meter-high) gold-colored Reclining Buddha, one of Bangkok’s must-see sights.
By now you’ll very likely be thirsty and/or hungry. Walk out the southern exit of Wat Pho, turn right (west) and walk along Soi Chetuphon, across Th Maharat and down red-paved Soi Pratoo Nok Yoong towards the river. Past the charismatic old Chinese godowns, or warehouses, overlooking the Chao Prhya, is the (8) Arun Residence (36-38 Soi Pratoo Nok Yoong, Maharat Road; www.arunresidence.com). This small boutique hotel boasts one of the most atmospheric restaurants and bars in town—Deck by the River. The Deck overlooks the river and famous (9) Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) on the far bank; a truly serendipitous locale for a sunset drink, lunch, or dinner.
This is a good place to finish, but if you still have energy take the ferry from nearby Tha Tien across to Wat Arun. When you’re ready to head back to your hotel, river ferries link Tha Tien with hotels to the north and south.
Nat Geo Traveler All Access
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!