Bangkok, the city of soul

Posted on 16 December 2020

If Bangkok is on your bucket list, start dreaming and planning. A frequent Bangkok visitor (and guidebook author) suggests places to witness the intricate details of the world’s most visited city.

Words & Photos Narina Exelby

Despite the city’s busyness, Bangkok has some wonderfully quiet corners. Temple of the Golden Mount
 is one of them.

How does one come to truly understand 
a place? It’s a question I’ve mulled over through the all years I’ve tried to get to grips with Bangkok.

Slightly smaller than Joburg, but with twice as many inhabitants, Bangkok is at once both serenely spiritual and wildly hedonistic. It drips with opulent riches while some parts rot with neglect. Bangkok is sticky street food and pink taxis; bold neon signs and pretty garlands of jasmine buds; it is tuk-tuks, ladyboys and hordes of shoppers; speeding long-tail boats and saffron-cloaked monks. Bangkok is curving 
waterways and looming concrete buildings; Mondays dressed in yellow and in April, an eruption of Cassia fistula, golden shower trees.

I first fell for the city in 2013 when the dangling lights, free spirits and smoky mayhem of the Khao San Road backpacker ghetto whispered to the part of my soul that had always yearned to travel. I’ve returned perhaps 20 times since, and in trying to understand the city, I’ve come to realise that Bangkok is the sum of its intricate parts.

This captivating entrance leads to Sol Heng Tai Mansion, a 200-year-old riverside home in Bangkok’s Talat Noi quarter.

The very best place to begin adding up these parts is on the fringe of the old city, along the Banglamphu Canal. Early morning – around 7am – is a magical time to be here, when gentle sunlight turns neglected buildings into watercolours on the surface of the khlong (canal). This historic waterway, once the eastern boundary of Bangkok, is lined with old apartment buildings and a few guesthouses. The alley that runs along its ‘outer’ bank, shaded by flame trees and worn umbrellas, is a muddle of shrines, food stalls and auspicious plants growing in old paint cans.

To catch a glimpse of everyday Thai life unfolding, start at the Samsen Road bridge near Phra Sumen Fort and walk along the canal, away from the river. When you reach the small market, stop for an iced kafae boran (fat-roasted coffee filtered through cloth) and fresh pa thong ko (Thai doughnuts) and watch as people make merit – do good deeds to improve their karmic rewards – by throwing bread to the khlong’s catfish. You’ll also witness sai baht, people giving alms to monks on their evocative barefoot dawn pilgrimages.

Rama VIII bridge, named in honour of the Thai king who was murdered before he was crowned, spans the Chao Phraya River. This is the late-afternoon view from the park at Phra 
Sumen Fort.

A half-hour stroll will take you past shrines with quirky figurines, banyan trees wrapped in colourful cloth to indicate they’re the homes of spirits, and a memorial to Bangkok founder Taksin the Great; you’ll then see Wat Saket (Temple of the Golden Mount) rising 80 metres above the canal. What this quiet temple lacks in intricate porcelain mosaics (like the astounding murals at Wat Pho), it more than makes up for with its rows of sacral bells and view across the flatlands of old Bangkok.

Take a walk along lovely Banglamphu Canal and you’ll catch glimpses of authentic Thai life and style.

Before you reach Wat Saket you’ll cross busy Ratchadamnoen Klang Road, where the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall ( stands. The museum (opens at 10am) really is a must-visit for those who use history and geography to build an understanding of a city. Here, you’ll gain interesting insight into Rattanakosin (the old city of Bangkok) – from the craft neighbourhoods and 
details of temple architecture to ‘The Inside’, the closed community of 3 000 women who were the wives, consorts, concubines and daughters of 
Siamese kings.

At the interactive Museum Siam ( near Wat Pho, its multimedia exhibits delve into contemporary culture. Especially intriguing is the room on Thai beliefs, which sheds light on spirit dolls, various gods and goddesses, and even fortune-telling slot machines.

Take a walk along lovely Banglamphu Canal and you’ll catch glimpses of authentic Thai life and style.

Although 94 percent of Thai people are Buddhist, the culture is an intricate weave of Buddhism, Hinduism and animism, and a belief in spirits is deep-rooted in Thai culture. If you’re intrigued by the ‘beliefs room’ at Museum Siam (and the figurines that adorn all Thai spirit houses and shrines), head across to Wat Ratchathiwat in the Dusit district. There, a large Buddha garden contains many statues of Hindu gods and goddesses as well as sages, monks and Buddha images. This temple ground – a home of Rama IV (‘the king’ from The King and I) before he was crowned – is a tranquil space in which to absorb the peaceful atmosphere of a Buddhist temple. Arrive around 8.30 am and you might hear the melancholic chanting of monks filtering through the trees.

As with so many of Bangkok’s older buildings, Wat Ratchathiwat faces the Chao Phraya River. When Bangkok was founded in 1782, the king established a network of waterways that protected and drained the city and, until 1900, almost everyone (apart from royalty) lived on or above the water. If you take a longtail boat through the canals (book at the kiosk at Phra Arthit pier) you’ll catch a glimpse of the last remaining stilted homes of old Bangkok. On the western outskirts of Bangkok, Kho Sarn Chao is a ‘rural’ canal community said to be 500 years old – and is absolutely worth a visit to explore the old Bangkok way of life ( offers guided trips here; or look for Wat Champa on Google Maps if you want to visit independently).

Asiatique is a popular open-air riverside mall – the often overlooked statues here honour wharf labourers.

The tiny riverside park back near Phra Sumen Fort is a delightful place to spend the late afternoon, when readers sit beneath the trees; friends picnic; children cartwheel and acrobats practise in the open air. Around 6pm, after Bangkokians stand still for the national anthem, Thai pop music blasts in a park corner as aerobics enthusiasts jive.

Towards the day’s end, perhaps loveliest of all is the view of the bridge. Named after Rama VIII, the young king who was never crowned (he was murdered before he was coronated), its golden lines shimmer as the sun dips and evening settles.

In Bangkok, I have learnt, there is something very satisfying about threading together, piece by piece, the intricate parts that make up the whole. Of 
observing and experiencing – through wild rides, quiet moments, and subtle nuances – the elements 
so intricately entwined into the soul of a city that it seems almost impossible for one to exist without another. It’s likely I will never completely understand Bangkok – but I will forever take delight in trying.

The five most visited cities in the world in 2019

Why is Bangkok obsessed with yellow?

Both the current and previous king were born on a Monday. In Thai culture each day of the week is associated with a colour. Monday is yellow, which is therefore considered a royal colour. People often wear yellow on Mondays in homage to the king.

Monks wearing saffron robes are a common sight in Thailand. It’s worth heading out onto the streets by 7am, when you’ll likely see them collecting alms.

Shop Bangkok

Upmarket Icon Siam has 500 shops and 100 restaurants.

Each floor at Terminal21 mall is themed on a different city. Visit for the décor as well as the shops.

MBK Centre is excellent for souvenirs, clothing bargains and affordable electronic goods.

Bang Krachao – often referred to as Bangkok’s green lung – is a leafy area close to the city. Rent a bike from a pier and explore the park.

Bangkok For Beginners

1. The Grand Palace
is an astounding complex of exquisite architecture, manicured gardens and the elaborate Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha).

2. Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) is one of the largest temple complexes in Bangkok. The mosaic details in the quieter parts are exquisite.
3. Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) is stunning 
at sunset. Bars and restaurants on the eastern side offer beautiful views of it 
from across the river.
4. Chinatown is fascinating. Yeowarat Chinatown Heritage Centre museum gives interesting background on the district; take an excellent walking tour with Bangkok Vanguards. bangkokvanguards.

With a putrid smell and spikey exterior, durian is one intimidating fruit – but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

5. Jim Thompson House Museum is 
an example of traditional stilted houses and a window into the Thai silk industry. jimthompsonhouse.
6. Chatuchak Weekend Market has more than 15 000 stalls.

7. Asiatique is a riverside lifestyle centre with chic street food outlets, classy market stalls and fair rides.

Wat Arun – Temple of the Dawn – is one of the most captivating sunset sights in the city. See it over dinner or drinks at Chakrabongse Villas.

Did you know?

Red Bull originated in Bangkok In the 1970s Chaleo Yoovidhya, who had established a pharmaceuticals company in Bangkok, created a sweet energy drink called Krating Daeng – which translates roughly as ‘red bull’. It was – and still is – much loved by taxi drivers and in 1984, on the advice of a taxi driver, Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz drank a bottle of Krating Daeng to 
alleviate his jet lag. It was he who took the drink to Europe, making a few changes to its formula. In Thailand Krating Daeng is more popular than Red Bull, and is found in most shops that sell cold drinks.

Trip Planner

When To Go
The cool season is from November to February but temperatures are still in the high 20s. It’s hottest and most humid from March until June; the rainy season is July 
through to October.

Need To Know
Visas for stays of up to 30 days: SA passport holders don’t need a visa for Thailand.
Getting around: Ride-hailing app Grab offers affordable rates and frees you from haggling or trying to explain your destination. Bangkok has 
a good MRT (rail) service; and there are many taxis and 
tuk-tuks, too.
Dress: Many temples and museums have a strict dress code: shoulders and arms must be covered to the elbow; no revealing clothing; no leggings, shorts, short skirts or ripped jeans. Many of the museums are closed 
on Mondays.

ln temples across Thailand, flowers, trinkets and joss sticks are often placed at the feet of Buddha images as offerings.

Stay Here

The Atlanta hotel is in the action-packed Sukhumvit area. Take time to appreciate the hotel’s history, displayed on its retro foyer walls. From R570 a room (sleeps two). theatlantahotel

Millennium Hilton Bangkok riverside hotel is located close to the historic part of Bangkok, as well as the business and shopping districts, by boat. From R1 360 for a deluxe room.

Chakrabongse Villas, once the home of a Thai prince, has luxurious rooms and views of Wat Arun Temple. From R3 480 a double room, including breakfast. chakrabongsevillas.

Three Sixty Jazz Lounge at the Millennium Hilton.

Eat and Drink

Feast on Thai food under a canopy of creepers, lanterns and fairy lights at Madame Musur on Soi Rambutri. It’s also excellent for people-watching.

Soi Arab (Sukhumvit Soi 3/1) boasts an eclectic collection of Middle Eastern eateries – The Happy Yemen restaurant is excellent.

Sheepshank Public House is an industrial-style riverside pub in an old boat repair shop – great at sunset. sheepshankpublic

Take traditional afternoon tea at the Mandarin and Oriental’s evocative 
Author’s Lounge. Many celebrated authors have stayed here over the years.

Three Sixty Jazz Lounge at Millennium Hilton is 
a rooftop bar with exceptional views over the river and city. Be here for sunset.

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