48 HOURS IN BANGKOK

Full of golden palaces, teeming markets and fabulous food, the Thai capital is a popular destination for budget travellers. But Bangkok can also boast some stunning five-star hotels. David Leck explores

WHY GO NOW? Between now and April, Bangkok enjoys its most pleasant weather. The oppressive humidity and monsoon rains have passed, giving way to clear skies and pleasantly hot days in this exotic yet accessible city. TOUCH DOWN Thai Airways (0870 606 0911; www.thaiairways.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba. com), Eva Air (020-7380 8300; www.evaair.com) and Qantas (0845 774 7767; www.qantas.com) all fly non-stop from Heathrow to Bangkok; Phuket Air (0870 774 5450; www.phuketairlines.com) flies from Gatwick. Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) flies from a number of UK cities, with a change of plane in Dubai. From Bangkok's Don Muang airport, 20km north of the city centre, the easiest way into town is by metered taxi. Including road tolls, you will pay around 350 baht (pounds 5).

GET YOUR BEARINGS Bangkok is a chaotic, sprawling city of seven million souls, and is confusing for the first-time visitor. It straddles the Chao Phraya river and is divided into five districts: Thonburi, Old City, Chinatown, Downtown and Dusit. Two of the city's must-see attractions - the superb temple, Wat Pho (1) and the breathtaking Grand Palace (2) - are in the Old City while Dusit is home to Bangkok's largest green space, the city zoo and the golden teak structure of Vimanmek Mansion (3). Downtown features Silom Road (Bangkok's commercial heart), Patpong (its biggest night market), the Oriental Hotel (4) and Jim Thompson's House (5). Wat Arun (6) is across the river in Thonburi. The best ways to get around are on the impressively efficient Skytrain public transport network and the city's brand new Subway system. Fares start at around 15 baht (20p).

CHECK IN Bangkok accommodation ranges from the cheap backpacker haunts of the Khao San Road to some of the world's finest five-star residences. The best in the latter category is the Oriental Hotel (4), beside the river at 48 Oriental Avenue (00 66 2659 9000; www.mandarinoriental.com). Superior river wing rooms cost $330 (pounds 184); to push the boat out, stay in the authors' suite (frequented by Joseph Conrad, Noel Coward and the like) for $950 (pounds 529). An excellent alternative at the other end of the scale is the Bel-Aire Princess (7) at 16 Sukhumvit Soi 5 (00 66 2253 4300; www.royalprincess.com) which has superior rooms at 2,707 baht (pounds 41) with breakfast. TAKE A RIDE The Chao Phraya Tourist Boat (00 66 2623 6001; www.chaophrayaboat.com) is one of the easiest ways of visiting many of Bangkok's sights. A one- day pass with unlimited stops costs 75 baht (pounds 1). Take the tourist boat from Sathorn pier (8) (Saphan Taksin Skytrain stop). Get off at Pier 9, Tha Tien (9), and take a second boat (20 baht/30p) to Wat Arun (6). Named after the Indian god of the dawn, this temple is a unique example of Khmer architecture in Thailand.

WINDOW SHOPPING For high-end browsing head for Emporium Shopping Centre (10) on Sukhumvit Road (Phrom Pong Skytrain) or Gaysorn (11), on Ploenchit and Rajadamri roads (Chit Lom Skytrain). Housed in an impressive white stone building on Charoen Krung Road (Saphan Taksin Skytrain), OP Place (12) is the place for antiques, jewellery, art, tailors and Thai silk.

LUNCH ON THE RUN Mobile stalls cooking and selling a whole range of food seem to line almost every street. Because dishes are cooked in front of you and served piping hot they are safe to eat. The city's signature dishes include kai yang (charcoal-grilled chicken), pop pia (deep-fried spring rolls) and khanom beuang (filled, sweet pancakes). CULTURAL AFTERNOON A couple of hours at the Grand Palace (2) is an essential part of any visit to Bangkok (00 66 2263 5500; www.palaces.thai.net). This vast walled complex was the official residence of Thai kings from 1782 to 1946, and contains breathtaking royal temples, gold-laden palaces and lavish throne rooms, plus narrow alleys and manicured gardens. The palace, on Na Phra Lan road, opens 8.30am-3.30pm daily, admission 250 baht (pounds 4), which also includes admission to Vimanmek Mansion. Shorts and bare shoulders are forbidden. A WALK IN THE PARK Set in attractive and peaceful landscaped gardens, Vimanmek Mansion (3) on Ratchawithi Road (00 66 2628 6300; www.palaces.thai.net) is the largest golden teak building in the world. It was built by King Rama V in 1900, and its series of opulent rooms are a showcase of Victorian-influenced Siam. It opens 9.30am- 4pm daily, admission free with a Grand Palace ticket. AN APERITIF For a high-level al fresco drink, go to the Moon Bar - part of the Banyan Tree Bangkok (13) at 21/100 South Sathon Road (00 66 2679 1200; www.banyantree.com). From 62 floors up, you will get stunning views across the city. The adjacent Vertigo Grill is a popular dinner venue. For something different drop into the Bed Supper Club (14) at 26 Sukumvit Soi 11 (00 66 2651 3537; www.bedsupperclub.com). Housed in a bizarre futuristic white oval pod, it features a bar and lounge area with divan-beds suspended from the walls and low-slung chairs illuminated by a restful blue neon glow. DINING WITH THE LOCALS You will find a good smattering of Thai professionals (and some well- informed tourists) eating at Mango Tree (15) at 37 Soi Tantawan, Surawongse Road (00 66 2236 1681) - a few minutes from the chaos of Silom Road and Patpong. In an intimate courtyard, complete with a small waterfall, you dine on beautifully presented dishes from an extensive menu starting at around 150 baht (pounds 2). SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH Nine out of 10 Thais practise Theravada Buddhism. Bangkok's oldest and largest temple is Wat Pho (1), a labyrinth of 35 buildings on Chetuphon Road (00 66 2225 9595; www.watpho.com). You can get there by boat to Tha Tien pier. Dating from the 16th century it is also a respected centre for traditional medicine and Thai massage education. It opens 9am-5pm daily (admission 20 baht/30p), but Sunday morning is the ideal time to soak up the relaxing atmosphere and catch its key attractions - notably the 46m long reclining Buddha that signifies his passing into Nirvana.

OUT TO BRUNCH Cook your own. The Landmark Hotel (16) at 138 Sukhumvit Road (00 66 2254 0404; www.landmarkbangkok.com) offers a two-hour Thai cookery course for 1,950 baht (pounds 30), taught by chefs from its respected Nipa Thai restaurant.

WRITE A POSTCARD Perfect your prose at the Authors' Lounge at the Oriental Hotel (4), where Somerset Maugham stayed in the 1920s while recovering from malaria. Huge high teas at 850 baht (pounds 13) are served against a backdrop of neo- classical architecture.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE The American Jim Thompson came to Bangkok in 1945 after serving with the US Army in Europe. Three years later he founded the Thai Silk Company. A decade on, captivated by his adopted home, he set about dismantling six teak houses from other parts of the country and reassembling them in the capital. Thompson disappeared while on a visit to Malaysia's Cameron Highlands in 1967, but his home remains as one of the most intriguing destinations in town. Jim Thompson's House (5) at 6 Soi Kaseman 2, Rama I Road (00 66 2216 7368; www.jimthompsonhouse.com) is an enticing combination of flower-strewn gardens and homes filled with a collection of art and antiques spanning 14 centuries. It opens 9am-4.30pm daily; admission 100 baht (pounds 1.50).

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