48 HOURS IN...
From the mayhem of Khao San Road to the tranquillity of Wat Pho, Thailand's capital is one of extremes - and the more breathtaking for it
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WHY GO NOW?
The Thai capital has enjoyed a remarkable makeover, which has elevated it to the Asian stopover premier league along with Hong Kong and Singapore. And at this time of year, the city enjoys its most pleasant weather.
British Airways, Eva Air, Qantas and Thai fly non-stop from Heathrow to Bangkok. There are also dozens of connections via Europe, the Gulf and Asia. Fares are available from £465 return through www.opodo.co.uk.
Bangkok's shiny new airport is 25km east of the city centre. A metered taxi to the centre can cost as little as 500 baht (£7.50) and take as little as half-an-hour. If you fly in on a weekday at dawn, however, it is probably better to catch a local bus from outside the terminal to On Nut station, where the SkyTrain (elevated railway) begins. This journey will cost no more than 100 baht (£1.50) in total, and will allow you to speed over the traffic jams.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Bangkok is a large and complicated city of seven million souls, but most places of interest to tourists are within a fairly manageable area on the east side of the Chao Phraya River. The Old City occupies a bulge of land, with Chinatown to the south and Dusit to the north. Many of the leading hotels are to the south-east in the Silom area. The main traffic-clogged arteries are the spines to which numbered lanes, orsois, are attached.
Transport options include tuk-tuks (motorised three-wheelers, resembling a cross between a Reliant Robin and a bus shelter, for which you negotiate a fare) and metered taxis, but in the morning and evening rush (7-10am and 4-7pm) the streets are gridlocked. At such times, motorcycle taxis come into their own, though it is safer to rely on the excellent SkyTrain and the new MRT underground railway. Fares are low (typically 25 baht/£0.40 for a short trip); you buy a ticket from a machine, though staff are on hand to change notes and offer advice.
Backpackers congregate in cheap digs along Khao San Road (1), but it is well worth investing a little more cash and time to reach Reflections (2) at 81 Soi Ari (00 66 2 270 3344; www.reflections-thai.com). Each of the 30 rooms in this beautiful art hotel has been created by a different designer. It is a long way north of the centre, which explains its low rate of 2,850 baht (£43) including breakfast, yet is only 200m from Ari SkyTrain station.
Closer to the action, Dream Bangkok (3) at 10 Sukhumvit Soi 15 (00 66 2 254 8500; www.dreambkk.com) emulates its Manhattan twin, with a dazzlingly chic foyer, an ultra-cool bar and rooms that have something of a spaceship feel. A standard double costs US$164 (£91) including breakfast.
Good deals are available at the classy Chateau De Bangkok (4), which has an excellent location at 29 Soi Ruamrudee 1 (00 66 2 651 4400; www.accor.com) and rates as low as US$83 (£46) for a double, excluding breakfast.
TAKE A HIKE...
... through a cultural phenomenon. Start at the striking Democracy Monument (5), rather lost in a swirl of traffic, and aim west and a touch north to the start of the Khao San Road (1). This is the strangest thoroughfare in Asia: in a street barely 500m long, you can go online, get a massage or a tattoo, buy a fake student card or driving licence, drink at Starbucks, eat a Big Mac, and drink beer at one of a dozen bars pumping out Bob Marley tunes. For a full appreciation of the nuances, visit early in the morning; after dark, the place is full of drunk gap-year travellers.
As an antidote, continue through the grounds of the Victory Temple (6) and make your way to the riverside Santichaiprakan Park (7) - location for the last lamphu tree in this area, which was named Banglamphu because of the erstwhile profusion of them.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
In Bangkok, the edge of the road isn't a kerb - it's a kitchen. Every meal you eat in the city should be a joy, starting with steaming noodle soup from one makeshift street stall and fresh tropical fruit from another, for a total of 60 baht (£0.85) or less. Dining opportunities like these crop up every 10 metres or so on busy roads, even amid the Western mayhem of Khao San Road.
For something more structured, a good choice popular with locals and tourists is Yong Lee (8), a Chinese-run place that opens out on the corner of Sukhumvit Road and Soi 15.
Bangkok is basically one big shop. Street vendors set up store on all the main thoroughfares, with highly negotiable prices. The city also has some spectacular malls, filled with designer stores whose prices are often significantly lower than in Britain - especially with the relative strength of sterling. A good place to glimpse all the glitter is the aptly named Emporium (9) on Sukhumvit Road.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Adjacent to the Emporium mall is the pocket-sized Benjasiri Park (10), where you can escape the slipstream of this high-velocity capital and admire some dramatic sculptures.
Alfresco and altitude converge in Bangkok. At Vertigo, 200m above the city streets on the top of the Banyan Tree Hotel (11) at 21/100 South Sathon Road (open 5pm-1am daily, weather permitting; 00 66 2 679 1200), you can sip a Singha beer or a Vertigo cocktail while the sun slinks off through the smog. The dress code is smart casual, or they won't even let you into the lift.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Head across town to dine in the stars on the top floor of the State Tower (12), on the corner of Silom Road and Charoen Krung. The menu at the Sirocco (00 66 2 624 9555) is "international" (lots of non-native dishes such as salmon) and the prices relatively high (especially if you opt for wine rather than local beer), but the exhilaration of fine open-air dining on the 63rd floor is unbeatable.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Out of the hundreds of Buddhist temples, or wats, that are scattered around Bangkok, you should single out Wat Pho (13), the oldest and vastest in the city. The temple (open 8am-5pm daily, admission 50 baht/ £0.75; 00 66 2 225 9595; www.watpho.com) is a labyrinth of 35 structures - one of which is the 43m-long reclining Buddha that signifies his passing into Nirvana. "Tourists must be in polite dress, no shorts," you are warned. Wat Pho is also a centre for traditional Thai massage; you can indulge for 250 baht (£4) for an hour, or learn massage yourself.
TAKE A RIDE
... on the river. The Chao Phraya River Express is a high-frequency ferry that provides a perfect antidote to the crowded city streets - and good views of the city. Fast and frequent ferries shuttle up and down the river, at low fares. From the Tha Tien pier (14), serving Wat Pho, to The Oriental Hotel (15) costs 15 baht (£0.20).
OUT TO BRUNCH
The Oriental Hotel (15) at 48 Oriental Avenue (00 66 2 659 9000; www.mandarinoriental.com) is one of Asia's classic hotels. Make sure you seek out the 19th-century original amid the more modern wings, and explore the travel memorabilia decorating its elegant walls. Then make a selection from the classy Thai dishes on offer at The Verandah to create a bespoke brunch.
The Grand Palace (16), perched close to the river (and accessible from the Royal Pier) on Na Phra Lan Road, was the official residence of Thai kings for nearly two centuries until 1946. A couple of hours wandering through the gilt-edged splendour of temples and chambers will leave you dazed and amazed. It opens 8.30am-3.30pm daily, admission 250 baht (£4).
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
Go on, have another excellent Thai meal in lovely surroundings - and do the world a favour at the same time. The secret is to eat at Cabbages and Condoms (17) 6 Sukhumvit Soi 12 (00 66 2 229 4611; www.cabbagesandcondoms.co.th), which is run by a charity that helps Thailand's rural poor.
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