The headlong pace and flawed modernity of Bangkok (called "Krung Thep" in Thai) match few people's visions of the capital of exotic Siam. Spiked with scores of high-rise buildings of concrete and glass, it's a vast flatness which holds a population of at least nine million, and feels even bigger. But under the shadow of the skyscrapers you'll find a heady mix of frenetic markets and hushed golden temples, of glossy cutting-edge clubs and early-morning almsgiving ceremonies. Most budget travellers head for the Banglamphu district, which is just a short walk from the dazzling Grand Place and Wat Phra Kaeo and the very worthwhile National Museum . For livelier scenes, explore the dark alleys of Chinatown's bazaars or head for the water: the great Chao Phraya River is the backbone of a network of canals and a useful way of crossing the city.
Bangkok is a relatively young capital, established in 1782 after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya, the former capital. A temporary base was set up on the western bank of the Chao Phraya, in what is now Thonburi, before work started on the more defensible east bank. The first king of the new dynasty, Rama I, built his palace at Ratanakosin , within a defensive ring of two (later expanded to three) canals, and this remains the city's spiritual heart. Initially, the city was largely amphibious: only the temples and royal palaces were built on dry land, while ordinary residences floated on thick bamboo rafts on the river and canals, and even shops and warehouses were moored to the river bank. In the late nineteenth century, Rama IV and Rama V modernized their capital along European lines, building roads and constructing a new royal residence in Dusit, north of Ratanakosin.
Since World War II, and especially from the mid-1960s onwards, Bangkok has seen an explosion of modernization, leaving the city without an obvious centre. Most of the canals have been filled in, to be replaced by endless rows of concrete shophouses, sprawling over a built-up area of 330 square kilometres. The benefits of the economic boom of the 1980s and early 1990s were concentrated in Bangkok, which attracted mass migration from all over Thailand and made the capital ever more dominant: Bangkokians now own four-fifths of the nation's cars and the population is forty times that of the second city, Chiang Mai
Bangkok is sprawling, chaotic and exhausting: to do it justice and to keep your sanity, you need time, boundless patience and a bus map. The place to start is Ratanakosin , the royal island on the east bank of the Chao Phraya and location of the Grand Palace, Wat Po and the National Museum . The other main areas of interest are Chinatown for its markets, Thonburi for its traditional canalside life and boat rides; and several impressive historical residences in downtown Bangkok, including Jim Thompson's House and Suan Pakkad . If you're here at a weekend, you shouldn't miss the enormous Chatuchak Weekend Market .