Old Town Bangkok Walking Tour:
Location: Old Town Bangkok (Rattanakosin)
Cost: Free, Self-Guided (Optional Fees Listed Below)
Start: N8 Ferry Stop (Tha Tien)
Stop: Arun Residence Restaurant
Walking Distance: 2.5 Miles for the full loop (+2 Miles By Boat)
Time Required: 2 Hours of Walking (7+ Hours with all stops). For a condensed shorter version considered skipping stops 6-13.
Planning Your Time: Make sure to do Wat Arun and the Royal Palace early to avoid huge crowds and long lines. Cutting out the Long Tail Boat Ride and Royal Barge Museum will save you about an hour but the ride is enjoyable and a good break from walking. If you get a late start do Wat Arun, then Wat Pho, followed by the Grand Palace.
Getting Around: Chao Phraya River Ferry Boat Routes Map
Fun Scale: 10 out of 10
Historical Overview of Old Town:
Before Bangkok was established, the Choa Praya River Once had a drastic horseshoe bend the curved to the West around some olive groves. The area inside the horse was settled by Khmer residence and later by the Thais in the 1500s who named their small village Olive Town (Bang Makok). The River was eventually straightened to its current path by a canal allowing boats more easily travel to the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya 50 miles to the North. Olive Town (Bang Makok) only slowly grew as did the community of working-class Chinese immigrants on the Eastside of the River.
When the capital of Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese in 1767, General Taskin was inspired by Wat Arun to move the capital to Olive Town (Bang Makok). The General had just become King, called his new capitol Thornburi, and built his new capital right next to Wat Arun. The General’s reign only lasted 15 years as the Chakri dynasty took over in 1782 under King Rama I.
One of King Rama’s 1st moves was to move the capital across the Choa Praya River to the East and build a huge Grand Palace complex modeled after the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. As he started his new capital called Rattanakosin, Rama had to convince the Chinese settlers in the area to move a couple miles South to the current Chinatown. Everything went pretty smooth and it laid the groundwork for what became the city of Bangkok (or Island City). To this day the Chakris are still the Royal Family figureheads although there is now elected President actually running the country.
Old Town Bangkok Walking Tour:
*From the Tha Tien ferry station, take the river crosser to the…
1. Temple of the Dawn (Wat Arun): While no one quite knows how old Wat Arun is, there has been a Khmer-style (Prang) Hindu Temple at this site since long before the area was first settled by the Siamese (Thai) in the 1500s. At that time the Chao Phraya River, which was later straightened in the 1600s, did a huge horseshoe bend around both the Temple and a series of large olive fields. Because of the olive fields (Makok in Thai), the village was named Bang Makok and the temple referred to as Wat Makok. The village remained small as Siam’s capital city and population center was 50 miles to the North in Ayutthaya, but King Narai (1656-88) did let the French build a fort near the Temple which many say made him appear too foreign friendly. As King Narai lay on his death bed in 1688, a 40,000 person revolt toppled the French fort saving Siam from becoming a colony and preserving Siamese Empire.
Almost 100 years later the Siamese capital city of Ayutthaya fell to Burmese forces in 1767 and was largely left in ruins. General Taksin led the Siamese forces to kick the Burmese out and quickly became the new King after his victory. It is said that during the war General Taksin saw Wat Makok in the morning light and was deeply inspired by it. This memory moved King Taksin to relocate the capital of Siam from Ayutthaya to Bang Makok and renamed the new capital Thornburi. The temple was renamed Wat Arun after the Hindu god of the Dawn and King Taksin built his new Royal Palace (Derm Palace) next to it, where the Royal Thai Naval Academy sit today. King Taksin revered the Hindu temple so much that he kept the famed Emerald Buddha Statue here from 1778 until his death 4 years later.
With Taksin’s death, the Chakri Dynasty took over the throne under King Rama I (1782-1809). The new king, once again moved the capital, this time just across the river to Rattanakosin. King Rama I transferred the Emerald Buddha Statue in his new Grand Palace, and largely ignored Wat Arun while his new capital was being built. Luckily his successors, King Rama II (1809–1824) and King Rama III (1824–1851), decided to do extensive restorationsand upgrades to Wat Arun after years of neglect. During this time the main Prang tower was further built up, capped by a seven-pronged Trident of Shiva, decorated with colorful Chinese porcelain pieces, and supported by rows of detailed statues. During the process the main tower, which is meant to represent the legendary Mount Meru, grew to a height of 262 feet. In ancient Hindu mythology Mount Meru was the center of the Universe and was said to be 672,000 miles high. While the main tower is extremely impressive, we also like the four smaller towers on the corners dedicated to the Phra Phai, Hindu God of Wind, as protection for the Temple.
You could spend hours examining the amazing statues that circle almost every inch of Wat Arun’s facade and ground. As you enter the temple complex you’re greeted by two huge demon statues (yaksha) from the Hindu story of Ramayana guarding the ordination hall. The white guardian is Sahassateja, the green one is Tasakanth, and both guard against evil spirits. As you approach the base of the 234 foot tall Wat Arun, make sure to check out the sculptures of animals and Chinese soldiers which are not just guarding, but also supporting the first couple levels of the tower. As you climb up the very steep steps toward the top of the tower, you’ll come very close to four statues of the Hindu god Indra riding on her elephant Erawan. The views from the top are very rewarding. The best views of the Temple itself come from the river at dawn as the porcelain shines in the sun or from dusk on as a combo of a sunset back drop and accent lighting make Wat Arun look amazing.
Visiting Hours: Daily 7:30am-5:30pm. Cost: 50Baht. River Crossing Ferry: Ferries leave from Tha Tien every 10-15 minutes from 6am-10pm and cost only 3 Baht. Temple Website: (HERE).
*After crossing back over the river avoid the temptation to visit Wat Pho and follow the Grand Palace wall along the…
2. Street Side Amulet Market: While the official amulet market sits a little further North, and later on the tour, this streetside market gives you a little taste of what is to come. The amulets being sold are mainly meant either for a wide range of good luck or to ward of evil depending on what one you buy. Really you don’t have much of a choice but to walk by the street vendors as the only entrance to the Grand Palace is all the way on the North side of the Palace wall so why not check it out? If anyone around the market or side wall of the Grand Palace tries to offer you a tour or says the Grand Palace is closed for a special occasion ignore them, they are scammers. The Grand Palace is open pretty much 365 days a year every year.
*Finally getting to the Northside of the Palace wall you are ready to enter the grounds of the…
3a. The Grand Palace Complex: When King Rama I took the throne in 1782 as the first member of the Chakri Dynasty, he quickly moved the Siamese capital across the Chao Phraya River. After abandoning King Taskin’s Derm Palace in Thornburi (West of the River), Rama I started to build his massive Grand Palace in Rattanakosin (East of the River). In an effort to bring good luck to Siam, the new Royal complex was laid out exactly like the ancient Northern capital of Ayutthaya had once been. The area that King Rama I wanted to build his new complex had already been occupied by Chinese settlers for hundreds of years, but he got them to move a couple miles South forming today’s Chinatown. The 2,351,000 square foot Grand Palace has stood the test of time, largely in part to it serving as a city within a city. King Rama’s new mini city contained its own Royal guards, temples, food, and even a national mint for making money. Over the generations, each new Chakri King built their own Throne Hall and the complex continued to grow with more impressive buildings. In 1925, King Rama VII decided to turn the family palace in Dusit Park into the new main Royal residence and ever since Kings have only occasionally stayed in the Grand Palace. Palace Website: (HERE).
3b. Visiting The Grand Palace: Enter the Grand Palace at the large gate on the North side of the complex and work through the courtyard to the ticket booth. After buying your ticket, the best plan is to 1st visit Wat Phra Kaew (listed below) and then continue to the center of the Grand Palace. Many of the Grand Palace’s buildings are closed to the public, but even just walking around the outside of the impressive Throne Halls is really fun. Our favorite set of buildings are the Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat group which were completed in 1882. This series of 9 buildings holds a Royal Weapons Museum and the coolest of the Throne Halls. The main building of this set is a great blend of Thai and European architecture plus some of the coolest trees on the planet. The trees are manicured in a way that the branches form dense round balls of greenery which are very Doctor Seuss-like. Also make sure to stop by the Royal Guard standing motionlessly on watch by the front steps.
Scam Alert: If someone tells you that the Grand Palace is closed for the day don’t believe them. Go to the main entrance and look for yourself, it is extremely rare for the complex to be closed for a special royal ceremony. Often the scammers will tell you it’s closed for so many hours and try to take you to other “temples” in the mean time which usually ends up in you being taken to a gold to gem shop they get commission at. Dress Code: No shorts or tank tops, must have legs and shoulders covered not matter how hot it is as it is an active temple. You can rent Thai pajama pants and cover up shirts very cheaply near the gate if needed. There is an official clothes rental place just inside the Palace, but the locals near the main gate will save you a wait in line although it might be $1-2 more. Visiting Hours: Daily 8:30am-4:30pm, last tickets sold at 3:30pm. Ticket Cost: 400 Baht which also includes joint entrance to Wat Phra Kaew Temple plus a visit to Bangkok’s Dusit Palace within 7 days. Once inside you’ll head right to the ticket counter to buy your pass. There is no shade in line and the wait can be really long if you don’t show up earlier in the day. Palace Website: (HERE).
4a. Wat Phra Kaew Temple: The biggest highlight of the Grand Palace complex is by far a stop at the large temple called Wat Phra Kaew. As you enter the main gate is on the Temple’s Southwest corner, notice the dark stone hermit statue in front of you. This statue is the Patron of Medicine and many locals with sick relatives make offerings here for good health. Join the locals by making by making an offering of incense and by touching a dampened Lotus flower to the top of your head for good luck. Make sure to also look for the Temple’s Elephant Statues as it is good luck to circle around one 3 times then rub its head.
After gaining your good luck, it’s time to investigate the 3 huge towers making up what is called the Upper Terrace area. As you approach from left to right, the jewel of the Upper Terrace is the Sri Lankan-style Golden Chedi called Phra Sri Rattana. It is hard to not be constantly drawn to the Chedi as you walk around the Temple grounds. The tower isn’t just beautiful, but also important as it is said to contain a piece of Buddha’s breastbone and his ashes. Make sure the take in the model of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex as you round past the Golden Chedi. It might seem like an odd place for a model of a foreign temple, but serves as a reminder of the Empire’s power from when they controlled neighboring lands. In the middle of the Upper Terrace is a big green library called the Phra Mondop. The library has mother of pearl doors, statues of Chakri kings, plus snakes guardians (nagas) with both human and dragon heads. The last tower on the Upper Terrace is the orange and green Royal Pantheon which is only open to the public one day in October each year to celebrate the forming of the Chakri dynasty. Near the Pantheon are a couple small golden pyramids circled by brightly colored guardians. These playful pyramids are one of our favorite places for photos in Bangkok.
On the far North side of the Temple past the Upper Terrace are another collection of 3 buildings making up the Upper Terrace. From left to right are the Auxiliary Library (Ho Phra Monthien Tham), Wihan Yot, and the Royal Mausoleum (Ho Phra Nak). Enjoy the ornate roofs of these buildings before moving toward the Temple’s outer wall. The best hidden feature of Wat Phra Kaew are the 178 mural panels lining the inside of the wall enclosing the temple. These panels wrap clockwise stating at the North gate and around depict the complete story of the Ramakien. Notice the colorful demons fighting in the battle scenes, these are the same protective figures portrayed in the giant demon statues around this and many of the other temples around Bangkok.
4b. Emerald Buddha Statue: The most famous building at Wat Phra Kaew sits right behind the hermit statue and houses the historic Emerald Buddha Statue. This jade statue was said to have been carved in India in 43BCbefore being hid in a Sri Lankan cave for protection 500 years later. The beautiful statue bounced around for the next 1000 years before being moved to the Chiang Mai’s might Great Stupa in 1468. This lasted until 1552 when the Emerald Buddha was moved to Laos to avoid Burmese invasions that ended up overtaking the city 4 years later. It stayed in Laos until being re-captured by the Thais and brought to Bangkok in 1784. The 2 foot-tall dark green statue Buddha is actually made out of solid jade and not from emerald at all.
The statue’s Emerald Buddha figure wears seasonal costumes, which are changed three times a year to correspond with Summer (crown and jewelry), Winter (golden shawl), and Rainy Months (gilt robe and headdress). This clothing change ceremony is done by the King of Thailand who is the only one allowed to get all the way up to the statue. Covering the interiors walls of the building are murals depicting the life of the Buddha, his steps to enlightenment, and the Buddhist cosmology of the Worlds of Desire, Being, and Illusion; they start on the left with the birth of Buddha in Nepal. Photos are not allowed inside, but you can get photos with a zoom lens near the entrance. The golden doors and guardians around the building are also well worth your time before moving on.
5. Chao Phraya River Long Tail Boat Ride: You haven’t really arrived in Bangkok until you get out onto the Chao Phraya River on a Long Tail Boat ride. The Chao Phraya cuts through almost the full North-South length of Thailand and, in a city of canals, has always served as Bangkok’s true highway. The Chao Phraya River may be dirty, congested, and noisy, but it is the best way to experience the Bangkok. Most of the major piers have a few passenger ferry route options, but we suggest getting on the water by hiring a traditional Long Tail Boat. These long, low profile boats (called Ruea Hang Yao in Thai) are able to carry a ton of people or goods at high speeds even in swallow water. A modern adaption on almost all the Long Tails has been to use a full on car or truck motor instead of a standard boat motor. The long tail boats even use the motor drive shafts as long rudders to give the drivers 180 degrees of steering capability which is really helpful on the crowded river. It’s a bit crazy to see the driver standing so close to the powerful motors’ blazing fast and exposed fan blades, but it adds to the adventure.
After negotiating you private rental, which is explained below, you’re off the cruise the River in upwards of 35mph. There will be splashes here and there from the waves so to stay the driest sit toward the front of the boat or hold up the plastic protector on the side. If you are wondering why most of the boats are wrapped in colorful ribbons and decorated with fresh flowers it is not just for looks, but for good luck and safe travels.
Hiring a Long Tail Boat: Typically you pay a flat fee to go from point to point while sharing the boat with other people, but to really explore you’re want to negotiate a private rental. If you know where you want to go, especially on a map, it will help a ton with negotiating. The N9 Ferry Stop (Tha Chang) is going to be the easiest place to snag a Long Tail, but you may be able to also get one from the N8 Ferry Stop (Tha Tien) or Maharaj Pier with some luck. Cost:A good deal is going to cost between 400-550Baht an hour and you will typically pay at the end of the trip.
6. Thonburi Canals: With a ton of canals shooting off the Chao Phraya River the ones on the Thonburi side are really where you want to go to get a glimpse into Bangkok’s yesteryears. Even just a short ride down the main Thonburi Canal, you will feel the urban jungle of the Bangkok fade behind you as you troll between the compact riverside houses. Most of the houses are very working class and without land, so be prepared to see children on the porches and parents doing laundry in the river. Many tourists who travel the canals end up being invited to meet local canal dwellers and are offered to buy goods from them. A lot of the goods are junk, but there is something romantic about buying hand-made crafts from locals, even if they are a little junky. We find the Thonburi Canals to be a great experience, especially with a camera, and it shouldn’t be missed unless you are on a tight schedule. Sometimes the most amazing part about the ride through the canals if getting off of your feet for a little while after a lot of walking.
Taling Chan Floating Market: If your driver suggested going out to the floating market first know that it is a full 3 miles from the Choa Phraya River. If you don’t have a full day available to travel to the more popular Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, then checking out Taling Chan Market here may be worth it. It is open on the weekends from 8am-5pm.
7. Royal Barges Museum: One of the more unique attractions in Old Town Bangkok is the Royal Barges Museum where you can see the gilded longtail boats of Thailand’s former Kings. The coolest one is the fancy Golden Swan (Suphannahongse), which was built by Rama IV in 1911. Surprisingly the 150-foot-long boat is carved from a single piece of teakwood! Almost all of the barges have large colorful Garuda figures protecting their every side and they are quite stunning. Outside of the obvious ornate details, we also love how the barges’ defensive cannons are blended right into the Garudas figures like a piece of fine artwork. The museum isn’t a must see if you are tight on time, but it is cool and free of the hoards of shoulder to shoulder tourists you get elsewhere in Old Town Bangkok. Hours: Daily 9am-5pm. Getting Here: A good driver will be able to drop you off up close but many are not able to so it will be a short winding walk from the pier which is marked by signs.
8. Maharaj Amulet Market: The market area near the Maha Rat Pier holds the largest amulet market in Bangkok every Sunday, but has street-side stands 7 days a week. Expect to see hoards of superstitious locals inspecting the amulets closely to determine which ones to buy either for good luck or to ward off evil. Some of the people are pretty hard-core and even use magnifying glasses. We really like exploring the covered market area between Maha Rat and the River as it is fairly free of tourists.
9. Temple of the Great Relic (Wat Mahathat): There has been a temple here since before Bangkok was even a city, but it was in 1851 when one of their monks Prince Mongkut Chakri, became King Rama IV that the temple became famous. King Mongkut had been on a27-year pilgrimage before inheriting the Siamese crown, which gave him a lot of exposure to outside cultures. During his reign this exposure carried over and he welcomed Western visitors and mixed in parts of their cultures. If this sounds familiar it is because King Mongkut is the one portrayed in the famous play and the movie The King and I. The temple itself has since grown into one of the top ten universities for Monks in all of Thailand and also serves as the Center for Vipassana Meditation. There isn’t much to see here as a tourist but it has an interesting history. Hours: Daily 9am-5pm. Cost: 20Baht. Meditation Classes: Daily at 7am, 1pm, and 6pm in section 5 located near the Monks’ quarters.
10. Sanam Luang: Sanam Luang is a wide open, oval shaped grassy field that has been used for royal ceremonies since King Rama I moved the capital to this side of the river in 1782. While not used very often for Royal functions, Rama I felt it was an important part of the Royal complex so it could be laid out exactly like the ancient Northern capital of Ayutthaya had been. Most of the ceremonies over the centuries have been for cremations for Royal family members, but on most days it is just home to a ton of pigeons.
11. City Pillar Shrine (Lak Muang): With how superstitious the Thai people are, every Thai city has a City Pillar meant to bring good luck. Bangkok’s pillar was placed in the ground by King Rama I at 6:45am on Sunday April 21s,t 1782 marking the start of the Chakri Dynasty and official founding of the City. While some cities like Chiang Rai have their City Pillars outside, Bangkok has been surrounded by a shrine since shortly after it was put up. Over time these shrines have grown more grand and in the 1850s Rama IV even added a second pillar for double the luck. During the Rattanakosin celebration for the cities 200th anniversary in 1982 the shrine around the pillar was rebuilt with the tall Prang-shaped white tower you see today. After checking out the City Pillar stop by the nearby yellow Ministry of Defense with rows of cannons meant to show off Thailand’s might. At one point all of the cannons pointed toward the Grand Palace, but luckily they have tastefully aimed them elsewhere. The building is not open to the public, but you are free to roam among the cannons which serve as a mini-museum. City Pillar Visiting Hours: Daily 7am-5pm. Cost: Free.
*Right next to the Ministry of Defense is the often overlooked grounds of…
12. Saranrom Palace: This beautiful salmon colored Palace was finished in 1866 and to us looks more Spanish than Thai. The Palace and its park were built as a Royal Palace for King Rama IV who died before it was finished so the next King, Rama V, gave it to his own sons. One of his sons ascended to become King Rama VI and turned the Palace into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1926 after he moved out. As you head South you’ll run into the Sararom Royal Park which was built by Rama IV, but was turned into an exotic zoo by King Rama V. It remained a zoo until Dusit Zoo opened and the animals were moved, but it still has some of its original flair including a beautiful red fountain.
13. Wat Ratchapradit: If you feel like exploring off the beaten path a block, Wat Ratchapradit sits just to the East of Saranrom Palace near the river and has a couple of interesting pagodas. The footbridge that goes over the Royal Canal (Lawd) was built by one of King Rama V’s wives. Since she was born in the year of the Pig it became known as Pig’s Bridge and now holds the popular golden pig statue.
14. Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho): In 1788 Rama I completed the Wat Pho (officially called Wat Phra Chetuplon) over a former temple which dated back to the 1500s. His inspiration came from gathering fragments of Buddha statues in the former capital of Ayutthaya, some of which were incorporated into his new temple complex. The centerpiece of King Rama’s temple was an oversized seated Buddha statue, called Phra Buddha Theva Patimakorn, which can still be seen elevated on a 20-foot-tall platform inside the large central Bot. In total there are over 1000 Buddha statues in the vast Wat Pho complex, but the main draw by far is the gigantic Reclining Buddha.
Sitting inside that Temple’s Phra Virhara building, the 150-foot-long, 19-foot-tall golden Reclining Buddha was built in 1832 by King Rama III. The statue depicts Buddha laying on his side, not sleeping, but at the moment where he gained enlightenment. This pose is fitting as right next to the building is a large Bodhi Tree said to have grown from a cut off a piece of the original tree in India which Buddha meditated under. The huge gold plated statue has Mother of Pearl covering his large eyes and the souls of his feet. The pearl on his feet helps to show 108 Thai and Indian scenes (called Lakshanas) representing the 108 auspicious characters of Buddha. The number 108 is carried on throughout the building including the 108 bronze bowls where visitors drop coins in for good luck. You can buy a sack of coins inside and its said leaving one in each bowl will bring good fortune. Before leaving the Phra Virhara building, make to take in the murals covering the walls which show scenes from the life of Buddha.
After checking out the historic Bodhi Tree and Crocodile Pond near the Reclining Buddha, head right for the Temple’s 4 tall Chedi towers. The 3 Chedis in a row hold ashes from generations of the Chakri Royal Family and the 4th one not in the row is called the Phra Si Sanphet Chedi which holds a sacred Buddha statue. Only the Royal Family is allowed inside the Chedis, but you can still admire the towers’ beautiful and details porcelain exteriors. You are bound to see various statues of bearded Chinese Ballast, or stone giants, by most of the Temples gates. These guardians represent various segments of Chinese society, but 4 of the sets actually depict Farangs. Farang is the Thai word for Caucasian foreigners and the statues have big noses, European Clothes, and top hats. The character is out of respect of Marco Polo who was the first to introduce the European lifestyle to the Chinese.
Wat Pho is said to be the birthplace of Thai massage and it is home to a massage school with eager students ready to work your muscles. Beware ahead of time that if you order the traditional Thai massage it deals with a lot of stretching so it’ll be a lot rougher than ordering the standard massage. As part of the Institute of Massage visitors can also join in to learn the art of massage in 10-15 day classes. Elements of the roots of massage can be seen all over the Temple. The Medicine Pavilion near the 4 Chedis is the best example as it is filled with 60 stone plaques from the 1700s. The plaques are diagrams details Thai Massage therapeutic points and energy pathways, with 30 focused on the front of the body and 30 on the back. The most playful showing of massage is called Hermit Hill where small statues of naked images doing yoga poses and massage dot a series of grassy mounds.
Visiting Hours: Daily 8am-6pm. Admission Cost: 100 Baht. Massage Cost: Thai or Foot Massage for 30 minutes is 260 Baht; 1 hour for 420 Baht. Dress Code: While is isn’t enforced as strictly as the Grand Palace they technically don’t allow shorts or tank tops. Should have legs and shoulders covered. Temple Website: (HERE).
15. Arun Residence Restaurant: Sitting right on the edge of the Chao Praya River are a few restaurants with amazing views of Wat Arun. They can be a little hidden but they all have a terrace or at least a deck facing out over the water. Our favorite of these restaurants is called Arun Residence where you can get coffee early in the morning, lunch mid day, or even a late diner with Wat Arun lit up by flood lights. The best views of Wat Arun come between dusk and sunset as the sun sets in the West behind the the temple. Restaurant Website: (HERE).
Other Sights Near Old Town Bangkok:
17. National Theatre: Traditional Dance Shows
18. Khao San Road: night life street/market from the Beach (shamrock, brick bar, Gazebo Khao San top bar in world), pop up bars like the Volkswagen camper on Rambuttri, restaurants (bombay blues, Madame Musur)
19. Wat Rakhang: Temple of Bells, decently large sitting Buddha statue
20. Chinatown Walking Tour: info on the way
21. Mid Town Walking Tour: info on the way
22. Dusit Walking Tour: info on the way
23. Taling Chan Floating Market: Open Weekends 8am-5pm
Bangkok Forensic Museum