Soak up the heritage
Ko Rattanakosin, or the old quarter, was established by King Rama I in 1782 after the Thai capital was moved to Bangkok. Though a colossal mega-city has since grown-up around it, the old quarter remains the cultural and historic heart of Thailand. Coming to Bangkok and missing Rattanakosin would be like going to Paris and skipping the Champs-Elysees.
Bangkok is so big, we’ve split it up into areas, select one of the below for detailed accommodation and food listings in that area. Sights and general overviews for Bangkok as a whole can be found via the icons above. Don’t know where to start? Read an overview of Bangkok’s different areas.
The old quarter occupies an artificial island (hence the ko) stretching between Khlong Ong Ang, Khlong Banglamphu and the Chao Phraya River. You’d barely know you were on an island as the waterways -- barring the river, of course -- just blend into the surrounds. One point that makes the area distinguishable from the rest of the city is the lack of skyscrapers: no concrete monstrosities have been built here and the many century-old shophouses have been preserved by law as heritage buildings. Restorations are ongoing.
Most of Bangkok’s major historical sites are located within the confines of Ko Rattanakosin, including the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and the National Museum, making it a fascinating area to wander around. It’s great for walking tours; just remember to drink plenty of water and take a lot of breaks. It’s also important to dress appropriately -- shoulders, knees and bellies should be covered -- when visiting the temples.
Also don’t make the mistake of thinking that the big sites are all there is to Ko Rattanakosin: some of the most fascinating experiences come in old-school neighbourhoods like Phraeng Phuthon and Phra Chan. Some of Bangkok’s finest food is served in unassuming shops among the narrow back lanes -- don’t be afraid to poke around.
If you’re staying in the Khao San Road area (which is, technically speaking, on Ko Rattanakosin) then you’re within short walking distance of all the major sites. From elsewhere in Bangkok you can easily visit the area by boat, coming up the Chao Phraya on the river ferries and alighting at Tha Tien or Maharaj piers. Those who wish to stay in the heart of historic Bangkok will find an ever-increasing number of quality guesthouses and B&Bs to choose from.
A word of warning: The historic sites in this part of Bangkok, especially the immediate area around Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, are fertile preying grounds for touts and scammers. Keep your wits about you and ignore any strangers who approach talking some guff about this or that being closed for a special religious holiday. All they want to do is fleece you at a fake gem store. And we have told you not to buy gems in Bangkok, right?