Two days in the historic district
Published/Last edited or updated: 7th September, 2017
Rattanakosin is the cultural heart of Bangkok and home to many of Thailand’s most famous temples, museums and historical sites.
Otherwise known as the old quarter or historic district, it’s the area that most travellers with limited time in the Thai capital will prioritise—and for good reason. Here we suggest two days of walking itineraries to help you make the most of Rattanakosin.
Taking you on a roughly three-kilometre walk that runs more or less in a straight line following the path of the river, this itinerary covers many of Bangkok’s most popular attractions. If you have only one day and don’t want to miss the so-called “can’t miss” hotspots, go for this one. Expect to pay a total of around 1,000 baht for tickets to all of the attractions mentioned below.
Start early at the southern end of the old quarter by taking a river ferry to either Yodpiman Pier or Memorial Bridge Pier. After perhaps having a stroll out on to Saphan Phut (Memorial Bridge), which opened in the early 1930s as the first bridge to ford the Chao Phraya River, head north up to Pak Khlong Talad to experience the bustle at the biggest cut flower market in Thailand.
Heading west on Chakphet Road, which becomes Maharat Road after you cross the Rop Krung Canal, turn right into Soi Setthakan about 200 metres after the canal. This leads you straight to the Museum of Siam, a newish attraction providing a generally accurate account of the background history behind Thailand, Bangkok and the Rattanakosin area itself.
After returning to Maharat Road, continue north until you reach the unmistakable entrance to Wat Pho on your right. Here you’ll enter a glittering world of grinning guardian images, chedis encrusted with glazed ceramics and hundreds of Buddha images—the most of any temple in Thailand, in fact. The star is a gilded 46-metre-long reclining Buddha with mother-of-pearl feet, though we’re partial to the perfectly formed seated Buddha in the ordination hall, which enshrines the ashes of Rattanakosin’s founder: King Rama I.
Wat Pho is a big place that just might be the highlight of this day. Before leaving you could rejuvenate with a traditional Thai massage, and afterwards you might pop into one of the adjacent cafes or grab a fresh-squeezed tangerine juice at Tha Tien Pier. From there you can take a ferry across to the west bank of the river to explore another of Bangkok’s most impressive temples: Wat Arun.
Back heading north on Maharat Road you’ll step alongside the broad white plaster walls that rim the Grand Palace complex. Enter to the north off Na Phra Lan Road and hit Wat Phra Kaew, which is home to, and named after, a small nephrite Buddha image considered to be the most revered and spiritually potent in the kingdom. Gaze at the wat’s lavish details before checking out the mix of European and Thai styles on the late 19th century Chakri Maha Prasat Hall along with several less extravagant structures built during earlier reigns on the palace grounds.
If you’re getting hungry, pop across the street from the Grand Palace’s main northern entrance to tuck into slow-roasted pork and other Chinese-Thai goodies at Ming Lee. Then find your way back to Maharat Road and wander into Phra Chan Market to browse Buddhist/Hindu statuary and amulets before popping across the street for a quiet moment at Wat Mahathat, an important centre of Buddhist learning and meditation that attracts far fewer visitors than Wat Pho.
Exit from the east side of Wat Mahathat and you’ll emerge across the road from Sanam Luang, a vast oval of grass affording a view to the sparkling spires that crown Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. After a quick stroll on the lawn, keep north on Na Phra That Road, perhaps taking a coffee and muffin break at Cafe Velodome. A short walk north from there takes you to the National Museum, a good place to end the day with the exceptional collection of artefacts from throughout Southeast Asia.
This itinerary runs in a loop through the eastern half of the old quarter and includes a bunch of less-popular sights. These are actually some of our favourites, and the route digs you deeper into the local side of Rattanakosin. At more than four kilometres, it’s a longer walk than the first day; we suggest giving some spots a pass if you want to cover the whole route. Excluding a couple of museums, every place mentioned below is free or very cheap to enter.
Starting from Phanfah Leelard Pier on the San Saeb canal boat line, walk out from the pier and turn left, then immediately left (south) again over the canal bridge. After a few more steps you’ll find the entrance to Wat Saket, an ideal place to start so that you can do the stairs early and get some perspective on the area you’re about to explore—along with great views—from the top of the Golden Mount.
Heading back north to Phanfah Leelard Bridge and Ratchadamnoen Avenue, several options will be at your fingertips—and this is where we suggest being selective. Right next to the canal, the free King Prajadhipok Museum is worth a look if you’re interested in 20th century Thai history, or you could venture across the intersection to check out a contemporary art exhibition for 50 baht at the Queen’s Gallery.
On the west bank of the canal, you might wander into the 18th-century Mahakan Fort to see a century-old community of craftspeople that the Bangkok city authority is sadly attempting to relocate. Just west of the fort stretches Wat Ratchanatdaram, a beautiful temple best known for an unusual multi-tiered iron pagoda called Loha Prasat.
A few steps further west takes you to the historical and cultural displays at Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall, which is interesting but perhaps not worth the 200 baht ticket or the two-hour time sink. Instead you could give neighbouring Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Centre a quick look before keeping west to one of Bangkok’s most recognisable landmarks and a symbol of Thailand’s tumultuous modern history: Democracy Monument.
Cut south from the monument down Dinso Road for a bite to eat at Krua Apsorn or Arawy Vegetarian, among others. Continuing south, note the ugly mid 20th century building housing Bangkok City Hall on your left before turning right (west) on Mahannop Road. At the end of it you could make a quick dip into Wat Mahannaparam or the incense smoke-filled Chao Paa Sua Shrine before turning left (south) down Tanao Road.
At this point you’ll be in the heart of the old quarter, where attractive late 19th century shophouses line both sides of a street that was clearly built for horses and rickshaws rather than cars. A good place to grab a coffee and some air-con on the left is World Cafe; or just keep heading south and then turn right (west) into Phraeng Nara, a sleepy side street with a former-palace-turned-schoolhouse-turned-law office displaying gorgeous gingerbread trim.
At the west end of Phraeng Nara, turn left (south) and then take the next left so as to go back east into Phraeng Phuthon Square, a larger cluster of restored shophouses hosting decades-old places to eat, including coconut ice cream at Nuttaporn, pig brain soup at Thai Tham (it’s healthy!) and Isaan food at Bunthon. At the centre of the square stands another former palace that now serves as a health clinic.
Leave Phraeng Phuthon the way you came and turn left (south) on Atsadang Road, passing a few old shops selling musical instruments, camping supplies and sewing machines. Cross the canal at the bridge and continue south on the west bank, and you’ll pass the quirky Pig Shrine, or Sahachat Memorial, created in 1913 to honour a Thai queen who was born in the year of the pig. Locals take it seriously so do think twice before you shout oink oink oink.
Just south of the sacred pig, look to your right to find the small but worthwhile Wat Rachapradit with its striking mondops that mix Khmer and Thai styles, and an ordination hall enshrining the ashes of King Rama IV. Stroll a little further south and take a breather in pretty Saranrom Park, formerly a royal garden enjoyed by Thai kings and visiting VIPs from abroad.
Exiting Saranrom Park to the south, turn left (east) and then left again (north) on Fuang Nakhon Road and take another detour into Wat Ratchabophit on the left. Enshrining the ashes of King Rama VII, this often-overlooked temple is another one of our favourites thanks to the porcelain-decorated cloister, ordination hall interior resembling a church and 19th century French-looking depictions of soldiers guarding the outer doors.
By now you’ll likely be exhausted—fear not, the end is near. Head north up Fuang Nakhon Road, passing the Interior Ministry on your left, and turn right (east) on Bamrung Muang Road. This will take you past dozens of temple supply shops displaying large Buddha images on the footpaths. You’ll then arrive at the Giant Swing, another signature landmark once used as part of a deadly swinging Brahmin ceremony. Across from the swing, the magnificent murals and statuary at Wat Suthat will make you glad to have completed the loop.
From here you can easily grab a taxi or tuk tuk, or walk back north up Dinso Road to reorient yourself at Democracy Monument, which is a 10-minute walk from Khao San Road. If by some miracle you want to keep going, you could head south on Mahachai Road to check out the grizzly Corrections Museum in a park that was once a prison. Exit to the east of the park and Thip Samai’s sensational pad Thai is a quick walk north.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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