An insider's guide to Bangkok at its best

WYZA® reader Phil Hawkes shares his memories of visiting Thailand throughout the decades.

Thailand’s capital seems to polarise people - you either love it or hate it.

Admittedly it can be frustrating coping with massive traffic jams, heat and humidity, and crowded shopping malls. Not everyone’s cup of chai.

But then there are people like me. I welcome the occasional escape into chaos, humanity, odiferous durian-laced markets, tuk tuks buzzing like flies and most of all, cheap and cheerful Thai street food.

And I love the activity on the Chao Phraya River as it snakes its way through the city. It’s the Bangkok I know best.

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Bangkok's streets are well known for their food vendors 

Early memories

I first arrived here in the 1960s. I was young, inexperienced and it was my first time in Asia. What a culture shock.

Staying at the YMCA, I met some British seamen enjoying R&R and inevitably, got into all sorts of trouble. Thus, my first recollections of Bangkok are pretty hazy but I do remember being invited to “tea” by a couple of Ansett hosties (as they were known then) at the Oriental Hotel. They must have been paying “airline staff rate” as it was way too expensive for me!

Anyhow, the place left an indelible impression and later in my career I was part of the team that launched the modern new River Wing of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in the 1970s.

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A blast from the past: the old Oriental hotel (on the left). The building on the right is the East Asiatic Company

The River of Kings

The Chao Phraya is the heart and soul of this teeming metropolis, and has played a major role in Thailand’s history. Up till 1767, Thailand’s capital was further up river at Ayudhya but for strategic and trade reasons, King Taksin moved it downstream to Thonburi. Then in 1782, King Rama 1 moved the seat of government across the river and established today’s Bangkok.

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Travel along the Chao Phraya River at night and see the Wat Arun Temple illuminated

Since then the city has flourished as a trading port and business centre, as well as becoming the main tourist drawcard. Until the 1990s, that is, when development moved further away from the riverside to areas like Sukhumvit Road with glitzy new office buildings and of course, brand new hotels.

More recent times

I’m more than familiar with the Bangkok of the 1980s and 1990s. During that time I probably visited the city and other parts of Thailand at least 30 times on business mixed with a little pleasure, simply because it’s that kind of place.

It was always nice to escape the sanity of Hong Kong and Singapore for the madness of the “City of Angels” and the many friends I made there.

Classy hotels like the Shangri-La and the Royal Orchid Sheraton sprang up along the river banks, and gave tourists a reason to move back to this historic part of the city.

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Many of the hotels along Chao Phraya River deliver stunning views from their rooms

Today’s Bangkok

The Chao Phraya is just as much an integral part of the capital’s identity as it was in the 18th century. In fact, much more so. For the river offers the traveller a true glimpse of Bangkok life, with long tail ferries, hotel shuttle boats, and huge barges being pulled along by tiny tugs.

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Hop aboard a tourist boat or ferry to better explore Bangkok life

Schoolchildren, monks, businessmen and housewives commute to and from Thonburi and at night, there’s a steady progression of dinner cruises with live entertainment blaring forth. It’s a colourful, fun scene which the business-like centre of Bangkok can’t match.

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Authentic Thai cuisines will tantalise your tastebuds

Where to stay along the river

There are now more than a dozen riverside hotels including the Peninsula and the Mandarin Oriental, but my favourites remain the Shangri-La and the Royal Orchid Sheraton for their resort facilities [tennis, gym and pools], excellent buffet breakfasts, impeccable service and fabulous 270 degree views of river life.

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Experience beautiful views when you wine and dine at the Shangri-la Hotel in Bangkok (Photo: Shangri-la Bangkok)

Another interesting choice would be Chakrabongse Villas, previously a 19th century Royal Residence with just 12 rooms and the finest Thai cuisine.

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Phil enjoying dinner at Chakrabongse Villas

Riverside attractions

A visit to Asiatique is a must. This recent development is a flourishing night market with dozens of restaurants, bars and boutiques selling local designer threads, different to the usual cheap T-shirt stalls (although there are those as well). There’s something here to enjoy for everyone whether you’re a shopper or not. Access is by taxi, or the free shuttle boat service from Taksin Bridge.

The Jam Factory across on Thonburi side is a converted industrial building with two excellent restaurants, bookshop, art gallery and more.

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The Jam Factory often hold live performances and have art exhibitions (Photo: The Jam Factory/Facebook)

Learn the secrets of Thai cuisine at several cooking schools. Shop for arts and crafts at River City, next to the Sheraton. Explore the riverside precincts with bike tours and gallery visits, and try the street food (Pad Thai is my favourite).

And if you’re in luck with timing, the annual “River on a Plate” dine-around in November is a great excuse for overeating. There are many other events along the river, year-round.

How to get to Bangkok

Fly Thai Airways from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Low cost airlines Air Asia X via KL and Scoot via Singapore also offer great value fares. For more information on Bangkok visit www.bangkokriverexperience.com.

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Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport provides easy, direct flights from Australia to the Thai capital (Photo: Wikimedia)

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