From the nomadic steppes of Kazakhstan to the frenetic streets of Hanoi, Asia is a continent so full of intrigue, adventure, solace and spirituality that it has fixated and confounded travellers for centuries.
This continent has contributed a cast of villains and heroes to global history. Most of the significant achievements of the modern world had their infancy in Asia. Historic trading routes sliced across epic terrain as expanding empires competed to trade goods and ideas throughout the continent and beyond. Asia’s ambitious civilisations ultimately gave rise to some of the world’s most revolutionary ideas and important technology. Ancient wonders and sacred spaces abound across the continent, from the Great Wall of China and the temples of Angkor to lesser-known marvels in Myanmar, Nepal and Afghanistan.
From sublime coastlines to snow-capped mountains, the majestic Mekong River to wildlife infested jungle, Asian landscapes hold an immediacy and vibrancy that captivates and enchants. Immense expanses of desert flow down from inhospitable mountains, which in turn give way to seemingly impenetrable forests. In a land where tigers still roam free (though far from noisy tourists) nature continues to be the driving force in many peoples’ lives. Virtually every climate on the globe is represented here; take a trek over the Gobi’s arching dunes or sun yourself on the sand-fringed tropical islands of the South China Sea.
Food to Live By
Is there any greater place to eat than Asia? The continent has exported its cuisines the world over: India’s red hot curries, China’s juicy dumplings, Vietnam’s steaming bowls of pho soup and Thailand’s heaping plates of pàt tai (pad Thai) noodles are known and loved across the globe. Eating here can be both a joyous and chaotic affair: forks are forsaken in favour of fingers or chopsticks and food is enjoyed with unrivalled gusto. Whether settling down for a Michelin-starred meal in one of Singapore’s finest restaurants or pulling up a plastic stool on a Bangkok street, hungry travellers will never be bored by the diversity of Asia’s cuisines.
Glimpse of the Future
Gleaming skyscrapers, whooshing magnetic trains, shiny smartphones: in Asia, the future is now. China is charging its way into the 21st century with its economy developing at a head-spinning pace, while South Korea boasts some of the fastest internet speeds in the world and India is a hub of growing technology. A frenetic buzz surrounds urban Asia: the fashion, culture and business in the continent’s metropolises easily challenge the biggest European and American cities for their status as global hubs. This ever-evolving modernity can make for some incredibly special travel experiences: watch rice paddies flash by from a high-speed train, pick up a shiny new laptop in a Hong Kong electronics market or go to a robot cabaret show in Japan.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Asia.
Wat Pho is our absolute favorite among Bangkok's biggest sights. In fact, the compound incorporates a host of superlatives: the city's largest reclining Buddha, the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand and the country's earliest center for public education. Almost too big for its shelter is Wat Pho's highlight, the genuinely impressive Reclining Buddha, housed in a pavilion on the western edge of the temple complex. You'll even find (slightly) fewer tourists here than at neighboring Wat Phra Kaew. The rambling grounds of Wat Pho cover eight hectares, with the major tourist sites occupying the northern side of Th Chetuphon and the monastic facilities found on the southern side. The temple compound is also the national headquarters for the teaching and preservation of traditional Thai medicine, including Thai massage, a mandate legislated by Rama III when the tradition was in danger of extinction. The famous massage school has two massage pavilions located within the temple area and additional rooms within the training facility outside the temple. A common public ritual at the temple of the Reclining Buddha is to donate coins (representing alms) in a series of metal bowls placed in a long row to the rear of the Buddha statue. If you don't have enough coins on you, an attendant will oblige you with loose change for bigger denominations. A temple has stood on the grounds of Wat Pho since the 16th century. ©takepicsforfun/Getty Images History The first iteration of Wat Pho (officially Wat Phra Chetuphon Wimon Mangkhalaram Rajwaramahawihana) was built in the 16th century as a late Ayuthaya-period monastery. Originally known as Wat Phodharam, it was restored in 1788 by King Rama I, who by then had built the Grand Palace next door and established Bangkok as the capital of Thailand. Much of what visitors see today was completed during the reign of King Rama III who extended much of Wat Pho in 1832, particularly the South Vihara and the West Vihara, where the Reclining Buddha is housed. The Reclining Buddha was completed in 1848 and remains the largest in Bangkok. The figure itself is modelled out of plaster around a brick core and is finished in gold leaf. It was King Rama III who also turned Wat Pho into Bangkok’s first public university too. The compound’s array of sculptures and artwork, which include more than 1000 depictions of Buddha, were commissioned to help people learn about history, literature and Buddhism. Between 1831 and 1841, some 1431 stone inscriptions were added by King Rama III and Thai scholars to preserve cultural heritage, including Thai massages, which is why Wat Pho remains the national headquarters for the teaching of traditional Thai medicine. The compound was last restored ahead of the Bangkok Bicentennial Celebration in 1982. Wat Pho is still a place of worship. ©Richard I'Anson/Lonely Planet Tickets and other practicalities Wat Pho is open daily from 8:30am-6:30pm and entry tickets cost 200B. Your admission includes a complimentary bottle of water (trust us: you'll need it) that can be collected at a stall near the Reclining Buddha temple. Wat Pho dress code Dress in long skirts/trousers and sleeved shirts when you visit. Shoes must be taken off to enter the temple. You'll be given a plastic bag at the entrance, in which you can wrap your shoes and carry them with you during your visit. Once outside, deposit the (reusable) bags in a collection vat. The Wat Pho Thai Traditional Massage School offers both massages and courses. ©anekoho/Shutterstock Massages at Wat Pho There aren’t many sacred religious sights in the world where you can get a massage, but Wat Pho is certainly one of them. As the national headquarters for the teaching of traditional Thai medicine, the school has two Thai massage pavilions located within the temple compound and additional rooms within a training facility outside the temple, providing a unique opportunity to combine relaxation with sightseeing. Both Thai massage and foot massages are available onsite (30 or 60 minutes) and need to be booked ahead via the Wat Pho Massage website. You can also learn how to give a Thai massage with one-day courses at the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Massage School. Prices start from 12,000B and the courses are available every day expect Sundays. The school is outside the temple compound in a restored Bangkok shophouse in Soi Phen Phat. Other basic courses offer 30 hours spread over five days and cover either general massage or foot massage. The Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho is still Bangkok's biggest. ©Terje Langeland/Getty Images Highlights Reclining Buddha Located in the compound's main wí·hăhn (sanctuary), the genuinely impressive Reclining Buddha, 46m long and 15m high, illustrates the passing of the Buddha into nirvana (i.e. the Buddha's death). Mother-of-pearl inlay ornaments the feet, displaying the 108 different lák·sà·nà (characteristics) of a Buddha. Continuing the numerical theme, behind the statue are 108 bronze monk bowls; for 20B you can buy 108 coins, each of which is dropped in a bowl for good luck and as a gesture of giving alms. Phra Ubosot Though built during the reign of Rama I (reigned 1782–1809) and influenced by the Ayuthaya school of architecture, the bòht (ordination hall) as it stands today is the result of extensive renovations dating back to the reign of Rama III (reigned 1824–51). Inside you'll find impressive murals and a three-tiered pedestal supporting Phra Buddha Deva Patimakorn, the compound's second-most noteworthy Buddha statue, as well as the ashes of Rama I. Other Buddha statues The images on display in the four wí·hăhn surrounding Phra Ubosot are worth investigation. Particularly beautiful are the Phra Chinnarat and Phra Chinnasri Buddhas in the western and southern chapels, both rescued from Sukhothai by relatives of Rama I. The galleries extending between the four structures feature no fewer than 394 gilded Buddha images spanning nearly all schools of traditional Thai craftsmanship, from Lopburi to Ko Ratanakosin. Ancient inscriptions Encircling Phra Ubosot is a low marble wall with 152 bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the Ramakian, the Thai version of the Ramayana. You’ll recognize some of these figures when you exit the temple past the hawkers with mass-produced rubbings for sale: these are made from cement casts based on Wat Pho’s reliefs. Nearby, a small pavilion west of Phra Ubosot has Unesco-awarded inscriptions detailing the tenets of traditional Thai massage. These and as many as 2000 other stone inscriptions covering various aspects of traditional Thai knowledge led to Wat Pho's legacy as Thailand’s first public university. Royal Chedi On the western side of the grounds is a collection of four towering tiled chedi (stupa) commemorating the first four Chakri kings. Note the square bell shape with distinct corners, a signature of Ratanakosin style, and the titles emulating the colors of the Buddhist flag. The middle chedi is dedicated to Rama I and encases Phra Si Sanphet Dayarn, a 16m-high standing Buddha image from Ayuthaya. The compound's 91 smaller chedi include clusters containing the ashes of lesser royal descendants. Phra Mondop Also known as hǒr đrai, and serving as a depository for Buddhist scriptures, the elevated Phra Mondop is guarded by four yaksha (guardian demons). Legend has it that an argument between the four led to the clearing of the area known today as Tha Tien. Just south of the Phra Mondop is the currently reptile-free Crocodile Pond. Sala Kan Parian Located in the southwestern corner of the compound is Sala Kan Parian, one of the few remaining structures that predates Rama III's extensive 19th-century renovation/expansion of then Wat Pho Tharam. Built in the Ayuthaya style, the structure formerly functioned as the wát's primary bòht, and held the temple compound's primary Buddha statue. The grounds Small Chinese-style rock gardens and hill islands interrupt the compound's numerous tiled courtyards providing shade, greenery and quirky decorations depicting daily life. Keep an eye out for the distinctive rockery festooned with figures of the hermit Khao Mor – who is credited with inventing yoga – in various healing positions. Directly south of the main wí·hăhn is a Bodhi tree (đôn po), grown from a clipping of the original under which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, and also the source of the temple's colloquial name, Wat Pho. Granite statues Aside from monks and sightseers, Wat Pho is filled with an altogether stiffer crowd: dozens of giants and figurines carved from granite. The rock giants first arrived in Thailand as ballast aboard Chinese junks and were put to work in Wat Pho (and other wát, including Wat Suthat), guarding the entrances of temple gates and courtyards. Look closely and you’ll see an array of Chinese characters. The giants with bulging eyes and Chinese opera costumes were inspired by warrior noblemen and are called Lan Than. The figure in a straw hat is a farmer, forever interrupted during his day’s work cultivating the fields. And can you recognize the guy in the fedora-like hat with a trimmed beard and moustache? Marco Polo, of course, who introduced such European styles to the Chinese court. Other tips Arrive early to avoid the crowds and to take advantage of the (relatively) cool weather. Don't just gawk at the Reclining Buddha and call it a day: Wat Pho's fantastical, almost maze-like grounds are also part of the experience, and are home to some less hyped but worthwhile treasures. Nearby restaurants You'd be wise to combine your visit to Wat Pho with lunch, specifically lunch at Pa Aew, an open-air stall that serves tasty Bangkok-style curries and stir-fries. Alternatively, Tonkin Annam serves some of the best Vietnamese food in Bangkok. Come for the phó (noodle soup), deliciously tart and peppery banana blossom salad, or dishes you won't find elsewhere, such as bánh bèo (steamed cups of rice flour topped with pork), a specialty of Hue. Nearby hotels The almost fairy-tale-like Chakrabongse Villas compound incorporates three sumptuous rooms and four larger suites and villas, some with great river views, all surrounding a still-functioning royal palace dating back to 1908. There’s a pool, jungle-like gardens and an elevated deck for romantic riverside dining. Else you can walk to Wat Pho from Arun Residence, which is strategically located on the river directly across from Wat Arun. This multilevel wooden house has much more than just great views: The seven rooms here manage to feel both homey and stylish (the best are the top-floor, balcony-equipped suites). There are also inviting communal areas, including a library, rooftop bar and restaurant.
Why you should go Fuji-san is among Japan 's most revered and timeless attractions, the inspiration for generations of poets and the focus of countless artworks. Hundreds of thousands of people climb it every year, continuing a centuries-old tradition of pilgrimages up the sacred volcano (which, despite its last eruption occurring in 1707, is still considered active). Whether or not you don the hiking boots to climb its busy slopes, taking some time to gaze upon the perfectly symmetrical cone of the country’s highest peak is an essential Japan experience. Hiking Mt Fuji The old adage about those who climb Fuji once being wise and a second time a fool remains as valid as ever. The hike is not the most scenic in the world, with barren landscapes and a summit that is often shrouded in cloud (obscuring views). Still, the sense of achievement and significance that comes with reaching the top of this sacred peak draws around 300,000 people during the annual climbing season, which runs from 1 July to 31 August – though in recent years this has often been extended to 10 September. Fuji is divided into 10 concentric ‘stations’ from base (first station) to summit (10th), but most climbers start halfway up at various fifth station points, reachable by road. The most popular climbing route is the Yoshida Trail, because buses run directly from Shinjuku Station to the trailhead at the Fuji Subaru Line Fifth Station (sometimes called the Kawaguchi-ko Fifth Station or just Mt Fuji Fifth Station) and because it has the most huts (with food, water and toilets). For the Yoshida Trail, allow five to six hours to reach the top and about three hours to descend, plus 1½ hours for circling the crater at the top. The other three routes up the mountain are the Subashiri, Gotemba and Fujinomiya trails; the steepest, Gotemba, is the most convenient to reach for travellers coming from Kansai-area destinations such as Kyoto and Osaka. Trails below the fifth stations are now used mainly as short hiking routes, but you might consider the challenging but rewarding 19km hike from base to summit on the historic Old Yoshidaguchi Trail, which starts at Fuji Sengen-jinja in the town of Fuji-Yoshida and joins up with the Yoshida Trail. Trails to the summit are busy throughout the official trekking season. To avoid the worst of the crush head up on a weekday, or start earlier during the day to avoid the afternoon rush and spend a night in a mountain hut (arriving at the summit for dawn, which can offer great views if there’s no cloud!). Authorities strongly caution against climbing outside the regular season, when the weather is highly unpredictable and first-aid stations on the mountain are closed. Despite this, many people do climb out of season, as it's the best time to avoid the crowds. During this time, climbers generally head off at dawn, and return early afternoon – however, mountain huts on the Yoshida Trail stay open later into September when weather conditions may still be good; a few open the last week of June, when snow still blankets the upper stations. It's highly advised that off-season climbers register with the local police department for safety reasons; fill out the form at the Kawaguchi-ko or Fuji-Yoshida Tourist Information Centers. If you plan to hike, go slowly and take regular breaks to avoid altitude sickness. Hiking poles are a good idea to help avoid knee pain (especially during the descent). Hotels and restaurants From the Fifth Stations up, dozens of mountain huts offer hikers simple hot meals in addition to a place to sleep. Most huts allow you to rest inside as long as you order something. Conditions in mountain huts are spartan (a blanket on the floor sandwiched between other climbers), but reservations are recommended and are essential on weekends. It's also important to let huts know if you decide to cancel at the last minute; be prepared to pay to cover the cost of your no-show. Good choice mountain huts include Fujisan Hotel, Higashi Fuji Lodge and Taishikan. Camping on the mountain is not permitted, other than at the designated campsite near the Fuji Subaru Line Fifth Station (aka Kawaguchi-ko Fifth Station). Permits Permits are not required to climb Mt Fuji
To understand the US invasion of Vietnam, and contextualize its devastating impact on the country's civilians, this remarkable and deeply moving museum is an essential visit. Many of the atrocities documented here are already well publicized, but it's rare to visit a museum such as this, where the victims of US military action are given the space to tell their side of the story. While most of the displays are written from a Vietnamese perspective, much of the disturbing photography of war atrocities come from US sources, including the images of the My Lai massacre, where more than 500 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians were brutally killed by US soldiers. Even travellers with little interest in the war should not leave the city without visiting. Its absorbing exhibits give visitors an invaluable insight into a defining chapter in the country’s history – and a deeper understanding of present-day Vietnam as a result. Allow at least a couple of hours for your visit. The museum, which was formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, primarily deals with the American War, but the French-colonial period and conflicts with China are also documented. US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons are on display outside. One corner of the grounds is devoted to the notorious French and South Vietnamese prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son islands. Artefacts include that most iconic of French appliances, the guillotine, and the notoriously inhumane ‘tiger cages’ used to house war prisoners. The ground floor of the museum is devoted to a collection of posters and photographs showing support for the antiwar movement internationally. This somewhat upbeat display provides a counterbalance to the horrors upstairs. Some of the images on show are very upsetting, in particular photos of widespread destruction from US napalm bombs and the horrific toxic effects of Agent Orange on Vietnamese citizens. Many visitors may need to take a break between exhibits. The museum also offers the rare chance to see some of the experimental weapons used in the war, which were at one time military secrets, such as the flechette, an artillery shell filled with thousands of tiny darts. Upstairs, look out for the Requiem Exhibition. Compiled by legendary war photographer Tim Page, this striking collection documents the work of photographers killed during the course of the conflict, on both sides, and includes works by Larry Burrows and Robert Capa. Tickets and other practicalities Tickets to enter the museum are 40,000d for adults, and 20,000d for children aged 6-16. Children under 6 enter free. The War Remnants Museum is in the former US Information Service building. Captions are in Vietnamese and English.
If you visit only one museum in Tokyo, make it the Tokyo National Museum. Here you'll find the world's largest collection of Japanese art, including ancient pottery, Buddhist sculptures, samurai swords, colourful ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), gorgeous kimonos and much, much more. Touring the museum Visitors with only a couple of hours to spare should focus on the Honkan (Japanese Gallery), which has a specially curated selection of artistic highlights on the 2nd floor. With more time, you can explore the enchanting Gallery of Hōryū-ji Treasures, which displays masks, scrolls and gilt Buddhas from Hōryū-ji (in Nara Prefecture, dating from 607); the Tōyōkan with its collection of Asian art, including delicate Chinese ceramics; and the Heiseikan, which houses the Japanese Archaeological Gallery, full of pottery, talismans and articles of daily life from Japan's prehistoric periods. It's also worth checking whether it's possible to access the usually off-limits garden during your visit, which includes several vintage teahouses; it opens to the public from mid-March to mid-April and from late October to early December. The museum also houses a restaurant, cafe and coffee shop, as well as a souvenir shop in the main building. History The museum held its first exhibition in 1872, making it the oldest museum in Japan. It moved to its current location in Ueno Park in 1882. Today it is one of the four museums, alongside Kyoto National Museum, Nara National Museum and Kyushu National Museum, operated by the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage, and is considered one of the largest art museums in the world. Tickets and other practicalities The admission fee for adults is ¥1000, while entry is free for under 18s and over 70s. The museum regularly hosts temporary exhibitions (which cost extra); these can be fantastic, but sometimes lack the English signage found throughout the rest of the museum.
Part of Parakramabahu I’s northern monastery, Gal Vihara is a group of beautiful Buddha images that probably marks the high point of Sinhalese rock carving. The giant reclining Buddha statue will be familiar to many travellers, having graced the cover of numerous travel guides to the country (and even more Instagram feeds!), but the complex is actually home to four separate Buddha images, all cut from one long slab of granite. At one time, each was enshrined within a separate enclosure. The standing Buddha is 7m tall and is said to be the finest of the series. The unusual crossed position of the arms and sorrowful facial expression led to the theory that it was an image of the Buddha’s disciple Ananda, grieving for his master’s departure for nirvana, since the reclining image is next to it. The fact that it had its own separate enclosure, along with the discovery of other images with the same arm position, has discredited this theory and it is now accepted that all the images are of the Buddha. The reclining Buddha depicted entering parinirvana (nirvana-after-death) is 14m long. The detail here is amazing, notably the subtle depression in the pillow under the head, and the lotus symbols both on the pillow end and on the soles of Buddha's feet. The seated Buddha on the far left has four further Buddhas depicted in the torana (ornamental gateway) above, making this a probable depiction of the Five Dhyani Buddhas. The carvings make superb use of the natural marbling in the rock. The fourth Buddha in the small rock cavity is smaller and of inferior quality.
A still, serene and deeply moving place, Nagasaki's Peace Park commemorates the atomic bombing of the city on August 9, 1945, which reduced the surrounding area to rubble and claimed tens of thousands of lives. Together with the Atomic Bomb Museum and National Peace Memorial Hall (both a short walk away), this is an essential stop for any visitor who wants to understand how the disaster shaped the city. The green, spacious park is presided over by the 10-tonne bronze Nagasaki Peace Statue, designed in 1955 by Kitamura Seibō. It also includes the dove-shaped Fountain of Peace (1969) and the Peace Symbol Zone, a sculpture garden with contributions on the theme of peace from around the world. Practically adjoining the park to the south is the smaller Atomic Bomb Hypocentre Park, with a monument marking the epicentre of the deadly blast. On 9 August a rowdy antinuclear protest is held within earshot of the more formal official memorial ceremony for those lost to the bomb.
The Grand Palace (Phra Borom Maharatchawang) is a former royal residence in Bangkok that was consecrated in 1782. Today, it’s only used on ceremonial occasions, but it remains the city's biggest tourist attraction and a pilgrimage destination for devout Buddhists. As part of the greater complex that also encompasses the hallowed Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), the 94.5-hectare grounds encompass more than 100 buildings that represent 200 years of royal history and architectural experimentation. Most of the architecture, royal or sacred, is classified as Ratanakosin (old-Bangkok style). Visitors are allowed to survey the Grand Palace grounds and four of the remaining palace buildings, which are interesting for their royal bombast. Give yourself between two-to-three hours to explore the sight completely, or an hour longer if you take a guided tour. The Chakri Mahaprasat (Grand Palace Hall) mixes Thai and European influences. ©cowardlion/Shutterstock Highlights The largest palace building open to the public is the triple-winged Chakri Mahaprasat (Grand Palace Hall). Completed in 1882 following a plan by Singapore-based British architect John Clunish, the exterior shows a peculiar blend of Italian Renaissance and traditional Thai architecture. It's a style often referred to as fa·ràng sài chá-dah (Westerner wearing a Thai classical dancer’s headdress), because each wing is topped by a mon·dòp (a layered, heavily ornamented spire). It is believed the original plan called for the palace to be topped with a dome, but Rama V (King Chulalongkorn; r 1868–1910) was persuaded to go for a Thai-style roof instead. That decision has been interpreted as a subversive thumbing of the nose to the foreign colonialists in Asia at the time. Many believe the king was literally showing Thai dominance over European culture by crowing his Western-inspired palace hall with a Thai-style roof. The tallest of the mon·dòp, in the centre, contains the ashes of Chakri dynasty kings; the flanking mon·dòp enshrine the ashes of the many Chakri princes who failed to inherit the throne. The last building to the west is the Ratanakosin-style Dusit Hall, which initially served as a venue for royal audiences and later as a royal funerary hall. At the eastern end of the palace complex, Borombhiman Hall is a French-inspired structure that served as a residence for Rama VI (King Vajiravudh; r 1910–25). Today it can only be viewed through its iron gates. Amarindra Hall, to the west, was originally a hall of justice but is used (very rarely indeed) for coronation ceremonies. Until Rama VI decided one wife was enough for any man, even a king, Thai kings housed their huge harems in the inner palace area (not open to the public), which was guarded by combat-trained female sentries. The intrigue and rituals that occurred within the walls of this cloistered community live on in the fictionalised epic Four Reigns, by Kukrit Pramoj, which follows a young girl named Phloi growing up within the Royal City. A dvarapala (gate guardian) statue at the Grand Palace, which was first established in 1782 under the auspices of King Rama I. ©Kayo/Shutterstock History The Grand Palace complex was established in 1782 after King Rama I ascended to the throne. It is believed that he moved the royal court from Thonburi on the west bank of Chao Phraya River to Bangkok on the east for protection. The river would then act as a moat for the northern, southern and western perimeters, whilst eastern edge of the city – a muddy delta at the time – would be difficult for attackers to cross without being seen or hampered. The royal residences were moved out of the Grand Palace during the reign of King Vajiravudh, leaving Chakri Mahaprasat (Grand Palace Hall) to fall into disrepair. In 1932, Rama VII (King Prajadhipok; r 1925-1935) called for a major renovation of the hall, but the project ran out of money, and the back section of the building had to be demolished. The Grand Palace was also where Rama VIII (King Ananda Mahidol; r 1935–46) was mysteriously killed in 1946. He was found dead in his bed with a gunshot wound to his head. In April 1981, the deputy commander of the Thai army, General San Chitpatima, used the palace as his headquarters for an attempted coup against the Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond. The coup was unsuccessful. In October of 2017, the Grand Palace complex and adjacent Sanam Luang served as the setting for the funeral of King Rama IX – possibly one of the most ornate funerals in modern history. The ceremony took a year to plan, saw the construction of a nearly 50m-high gilded pyre, cost a total of US$90 million, and was attended by tens of thousands of mourners dressed in black. The current king, Rama X, had his coronation held in the large Amarindra Hall in 2019. Following the ceremony, the king carried on the Budtan Thong royal palanquin from the the hall’s throne room to the Wat Phra Kaew. You'll need to wear culturally appropriate attire when visiting the Grand Palace in Bangkok. ©Luciano Mortula - LGM/Shutterstock Does the Grand Palace have a dress code? As with many of Bangkok’s sights, you will need culturally appropriate attire to enter the Grand Palace. This means being well covered. Visitors should wear long skirts/trousers and sleeved shirts—basically anything that covers more than the lower arms and head. Sleeveless shirts, vests, short or see-through tops are all prohibited, as are shorts and three-quarter length pants/skirts. Visitors won’t be able to enter if they’re wearing torn or skinny trousers, cycling shorts or miniskirts either. Those who aren’t dressed appropriately at the entrance can expect to be shown into a dressing room and issued with a sarong before being allowed in – this adds to queuing and unnecessary delays. There are no restrictions as to what footwear you wear in the palace, but do note that you will be asked to remove your shoes to enter some of the buildings. Tickets for the Grand Palace can be bought in person or in advance online. ©Dnai Amporndanai/Shutterstock Tickets and other practicalities The Grand Palace is open daily from 8.30am-3.30pm. Enter the Grand Palace complex through the clearly marked third gate from the river pier. Tickets are purchased inside the complex and cost 500B. They also give you access to Wat Phra Kaew and Queen Sirikit Museum, which are both part of the complex. Thai people get in free. Tickets can also be bought in advance via the Royal Grand Palace website. Guides can be hired at the ticket kiosk and audio guides can be rented for 200B. The grounds and gardens are wheelchair accessible and there are accessible toilets onsite too. Grand Palace tips Arrive early in the morning for the cooler weather and to avoid the crowds. Ignore any strangers close to the entrance who claim that any of the sights are shut. Carry drinking water. It gets hot on the bare courtyard during the day the only cafeteria within the complex was shut when we visited. Nearby hotels Travel a century back in time by booking one of the nine rooms in Asadang, a beautiful antique shophouse located in Chinatown. Rooms not particularly huge, but are big on atmosphere and come equipped with both antique furnishings and modern amenities. Located in a former school, the 42 rooms at Feung Nakorn Balcony surround an inviting garden courtyard and are generally large, bright and cheery. The charming hotel has a quiet and secluded location away from the main road. Right in the heart of the hipster Tien village area, the rooms at Arom D are united by a cutesy design theme and a host of inviting communal areas, including a rooftop deck, computers and a ground-floor cafe. Nearby restaurants Cap off your visit to the Grand Palace with lunch at Ming Lee, a charmingly old-school Thai restaurant located virtually across the street from the complex's main entrance. Navy Club is the restaurant of the Royal Navy Association and it has one of the few coveted riverfront locations along this stretch of the Chao Phraya River. Locals come for the combination of views and cheap and tasty seafood-based eats – not for the cafeteria-like atmosphere. Alternatively, enjoy a Thai-themed cocktail and a spicy drinking snack at Err.
Wat Arun is the missile-shaped temple that rises from the Chao Phraya River's banks. Known as Temple of Dawn, it was named after the Indian god of dawn, Arun. It was here that, after the destruction of Ayuthaya, King Taksin stumbled upon a small local shrine and interpreted the discovery as an auspicious sign that this should be the site of the new capital of Siam. Today the temple is one of Bangkok's most iconic structures – not to mention one of the few Buddhist temples you are encouraged to climb on. It wasn't until the capital and the Emerald Buddha were moved to Bangkok that Wat Arun received its most prominent characteristic: the 82m-high þrahng (Khmer-style tower). The tower's construction was started during the first half of the 19th century by Rama II (King Phraphutthaloetla Naphalai; r 1809–24) and later completed by Rama III (King Phranangklao; r 1824–51). Steep stairs lead to the top, from where there are amazing views of the Chao Phraya River. Not apparent from a distance are the fabulously ornate floral mosaics made from broken, multihued Chinese porcelain, a common temple ornamentation in the early Ratanakosin period, when Chinese ships calling at the port of Bangkok discarded tons of old porcelain as ballast. The main Buddha image at the temple is said to have been designed by Rama II himself. The murals date from the reign of Rama V (King Chulalongkorn; r 1868–1910); particularly impressive is one that depicts Prince Siddhartha encountering examples of birth, old age, sickness and death outside his palace walls, an experience that led him to abandon the worldly life. The ashes of Rama II are interred in the base of the presiding Buddha image. There has been a temple on the grounds of Wat Arun since at least the 16th century. ©e X p o s e/Shutterstock History There has been a temple on the site of Wat Arun from at least the late 16th century. Historians believe Wat Makok, as it was originally known, was founded on the bank of Khlong Lat, but it wasn't until 1767, when King Taksin came across the temple, that it took on any real historical significance. King Taksin, who came across the site at sunrise whilst fleeing Burmese invaders, made the site his palace temple and renamed it Wat Chaeng. The temple was then chosen to house the Emerald Buddha, a scared palladium of Thailand, when it was brought across from Vientiane, the capital city of what is now Laos. It now resides across the river in Wat Phra Kaew. When Bangkok became the Thailand's new capital city, the temple was renamed again by Rama II, this time as Wat Arun. Rama II also began enlarging the central þrahng, which was then completed in 1842 under the reign of Rama III. Apart from some restoration work on the þrahng, which was completed in 2017, little else has changed at Wat Arun. Tickets and other practicalities Wat Arun is open daily from 8am-6pm and tickets cost 50B. The entrance is just off Th Arun Amarin and it’s located across the river from Wat Pho. Many people visit Wat Arun on long-tail boat tours, but it’s dead easy to just use the Chao Phraya Express Boat, or jump on the cross-river ferry from Tien Pier (from 5am to 9pm). Wat Arun's þrahng is, quite literally, unmissable. ©Miki Studio/Shutterstock What to see The Spire The central feature of Wat Arun is the 82m-high Khmer-style þrahng (tower), constructed during the first half of the 19th century by Rama II (King Phraphutthaloetla Naphalai; r 1809–24). From the river it is not apparent that this corn-cob-shaped steeple is adorned with colorful floral murals made of glazed porcelain, a common temple ornamentation in the early Ratanakosin period, when Chinese ships calling at Bangkok used the stuff as ballast. The Ordination Hall The compound's primary bòht (ordination hall) contains a Buddha image that is said to have been designed by Rama II himself, as well as beautiful murals that depict Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) encountering examples of birth, old age, sickness and death outside his palace walls, experiences that led him to abandon the worldly life. The Grounds In addition to the central spire and ordination hall, the Wat Arun compound includes two wí·hăhn (sanctuaries) and a hǒr đrai (depository for Buddhist scriptures), among other structures. Adjacent to the river are six săh·lah (often spelt as sala), open-air pavilions traditionally meant for relaxing or study, but increasingly used these days as docks for tourist boats. Dress code As Wat Arun is a Buddhist temple, visitors must wear culturally appropriate clothing to visit. This means trousers or long skirts and tops that cover your shoulders. It also means nothing see-through. If you are flashing too much flesh, you'll have to rent a sarong from the shop at the entrance for 20B (and a 100B refundable deposit). Shoes will also need to be removed before entering some parts of the temple. Wat Arun at sunset can be jaw-dropping. ©Jirawas Teekayu/500px Wat Arun at sunset For our money, it's best to visit Wat Arun in the late afternoon, when the sun shines from the west, lighting up the spire and river behind it. For sunset photos, however, some of the best views can be caught from across the river at the warehouses that line Th Maha Rat – although be forewarned that locals may ask for a 20B “fee”. The magic hour for snaps is when the temple lights are switched on at night (usually around 7pm), even as the sky retains some of the afterglow. Nearby restaurants and bars If you're visiting the temple during the day, consider a lunch break at Tonkin Annam, an excellent Vietnamese restaurant just across the river. The Rooftop or Amorosa, rooftop bars located directly across from the temple, boast some wonderful views of Wat Aurn, which are great at sunset. Nearby hotels Strategically located on the river directly across from Wat Arun, Arun Residence is a multilevel wooden house with much more than just great views. The seven rooms here manage to feel both homey and stylish (the best are the top-floor, balcony-equipped suites). There are also inviting communal areas, including a library, rooftop bar and restaurant. Else head to sleek, modernist Sala Ratanakosin. Its rooms have open-plan bathrooms and big windows looking out on the river and Wat Arun. They can't be described as vast, but will satisfy the fashion-conscious.
Architecturally fantastic, the Wat Phra Kaew temple complex is also the spiritual core of Thai Buddhism and the monarchy, symbolically united in what is the country’s most holy image, the Emerald Buddha. Attached to the temple complex is the Grand Palace, the former royal residence, once a sealed city of intricate ritual and social stratification. The ground was consecrated in 1782, the first year of Bangkok rule, and is today Bangkok’s biggest tourist attraction and a pilgrimage destination for devout Buddhists. The Emerald Buddha is one of Bangkok's most popular sights. ©Kayo/Shutterstock Emerald Buddha Upon entering Wat Phra Kaew you’ll meet the yaksha, brawny guardian giants from the Ramakian (the Thai version of the Indian epic, Ramayana). Beyond them is a courtyard where the central bòht (ordination hall) houses the Emerald Buddha. The spectacular ornamentation inside and out does an excellent job of distracting first-time visitors from paying their respects to the image. Here’s why: the Emerald Buddha is only 66cm tall and sits so high above worshippers in the main temple building that the gilded shrine is more striking than the small figure it cradles. No one knows exactly where it comes from or who sculpted it, but it first appeared on record in 15th-century Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. Stylistically it seems to belong to Thai artistic periods of the 13th to 14th centuries. Because of its royal status, the Emerald Buddha is ceremoniously draped in monastic robes. There are now three royal robes: for the hot, rainy and cool seasons. The three robes are still solemnly changed by the king at the beginning of each season. The Ramakian Murals can offer some peace to busy Wat Phra Kaew. © Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images Ramakian Murals Outside the main bòht is a stone statue of the Chinese goddess of mercy, Kuan Im, and nearby are two cow figures, representing the year of Rama I’s birth. In the 2km-long cloister that defines the perimeter of the complex are 178 murals depicting the Ramakian in its entirety, beginning at the north gate and moving clockwise around the compound. The story begins with the hero, Rama (the green-faced character), and his bride, Sita (the beautiful topless maiden). The young couple is banished to the forest, along with Rama’s brother. In this pastoral setting, the evil king Ravana (the character with many arms and faces) disguises himself as a hermit in order to kidnap Sita. Rama joins forces with Hanuman, the monkey king (depicted as the white monkey), to attack Ravana and rescue Sita. Although Rama has the pedigree, Hanuman is the unsung hero. He is loyal, fierce and clever. En route to the final fairy-tale ending, great battles and schemes of trickery ensue until Ravana is finally killed. After withstanding a loyalty test of fire, Sita and Rama are triumphantly reunited. If the temple grounds seem overrun by tourists, the mural area is usually mercifully quiet and shady. Phra Mondop Commissioned by Rama I, this structure was built for the storage of sacred Buddhist manuscripts. The seven-tiered roof, floor woven from strands of silver, and intricate mother-of-pearl door panels make it among the world's most decadent libraries. The interior of Phra Mondop is closed to the public. Phra Mondop, along with the neighbouring Khmer-style peak of the Prasat Phra Thep Bidon and the gilded Phra Si Ratana chedi (stupa), are the tallest structures in the compound. The yaksha, brawny guardian giants from the Ramakian epic, greet visitors at Wat Phra Kaew. ©banjongseal324/Getty Images History Established in 1782 by King Rama I, Wat Phra Kaew was built specifically to house the Emerald Buddha, which he had brought back to Thailand after he captured Vientiane (now in Laos). The Emerald Buddha was placed in the completed temple in 1784. Phra Ubosot (The Chapel of the Emerald Buddha) which was commissioned by King Rama I is styled in Ayudhaya-period Thai architecture, with a decorative, multi-tiered Lamyong roof structure and double sacred boundary stones. Top tips Tickets are purchased inside the complex; anyone telling you it's closed is likely a gem tout or a con artist. Carry drinking water. It gets hot on the bare courtyard during the day and the only cafeteria within the complex isn't always open. Dress code As one of Bangkok’s most sacred places, visitors should dress appropriately when visiting both Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. You won’t be allowed to enter unless you’re well covered. Shorts, sleeveless shirts, spaghetti-strap tops, cropped pants – basically anything that reveals more than your lower arms and head – are not allowed. Those who don't meed the dress code can expect to be shown into a dressing room and issued with a sarong before being allowed in – this adds to queuing and unnecessary delays. Tickets and other practicalities Located along Th Na Phra Lan, in the historic Phra Nakhon District of Bangkok, the entrance to Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace complex is through the clearly marked third gate from Tha Chang river pier. Open daily 8;30am-3:30pm, admission is free for Thais and costs 500B for everyone else. Admission the Grand Palace is included in the ticket price.