Wrapped in rainforests, edged by golden sands, crowned by volcanoes, studded with ruins of lost civilisations: this is Southeast Asia as you’ve always imagined it.
The soul of Southeast Asia has been forged by the elements. Mighty volcanoes have thrust the land up, and raging rivers have carved it down. Coral reefs have formed islands, and sea spray has sculpted them into surreal karst outcrops. Millennia of monsoon rain have created cultures defined by the seasons, and by the annual flooding of rivers, which double as super-highways through impenetrable jungles. In this region of rivers, oceans and islands, you're as likely to travel by boat as by road, following trade routes that have been carved out across millennia.
Spirituality swirls around Southeast Asia like the smoke from incense sticks swirls around its myriad temples. At dawn in Buddhist nations, monks flood into the streets to gather alms in endless monochrome chains. In Muslim countries, the call to prayer rises in a multi-throated chorus above rooftops. In Taoist temples, devotees fill the morning air with thick incense smoke, while tribal people in remote villages mark the new day's arrival with arcane animist rituals. Every aspect of life here has a spiritual dimension, from the food people eat to the religious geometry that dictates the layout of centuries-old mosques and temples.
Southeast Asia's mighty megacities are stepping boldly towards the future with one foot planted firmly in the past. Skyscrapers rise above the roads like crystal gardens, while at street level, traders hustle, food-hawkers hawk, and temples bustle with devotees toting their offerings. For many travelers, the first taste of the region is the urban energy of Bangkok, or the organised modernity of Singapore, but each of Southeast Asia's capitals has its own unique character, defined by religion, culture, geography and, in most cases, by centuries of colonialism and feuding dynasties. Learning the rhythms of each is part of the magic here.
Southeast Asia is where the flavours of some of the world's greatest cuisines melt into one another, throwing up ever more mesmerising combinations. The region's spices were once valued more highly than gold, and combined with one notable import – the South American chilli – they've created a cooking palette that inflames the senses and leaves the taste buds begging for more. This is a region where humble hawker stalls come with Michelin stars, and where a meal at a roadside canteen or night market can be as memorable as a five-star, dim sum banquet.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Southeast 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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 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. 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). 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 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. 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. 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. 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.
Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003, the remarkable Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park contains the oldest karst mountains in Asia, formed approximately 400 million years ago. Riddled with hundreds of cave systems – many of extraordinary scale and length – and spectacular underground rivers, Phong Nha is a speleologists’ heaven on earth, and a real treat for anyone who appreciates the sight of nature at its most raw. The caves are the region's absolute highlights, but the above-ground attractions of forest trekking, the area's war history, and rural mountain biking means the park has enough going on to warrant stays of up to three days. Documented exploration of the caves parks only began in the 1990s, led by the British Cave Research Association and Hanoi University. Cavers first penetrated deep into Phong Nha Cave, one of the world’s longest systems. In 2005 Paradise Cave was discovered, and in 2009 a team found what is considered the world’s largest cave – Son Doong. In 2015 public access to two more cave systems was approved. Above the ground, most of the mountainous 885 sq km of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is near-pristine tropical evergreen jungle, more than 90% of which is primary forest. It borders the biodiverse Hin Namno reserve in Laos to form an impressive, continuous slab of protected habitat. More than 100 types of mammal (including 10 species of primate, tigers, elephants and the saola, a rare Asian antelope), 81 types of reptile and amphibian, and more than 300 varieties of bird have been logged in Phong Nha. Touring the park In the past, access to the national park was limited and strictly controlled by the Vietnamese military. Access is still quite tightly controlled, for good reason (the park is still riddled with unexploded ordnance). Officially you are not allowed to hike here without a licensed tour operator. Trekking tours can be organised at hotels and tour operators in Son Trach village (note this is sometimes known as Phong Nha town). Good options include Hai's Eco Tours and Jungle Boss Trekking. Most cave visits require an organised tour, notably trips into Hang En and Tu Lan, as well as the famed four-day expedition into gargantuan Son Doong (though it's worth noting the latter will set you back a cool $3000 per person). All of these trips can be booked directly with Oxalis Adventure, who are the only provider allowed to run trips into Son Doong. The Son Doong expedition in particular should be booked a long way in advance. Other caves are more accessible. The eponymous Phong Nha Cave can be visited easily on a short boat trip from the jetty at Son Trach village, while Paradise Cave, at least the first kilometre of it, can be visited independently (if you have your own transport). You can travel independently (on a motorbike or car) on the Ho Chi Minh Hwy or Hwy 20, which cut through the park. There is no entrance fee when entering the park. A few guesthouses in Son Trach also rent out bicycles, allowing you to explore the countryside surrounding the town at your leisure. Nearby accommodation The Phong Nha region is changing fast. Son Trach village (also known as Phong Nha town) is the main centre, with an ATM, a rapidly mushrooming choice of accommodation and eating options, and improving transport links with other parts of central Vietnam. This is the easiest place to base yourself for exploring the park, though their are eco-farms and homestays in the back and beyond if you like your solitude. Good accommodation options in Son Trach village include Victory Road Villas, Central Backpackers Hostel and Jungle Boss Homestay.
Hang Son Doong (Mountain River Cave), located in the heart of Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, is known as the world's largest cave, and is one of the most spectacular sights in Southeast Asia. It is also one of the most exclusive. Access to the cave was only approved by the government in 2013, and the sole specialist operator permitted to lead tours is Son Trach–based Oxalis Adventure – commanding a US$3000 per person fee for the four-day/three-night expedition. Numbers are limited to 10 trekkers per trip, who are accompanied by a small fleet of porters and cooks. History This enormous cave was discovered quite recently. Ho Khanh, a hunter from a jungle settlement close to the Vietnam–Laos border, would often take shelter in the caves that honeycomb his mountain homeland. He stumbled across gargantuan Hang Son Doong in the early 1990s, but the sheer scale and majesty of the principal cavern (more than 5km long, 200m high and, in some places, 150m wide) was only confirmed as the world’s biggest cave when British explorers returned with him in 2009. The expedition team’s biggest obstacle was to find a way over a vast overhanging barrier of muddy calcite they dubbed the ‘Great Wall of Vietnam’, which divided the cave. Once they did, its true scale was revealed – a cave big enough to accommodate a battleship. Sections of it are pierced by skylights that reveal formations of ethereal stalagmites that cavers have called the Cactus Garden. Some stalagmites are up to 80m high. Cavers have also discovered colossal cave pearls measuring 10cm in diameter, which have been formed by millennia of drips, fusing calcite crystals with grains of sand. Magnificent rimstone pools are present throughout the cave, plus rivers that are ideal for swimming. How to visit Hang Son Doong Visits to the cave can only be booked with Oxalis Adventure. Head to their website to check availability and book well in advance. Keep in mind the three-night expedition is a challenging one, with tough trekking, underground river crossings and technical caving included. Anyone who struggles significantly with the climbing elements will be turned back on the first day. Accommodation comes in the form of basic (though spectacular) campsites within the cave itself. The tour runs from January to August. Oxalis Adventure Tours also run shorter, more affordable tours, both to other caves in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, and around the park itself.
Named after the Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal (Lumbini), Lumphini Park is central Bangkok’s largest and most popular park. Its 58 hectares are home to an artificial lake surrounded by broad, well-tended lawns, wooded areas, walking paths and startlingly large resident monitor lizards to complement the shuffling citizens. It’s the best outdoor escape from Bangkok without actually leaving town. The park was originally a royal reserve but in 1925 Rama VI (King Vajiravudh; r 1910–25) declared it a public space. A statue of the founding emperor can be found at the southwestern entrance of the park. One of the best times to visit is early morning (or late evening), when the air is relatively fresh (or pleasantly balmy) and legions of Thai-Chinese are practising t’ai chi, or doing their best to mimic the aerobics instructor, or doing the half-run half-walk version of jogging that makes a lot of sense in oppressive humidity. There are paddleboats for lovers, playgrounds for the kids and ramshackle gym weightlifting areas. This Chinese-style clock tower, located in the southeastern corner of Lumphini, doubles as an interesting photographic subject amidst the park's greenery. It was built for the Siamrath Phipitthapan Trade Fair in 1925 and was designed by Italian architect Mario Tamagno. Cold drinks are available at the entrances and street-food vendors set up tables outside the park’s northwest corner from about 5pm. Be aware that late at night the borders of the park are a popular spot for sex workers and clientele. Opening hours and other practicalities Bounded by Th Sarasin, Rama IV, Th Witthayu/Wireless Rd and Th Ratchadamri, Lumphini Park is open daily from 4:30am-9pm. Entry is free.
The Tu Lan cave system comprises of more than 20 wet and dry caves, which are thought to be between three and five million years old. Huge caverns, underground rivers and vast dangling stalactites make the caves a big draw for spelunkers (cave enthusiasts) visiting Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park (although the caves technically lie just outside the park), and the otherworldly landscape even captured the imagination of Hollywood, with Tu Lan featuring as a backdrop in blockbuster Kong: Skull Island (2017). History The existence of Tu Lan was first documented by the British Cave Research Association in 1992, but its existence was known locally for much longer. Additional surveys of the caves took place in 2010, which revealed the true scale of the system. The 2010 caving team included consultants to tour operator Oxalis, who are the leading tour operator licensed to take visitors into the caves. Touring the caves The caves can be explored on one-, two-, three- and four-day tours with Oxalis. All trips begin with a countryside hike, past peanut fields and grazing cattle, to the entrance of the cave system, and include a guided tour through at least two caves and a swim in an underground river. Longer tours take in additional caves (both wet and dry) and include nights in campsites nestled in the surrounding countryside, while the four-day iteration offers the chance to abseil inside the cave.