Rattanakosin is the cultural and historical heart of Bangkok. At the heart of Rattanakosin are most of the main tourist sites, the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Keo, Wat Pho and, just across the river Wat Arun. For many visitors this is all they see of the area. Which is a great shame.
Popular tourist literature likes to tout Bangkok as the “Venice of the East” but offers little by way of explanation except that Bangkok has a few canals many of which have been filled in. While the canal explanation is not wrong it only goes a small part of the way to explaining why Bangkok really does deserve the mantle.
For this we need to look back to one of the most revered of all Thai Kings, Rama V, or King Chulalongkorn who reigned from 1858 until 1910. You’ll often see his photograph on the walls of shops and businesses. A slightly balding gentleman in regal attire with a moustache.
To keep the story brief, Chulalongkorn believed that the best way to keep the colonial wolves from the door was to modernise the nation and build a capital grand enough to rival any found in Europe. To achieve this he imported architects and artists from Italy.
To find evidence of their work it is necessary to step out of the beaten groove a little. An act so rare that when you do so concerned Thais often think you have lost your way and come up to you saying “No no no, Wat Pho is this way.”
I can happily wander around the area for hours. It is bordered on one side by the Chao Phrya River. On the other three concentric canals were cut, expanding outwards as the city grew.
The innermost canal is Klong Lot and a stroll along here is perhaps the best thing for people without unlimited time. This will take you past numerous interesting building and monuments but be sure to make numerous detours on to the side streets and particularly into Saranrom Gardens, to the front of the Ministry of Defense and to the City Pillar Shrine.
When you reach the end of the canal turn right into Ratchdamoen Boulevard and walk up walk up this broad tree lined road, past the Democracy Monument and up to the Parliament building taking note of all the civic ornamentation along the way.