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Bangkok's key attractions are as impressive as any in the world, and beg to be experienced, but delve deep into the city's historic heart, explore the river and canals, and you will really understand something about this amazing place. Its people, its food and its culture make Bangkok what it is.

1. Grand Palace

The undisputed No.1 attraction in Bangkok, its centerpiece is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the (surprisingly small) eponymous 14th-century statue. There are many other shrines and temples in the complex, which is dazzling to the eye and soothing to the soul. Dress conservatively.

2. Wat Pho

The brilliant gold 47m-long, 15m-tall Reclining Buddha entirely fills the main hall at Wat Pho, but there are other temples, statue-filled chapels and murals to explore in the grounds. As well, there is the famous massage school. Traditional massages are cheap and well worth any wait.

3. Longtail trip

Begin an exploration of the Thonburi district from Khlong Bangkok Noi, one of the city's main canals, and then duck and dive into smaller, intriguing khlongs that lead to temples, farms, restaurants, mansions and ancient teak houses. Avoid the tawdry snake farm, which is on many itineraries.

4. Chatuchak Weekend Market

You'll need to be in Bangkok on a weekend for this experience – and it's worth framing your trip around it. One of the world's great open markets, with around 8000 stalls selling … well, everything from motorcycle parts to puppies. Clothes, jewellery and collectables are among the most practical buys.

5. Lumpini Park

Breathe deep here, as it's one of the few places in Bangkok where you can get a sense of space. It's busy from early morning, when people come to practice tai chi and ballroom dancing, to jog or cycle, and to pedal 'swan' boats around the lake. Watch for the giant monitor lizards.

6. Street food

Bangkok has some world-class restaurants, but its street food is incomparable. Sadly, the Sukhumvit 38 scene has closed, but Chinatown, Rattanakosin and elsewhere still serve up amazing food. Try Pad Thai Thip Samai in the Old City. Follow your nose, and follow the crowds.

7. Wat Arun

The Temple of the Dawn is one of Bangkok's classic symbols, its 70m-tall ceramic-covered prang rising on the western bank of the Chao Phraya. Climb to the viewing platform for a great view of the river and Grand Palace, especially at sunset. Dawn, appropriately, is also a beautiful time here.

8. Koh Kret

If you don't have time to go upcountry, this little island in the Chao Phraya is a taste of rural Thailand. Busy on weekends, when a popular market springs up, at other times it is very peaceful. Hire a bike or just walk the one road that encircles the island. Quite the oasis in busy Bangkok.

9. Chinatown

The Chinese have been an important part of Bangkok's development, and the city's Chinatown is a testament. From the gold shops of Yaowarat Road to the cramped markets of Sampaeng Lane and Nakon Kasem (Thieves Market) and temples such as Wat Traimit, it is a fascinating district.

10. Jim Thompson House

The American who revived the classic Thai silk industry in the 1950s and 1960s disappeared mysteriously in Malaya in 1967, but he left behind this gorgeous physical legacy – an enclave of six treasure-filled traditional Thai teak houses that now serve as a museum.