Did you know that Bangkok is the most visited city in the world? A couple of days in the Thai capital is enough to understand why. With plenty of historic splendour, countless modern shopping malls and a street food culture that brings out the inner foodie in any traveller this city has something to offer for everyone. Moreover, being a hub at the heart of East Asia for both business and leisure travellers, Bangkok attracts crowds from all over.
True, Bangkok can feel hectic, humid and overwhelming. But the city is a real feast for the senses. Here are 10 experiences I believe you can’t miss when visiting this dynamic metropolis.
- Temples galore
- Go for a (boat) ride
- Taste the best of Thai cuisine
- Find your cool in the malls of Sukhumvit Road
- Explore one of the city’s many markets
- Do a street food tour of Chinatown
- Discover Bangkok’s hipster side
- Enjoy drinks with a view
- Take a train to ancient Ayutthaya
- Escape the city to the jungle or the beach
For many visitors, myself included, arriving in Bangkok can be rather overwhelming. Having seen images of the city, you’d somehow envision it to be this grand capital with historic palaces, beautiful temples and wooden houses everywhere. Instead, at first sight it turns out to be a hectic concrete mega-metropolis. Bangkok has grown enormously over the past decades and large parts of the city are dominated by skyscrapers and motorway flyovers. However, look beyond this and you’ll find some incredibly beautiful sights. The most famous ones are located in the old heart of town, far away from the main commercial and business districts. Anyone visiting Bangkok for the first time cannot miss three of its main historical treasures: the Grand Palace and the Wat Pho and Wat Arun temples.
The Grand Palace is part of a compound of regal buildings and temples also known as Wat Phra Kaew. One of the most eye-catching structures here is the Ordination Hall, which houses the Emerald Buddha statue. Expect splendid spires, richly decorated Thai architecture, lots of gold and hordes of other tourists. Do bear in mind that you can only access the site wearing long trousers and that taking off your shoes is required before entering any of the religious buildings.
Just as mesmerising but less visited and therefore more pleasant to discover is Wat Pho. This huge temple complex is home to the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand. There are no fewer than 394 of them, lined up in covered patio hallways. In addition, you’ll also find the largest reclining Buddha of Bangkok here. I really enjoyed wandering around this beautiful, serene temple complex.
On the other side of the river (catch a ferry from the nearby Tha Tien pier) is Wat Arun. It’s a much more compact temple complex, but with its slender white tower it’s certainly one of Bangkok’s most iconic structures.
One important practical note: make sure to wear or bring long trousers to the holy sites. Both women and men are expected to dress appropriately and that includes long trousers. Some temples rent them out, at others (including Wat Phra Kaew) you can only buy them. And there’s nothing worse than having to pay a tourist price for a pair of ugly trousers you’ll only wear once…
Go for a (boat) ride
For anyone not familiar with Bangkok’s public transport system, getting from A to B can seem like quite a challenge. This is especially true when you want to get to the old town, which is not served by the ultramodern BTS Skytrain or metro. However, there’s a way to go about this and it’s one that Google Maps won’t tell you about: the ferry. After all, Bangkok is a city of water. Built by the river Chao Praya, it developed a network of canals, which is why the city is sometimes dubbed the ‘Venice of Asia’. Ferries cover large areas of the city. What’s more, they’re fast (there’s little traffic after all!), incredibly cheap (9 Baht, which is less than €0.25/£0.20) and also simply really fun! The trickiest bit is to find out how to get to the piers, but there are some handy maps online to help you with this. For instance, to travel from the Grand Palace and Wat Pho to Wat Arun, simply take the cross-river ferry from the Tha Tien Pier. Or to reach the old part of town coming from Sukhumvit or Phloen Chit Road, take the canal taxi boats (klorng boats) from the parallel-running canal. In a matter of minutes you’ll have reached your stop !
So, do as the locals do and let yourself be transported by boat. It’s a quintessential Bangkokian experience!
Taste the best of Thai cuisine
Thailand is famous for many things, but one of its biggest stars must be its incredibly rich and diverse cuisine. And the greatest thing is, Bangkok brings together the best of Thai food in one city. You could spend months here and still not have tried all the different tasty Thai dishes that are out there. Perhaps the best place to start your culinary discovery of Bangkok is by heading out and grabbing a bite from one of the gazillion street food vendors. No, don’t worry, this is not a recipe for food poisoning. Generally speaking (or at least in my experience), hygiene at street food stalls is of a similar standard as in restaurants. Street food is a quintessential part of Bangkok life. Food vendors are everywhere in the city and at almost any time of day. They’re often lined up on the street, but sometimes also gathered in (indoor) markets. Many have chairs and tables and offer a seated service, which tends to be quick and efficient. And while you’ll only pay a fraction of restaurant prices, the quality of street food in Bangkok often rivals that of their restaurant neighbours. In fact, in 2018 Bangkok’s Raan Jai Fay – who specialises in crab omelettes – was the first street food vendor to be awarded a Michelin star.
Speaking of Michelin stars… Bangkok now has no fewer than 26 restaurants that can lay claim to one or two of the prestigious stars. Moreover, in 2019 seven restaurants in the city made it to the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. It all goes to show Bangkok’s rising reputation as a foodie heaven. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time (and money) to be able to provide a shortlist myself, but there are some excellent foodie guides out there that highlight some of Bangkok’s most legendary places to eat.
Find your cool in the malls of Sukhumvit Road
Bangkok is hot. In fact, it’s one of the hottest destinations on the planet. Temperature wise, I mean (although with more visitors than any other city in the world, ‘hot’ can indeed be interpreted both ways here). The city has a permanent average temperature of 32-34 degrees Celsius. Add to this constantly high levels of humidity and you can see why Bangkokians love a well-air-conditioned shopping mall. Anyone would. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of shopping malls, but one day in Bangkok in May was enough for me to change my mind. The relentless heat and humidity drove me indoors and I’ve never been so happy to escape into a shopping mall.
In Bangkok, Sukhumvit Road (including its extension Phloen Chit Road) is the place to be for some indoor coolness. The city’s main commercial avenue is lined with malls in all sorts and sizes. One of the coolest ones (literally and figuratively) is Central Embassy. With beautiful shops, nice bars, a huge co-working space/bookstore/cafe on the top floor AND great air-conditioning, you’ll definitely find your cool here. OK, that’s enough now. Cool down, mate.
Explore one of the city’s many markets
While Sukhumvit Road is dominated by modern malls, other parts of Bangkok still offer a more traditional style shopping experience. You have to look well though, because the city is modernising at a fast pace. Visitors might expect to find floating markets everywhere, but many of these have disappeared and those that still exist are often outside the city and mainly target tourists. I haven’t been there myself, but I’ve read that the floating markets of Bang Phli and Bang Nam Phueng are amongst the more authentic ones.
For a truly overwhelming market experience, head to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. With approximately 8,000 stalls selling anything you can think of, this gigantic market in northern Bangkok is one of the biggest on the planet. Although its name suggests it’s open only on weekends, parts of the market are also trading during the week. However, the best days to experience its vibrant atmosphere are Saturday and Sunday, between 6am and 6pm. Be warned, though: Chatuchak Market attracts 200,000 visitors every day of the weekend, so you won’t be alone…
If Chatuchak sounds like a bit too much for you, then you might want to try out Asiatique instead. This relatively new addition to the Bangkok shopping scene occupies the former docks of the East Asiatic Company. Asiatique might not be a typical, traditional Thai market, but it does offer a nice outdoor shopping experience in an historical setting, with great riverside views. What’s more, the market is open day and night, so you can get your shopping thrills here at any time of the day.
Do a street food tour of Chinatown
I already mentioned street food before, but Chinatown’s street food scene is a league of its own and hence deserves special mention. Thai street food is said to have originated in Chinatown and nowadays this is one of the most exciting areas in town for some food exploration.
Thailand has historically had quite a large Chinese population and in Bangkok they gathered around Yaowarat Road. It’s here that you’ll find an almost never-ending string of street food vendors selling the most incredible dishes. As time has passed, much of the food here is a real fusion of Chinese and Thai culinary traditions that you won’t easily find anywhere else in the world. Unless you know your way around the area, the best way to explore and taste the best that Chinatown has to offer is by doing a street food tour. Many agencies organise walking tours that take you from 7 up to 12 different street food stalls. Each of these sells their own specialities, such as Kway Chap (a peppery broth with pork meat), bird’s nest soup, Ba Mee (noodles), seafood and all sorts of deserts (including the delish mango sticky rice).
I really enjoyed my street food tour with Bangkok Food Tours. For USD 35 they take you across Chinatown, letting you try 8 different dishes. If you love food as much as I do, I would highly recommend you do a food tour of Chinatown. It’s a real culinary discovery! Please do not come on a Monday, though, because that’s the one day a week on which most street food stalls here are closed.
Discover Bangkok’s hipster side
Are you, just like me, curious where Bangkok’s young creatives hang out? Or are you looking for a great Flat White or some cool independent designer shops? Then make sure you check out the neighbourhood of Ari, in northern Bangkok. Ari is a mix of detached houses, fancy new apartment blocks and independent retailers. With traditional street food stalls it still has that quintessential Bangkok feel though. It’s easy to get to, too, because the BTS Skytrain brings you there in no time.
Get your caffeine kick at Common Room, Coffee No. 9 or Laliart. The latter is a bright modern co-working space and cafe with an adjacent concept store selling ceramics and chocolates. For great food, try one of the several street food stalls on the alleys Ari 1 and Phahon Yothin 7. Or else, head to Lay Lao (listed in Michelin’s 2019 guide) for brilliant dishes from northeastern Thailand. Somewhat hidden in a dark corner of a nearby dead-end street is Baan Pueng Chom, which offers traditional Thai food in a lush, green setting. Staying the night in Ari style is possible at The Yard, an eco-hostel made out of former sea containers surrounded by a wonderful garden. I loved the vibes of this place!
Also up and coming is the area of Thonglor. Sometimes referred to as Sukhumvit 55, numerous independent shops, bars and restaurants have started to pop up here in recent years. It’s a bit of a walk from the nearest BTS station, but that’s why this area has yet to be discovered by tourists. You’ll mainly find cool Bangkokians here. Great for some hipster watching!
Enjoy drinks with a view
Driving on the elevated motorways or on the Skytrain you’ll notice that modern Bangkok is characterised by high-rise buildings and skyscrapers. It may come as no surprise, then, that there are plenty of great rooftop terraces in town. Many are on the upper end of the market and often have specific dress codes, but a drink on a Bangkok rooftop bar makes for a unique experience. There are dozens of rooftop bars, but some of the most well-known ones include Vertigo, Octave, Three-Sixty, Park Society, Red Sky and Cielo. Blogs such as these and these offer more comprehensive lists for further skyline inspiration.
Take a train to ancient Ayutthaya
Perhaps you wouldn’t think so when visiting its Grand Palace, but Bangkok has only been Thailand’s capital since 1782. Prior to that, nearby Ayutthaya was the kingdom’s seat of power for more than 400 years. When the Burmese army invaded Thailand in the 18thcentury, they destroyed the ancient city and moved the capital to Thonburi, in what is now Bangkok. Ayutthaya was left shelved and nearly abandoned. Still now, many of its historic buildings are crumbling, but that makes a visit to this city all the more fascinating. Only a 1- or 2-hour train ride away from Bangkok’s Hua Lampong station (depending on which service you take), Ayutthaya makes for a perfect day trip. Many of Ayutthaya’s most interesting monuments are located on a riverbed island, which can be reached by taking a quick ferry, just outside the station. Given the distance between the sites, the best way to explore the town is by bike. Many places, including ho(s)tels and travel agencies rent out bikes for as little as 50 Baht for the whole day.
Escape the city to the jungle or the beach
Had enough of the traffic and pollution of Bangkok? You’re not alone. Luckily, you don’t necessarily need to catch a plane or a long-haul bus to escape the city in search of some more tranquil environs. Hop on a train from Thonburi station to Kanchanaburi and only a 3 hours later you’ll find yourself in the middle of the Thai jungle, complete with incredible waterfalls and exotic animals. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a Thai island escape and don’t have the time to travel back and forth to the south, then the gorgeous island of Koh Samed is your best bet. A 5-hour journey from Bangkok by bus or minivan and boat, Koh Samed feels world apart from the hustle and bustle of the big city. Because of its proximity to the capital it does turn into a party island during weekends, though, but stay on the southern or western part of the island, or come here during the week and you’ll often have the beach to yourself!
Bangkok’s best… (IMHO):
- Hostel: The Yard (Ari), Kanvela House (centre)
- Coffee: LaLiart (Ari)
- Food: streetfood, anywhere!
- Restaurants: I really enjoyed the food and the atmosphere in the lovely garden of Baan Pueng Chom (Ari)
- Mall: Central Embassy
- City escape: Kanchanaburi
Good to know:
Getting to/from: Bangkok has 2 main airports. Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) and Don Mueang Airport (DMK). Suvarnabhumi is Bangkok’s main international hub. From here, you can take the Air Rail Link into downtown Bangkok. This modern airconditioned express train runs from 6am till midnight and takes you in less than 30 minutes from the airport to the heart of the city. If you’re staying in the newer parts of town, such as Sukhumvit, you can change at Makkasan or Phaya Thai stations. If you need to be in the old town, you need to get off at the final stop (Phaya Thai) and hop on a bus (good luck) or taxi there.
Getting around: unfortunately, Bangkok is not a city for walking. It’s easy to underestimate distances and the constant stream of traffic and lack of decent pavements are further deterrents to go around by foot. Better is to make us of the extensive network of public speed boats, in combination with the modern BTS Skytrain. There are currently 2 BTS skytrain lines (with more in the planning), which can be accessed using the pre-paid Rabbit card or by buying a single ticket at the counter. When taking a taxi always make sure to ask the driver to switch on the meter (to avoid having to negotiate a self-determined rip-off fare).
Best time to visit: I visited Bangkok in May, right at the end of the hot season and start of the rainy season. You could argue I experienced the worst of both and I for one really struggled with the heat and humidity (even locals told me they did). I would hence NOT recommend travelling to Bangkok during this time of the year. Rather, the ‘cool’ period, between November and February, is said to be much more pleasant.
Water: unfortunately, it is not completely safe to drink water from the tap in Thailand, but many hotels and hostels have filtered water.
Currency: Thailand uses the Thai baht
Language: English is spoken in hotels and hostels, but outside the tourist areas foreign language knowledge is very limited