Bangkok at first glance can be overwhelming. Buzzing with activities, the city is larger than life and many find its sheer dynamism intoxicating. Same same, but different, the signature T-shirt philosophy aptly captures the spirit and contradiction of this multidimensional city, for where else will you find swanky mega-malls sharing space with 200 year old homes; or gold-spired Buddha statues within minutes from the city’s sleazy nightclubs; or street vendors selling cooked insects overlooked by swish restaurants serving Royal Thai dishes and international cuisine? Here in the morning rush hour, you can see the saffron-clad Buddhist monks weaving their way through nose-to-tail traffic to collect alms or the locals eking out a living from skills that have remained unchanged since time immemorial, right under the shadows of the magnificent commercial centers.
Delve a little deep in its swanky exterior and you will find that Bangkok offers an experience that is completely and uniquely Oriental – beautiful temples and equally stunning palaces, bazaars overflowing with silks and antiques, warm hospitable people, and a philosophy of live and let live, exemplifying a spirit of tolerance and binding everything together in one unexplainable whole.
For many, the biggest attraction of Bangkok is its legendary nightlife; others come to experience the traditional Thai massages to rejuvenate the body, spirit and mind. Then there are those who seek treasures in its shopping havens and giving them company are the people who come here to explore the city’s visual delights. Whatever the reason for the visit, Bangkok can satisfy the most cynical of the visitors by offering a slice of life that is unmatched in the world.
Things To See
The sprawling city of Bangkok has much to offer travelers. Traffic on roads can be a major problem but you can travel across the city quickly by the Skytrain or Metro.
Some of the main places of interest, such as the Royal Grand Palace, Wat Pho and the National Museum, are located to the east of the Chao Phraya River in Rattanakosin Island. The Sukhumvit Road area, with its exotic nightlife and tourist sights, such as Suan Pakkard Palace Museum and Jim Thompson Thai House is another major draw. You can gain a bird’s eye view of the city from the observation deck on the 77th floor of the Baiyoke Sky Hotel, one of the tallest hotels in the world.
Bangkok is home to more than 400 temples. Whether you are visiting palaces or temples, you should be conservatively dressed. You can be refused entry if you don’t follow the rules.
Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha): The oldest and largest temple in Bangkok, Wat Pho contains an enormous gold-plated reclining Buddha, which is 46m (150ft) long and 15m (49ft) high. The temple is also famous for traditional massages and teachings of herbal medicine.
Royal Grand Palace: This glittering walled complex is home to several beautiful palaces, and Wat Phra Kaeo, the holiest of all Thai temples. The main attraction is the statue of the sacred Emerald Buddha. The statue is actually covered in jade and not emeralds.
Sanam Luang: This is a beautiful public area located to the north of the Royal Grand Palace. Surrounded by old tamarind trees, it is used for many ceremonies throughout the year, such as the Ploughing Ceremony. Kite flying is a favorite pastime here.
Museum of Siam: Interactive exhibits in the museum trace the history of Thailand up to the modern day.
Chao Phraya River: This river running through Bangkok is a prime tourist attractions, famous for being the location of the spectacular Wat Arun, and the world renowned snake farm. Boat trips are readily available, and there are water taxis for hire.
Dusit Palace Park: The Park has on its grounds the Vimanmek Palace, the world’s largest teak mansion, impressive manicured grounds as also the Ancient Cloth Museum and the Royal Thai Elephant Museum. The Park is royal property and so you need to be suitably (read conservatively) dressed to explore the grounds.
Dusit Zoo: You can spend an entire fun-filled day picnicking in the grounds. The zoo, which was once a botanical garden, also has a plethora of eateries, a playground, and a big lake for paddle-boating.
Forensic Medicine Museum: You will need nerves of steel to browse through the museum. On display are pickled body parts, crime-scene evidence, and other ingenious murder weapons. A display worth a mention is the preserved cadaver of Si Ouey, one of Thailand’s most prolific and notorious serial killers. He is believed to have murdered and eaten more than 30 children in the 1950s.
Chinatown: This lively area has a fascinating maze of narrow lanes and open-fronted shops selling a plethora of items. The main attraction here is the solid gold statue of Buddha, which is 3m (10ft) high and weighs over five tons.
Wat Benjamabopit: Located on Si Ayutthaya Road, the area houses government buildings and the current royal residence. Made out of Italian marble, the place is a unique example of European and Thai architecture.
Lumphini Park: This haven of tranquility is located in the heart of the city. The park is dotted with pavilions and two small lakes.
Bang Pa In: Situated to the north of the city, Bang Pa In was the former summer residence of the royal family in the 17th century. The buildings reflect Oriental and European influences in the architecture.
Ancient City: If you do not have the time to explore the entire city, simply visit the Ancient City, an open-air museum with full-size and scaled-down replicas of famous buildings, monuments, and temples from across the country.
Bangkok has a wide array of accommodations to suit all tastes and budgets. You can stay in elegant hotels, small hotels, vacation villas, and comfortable guest houses. The peak tourist season is from November to March and accommodations are often fully booked during this period. Advanced bookings are recommended. Bangkok is pretty crowded and weaving your way through the traffic can be a problem, so it is advisable to stay in or near the tourist hubs of the city.
The highest concentration of hotels can be found in and around Siam Square, Ploenchit Road, along the Chao Phraya River, Silom Road, Suriwong Road, and Sukhumvit Road. For backpackers, the favored area is Khao San Road in Banglampoo, it has many inexpensive guesthouses. Chinatown, which is one of the most vibrant and typically Asian parts of Bangkok, also has a wide range of lodging options. All these areas provide easy access to excellent shopping stores, colorful nightclubs, and tourist sights.
Thai cuisine has gained global recognition at an unprecedented rate and not without reason—-the food is simply delicious. Thai food can be broadly categorized under two types: royal Thai and the common fare. The royal cuisine is served garnished with exquisitely carved fruits and vegetables. The common fare, on the other hand, is what the Thais eat everyday.
Thai food is known to be hot, salty, sweet, and sour. The standard food includes nam phrik (dips) and soups served with boiled rice, som tam (green papaya salad), gai yang (barbecued chicken) and laap (salads of meat and fresh herbs).
Street food in Bangkok is widely appreciated with fermented sour pork sausages being the favorite. There are also many cooked insects available for those adventurous enough to try it.
Dining and entertainment are synonymous with Bangkok. The city is dotted with hundreds of restaurants, eateries and pubs. The Thai pubs and bars also serve delectable food. For the best restaurants in Bangkok, you can head to four distinct regions: Phra Nakorn, Thonburi, Silom, and Pathumwan.
Phra Nakorn: For the best Thai cuisine, you can head to Thiptara on the Chao Praya River. The restaurant resembles a traditional Thai compound. Another popular eatery is the Rim Nam Terrace in the Royal River Hotel. For authentic Thai whisky, you can go to Phranakorn Bar & Gallery, a rooftop bar where you can enjoy your drink listening to contemporary music playing in the background.
Thonburi: This is the place to head for international cuisine ranging from Indian to Greek, Latino and Middle East. There are also a wide range of restaurants serving Chinese and Japanese dishes.
Silom: For fresh seafood, try Harmonique and for Thai cuisine, check out Baan Khanitha, popular with both locals and visitors alike. For Italian cuisine, the restaurant that attracts the biggest crowd is Angelini’s.
Pathumwan: This area is famous for its Thai pubs with live bands adding zing to the evenings. Pubs worth checking out include Ad Makers and also the pubs around Phra Arthit Road or Narathiwat Soi 15.
Bangkok is considered to be the shopping haven of Asia. Here you will be spoilt for choice both in terms of the wide array of goods on sale as also the swanky malls, chic stores, quaint shops, and markets selling them. Bangkok is a great place to hunt for bargains and haggling in the stores and street vendors can be an interesting activity. Bangkok is famous for its silk items, silver and gold, pearls, painted umbrellas and fans, ceramics, wickerwork, woodcarvings and leather goods. Gems such rubies and sapphires are indigenous to Thailand.
The city’s glitzy malls and designer brands are concentrated in Ploenchit and Rama I roads. The River City Shopping Complex, adjacent to the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel, is a great place to shop for antiques. For buying gifts and silks, you can browse through the shops lining Sukhumvit Road.
The Sukhumvit Road area is also great for shopping for lower prices and soaking up the local atmosphere. The street market runs most of the day as also at nights when it is the most crowded. You can shop for clothes, bags, silk items, and gifts.
Patpong, better known for its colorful nightlife, is also home to a bustling night market where you can shop for clothes and souvenirs at bargain prices.
The weekend market at Chatuchak Park, on Phaholyothin Road is well worth a visit. You can literally buy anything that Thailand makes or grows, be it furniture, carpets, ceramics, watches, clothes, food, and flowers. Another popular area is the Suan Lum night bazaar where thousands of stalls sell gifts, clothes, handicrafts, and jewelry.
Chinatown is another shopping paradise in Bangkok. There is a ‘Thieves’ Market’, here which sells antique porcelain, copperware, and furniture.
There is a duty-free shop in the Downtown Duty Free Mall. You can pay for your purchases here and collect them at the airport prior to your departure from the country.
Excursions From Bangkok
Rose Garden: Located 32km (20 miles) to the southwest of Bangkok, the Rose Garden is well known for its cultural shows, including dancing and Thai boxing. The resort is set in beautiful gardens.
Damnoan Saduak Floating Market: The market is over by 11 AM so you’ll need an early start from Bangkok. In the mornings, the narrow canals come alive with small boats of local women selling fruits and vegetables. You can take a bus from the Southern Bus Terminal that stops within a mile of the market.
Kanchanaburi: Located 122km (76 miles) from Bangkok, this is an area of exceptional natural beauty; it is also the site of the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai, built by Allied POWs during WWII. You can reach Kanchanaburi by bus or train.
Ayutthaya: This UNESCO World Heritage Site was the Thai capital for over 400 years. Ruins of numerous temples and palace buildings stand testimony to the grandeur of Ayutthaya before its destruction in 1767. The area is located 76km (47 miles) north of Bangkok and can be reached by bus, train, or boat.
Bangkok’s nightlife is legendary and is a major draw for tourists from across the globe. Much of the city’s night action is concentrated in the two red light districts of Bangkok, Patpong and Soi Cowboy (Sukhumvit Road).
Besides Soi Cowboy and Patpong other places with similar nightlife include Khao San Road and Silom, Thailand’s ‘Wall Street’ during the day and a bustling hedonist’s playground at night. Apart from the go-go bars, massage parlors and nightclubs, Silom also has a fair share of gay-friendly venues.
Bars and clubs in Bangkok are supposed to close at 02:00 but some continue well past the shut down time. Some bars may charge an admission fee but this usually includes one or two drinks. The minimum drinking age is 20. The dress code is usually relaxed though there are some nightclubs that enforce a smarter dress code.
Keep in mind there is more to Bangkok’s nightlife than the numerous sex clubs and massage parlors. There are many excellent cocktail bars and restaurants where you can enjoy your drink listening to live music or watching your favorite sports on TV. Bangkok also offers you a wide choice to gain an insight into the local culture and enjoy traditional Thai dance and drama and contemporary theater.
Patpong: Considered to be one of the world’s most famous, or shall we say infamous, districts, Patpong houses around 100 neon-lit strip bars offering risqué sex shows, go-go shows, purchasable pole-dancers and ladyboys. The ladyboys, or katoeys as they are known in Thailand, are considered to be the most convincing transvestites in the world, and they are totally accepted by the highly tolerant Thai society considered as a third sex.
Patpong is the birthplace of Thailand’s go-go culture. It is these go-go bars that have earned Bangkok its dubious reputation for a notorious nightlife. These bars can offer explicit shows featuring girls in various stages of undress.
Be warned however as Patpong is primarily for tourists, prices can be higher than elsewhere in Bangkok. And while the go-go clubs advertise that there is no cover charge, there’s always a catch. You’ll either have to buy a set number of drinks per hour or pay a cover charge.
Soi Cowboy: There are countless pubs and bars, mostly, Irish, American, and European styled to cater to the tourists. Most bars close between midnight and 01:00, many have live music and pool tables. Many hotels here also have swanky bars such as the Westin Grande, Dream and Sheraton Grande. Sukhumvit is also home to the notorious Nana Plaza, a three-floor sex-mall filled with go-go bars and girls, and ladyboys. Besides there are many massage parlors scattered around Sukhumvit. The famous cabaret in this region is the Mambo Cabaret. The other alternative is Calypso Cabaret at the Asia Hotel.
Bars: The British-style bar, The Bull’s Head, on Sukhumvit Road, has regular quiz and theme nights and is popular with expats. If you are interested is sports, you can try out The Office showing live sports from Australia and the UK. In Silom, you can check out the Molly Malone’s bar.
Clubs: Novotel Hotel on Siam Square has a huge disco and bar in the basement with the name Concept CM2. Another popular hang-out destination for house, trance and techno is Narcissus, on Sukhumvit Road. Q Bar, just down the road, is popular with expats and locals. Probably the most famous club in Bangkok is Bed at Sukhumvit Soi 11, popular with affluent locals and expatriates alike.
Live music: For live music, you can head to Tokyo Joe’s which hosts nightly blues bands and a Sunday jamming session. Saxophone Pub, on Phayathai Road has great acoustics. The Bamboo Bar in the up market hotel, The Oriental, is excellent for its guest jazz bands.
Gay areas: Thai society, inspired by the teachings of Buddhism, is a highly tolerant society and accepts sexual preferences as a matter of choice. There is no discrimination against gays, lesbians and transsexuals in the city. It is because of this Bangkok is also considered to be the gay capital of Asia. Bangkok’s gay life is exciting, wild and flamboyant and is mainly concentrated in Silom. The gay venues offer everything from gay-friendly hotels and guest houses to pubs, clubs, bars, ladyboy cabarets, go-go bars, massage parlors and saunas.
Traditional Thai dance and drama: Known locally as khon, these dance dramas have performances by masked actors who bring to life the story of Ramakian, the Thai version of the Hindu Ramayana. The National Theatre and the Chaloem Krung Royal Theatre are the best places to enjoy khon. The Bangkok Playhouse is also another well known venue for contemporary Thai theater.
Massages: After a fun-filled but hectic day of exploring the attractions in Bangkok, there is no better way to rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit than with a traditional Thai massage. The best place for a relaxing massage is Wat Pho, Bangkok’s oldest Buddhist temple. Besides, there are numerous traditional Thai massage centers in Surawong, Silom, and Sukhumvit.
Bangkok has three seasons: summer from March to May, winter from November to February, and a rainy season from June to October. It is hot and humid throughout the year with annual average temperature about 29 degree Celsius and monthly temperatures ranging from 35 degree Celsius in April to 26 degree Celsius in December. November to February are the best months to visit Bangkok. During the rainy season, the showers are usually short and the tourist places are less crowded.
By Air: The Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport is located 30km (19 miles) east of the city.
Approximate flight times to Bangkok:
- London: 11 hours 20 minutes
- New York: 19 hours 25 minutes
- Los Angeles: 9 hours 5 minutes
- Toronto: 19 hours 40 minutes
- Sydney: 9 hours 20 minutes.
Airport facilities include, among others, 24-hour shopping, duty-free, restaurants, snack bars, postal services, bureaux de change, tourist information, hotel reservations, left luggage, and medical service.
Getting to the city: To reach the city, you can hire a car from hiring companies such as Avis and Budget. Airport Express buses operate four different routes into the city. There is an official taxi stand at the airport offering metered taxis into the city. Be aware that the trip can take considerably longer than expected depending on the traffic. When you are at the airport you will be approached by people offering taxis into the city, however these are black taxis and it is best not to go with them as their prices are always much higher than the official taxis.
By Rail: The State Railways of Thailand operates four lines, all terminating in Bangkok. These are from Chiang Mai in the north, Nong Khai in the northeast, Pattaya in the east and from Surat Thani and Butterworth (Malaysia) in the south. It is advisable to book tickets for long-distance trains in advance.
By Road: Thailand has a reasonable network of roads and highways throughout the country.
Taxis And Tuk Tuks: There are plentiful transport options with some of the best being the taxis and the three-wheeled tuk tuks.
All taxis in Bangkok are equipped with meters, but that doesn’t mean they want to use them. However you should stick to your guns and refuse to negotiate, as you will always be getting ripped off if you do. It may mean you have to hail a few taxis to find one willing to take you to your destination for the meter fare, but this shouldn’t pose too much of a problem as taxis are plentiful. The one exception to this rule is when travelling from the city to the airport, a flat fee is usually the only way a taxi will take you, but these prices are often in line with the meters.
Tuk tuks are mostly for tourists therefore they are often more expensive than taking a taxi. However they are part of the local experience, so if you’ve never been to Thailand before a trip in a tuk tuk is a must. Otherwise, experienced Thai travellers will rarely be seen riding in a tuk tuk.
Public Transport: An elevated monorail, called the Skytrain, operates on two lines across the city.
The Metro: The metro serves the parts of the city that are not covered by the Skytrain. One route starts at Hualampong station and finishes at Bang Sue in the north of the city.
Buses: The Bangkok Mass Transit Authority runs a comprehensive and highly complex bus system across the city.