It’s hot, cheap, crowded and friendly: Bangkok hits all the sweet and not-so-sweet spots and still manages to come out on top. Look one way and it’s a mess of tangled wires and broken sidewalks, look another and it’s stilted houses and monks’ chants. Amid the chaos lies an indescribable charm and congeniality that travelers will remember long after an eating tour through Chinatown or a visit to an early morning floating market. Stick to the Skytrain (BTS) or boats rather than taxis or buses to best maximize one’s time, as while the taxis come in a fun rainbow of colors, Bangkok’s infamous traffic isn’t the experience we’re after.
Enjoy a Simple, Local Breakfast
Start off the day with a bowl of jok (rice porridge), some pork skewers and patongo (a Thai doughnut), for a more or less traditional breakfast of champions. Load up on fresh fruit from any number of street vendors hawking papaya, mango and melon on ice to keep cool.
Gold and Jade at the Grand Palace and Temples
The immaculate grounds of the Grand Palace perfectly complement its equally stunning architecture. The main standout is the Emerald Buddha, which is actually made of jade. A word to the wise: Thailand’s royal family is highly, highly venerated, so it’s best to not talk of them at all, even if the questions or comments seem innocuous. Also, cover one’s shoulders and wear longer pants, as those who don’t adhere to the dress code will immediately be turned away.
Next to the palace is Wat Pho, where a 160-foot long golden Buddha reclines. Wat Pho is considered to be the birthplace of Thai massage, and there’s a massage school on the grounds that offers reasonably priced Thai massages to visitors.
From the nearby Saphan Taksin pier, travelers can hire a private boat to cross the Chao Phraya River to visit the striking Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) and then cruise through the narrow khlongs, or canals.
A Family-Style Lunch at Chote Chitr
Cool down back on the palace side of the river at the affordable Chote Chitr, a tiny, family-run restaurant that’s one of the oldest in Bangkok. The specialties are there for a reason, and the yam hua plee, a shredded banana flower salad, is a perennial favorite.
Shopping Spree at an Outdoor Market
Chatuchak, or JJ, market is a never-ending halfway-sheltered market that sells everything from handmade jewelry to reptiles. The world’s largest weekend market, it covers nearly 30 acres and has upwards of 15,000 stalls. Prices are kept on the local end for the most part, so feel free to spend away.
Silk, History and a Thai Massage
After World War II, American Jim Thompson nearly single-handedly revived Thailand’s silk trade. Guided tours take visitors through his traditional teak Thai house and offer fascinating insights into his life and his treasures. A small gift shop is on the grounds, but those really looking for something special can head over to the Jim Thompson outlet, which is five floors of silk fabric, furniture, household items, clothing and more at reasonable prices.
No trip to Thailand is complete without a Thai massage. It’s tempting to just spend the whole day getting pampered, and it’s definitely possible to do it on a budget, too. Local places are usually just an open room with several mats and chairs, so expect a lot of conversation and giggling while getting a massage. Upscale places tend to have more of a Western pace with private rooms and quiet ambiance. Try Ruen Nuad or Health Land Ekamai for excellent work and a good deal that makes the pretzel twisting worth it.
Safe Sex and a Delicious Dinner
Get a lesson in safe sex at Cabbages & Condoms, where part of the profits support Population and Community Development Association, a non-profit working with and assisting Thailand’s rural poor. Wander through the large gift shop and take pictures next to the mannequins and Santa Claus dressed in outfits made of condoms before sitting down to dinner. For those who want a different kind of dinner, head to Nahm, where Australian chef David Thompson creates Thai meals resurrected from century-old Thai cookbooks.
Up All Night Enjoying Bangkok’s Legendary Nightlife
[Also see our travel article “An Epic Night Out in Bangkok“]
Obviously, Bangkok’s nightlife reputation precedes it. Visitors can find world-class bars, seedy holes-in-the-wall and outright hedonism without much effort. For an easy start, choose a night market before getting heavy. From there, it’s time to choose your poison – and your neighborhood. Gap-year students flock to Khao San Road for cheap buckets – mixed drinks served in, yes, buckets. Otherwise join the hipsters for a stiff drink at Smith in Sukhumvit or take in the views of the well-heeled and the city from the rooftop bars of the Three Sixty at the Hilton or Balco Bar along the Chao Phraya River.
Bangkok has two airports: Budget airline Air Asia operates out of Don Mueang Airport, and Suvarnabhumi Airport is Thailand’s main hub. Thailand’s rail system leaves a bit to be desired, but it’s good enough for a day trip to Khao Yai National Park or Ayutthaya, the former royal capital. Buses leave from Ekkamai bus station to port towns that have ferry service to Koh Samet or Koh Si Chang, which are two nearby islands.