The fast pace of Bangkok’s streets can be somewhat intimidating for the first-time visitor, and some dismiss the capital city as too sprawling and soulless to be worth stopping off for long. But if you’re willing to get your hands dirty, negotiate the sois (side streets), and look beyond the traffic, noise and pollution, you’ll find a lot of heart in this big, brash metropolis.
The backpacking quarter around Banglamphu’s Khao San Road may not be everyone’s cup of tea – if you’re looking for authenticity, go somewhere else; this area is brash, touristy and you’ll hear more English than Thai voices in this part of town. Still, wander a few streets away from the main Khao San area towards the river and you’ll come across the small and unassuming Santichaiprakarn Park.
Despite its proximity to the loud backpackers’ district, it somehow maintains an air of tranquility. Enjoy a relaxing start to the day here and indulge in some gentle people watching – there’s a whole spectrum here; some are on their way to work; there are kids hanging out, and the chances are there’ll be a t’ai chi class taking place, with the participants running the gamut of Thai society. Sit back, relax and watch the boats bob down the Chao Phraya River.
Thailand is renowned for its street food and the area around Banglamphu is as good a place as any to indulge. Try the street vendors selling fresh green mangos or pineapples with salt sugar dip. Don’t worry about eating the street food; as long as you’re comfortable eating on the move or dining at the roadside, you’ll be fine. But do choose a place that looks relatively hygienic, and ideally has a few other diners (although popularity is not always a sign of quality). If in doubt, ask a local who’ll point you in the right direction.
If you’re in need of a more Western-style breakfast in Bangkok, jump in a tuk-tuk and head across town to Crêpes & Co (18/1 Sukhumvit Soi 12). It’s not cheap in comparison to Thai fare, but this place is worth the trek. It’s a little hard to find, hidden deep down an alleyway off Sukhumvit Road, but it’s a lovely oasis in the middle of the town, with a terraced area and soothing dark wooden interior. They do sweet and savoury crêpes, but there are a range of dishes if you fancy something different. Brunch on a weekend here is very popular, but you can avoid the rush by going on a weekday morning.
Time to explore. The city is easy to navigate with tuk-tuks on every corner, a decent system of local buses, the underground MRT and overground Skytrain (also known as the BTS).
If there’s one thing Bangkok is good for, it’s shopping. From designer emporiums to sprawling markets, electronic goods to antique treasures, you can buy anything and everything here. Popular malls include MBK – take the Skytrain from Sukhumvit to National Stadium and you can’t miss it. Stores sell a mixture of electrical goods, clothing and food and there are some good bargains to be had here. Just remember to claim back tax from purchases at the airport.
If you happen to be in Bangkok on a weekend, and prefer your shopping experience a little more hands-on, then a visit to Chatuchak Weekend Market is a must. Take the Skytrain to Mo Chit at the end of the line and follow the crowds. The market mirrors Bangkok’s urban sprawl in miniature (it’s the biggest market in Thailand, spread over 14 hectares/35 acres), so take your time. Here you’ll find all manner of trinkets, furniture, books, antiques and clothing – it’s a great place to pick up gifts. If you like fashion, avoid the tat and support budding talent by going for the fashion graduates’ stalls (you’ll be able to pick these out because their garments tend to be quirkier and you won’t find them on every other stall). Stop here for lunch; there are lots of decent food stalls, ready to replenish weary shoppers. A tasty bowl of som tam (spicy papaya salad) should see you into the afternoon.
The afternoon heat in Bangkok has even the most avid sun-seeker looking for a way to cool down. One option is to head to the Wat Pho Thai Massage School (Soi Phenphat), where many of the country’s masseurs are trained. Treatments range from simple foot rubs to full-on Thai body massage. Beware, traditional Thai massages tend to be of the back-cracking variety but you’ll feel the de-stressing after-effects immediately!
Now relaxed, you’ll be able to take in the sights with renewed appreciation. Culture buffs are spoilt for choice with shrines and wats (temples) dotted about the city. Start with Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha), of which the massage school is a part. The 46m-long (151ft) gold statue of Buddha is a sight in itself, and the temple is the largest and one of the oldest in the city.
Or, if you’re more appreciative of a good view, take your binoculars and head to Golden Mount at Wat Saket (Thanon Wora Chak and Thanon Boriphat) about 3km (2 miles) away. The walk to the glistening dome at the summit doesn’t take long and splendid panoramic views of the city spread beneath await.
In a bustling city such as Bangkok, it would be a crying shame to restrict your dining experiences to the four walls of your hotel restaurant. Street markets are one way to go, and Chinatown has some of the most extensive. The expat neighbourhood around Sukhumvit has a range of international choices and it’s the location of Library (Sukhumvit 24), a Japanese-style café that serves good Thai and Japanese food at a reasonable price. Start with the innovative version of pandan waffles before moving on to one of its Thai curries.
After dinner, it’s time to sample the delights of Bangkok’s nightlife. If you want suave and sophisticated, stay in the Sukhumvit area. The futuristic-looking Bed Supperclub (26 Sukhumvit Soi 11) attracts the bold and the beautiful of Thai society, as well as expats looking for a good time. Patpong is notorious for its go-go bars and late-night entertainment. but the area is no longer as seedy as it once was. If it’s cheap, raucous and rowdy you’re after, try Khao San Road, which has plenty of ‘Irish’ pubs to stumble into. Just beware, for in Bangkok the best-laid plans can easily be diverted off course, down the rabbit-hole and into a wonderland you never expected to find.
To find out more about Bangkok, visit our Bangkok travel guide.