Thailand’s boisterous Bangkok offers visitors a chaotic but cool combination of fast-paced city living and ancient culture along with seemingly endless options for shopping, dining and pampering.
One of the world’s most visited cities, Bangkok dazzles with lights, the fragrant scent of street food and the honking of tricked-out tuk-tuks as they whiz through the traffic. It’s a city that never fails to leave visitors in its thrall but, with so much to see and do, where do you start?
Here are 11 of our favourite things to do in this epic city, each with its own unique Bangkok story to tell.
Bangkok by boat
Hailed as the “Venice of the East”, a cruise along the Chao Phraya River is a lovely way to let Bangkok’s mystique wash over you. Glide through the pungent yet picturesque klongs (canals) and waterways that criss-cross the Thonburi side of the river on a small teak boat with Pandan Tours. The intriguing journey will take you past shimmering Thai temples and through busy markets as you witness local life as it happens amongst the traditional wooden houses that sit on stilts over the water.
On your bike
Bangkok’s traffic gridlock is notorious but getting around the city isn’t at all difficult. River taxis, barges and ferries are readily available to the many historic riverside sites and the city has clean, efficient public transport, including the Skytrain and an underground rail network which connect the main business, entertainment and shopping areas. Taxis are super cheap and easy to find as are the city’s colourful tuk-tuks. But for something more immersive why not explore Bangkok by bike with Grasshopper Adventures? Your knowledgeable local guide will have you winding your way through small traditional villages, past cultural treasures and on to secret spots you’d never discover any other way. An evening cycle offers the chance to visit some of Bangkok’s most famous sights after dark when they’re blissfully free of crowds.
With their glittering statues of mind-boggling mythical beasts, golden roofs and shimmering decorations, Bangkok’s more than 400 wats (or temples) are the city’s heart and soul. Wat Pho, known as The Temple of the Reclining Buddha, is one of the oldest and largest as well as the most popular. The incredible temple complex, located alongside the dazzling Grand Palace, houses the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand along with 91 spectacular chedis (stupas). You’ll also find an education centre said to be the birthplace of Thai massage where for just a few dollars you can get traditional massage that will leave you as relaxed as the serene 46-metre long golden Reclining Buddha that the wat is most famous for.
If shopping makes your heart sing, with its dozens of mega-department stores as well as fabulous markets hawking everything from homewares to fashion and food, Bangkok will leave you crooning like Sinatra. If you’re short on time and big on spending, a guided shopping tour might be the best. Not only can tour operators show you the best places to shop, they can organise to ship your purchases home should your acquisitions outgrow your luggage restrictions. For those who’d rather hone their bartering skills, The Chatuchak weekend market, with its maze of more than 15,000 stalls, is the mother of all markets. If hunting for bargains gives you a rush, Chatuchak will have your head spinning with everything from handicrafts and high fashion to furniture and fluffy dogs.
Jim Thompson’s House is a garden-enclosed patch of serenity nestled amongst the mayhem of Bangkok. An American entrepreneur largely credited with reviving the traditional Thai art of silk-weaving, the late Jim Thompson was an architect by training and an avid collector of Asian objets d’art. This living breathing museum is a collection of old teakwood houses from across Thailand that he purchased and reconstructed to create an elegant but whimsical residential complex that would showcase his love affair with Southeast Asian art and heritage, not to mention exquisite silk in everything from clothes to homewares.
Lovers of the finer things should also make time to lose themselves in the comprehensive collection of modern painting and sculpture at MOCA – Bangkok’s Museum of Contemporary Art. With more than 800 artworks spread over five storeys, the predominately Thai collection showcases the development of South Eastern Asian fine art since the introduction of modern Western influences with ethereal and surreal imagery, beautifully capturing concepts that stretch from Ancient Buddhist mythology to modern Thai living.
Eats meets west
One of the undisputed foodie capitals of the world, Bangkok’s back alleys team with food vendors serving up that distinctive blend of sweet, sour and spicy flavour. Pull up a plastic chair and tuck in at a roadside noodle stall. Or nosh on the delectable offerings at the vast semi-outdoor markets. Savour seafood by the river, or take it up a notch at one of the city’s Michelin-starred fine diners. And, while the food may be more Western in style, there is no more iconic an Asian experience than afternoon tea at the Peninsula. A sublime experience, I recommend their Thai twist on the traditional that adds local ingredients and tastes to the usual high tea offerings.
If you love to cook, and love a worthy cause, Cooking with Poo may be for you! The lovely Khun Poo is a resident of Klong Toey, the largest slum in Bangkok. Here she runs a successful Thai cooking school for tourists that has changed the lives of many in her community. Kuhn Poo’s cooking classes offer a real grass roots experience. You can learn about the local Thai produce at the local markets and to master popular Thai dishes. More than just a place to learn to cook, Khun Poo offers employment and support to others so they too can start their own business.
A massage a day keeps the stress at bay. And with so many cheap and cheerful legitimate massage establishments, it can easily become a daily ritual in Bangkok. But if you’re after a little more ambience with your pampering there’s also a proliferation of upmarket spa complexes. These offer both traditional massage and modern treatments. One of the best is the discreet and sophisticated Spa 1930. Surrounded by gardens in a house built for a prince, Spa 1930 offers sublime signature treatments. All with a unique touch of Thai history in a rustic and romantic atmosphere.
From the slums of Klong Toey to the heights of the city centre at Moon Bar. The salubrious rooftop bar on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel on Sathorn Road offers some of the most impressive views of Bangkok. Seats are coveted at the sophisticated open-air bar. So dress to impress and plan to arrive long before sunset so you can soak up the spectacle of Bangkok lighting up over classic cocktails and conversation. If you want to dine in style while feasting on those views make a reservation for Banyan Tree’s Vertigo Restaurant, which sits at the centre of the rooftop terrace.
Get your kicks
Thailand’s brutal Muay Thai kickboxing is a martial art with a 500-year history. Muay Thai Live: The Legend Lives is a fun introduction to the sport. The stage show celebrates the history and legends of Muay Thai. But while you’ll certainly witness some impressive Muay Thai moves from the performers – all retired Muay Thai fighters – it’s more Broadway than biff! If it’s the real thing you’re after get a ringside seat among the braying fans for a Muay Thai Kickboxing match at Ratchadamnoen or Lumpini Stadium. But be warned, it’s probably not for the faint of heart as things can get a little bloody and gory!
Pandan Tours: thaicanaltour.com
Wat Pho: watpho.com
Chatuchak Market: chatuchak.org
The Peninsula: peninsula.com/Bangkok
Jim Thompson’s House: jimthompsonhouse.com
Cooking with Poo: cookingwithpoo.com
Banyan Tree: banyantree.com
Museum of Contemporary Art: mocabangkok.com
Grasshopper Adventures: grasshopperadventures.com
Spa 1930: spa1930.com
Muay Thai Live: muaythailive.com
Tourism Authority of Thailand; tourismthailand.org