Bangkok, Thailand is a cacophony of sights and sounds that handsomely rewards urban explorers willing to get a little lost in the city. Filled with non-stop action, grit, character, and some of the best cheap eats in the world, T+L’s Bangkok travel guide won’t steer you wrong.
This is a frenetic jigsaw puzzle of towering skyscrapers, colorful taxicabs, motorcycle taxis, and busy pedestrians. When you visit Bangkok you discover what this diverse city—an amalgamation of old and new—has to offer. It may be a busy metropolis, but at dawn you can see Buddhist monks clad in yellow robes filling the streets. Like the rest of Thailand, there’s a lot of negotiation and bartering: haggling at markets is the norm, and a language of its own. Come here and you’ll find a wide range of activities to amuse yourself, from the historical and religious to shopping, galleries, and spas.
No matter when you plan your Bangkok trip, it will be hot. Note that there are three defined seasons here. During the rainy season, which spans from May to November, the weather is warm and humid, with afternoon showers. Strong rains fall periodically, with the occasional dramatic thunderstorms. The best time to visit Bangkok is from late November to mid-January. During this time, the climate is a tropical cool: humid, yet comfortable. The least ideal time to go is between March and May, when the city reaches its highest temperatures.
While you’re here, don’t miss the city’s serene temples, including Wat Pho and Wat Arun, which are two of the city’s holiest sites. By contrast, Lumphini Park, the city’s answer to New York’s Central Park, is filled with a large lake brimming with monitor lizards. And, even conservative eaters shouldn’t hold back from enjoying the city’s 24-hour street-side food stalls, which really are unique to Bangkok. And if haggling at the markets, puzzling out what you’re eating at the stalls, or the chaos in general leave you weary, don’t fret: the city’s plush hotel offerings and world-renowned spas will give you just the quiet getaway you’ll need to refresh.
It’s the contradictions that give the City of Angels its rich, multifaceted personality. Here, climate-controlled megamalls sit side-by-side with 200-year-old village homes; gold-spired Buddhist temples share space with neon-lit strips of sleaze; slow-moving traffic is bypassed by long-tail boats plying the royal river; and streets lined with food carts are overlooked by restaurants on top of skyscrapers. And as Bangkok races towards the future, these contrasts will never stop supplying the city with its unique and ever-changing strain of Thai-ness.
Until you’ve eaten on a Bangkok street, your noodles mingling with your sweat amid a cloud of exhaust fumes, you haven’t actually eaten Thai food. It can be an intense mix: the basic flavours – spicy, sour, sweet and salty – aren’t exactly meat and potatoes. But for adventurous foodies who don't need white tablecloths, there’s probably no better dining destination in the world. And with immigration bringing every regional Thai and international cuisine to the capital, it's also a truly diverse experience.
With so much of daily life conducted on the street, there are few cities in the world that reward exploration as handsomely as Bangkok. Cap off an extended boat trip with a visit to a hidden market. A stroll off Banglamphu’s beaten track can lead to a conversation with a monk. Get lost in the tiny lanes of Chinatown and stumble upon a live Chinese opera performance. After dark, let the BTS (Skytrain) escort you to Sukhumvit, where the local nightlife scene reveals a sophisticated and dynamic city.
The language barrier may seem huge, but it's never prevented anybody from getting on with the Thai people. The capital’s cultural underpinnings are evident in virtually all facets of everyday life, and most enjoyably through its residents' sense of sà·nùk (fun). In Bangkok, anything worth doing should have an element of sà·nùk. Ordering food, changing money and haggling at markets will usually involve a sense of playfulness – a dash of flirtation, perhaps – and a smile. It’s a language that doesn’t require words, and one that's easy to learn.
Admittedly, there are some things – the hot weather, the pollution, the political instability – that make Bangkok a less-than-ideal city. But there’s so much more that makes it amazing. I love the food. What other city has such a full-flavoured, no-holds-barred, insatiable, fanatical approach to eating? I love old Bangkok. Districts such as Banglamphu and Chinatown still carry the grit, charm and character of the city that used to be. And I’d be lying if I didn’t also say that I love new Bangkok – don’t we all have a soft spot for megamalls and air-con?
Wat Phra Kaew
Wat Phra Kaew gleams and glitters with so much colour and glory that its earthly foundations seem barely able to resist the celestial pull. Architecturally fantastic, the temple complex is also the spiritual core of Thai Buddhism and the monarchy, symbolically united in what is the country’s most holy image, the Emerald Buddha. Attached to the temple complex is the former royal residence, once a sealed city of intricate ritual and social stratification.The ground was consecrated in 1782, the first year of Bangkok rule, and is today Bangkok’s biggest tourist attraction and a pilgrimage destination for devout Buddhists and nationalists. The 94.5-hectare grounds encompass more than 100 buildings that represent 200 years of royal history and architectural experimentation. Most of the architecture, royal or sacred, can be classified as Ratanakosin (old-Bangkok style).
Dusit Palace Park
Following his first European tour in 1897, Rama V (King Chulalongkorn; r 1868–1910) returned with visions of European castles and set about transforming these styles into a uniquely Thai expression, today's Dusit Palace Park. These days, the current king has yet another home (in Hua Hin) and this complex now holds a house museum and other cultural collections.
Because this is royal property, visitors should wear shirts with sleeves and long pants (no capri pants) or long skirts.
Originally constructed on Ko Si Chang in 1868 and moved to the present site in 1910, Vimanmek Teak Mansion contains 81 rooms, halls and anterooms, and is said to be the world's largest golden-teak building, allegedly built without the use of a single nail. The mansion was the first permanent building on the Dusit Palace grounds, and served as Rama V's residence in the early 1900s. The interior of the mansion contains various personal effects of the king and a treasure trove of early Ratanakosin-era art objects and antiques. Compulsory tours (in English) leave every 30 minutes between 9.45am and 3.15pm, and last about an hour.
The nearby Ancient Cloth Museum presents a beautiful collection of traditional silks and cottons that make up the royal cloth collection, although at the time of research it was closed for renovations.
Wat Phra Kaew & Grand Palace
Also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Kaew is the colloquial name of the vast, fairy-tale compound that also includes the former residence of the Thai monarch, the Grand Palace.
This ground was consecrated in 1782, the first year of Bangkok rule, and is today Bangkok's biggest tourist attraction and a pilgrimage destination for devout Buddhists and nationalists. The 94.5-hectare grounds encompass more than 100 buildings that represent 200 years of royal history and architectural experimentation.
Housed in a fantastically decorated bòht (ordination hall), the Emerald Buddha is the temple's primary attraction.
Except for an anteroom here and there, the buildings of the Grand Palace are now put to use by the king only for certain ceremonial occasions, such as Coronation Day, and are largely off-limits to visitors. Formerly, Thai kings housed their huge harems in the inner palace area, which was guarded by combat-trained female sentries. Outer palace buildings that visitors can view include Borombhiman Hall , a French-inspired structure that served as a residence for Rama VI (King Vajiravudh; r 1910–25). The building to the west is Amarindra Hall (open from Monday to Friday), originally a hall of justice and more recently, for coronation ceremonies, and the only palace building that tourists are generally allowed to enter. The largest of the palace buildings is the Chakri Mahaprasat , the Grand Palace Hall. Last is the Ratanakosin-style Dusit Hall , which initially served as a venue for royal audiences and later as a royal funerary hall.
You'll find (slightly) fewer tourists here than at Wat Phra Kaew, but Wat Pho is our fave among Bangkok's biggest sights. In fact, the compound incorporates a host of superlatives: the city's largest reclining Buddha, the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand and the country's earliest centre for public education.
Almost too big for its shelter is Wat Pho's highlight, the genuinely impressive Reclining Buddha .
The rambling grounds of Wat Pho cover 8 hectares, with the major tourist sites occupying the northern side of Th Chetuphon and the monastic facilities found on the southern side. The temple compound is also the national headquarters for the teaching and preservation of traditional Thai medicine, including Thai massage, a mandate legislated by Rama III when the tradition was in danger of extinction. The famous massage school has two massage pavilions located within the temple area and additional rooms within the training facility outside the temple.
A collection of three antique structures built during the early 20th century, the Bangkokian Museum illustrates an often-overlooked period of Bangkok’s history.
The main building was built in 1937 as a home for the Surawadee family and, as the signs inform us, was finished by Chinese carpenters on time and for less than the budgeted 2400B (which would barely buy a door handle today). This building and the large wooden one to the right, which was added as a boarding house to help cover costs, are filled with the detritus of postwar family life and offer a fascinating window into the period. The third building, at the back of the block, was built in 1929 as a surgery for a British doctor, though he died soon after arriving in Thailand.
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
This 100-year-old floating market – the country’s most famous – is now essentially a floating souvenir stand filled with package tourists. This in itself can be a fascinating insight into Thai culture, as the vast majority of tourists here are Thais, and watching the approach to this cultural ‘theme park’ is instructive. But beyond the market, the residential canals are quite peaceful and can be explored by hiring a boat (per person 100B) for a longer duration.
Trips stop at small family businesses, including a Thai candy maker, a pomelo farm and a knife crafter.
Air-con bus 79, with stops on Th Ratchadamnoen Klang, and minivans from the Victory Monument both connect to the Southern Bus Terminal in Thonburi, from where you can find buses to Damnoen Saduak (80B, two hours, frequent from 6am to 9pm).
With nearly two centuries of commerce under its belt, New Market is no longer an entirely accurate name for this strip of commerce. Regardless, this is Bangkok’s, if not Thailand’s, most Chinese market, and the dried goods, seasonings, spices and sauces will be familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time in China. Even if you’re not interested in food, the hectic atmosphere (be on guard for motorcycles squeezing between shoppers) and exotic sights and smells culminate in something of a surreal sensory experience.
While much of the market centres on cooking ingredients, the section north of Th Charoen Krung (equivalent to Soi 21, Th Charoen Krung) is known for selling incense, paper effigies and ceremonial sweets – the essential elements of a traditional Chinese funeral.
One of the most famous red-light districts in the world, today any ‘charm’ that the area used to possess has been eroded by modern tourism. If you must, be sure to agree to the price of entry and drinks before taking a seat at one of Patpong’s 1st-floor ‘pussy shows’, otherwise you’re likely to receive an astronomical bill.
These days, fake Rolexes and Ed Hardy T-shirts are more ubiquitous than flesh in Patpong.