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Bangkok is a city of extremes. You can see luxury apartments next to metal shacks, 5-star dining establishments across from cheap street food, a constant change between hot humid air and freezing cold AC, decorative Buddhist temples down the street from strip clubs…Bangkok has it all.
Because of this, the city is one of the most fascinating in the world, but it’s also one the most overwhelming places, especially for first time visitors. It took a while for me to appreciate Bangkok – at first I had no idea how to handle the capital – but, after living in Thailand for four years and spending more time in the “City of Angels”, I’ve come to love it and always want to go back for more.
While you could never fully prepare for the city (and what would be the fun in that anyway?), starting off with some solid tips and recommendations for what to do, where to go and how to survive it all will get you started on the right foot. And that’s exactly what this Bangkok guide is for!
With such a large city and so many options, choosing a place to stay in Bangkok can be daunting. The good news is that there is truly something to fit everyone’s style and budget, from $5 hostels to $500+ hotel rooms. These are some of the places I recommend over and over again.
Loy La Long – I somehow came across this tiny boutique guesthouse online and am so glad I did. With just seven rooms in a traditional teak wood house, Loy La Long is right on the Chao Praya River…so close in fact that you can dip your toes into the water from the deck. Each room is decorated differently but all have a charming, pieced together vintage feel. If you’re looking for an intimate, unique place to stay in this sprawling city, this is it. You can read more about the hotel in this post.
Renaissance Bangkok Ratchaprasong Hotel – There’s something about staying in a big hotel in the center of a big city. You can’t get more centrally located than the Marriott Renaissance Bangkok Ratchaprasong Hotel which offers a trendy reprieve from the Bangkok’s busy streets. Though it’s a 5-star hotel, you get more bang for your buck here than in, say, the U.S. or Europe, and prices are very doable, especially for a one-time splurge. (If you can swing access to the Executive Lounge, do it. They serve great breakfasts and snacks, and the evening cocktail hour is fab.)
Plaza Athénée Bangkok, A Royal Méridien Hotel – I stayed at the Plaza Athénée Bangkok in March and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Another gorgeous 5-star hotel (I know…I’ve gotten lucky), the property is in a great central location just steps away from Ploenchit BTS station (the Skytrain), has gorgeous rooms, an incredible lunch buffet (I was too overwhelmed by the choices – including a caviar bar – so mainly just walked around in slow circles looking at all the food) and excellent service – a hotel manager that I met remembered that I had said something about not seeing a cheese board at lunch (picky me) and found me in the morning to make sure I had cheese for breakfast! (It’s one of the few foods I miss living in Thailand so always make sure to get my fill when I can!)
Lub D – If you’re more into the hostel scene, check out one of Lub D’s properties in Siam Square or Silom. Rates are a bit higher than other hostels or cheap, bare bones guesthouses, but you can’t beat the location. The hostel offers several room types, from single privates to 10-person dorms.
Simply just walking around with no direction for a couple of days would keep you busy seeing new sights but of course there are some highlights that all first time visitors should see. It would take a lifetime to fully experience Bangkok but the following places and activities are a good start and even worth a second (or third) visit.
Grand Palace & Wat Pho – You can’t go to Bangkok without seeing the Grand Palace. Yes, there will probably be crowds and the entrance fee is surprisingly high compared to other attractions, but it’s insanely beautiful. Everywhere you turn there’s more to look at and everything is decorated from top to bottom in detailed murals, molding, mosaics and more. The entire complex, made up of several palace buildings, chedis (stupas), and a temple is color and texture overload.
Wat Arun – After you visit the Grand Palace hop on a river ferry at Tha Tien Pier to go to Wat Arun, a temple styled to represent the mythical Mount Meru. Unlike most of the other temples in Thailand, Wat Arun is completely covered in bits and pieces of decorative Chinese ceramics and, while it’s called Temple of the Dawn, it’s most beautiful during sunset.
Chinatown – Located southeast of the Grand Palace, Chinatown, known as Yaowarat, is one of the best places to get a sense of what the city was like years ago with its lively street markets and rows of shop houses. While you’re in the area, simply take time to wander around and soak up the atmosphere. Also stop by Wat Traimit, where you can see the world’s largest Buddha statue. Legend says it was covered in plaster to hide it from Burmese invaders. Years later as it was being moved to a new temple, it fell during the trip and part of the plaster broke off revealing the solid gold statue underneath.
Khao San Road – The (infamous) Khao San Road is known for being a backpacker hub filled with cheap hostels, clothing stands, tattoo parlors and plenty of bars – there are people out drinking here at all times of day and night and a constant carnival-like atmosphere. While some say Khao San Road is the epitome of tourism gone wrong, I actually enjoy spending time here and find it fascinating that so many people from all over the world can be found centered around a couple streets. Definitely worth checking off your to-see list.
Whether you’re looking for knock off goods or high end, brand name apparel, you can find it all in Bangkok – this is a shopper’s paradise.
Wander – This is easier said than done since it’s a gigantic city and usually incredibly hot and sticky, but try to walk around instead of always jumping onto the air-conditioned Skytrain and don’t be concerned about getting lost – you can always grab a cab to get back on the right track. At first it may seem like the city is all big business and buildings, but there’s more to it. Walking is the best way to see Bangkok’s smaller neighborhoods and communities situated just off the main roads. Explore!
Go to Chatuchak Market – Try and plan your Bangkok stay around a weekend as there’s a lot happening throughout the city that you can’t experience during the week, including the massive Chatuchak Market (also known as JJ market). With more than 8,000 stalls, going to JJ Market can easily become an all-day event. Here you’ll find new and used clothing, plenty of souvenirs, food and drink, home decor, accessories and even pets.
Visit the Jim Thompson House – I’ve visited the Jim Thompson House several times now and think it’s one of the best tourist attractions in the city. For just about $3, you get a full tour of the house built by an American, Jim Thompson, who almost single-handedly revived the Thai silk weaving industry beginning in the 1940s. Thompson became the most well-known expat in Bangkok and used his architect’s background to piece together five traditional Thai houses and create his masterpiece home. Filled with antiques, the place is absolutely gorgeous and the tour combines history, culture, design and mystery – Thompson disappeared in Malaysia in the 1960s never to be seen again.
Go to the Khlong Lat Mayom Floating Market – Historically Bangkok was a city connected by a complex system of canals and much of life was lived along the waterways. Today, most of the canals have been paved over to make roads and the traditional floating markets, once a necessity, have turned into an attraction. Skip the package tours taking you to one the larger “traditional” floating markets and head out on your own to Khlong Lat Mayom. It’s still touristy, but with the locals, not with foreigners. Held only on the weekends, you’ll get a glimpse of what the Bangkokians do for fun and eat plenty of delicious food – go hungry! Also make sure to take the little boat tour. For less than $1 per person you’ll get to float through some of the old-style canals and see what the rest of Bangkok used to look like.
Take a day trip – Bangkok is a lot to handle and sometimes you need to just step away for a moment. Break up your time in the city by heading out on a day trip like to Ayutthaya, an ancient former capital of Thailand filled with temple ruins, or Koh Kret, an island found in the middle of the Chao Praya River that’s home to a Mon (indigenous) community and lively weekend market.
Hang out at Talat Rot Fai – Probably the trendiest market in Bangkok, Talat Rot Fai (meaning “train market”) is another massive market that seems to go on for days. You won’t find many tourists here though as it’s more popular with young Thais and houses a mix of street stalls, permanent shops especially on Friday and Saturday nights.
Jump in a tuk tuk – Tuk tuks are not the most efficient or cost-effective mode of transportation in the city (stick to the Skytrain, subway or taxis when you can), but they sure are fun – you’re getting transportation and an adrenaline-inducing ride in one. The best time to take a tuk tuk is if you’re going somewhere close and have a clear idea of how long it will take to get there. Drivers will always quote high prices, but if you know where you’re going you have more leverage to get them to agree to a lower fee. Some may also try to convince you that they’ll take you to your destination for a ridiculously low price, like 20 baht, when they’ll actually take you to their friend’s shop to try and get a commission – just be clear that you’re not in the market to buy anything and will pay more to be taken directly where you want to go.
Do some shopping at Siam Paragon – You have to at least stop in to one of Bangkok’s ridiculous shopping malls during your stay. Siam Paragon is not only one of the largest shopping malls in Asia, housing a movie theater, bowling alley, concert hall, karaoke center and even an aquarium along with a number of high-end stores. (It was also the most Instagrammed place in 2013!) The shopping center is close to two other massive malls, Siam Square and MBK Center, so you can take your pick.
Take in the Pak Khlong Talat Flower and Produce Market – The city’s largest flower and produce market, Pak Khlong Talat, is open 24/7 but is the busiest after midnight and right before dawn when vendors receive fresh flowers from all over the country and retailers come to stock up for the day. Even if you’re not a huge flower fan, the variety, and quantity, of produce and plants on sale is impressive – especially when you’re there in the middle of the night when you think everyone should be sleeping. Feel free to walk around the market, a collection of streets, stalls and buildings located close to Memorial Bridge, but make sure to try and stay out of the vendors’ way as deliverymen dart in and out of stalls with new shipments.
Thais love to eat at all times of day and you can easily find food everywhere. Sit down restaurants, shopping mall food courts, markets, portable street stalls and hundreds of pop-up stalls fill the city streets and you’re never far away from a quick snack, refreshing drink or full meal.
I’m still overwhelmed when it comes to eating in Bangkok and never go with a clear plan…so I don’t have many go-to suggestions. However, if you’re a foodie, try checking out recent restaurant announcements and reviews on BK Magazine or Coconuts Bangkok – every time I browse the sites, I find tons more to try!
Of course it’s good to find places through recommendations, but make sure to try out anything you see that looks tasty along the way!
Red Sky – Bangkok is known for its collection of rooftop bars and, while they can be pricey, they’re definitely worth the splurge! One of my favorites is the Red Sky on the top of the Centara Grand Hotel at CentralWorld shopping center. The bar and restaurant is situated on the 55th floor of the hotel with two levels offering drinks and appetizers and a full dinner service. Keep in mind that there is a dress code for most of the rooftop bars – no flip flops allowed – so take advantage of the chance to get out of that backpacker gear!
Kram – If you feel like you need a mini escape, head over to Kram on Sukhumvit Soi 39 for a charming, relaxing atmosphere. This restaurant reminds me of something you’d find in Chiang Mai – not the middle of bustling Bangkok. Set in an old white house and garden area, Kram serves classic Thai dishes, along with some Southern Thai favorites. The restaurant also has an extensive, wine, cocktail and craft beer list.
Street stalls on Sukhumvit – Just one soi (street) down from Kram on Sukhumvit 38 you’ll find a collection of street stalls set up every evening for dinner selling a wide range of typical Thai dishes. Take a stroll to check out what’s available before deciding what to start with! Though this isn’t the best street food in Bangkok, it caters to a lot of tourists so sometimes the dishes are dumbed down, it is one of the most convenient places to try out many dishes at once and the stalls offer menus in English so you can know what you’re ordering.
Thipsamai Phad Thai – It’s said that Thipsamai Phad Thai serves up the best phad thai in Bangkok and is particularly known for their plates of phad thai with shrimp that are then wrapped in a thing layer of egg. Whether it’s actually the best or not, you should taste test it yourself, the restaurant certainly is popular – you’ve never seen cooks continually whip out large batches of noodles over open fire like this before.
Have you spent a lot of time in Bangkok? What tips or suggestions do you have to share? Let me know in the comments below – I’m always looking for new things to do in Bangkok!
Heading to Bangkok? Here are some other posts you may be interested in:
Bangkok for Beginners – Bangkok’s big and hot and can be frustrating your first time. Here’s how to have a great visit.
5 of the Best Bangkok Markets – I don’t know how many markets in Bangkok there are, I’m assuming hundreds, but these are some great ones to start out with.
5 Boutique Bangkok Hotels – Again, there are about million boutique hotels in Bangkok, but here are some of my favorites that I’ve either stayed at before or are high on my list to try.