Under the shadow of the Bangkok’s skyscrapers you’ll find a heady mix of chaos and refinement, of frenetic markets, snail’s-pace traffic jams and hushed golden temples, of dispiriting, zombie-like sex shows and early-morning alms-giving ceremonies. A first-time visitor to Bangkok will be blown away by the sights, sounds and smells bursting from the city. Return travellers come back to stay in the capital for that very same reason.
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One way or another, the place is sure to get under your skin. With our Bangkok travel guide we’re confident you’ll enjoy every challenge Thailand’s capital city throws at you.
A brief history
Bangkok is a relatively young capital, established in 1782 after the Burmese sacked Ayutthaya, the former capital. A temporary base was set up on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River, in what is now Thonburi, before work started on the more defensible east bank.
The first king of the new dynasty, Rama I, built his palace at Ratanakosin, within a defensive ring of two (later expanded to three) canals, and this remains the city’s spiritual heart. This remains the best place to start your exploration, where the city’s most important and extravagant sights are located.
Initially, Bangkok was largely amphibious: only the temples and royal palaces were built on dry land, while ordinary residences floated on thick bamboo rafts on the river and canals.
A major shift in emphasis came in the second half of the nineteenth century, first under Rama IV (1851–68), who as part of his effort to restyle the capital along European lines built Bangkok’s first roads.
Since World War II, and especially from the mid-1960s onwards, Bangkok has seen an explosion of modernisation. Most of the canals have been filled in, replaced by endless rows of cheap, functional concrete shophouses, high-rises and housing estates.
The benefits of Thailand’s economic boom since the 1980s have been concentrated in Bangkok, attracting migration from all over the country and making the capital ever more dominant.
Every aspect of national life is centralised in the city, but the mayor of Bangkok is not granted enough power to deal with the ensuing problems, notably that of traffic.
The Skytrain and the subway have undoubtedly helped, but the competing systems don’t intersect properly or ticket jointly, and it’s left to ingenious, local solutions such as the Khlong Saen Saeb canal boats and side-street motorbike taxis to keep the city moving.
Places to visit in Bangkok
Any Bangkok city guide worth their salt will tell you that the place to start is Ratanakosin, the royal island on the east bank of the Chao Phraya, where the city’s most important and extravagant sights are located.
They include: the Grand Palace and adjoining royal temple, Wat Phra Kaeo; the Wang Na (Palace of the Second King), now the National Museum; Wat Pho, which predates the capital’s founding; Wat Mahathat, the most important centre of Buddhist learning in Southeast Asia; the National Theatre; the National Gallery; and Thammasat and Silpakorn universities.
Banglamphu and the Democracy Monument area
Immediately north of Ratanakosin, Banglamphu’s most notorious attraction is Thanon Khao San, a tiny sliver of a road built over a canal in 1892, whose multiple guesthouses and buzzing, budget-minded nightlife have made it an unmissable way-station for travellers through Southeast Asia.
There is plenty of cultural interest too, in a medley of idiosyncratic temples within a few blocks of nearby landmark Democracy Monument, and in the typical Bangkok neighbourhoods that connect them, many of which still feel charmingly old-fashioned.
Chinatown and Pahurat
When the newly crowned Rama I decided to move his capital across to the east bank of the river in 1782, the Chinese community living on the proposed site of his palace was obliged to relocate downriver, to the Sampeng area.
Two centuries on, Chinatown has grown into the country’s largest Chinese district, a sprawl of narrow alleyways, temples and shophouses packed between Charoen Krung (New Road) and the river.
For fifteen years between the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 and the founding of Bangkok in 1782, the west-bank town of Thonburi stood in as the Thai capital.
Its time in the spotlight was too brief for the building of the fine monuments and temples, but some of its centuries-old canals, which once transported everyone and everything, have endured. It is these and the ways of life that depend on them that constitute Thonburi’s main attractions.
The most popular way to explore these old neighbourhoods is by boat, but joining a bicycle tour of the older neighbourhoods is also very rewarding.
The spacious, leafy area known as Dusit has been a royal district since the reign of Rama V, King Chulalongkorn (1860–1910). The first Thai monarch to visit Europe, Rama V returned with radical plans for the modernisation of his capital, the fruits of which are most visible in Dusit, notably at Vimanmek Palace and Wat Benjamabophit, the so-called “Marble Temple”.
Dusit is also the venue for the spectacular annual Trooping the Colour, when hundreds of Royal Guards demonstrate their allegiance to the king by parading around Royal Plaza. Across from Chitrlada Palace, Dusit Zoo makes a pleasant enough place to take the kids.
Downtown Bangkok is central to the colossal expanse of Bangkok as a whole, but rather peripheral in a sightseer’s perception of the city. In this modern high-rise area, you’ll find the main shopping centres around Siam Square.
Travel further east, you’ll find yet more shopping malls around the noisy and glittering Erawan Shrine, where Rama I becomes Thanon Ploenchit, an intersection known as Ratchaprasong. It’s possible to stroll in peace above the cracked pavements, noise and fumes of Thanon Rama I, by using the elevated walkway that runs beneath the Skytrain lines.
The city outskirts
A handful of places that make pleasant half-day escapes, principally Chatuchak Weekend Market, the cultural theme-park of Muang Boran, the upstream town of Nonthaburi and the tranquil artificial island of Ko Kred.
Top things to do in Bangkok
A Bangkok city guide boiled down into nine brilliant things to do
- The Grand Palace
The country’s most unmissable sight, incorporating its holiest and most dazzling temple, Wat Phra Kaeo. Experience as part of the Flexi Walking Temple Tour.
- Wat Pho
Admire the Reclining Buddha and the lavish architecture, and leave time for a relaxing massage.
- The National Museum
The central repository of the country’s artistic riches.
- Thanon Khao San
Legendary hangout for Southeast Asia backpackers; the place for cheap sleeps, baggy trousers and tall tales.
- The canals of Thonburi
See the Bangkok of yesteryear on a touristy but memorable longtail-boat ride.
- Jim Thompson’s House
An elegant Thai design classic.
- Chatuchak Weekend Market
Eight thousand open-air stalls selling everything from triangular pillows to secondhand Levis.
- 63rd-floor sundowner
Fine cocktails and jaw-dropping views, especially at sunset, at The Sky Bar and Distil.
- Thai boxing
Nightly bouts at the national stadiums, complete with live musical accompaniment and frenetic betting. Experience both performances and classes.
Best time to visit Bangkok
The climate of most of Thailand is governed by three seasons: rainy (roughly May–Oct), caused by the southwest monsoon; cool (Nov–Feb); and hot (March–May).
The cool season is the most clement time to visit Bangkok, although temperatures can still reach a broiling 30°C in the middle of the day. Bear in mind, however, that it’s also the busiest season, so forward planning is essential.
Where to stay in Bangkok
If your time in Bangkok is limited, you should think carefully about what you want to do in the city before deciding which part of town to stay in. Traffic jams are so appalling here that easy access to Skytrain, subway or river transport can be crucial.
In this travel guide on where to stay in Bangkok, we explore its various districts, picking out accommodation options that are notable in one way or another, from the best value for money to those with the prettiest views.
Where to eat in Bangkok
As you’d expect, nowhere in Thailand can compete with Bangkok’s diversity when it comes to food: it boasts an astonishing fifty thousand places to eat, almost one for every hundred citizens.
The best gourmet restaurants in the country operate from the downtown districts, proffering wonderful royal, traditional and regional cuisines that definitely merit a visit.
At the lower end of the price scale, one-dish meals from around the country are rustled up at the food courts of shopping centres and department stores, as well as at night markets and street stalls, which are so numerous in Bangkok that we can only flag the most promising areas.
Chinatown naturally rates as the most authentic district for pure Chinese food; likewise neighbouring Pahurat, the capital’s Indian enclave, is best for unadulterated Indian dishes.
From the best pad thais to eating insects, here’s the lowdown on where to eat in Bangkok.
Thai cookery classes in Bangkok
8/91 Soi 54, Thanon Ngam Wongwan. Thorough, four-hour classes in a quiet, suburban house in northern Bangkok. B2200, including transfers from central hotels. Closed Sun.
233 Thanon Sathorn Tai (BTS Surasak). In a grand building, courses that range from B3300 for a half-day to a five-day private course for professional chefs for B90,000.
Klong Toey. A chance to experience the slums of Klong Toey and spend a morning learning to cook. B1200, including a market tour and free transfers from next to Phrom Pong BTS station. Closed Sun.
You can also book a cookery class that includes a trip to Bangkok's largest market, Khlong Toei, to choose and buy your own ingredients before cooking them up.
Going out in Bangkok
Returning visitors to Bangkok will notice that its drinking and nightlife scene has thoroughly grown up in the past ten years, leaving notorious Patpong – and its neon-light sex bars – behind.
Visit Bangkok now and you’ll find it offers everything from ‘illegal’ microbreweries (strictly speaking small-batch brewing is verboten) and rooftop cocktail bars to achingly cool clubs and dance bars, hosting world-class DJs.
In our travel guide to Bangkok’s drinking and nightlife culture we look into all the city’s liveliest areas, covering their respective character and crowds.
Bangkok travel advice
As long as you keep your wits about you, you shouldn’t encounter much trouble in Thailand. Pickpocketing and bag-snatching are two of the main problems, but the most common cause for concern is the number of con-artists who dupe gullible tourists into parting with their cash.
On any bus, private or government, and on any train journey, never keep anything of value in luggage that is stored out of your sight and be wary of accepting food and drink from fellow passengers as it may be drugged.
Drinks can also be spiked in bars and clubs; at full moon parties on Ko Pha Ngan this has led to sexual assaults against farang women, while prostitutes sometimes spike drinks so they can steal from their victim’s room.
Gay and lesbian Bangkok
Buddhist tolerance and a national abhorrence of confrontation and victimisation combine to make Thai society relatively tolerant of homosexuality, if not exactly positive about same-sex relationships.
Although excessively physical displays of affection are frowned upon for both hetero-sexuals and homosexuals, Western gay couples should get no hassle about being seen together in public.
Thailand’s gay scene is mainly focused on mainstream venues like karaoke bars, restaurants, massage parlours, gyms, saunas and escort agencies. The bars, clubs and café-restaurants located around the east end of Thanon Silom and especially in the narrow alleys of Soi 2 and Soi 4, are the most notable of Bangkok’s gay nightlife venues.
Thailand’s sex industry
More than a thousand sex-related businesses operate in the city, but the gaudy neon fleshpots of Patpong and Sukhumvit’s Soi Nana and Soi Cowboy give a misleading impression of an activity that is deeply rooted in Thai culture. The overwhelming majority of Thailand’s prostitutes of both sexes (estimated at anywhere up to 700,000) work with Thai men, not farangs (Europeans).
The farang sex industry in Bangkok is a relatively new development, having started during the Vietnam War, when the American military set up seven bases around Thailand. Sex tourism has since grown to become an established part of the Thai economy.
Despite its ubiquity, prostitution has been illegal in Thailand since 1960, but sex-industry bosses easily circumvent the law by registering their establishments as clubs, karaoke bars or massage parlours, and making payoffs.
Inevitably, child prostitution is a significant issue in Thailand, but NGOs such as ECPAT say numbers have declined over the last decade, due to zero-tolerance and awareness campaigns.
Visiting Bangkok's outskirts isn’t particularly popular as it harbours few attractions. However, there are a handful of places that make pleasant half-day excursions.
Mainly Chatuchak Weekend Market (which has over 8,000 stalls), the cultural theme-park of Muang Boran, the rather more esoteric Prasart Museum, the upstream town of Nonthaburi and the tranquil artificial island of Ko Kred.
If you want to go a little further, visit Ayutthaya for the day: there's an excellent small group tour that leaves from Bangkok and takes in no fewer than five UNESCO-sited temples.
If you’re travelling with children, you may want to visit the Mahanakhon SkyWalk where you can scale Bangkok’s highest building for panoramic views, or visit Bangkok Ocean World to experience sharks and rays swimming over your head in the under-ocean tunnel.
Top image © Chatchai Somwat/Shutterstock
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