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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A Bangkok city guide boiled down into nine brilliant things to do
The country’s most unmissable sight, incorporating its holiest and most dazzling temple, Wat Phra Kaeo. Experience it as part of the Flexi Private Temple Tour.
Admire the Reclining Buddha and the lavish architecture, and leave time for a relaxing massage.
The central repository of the country’s artistic riches.
Legendary hangout for Southeast Asia backpackers; the place for cheap sleeps, baggy trousers and tall tales.
See the Bangkok of yesteryear on a touristy but memorable longtail-boat ride.
Eight thousand open-air stalls selling everything from triangular pillows to secondhand Levis.
Fine cocktails and jaw-dropping views, especially at sunset, at The Sky Bar and Distil.
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.
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.
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.
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 Thai cooking class that includes a trip to Bangkok's largest market, Khlong Toei, to choose and buy your own ingredients before cooking them up.
Bangkok has a good reputation for shopping, particularly for antiques, gems, contemporary interior design and fashions, where the range and quality are streets ahead of other Thai cities. Silk and handicrafts are good buys too, though shopping for these in Chiang Mai has many advantages. As always, watch out for fakes: cut glass masquerading as precious stones, old, damaged goods being passed off as antiques, counterfeit designer clothes and accessories, pirated CDs and DVDs, even mocked-up international driver’s licences (though Thai travel agents and other organizations aren’t that easily fooled).
Downtown is full of smart, multi-storey shopping plazas like Siam Centre, Siam Paragon and Central World on Thanon Rama I and Emporium on Thanon Sukhumvit, which is where you’ll find the majority of the city’s fashion stores, as well as designer lifestyle goods and bookshops. The plazas tend to be pleasantly air-conditioned and thronging with trendy young Thais, but don’t hold much interest for tourists unless you happen to be looking for a new outfit.
Shopping centres, department stores and tourist-oriented shops in the city keep late hours, opening daily at 10 or 11am and closing at about 9pm; many small, upmarket boutiques, for example along Thanon Charoen Krung and Thanon Silom, close on Sundays, one or two even on Saturdays. Monday is meant to be no-street-vendor day throughout Bangkok, a chance for the pavements to get cleaned and for pedestrians to finally see where they’re going, but plenty of stalls manage to flout the rule.
If you're into shopping but not that much into haggling or doing the research, you can take a private driver and guide to take you to the best malls and plazas in Bangkok. The guide will help you haggle and find the best deals for your desired items and having a private car means never having to worry about dragging your shopping bags around the public transport.
You’re most likely to find useful everyday items in one of the city’s numerous department stores: seven-storey Central Chidlom on Thanon Ploenchit (daily 10am–10pm), which boasts handy services like watch-, garment- and shoe-repair booths as well as a huge product selection (including large sizes), is probably the city’s best. For children’s stuff, Central Chidlom also has a branch of Mothercare, as do the Emporium and Siam Paragon shopping centres. Meanwhile, the British chain of pharmacies, Boots the Chemist, has scores of branches across the city, including on Thanon Khao San, in Siam Paragon, in Central World, in Emporium and a late-night branch at the Thanon Suriwong end of Patpong 1.
The best place to buy anything to do with mobile phones is the scores of small booths on the third floor of Mah Boon Krong (MBK) Shopping Centre at the Rama I/Phrayathai intersection. For computer hardware and genuine and pirated software, as well as digital cameras, Panthip Plaza, at 604/3 Thanon Phetchaburi, is the best place; it’s slightly off the main shopping routes, but handy for Khlong Saen Saeb boat stop Tha Pratunam, or a longer walk from BTS Ratchathevi. Mac-heads are catered for here, including authorized resellers, and there are dozens of repair and secondhand booths, especially towards the back of the shopping centre and on the upper floors.
Bangkok can be an excellent place to get tailor-made suits, dresses, shirts and trousers at a fraction of the price you’d pay in the West. Tailors here can copy a sample brought from home and will also work from any photographs you can provide; most also carry a good selection of catalogues. The bad news is that many tourist-oriented tailors aren’t terribly good, often attempting to get away with poor work and shoddy materials (and sometimes trying to delay delivery until just before you leave the city, so that you don’t have time to complain). However, with a little effort and thought, both men and women can get some fantastic clothes made to measure.
Choosing a tailor can be tricky, and unless you’re particularly knowledgeable about material, shopping around won’t necessarily tell you much. However, don’t make a decision wholly on prices quoted – picking a tailor simply because they’re the cheapest usually leads to poor work, and cheap suits don’t last. Special deals offering two suits, two shirts, two ties and a kimono for US$99 should be left well alone. Above all, ignore recommendations by anyone with a vested interest in bringing your custom to a particular shop.
Prices vary widely depending on material and the tailor’s skill. As a very rough guide, for labour alone expect to pay B5000–6000 for a two-piece suit, though some tailors will charge rather more (check whether or not the price you’re quoted includes the lining). For middling material, expect to pay about B3000–5000, or anything up to B20,000 for top-class cloth. With the exception of silk, local materials are frequently of poor quality and for suits in particular you’re far better off using English or Italian cloth. Most tailors stock both imported and local fabrics, but bringing your own from home can work out significantly cheaper.
Give yourself as much time as possible. For suits, insist on two fittings. Most good tailors require around three days for a suit (some require ten days or more), although a few have enough staff to produce good work in a day or two. The more detail you can give the tailor the better. As well as deciding on the obvious features such as single- or double-breasted and number of buttons, think about the width of lapels, style of trousers, whether you want the jacket with vents or not, and so forth. Specifying factors like this will make all the difference to whether you’re happy with your suit, so it’s worth discussing them with the tailor; a good tailor should be able to give good advice. Finally, don’t be afraid to be an awkward customer until you’re completely happy with the finished product – after all, the whole point of getting clothes tailor-made is to get exactly what you want.
Gem scams are so common in Bangkok that TAT has published a brochure about it and there are several websites on the subject, including the very informative w2bangkok.com/2bangkok-scams-sapphire.html, which describes typical scams in detail. Never buy anything through a tout or from any shop recommended by a “government official”/“student”/“businessperson”/tuk-tuk driver who just happens to engage you in conversation on the street, and note that there are no government jewellery shops, despite any information you may be given to the contrary, and no special government promotions or sales on gems.
The basic scam is to charge a lot more than what the gem is worth based on its carat weight – at the very least, get it tested on the spot, ask for a written guarantee and receipt. Don’t even consider buying gems in bulk to sell at a supposedly vast profit elsewhere: many a gullible traveller has invested thousands of dollars on a handful of worthless multicoloured stones, believing the vendor’s reassurance that the goods will fetch at least a hundred percent more when resold at home.
If you’re determined to buy precious stones, check that the shop is a member of the Thai Gem and Jewelry Traders Association, by visiting their website which has a directory of members (wthaigemjewelry.or.th). To be doubly sure, you may want to seek out shops that also belong to the TGJTA’s Jewel Fest Club (wjewelfest.com), which guarantees quality and will offer refunds; see their website for a directory of members.
Thai massage sessions and courses are held most famously at Wat Pho, while luxurious and indulgent spa and massage treatments are available at many posh hotels across the city, as well as at the following stand-alone places.
Divana Massage and Spa 7 Soi 25, Thanon Sukhumvit t02 661 6784, wdivanaspa.com; map. Delightful spa serving up Thai massages (100min for B1150), foot, aromatherapy and herbal massages, as well as facials and Ayurvedic treatments. Mon–Fri 11am–11pm, Sat & Sun 10am–11pm.
Nicolie Sun Square, a small shopping arcade on the south side of Thanon Silom between soi 21 and 23 t02 233 6957, wnicolie-th.com; map. Superb Thai (B1600/90min) and other massages, as well as facials and scrubs, in a soothing environment decorated with Asian objets d’art. Daily 11am–10pm.
Pian’s Soi Susie Pub, which runs between the east end of Thanon Khao San and Thanon Ram Bhuttri t02 629 0924; map. Uninvitingly clinical-looking but highly rated a/c massage centre, offering Thai massages (B200/hr) as well as foot, oil and herbal massages; you can also study Thai massage here. Daily 7.30am–12.30am.
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.
The high-concept bars of Sukhumvit and the lively, teeming venues of Banglamphu, in particular, pull in the style-conscious cream of Thai youth and are tempting an increasing number of travellers to stuff their party gear into their rucksacks. During the cool season (Nov–Feb), an evening out at one of the seasonal beer gardens is a pleasant way of soaking up the urban atmosphere (and the traffic fumes). You’ll find them in hotel forecourts or sprawled in front of dozens of shopping centres all over the city, most notably Central World Plaza.
Among the city’s club nights, look out for the interesting regular events organized by Zudrangma Record Store at venues such as Cosmic Café, which mix up dance music from all around Thailand and from all over the world. Getting back to your lodgings should be no problem in the small hours: many bus routes run a (reduced) service throughout the night, and tuk-tuks and taxis are always at hand – though it’s probably best for unaccompanied women to avoid using tuk-tuks late at night.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Top image © Chatchai Somwat/Shutterstock
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