Quite often, tourists tend to see Bangkok as a gateway. I get it; Bangkok can sometimes seem bereft of major tourist sites – especially when the beaches of Thailand are beckoning. But to sidestep this bustling capital city would be a huge mistake; a fact that is recognized as Bangkok is fast becoming one of the first (and cheaper) pins on the average traveler’s travel map. The fact that it reached number 1 in the Global Destination Cities Index in 2016 is testament to the cities allure of delicious food, gleaming temples, bustling markets and crazy nightlife. My brief intro really can’t do the city full justice, but I hope that it whets your appetite enough to make Bangkok one of the top cities on your must-visit list.
Bangkok Top Tips
Although Bangkok has two international airports your most likely entryway into Bangkok is going to be Suvarnabhumi Airport, which lies about 30km outside of the city. Getting from the airport to your accommodation basically comes down to two options; rail or taxi/private vehicle. In all honesty neither is perfect but if it were me, I’d go for a pre-booked private car (we arranged ours for a very reasonable price through our hotel). We opted for a private car for a number of reasons. Firstly, the train (see here), while cheap, fast and free of the burdens of Bangkok’s regularly horrendous traffic, had stops nowhere near our hotel. This means lugging your bags out of the station and then trying to find a taxi after a long flight. So, if your hotel is near one of the stations or you have packed sparingly then the train may be the best bet for you. Secondly, Bangkok has a rather notorious reputation for tourist scams when it comes to airport taxis. Now, don’t let this put you off altogether…..we’ve used taxis throughout Bangkok and had no problems whatsoever. All I’m saying is be aware (i.e. don’t make yourself an obvious tourist target), make sure it is a licensed, metered taxi, and sometimes be ready for a long queue at the taxi stand located on the ground floor level of the terminal.
Bangkok’s second airport, Don Mueang Airport, is located 24km from downtown, and has served as a hub for budget (AirAsia, for example) and domestic flights since it reopened in 2012. It’s an old airport (it originally opened in 1914, so we’re talking seriously old) and doesn’t have the same public transport options that Suvarnabhumi offers. Personally, I wouldn’t attempt anything other than a taxi which can take as little to 30 minutes (when the traffic isn’t horrendous). If you’re really keen to save the pennies then you could attempt getting the No.29 bus (at the time of writing), but don’t expect ample room for large pieces of luggage! A second option is the airport bus that drops you off at Mo Chit BTS station. Again, if you have large, heavy luggage than it’ll be a real pain; but it remains an option for backpackers!
The traffic in Bangkok is likely to play some sort of role during your stay in the city, but needn’t be a major problem. Bangkok actually has a pretty comprehensive public transport system that should get you within walking distance of the major landmarks with minimum fuss. The BTS SkyTrain and MRT Underground are likely to serve most of the places you would want to go. Unfortunately, the passes are purchased separately (which seems like a marketing error to me) and so my bet is that you’ll end up using the skytrain more as it serves more destinations. You can also purchase day and multi-day cards for unlimited use. Other than that, the obvious choices are taxis (cheap, easy, plentiful, and hours of fun trying to communicate where it is you actually want to go) and tuk-tuks (although their numbers seem to be dwindling, and they’re prone to taking you to family shops you have no desire to visit). You could always try the bus system but this is definitely more daunting for a first-timer; most of the destinations are written in Thai, and the lack of air conditioning can make them hotter than some of the ‘genuine’ merchandise for sale on Sao Khan Road (see below). River taxis and ferries also provide a great vantage point if you’re exploring the riverside landmarks or just fancy a mode of transport a little more serene. The river’s Express Boat services, now available specifically on a tourist route, provides a great cheap way to conduct a riverside tour (just make sure you take your guidebook with you to spot the landmarks). I also found the Bangkok.com travel section really useful when trying to wrap my head around all of the travel options in Bangkok.
Sky Bars are all the rage in Bangkok, and as cityscapes go, Bangkok is a fairly decent place to have them. There are plenty throughout the city and the Bangkok Attractions website takes a fairly good stab at reviewing the best of them. We were dining at Nahm restaurant (also a must if you fancy a splurge and was voted in the top 50 restaurants in the World) one evening, which is right next door to the Vertigo and Moon Skybar in the Banyan Hotel, and so decided to engage in some light pre-dinner drinks. The views make the also lofty (by Bangkok standards) drinks prices bearable; but do make sure that you get there pretty early as the seats fill up fast as the sun sets. Make sure to take your camera but keep the strap firmly around your neck unless you want to drop it over the side!!
At a number of the temples around Bangkok you’ll be required to wear clothing that covers your legs and shoulders (most notably, that includes Wat Phra Kaew/Grand Palace and Wat Pho). It’s considered disrespectful to wear revealing clothes. I found that you could either rent or borrow coverings in both places; but unless you’re happy wearing someone’s sweaty seconds I’d advise packing something to cover yourself in your day pack.
Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace: The Grand Palace is easily the most famous of the landmarks in Bangkok and is the one place you really can’t miss as a tourist. It’s an amazingly ornate complex that takes a fair few hours to explore in detail and the real highlight of the complex is Wat Phra Kaew which houses the Emerald Buddah. If you’re planning on taking photos and don’t want them all filled with tourists then you might want to make your visit earlier in the morning to avoid the crowds (you’ll also avoid the main heat of the day which is a bonus given that you’ll need to cover up shoulders and legs to visit).
Wat Traimat: Located in Chinatown, Wat Traimat is known for one thing; its 3m tall, 5.5 ton, $250m Buddha. Although the Buddha, located on the 4th floor of the complex is the star of the show, make sure you don’t miss out on the two museums in the same complex. The Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Center focuses on Chinese immigration to Thailand whilst the Phra Buddha Maha Suwanna Patimakorn Exhibition (try saying that to a taxi driver!!) is focused on the hitsory and creation of the Buddha statue. If you plan on visiting then be aware that the complex is closed on Mondays to the general public and is a short walk from the Hua Lamphong MRT station.
Wat Pho: Better known at the Temple of the reclining Buddha, Wat Pho is located right behind the Grand Palace. It’s best known for its giant reclining Buddha which measures in at 46 meters long and, trust me, is extremely difficult to get in one photo! It’s also a great place to get a massage if you’ve had a tough day on the tourist trail. But it’s more than both of things; as one of the largest temple complexes in Bangkok, and less busy than the Grand Palace (except for the reclining Buddha itself) it’s much more serene and calming experience allowing you to walk around unhindered by bustling crowds. I even managed to set up my tripod which wasn’t possible at some of the other sights.
Ko Kret: This artificial island on the outskirts of Bangkok is worthwhile visiting if you have a little more time on your hands; particularly to pick up some of the island’s famous pottery and to visit the weekend floating market. It’s also a good place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, grab a rental bike (from the island’s pier), and take the 6km track around the island. Make sure you also check out Ko Kret’s temple and museum, known as Wat Poramai Yikawat. From Victory Monument in downtown Bangkok take the 166 bus to Ko Kret. Get off at the Wat Sanam Neua Temple and take one of the boats across the river to the island.
Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn): As a visitor to Thailand it doesn’t take you long to learn that a Wat is a Buddhist temple; after all, there are apparently over 30,000 of them spread across Thailand. Wat Arun dominates the riverside skyline on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River and is easily accessible by river boat from Tha Tien Pier near the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. If you’re feeling energetic then you can climb the exterior of the temple for great views over the river and Grand Palace; just beware that it isn’t a climb for those afraid of heights or steep descents (it’s easily 100 very steep steps). For great views of Wat Arun at sunset head back across the river and along Maha Rat road. There are a few bars off the main road (for example we found a great little bar called Eagle Nest down Tha Tian Alley) with views over the river across to Wat Arun for the perfect G&T sundowner.
Museums: In honesty, Bangkok just isn’t one of those cities that’s famed for its high-quality museums. That said, there are a few worthy of note that’ll also provide sanctuary if the going gets too tough in the mid-day heat. I’d start by looking at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre. Others include the National Museum (which is handily located near the Grand Palace), Museum of Siam, Siam Discovery Centre (mostly for kids), Bangkokian Museum.
Floating Markets: Bangkok has its share of floating markets including, Damnoen Saduak Khlong Lat Mayom and Thaling Chan. We personally chose to head out the extra distance to Damnoen Saduak (as we’d heard it was the most impressive of the three). Although the floating market is about 70 miles West of Bangkok in Ratchaburi province its worth trying to organise a trip out there for one of the last tourist-accessible bastions of traditional life in Thailand. Admittedly, the market has become more of a tourist trap than a traditional market over time, but hop in a long boat and arrive early in the morning (and by early I mean try to get there between 7-8am before the canals clog up with tourist boats) to beat the crowds and get the best photos of the chaotic and colourful market and the stall holders setting up and boating in their produce. Getting there is a bit of a bind. The easiest way is to get yourself on an organised tour (which can actually be really cheap even if you’re on a budget), but that’s never as much fun as trying to do it yourself. So, if you’re feeling braver then you can catch a bus from Bangkok’s Southern Terminal. They run from about 6am and drop you off a mile or so from the market. If you’re worried about getting lost on the last leg of that trip, then pick up motorbike taxi at the bus stop.
Chatuchak Weekend Market: Served by both the BTS and MRT the market has almost a cult status amongst tourists. With over 8,000 stalls it’s a bit of a daunting task but well worth it if you’re in Bangkok over a weekend. Be prepared to get lost, be prepared to not get the greatest of bargains, but also be prepared for a visual and sensory overload that makes it all worthwhile. With everything from live snakes to Hello Kitty handbags, if you cant find what you want here then it probably doesn’t exist! The most important thing to remember is to shop around, haggle and haggle hard, but a few other pointers to consider include: Never go in at your best price; some of the best prices can be bargained for in the morning when the sellers are most worried about meeting their daily quotas; if the seller gives you a start price your counter-offer should start at 50% less (or more); never appear too interested; keep it friendly and jokey at all times; and finally, if they don’t come down to the price you want then walk away…you’ll often find they chase after you to offer at the price you wanted!
Wat Saket: Wat Saket, or Temple of the Golden Mount, is located atop a man-made hill in the center of town. Although not steep, it’s a decent climb up 300 steps which coil around the temple’s exterior and so is best to avoid in the middle of the day when the temperature is at its peak. The views from the top are worth the trip and if you’re feeling musical then you can ring the numerous bells during your climb. Alternatively, you can curse the fact that groups of school children are creating so much noise ringing the bells that you can’t hear yourself think, but the former seems more personally liberating.
Khao San Road: If you’re backpacking, you’ll probably call it home, and if you’re traveling with a family, you’ll likely call it hell. Either way, it’s one of the more famous streets in Bangkok with street food, hawkers and the classic Bangkok “Ping Pong” shows (yes, those ones) on offer until the small hours of the morning.
Dusit Palace Park: King Chulalongkorn’s 1897 attempt to recreate European castle architecture in Thai style, Dusit Palace Park is another worthy escape from the chaos of Bangkok. Set in large, ornate, gardens the highlights of a trip to Dusit is the teak mansion, which can be toured (the tour is compulsory if you want to see inside) every 30 minutes from 9.45am until 3.15pm (at the time of writing). If you plan on visiting, then my advice is to visit on the same day as visiting Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace; the same day ticket covers both sites meaning you won’t have to pay the additional entrance fee. Just like Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace you’ll be required cover your arms and legs as well.
Jim Thompson House: Jim Thompson is broadly known for his work rebuilding the Thai silk industry and became a bit of a legend after going missing in the Malaysian jungle in the 60s. His once home (which is Thai-style teak) has now been converted into a museum and restaurant that is a tiny slice of serene in a city of madness. You’ll find silk-related demonstrations and guided tours of the house are available. Personally, I most enjoyed taking a break from pounding the pavement in the mid-day heat and enjoying a drink around the fishponds.
Wat Suthat: Located in the Banglamphu area of Bankok (somewhat near Wat Saket), this temple is absolutely huge and is afforded the highest royal temple grade available in Thailand. Put simply, it’s one of the oldest and impressive Buddhist temples in the city. Ezquisite murals and hard-carved teak doors await! Also, just across the road is the Giant Swing (Sao-Ching-Cha).
Airport Rail Link Website: https://www.bangkokairportonline.com/bangkok-airport-rail-link/
BTS Sky Train Website: https://www.bts.co.th/eng/
MRT Underground Map: https://www.transitbangkok.com/mrt.html
Best Sky Bars in Bangkok: http://bangkokattractions.com/best-sky-bars-bangkok/
Chao Phraya Tourist Boat: http://www.chaophrayaexpressboat.com/en/tourist/
Nahm Restaurant Website: http://www.comohotels.com/metropolitanbangkok/dining/nahm
Jim Thompson House Website: http://www.jimthompsonhouse.com/