If you go backpacking around South East Asia you will end up spending time in Bangkok at some point or another. It’s inevitable.
For many, it’s the first place they visit in their tour of South East Asia; for others it’s just a couple of day stop-over before making the long journey home after months away traveling.
Whatever your reason for being in Bangkok it’s impossible to fit everything into one trip so we’ve compiled a series of blogs for you to help you make the most of your time in Thailand’s capital.
We’ve got all bases covered from advice on the best Bangkok youth hostels and places to stay to tips on how to survive in Bangkok on a budget. Opening the series we’ve got a guide on the top ten things to see and do in town.
1. Take a cruise along the Chao Phraya River
This is a great way to get to know the city. Bangkok was once dubbed the ‘Venice of the East’ and as you cruise down the river and its vast array of side canals it’s easy to see why. The views are breathtaking and give you the opportunity to catch a glimpse of many of the city’s premier attractions like the Grand Palace, Royal Thai Navy Dockyard and Wat Arun.
Tours go from all the main piers and are not expensive though do vary in price and route and the advice would be to shop around although when fares start from as little as 10 baht for a single journey on Express Boats you don’t have to get too worried by the cost!
If you’re feeling adventurous you can get a boat as far as Koh Kret, a small island in the Chao Phraya River. The island is nothing special in itself but it makes a day of your cruise and gives you a chance to get a perspective of the sheer size of Bangkok and its surrounding suburbs.
Top Tip: Try taking a cruise at dusk as the river is particularly beautiful at this time with the twilight casting stunning golden shadows across Wat Arun.
2. Visit the Grand Palace
The Grand Palace is Bangkok’s most famous landmark and an absolute must see attraction.
Built in 1782, the Palace is a vast complex of awe-inspiring beauty and used to be the residence of the Thai King.
Nowadays, the King lives in a number of different residences, but the complex remains the spiritual heart of the Thai Kingdom, and as you wonder round, you will be bowled away by the beauty of the architecture and the intricacy of the craftsmanship on display.
Ideally, the Grand Palace should be sampled over a few hours as there are a number of impressive buildings and murals within the complex. However, if you only have a couple of hours to spare or are short on time, make sure Wat Phra Kaew (or Temple of the Emerald Buddha as it’s more commonly known by the likes of you and me) your top priority.
The temple houses the greatly revered Emerald Buddha which dates back to the 14th century. Ornately decorated throughout, this is well worth the entrance money on its own.
Other highlights of the Grand Palace include Boromabiman Hall and Amarinda Hall– the original residence of King Rama I and the Hall of Justice.
If you’re lucky to be in town when the King comes to change the clothing of the Emerald Buddha in March, July or November then you are in for a real treat as Bangkok will come to a standstill to mark the occasion.
Tickets cost approximately 200 baht.
Top Tip: If you’re planning to go inside the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, make sure that you come dressed appropriately. The Emerald Buddha is Thailand’s most sacred site and requires respect. Men must wear long pants and sleeved shirts while women must also wear modest dress which means no bare shoulders or see-through clothing.
3. Shop until you drop in Bangkok’s shopping malls
Bangkok is every shoppers dream! Featuring more malls than even the likes of Paris Hilton can handle, Bangkok’s malls have everything you could ever think of buying from a new swimsuit to a brand new sports car.
On a different scale to your average US or UK shopping center, the biggest malls house multi-screen cinemas, video arcades and entire floors of restaurants in addition to the embarrassing abundance of boutiques, fashion outlets and department stores they offer as standard. Brilliant for a rainy day!
Different malls are better for certain things than others. If you’re after bargains MBK is your best bet as it features countless discount stores and internal market stalls.
However, if gadgets and gizmos are more your thing then you should head to the Pantip Plaza as this is the technology hub of Bangkok and features more microchips, processors and notebooks than Simon Cowell has produced number one hit singles!
The biggest and ‘trendiest’ mall in town is probably CentralWorld, although Siam Paragon, home to the Ferrari and Lamborghini show rooms, and The Emporium would certainly have something to say about that!
Top Tip: Visit the Ipod shack in the popular backpacker district of Soi Rambuttri. For just 1000 baht (about £20) you can fill your Ipod with all the latest tunes which will set you up for the rest of your trip!
4. Hunt for a bargain in the street markets
Bangkok’s shopping malls may well have everything you need under one roof but the city’s street markets are where the real bargains can be found.
There are loads of street markets and vendors out there selling all manner of goods but Chatuchak Market is as good as any.
The market is full to bursting with stalls selling anything and everything from cheap clothing and trinkets to furniture, pot plants and microwave ovens. You can even buy yourself a pet although this section of the market should be avoided as many of the animals are actually sold illegally; especially the wild birds and reptiles- although why anyone would want to buy a snake while traveling around Thailand is beyond me!
The market can get a bit too much at times- it’s always stupidly busy and can get boiling hot- but there are plenty of food stalls where you can grab yourself a bite to eat and take a break from the hustle and bustle with an ice cold can of drink.
Many of Chatuchak’s stall owners are getting business savvy and inflating their prices to try and take advantage of the hordes of tourists, who too often are caught out. However, bargains can be had and it really pays to haggle.
If you do get involved in the haggle make sure you do this in a polite manner and don’t be too aggressive- you’ll get yourself the best results if you’re patient and negotiate your price in good humor.
Beyond Chatuchak market there are a number of night markets that are well worth a look. Suan Lum Night Bazaar provides a good selection of Thai crafts, souvenirs, clothes and local food, making it as good an option as any.
Top Tip: It may not look cool but keep your valuables in a bumbag/fanny pouch if possible to avoid being the victims of an opportunist pickpocket. Gangs are known to work around the markets as the cover of the large crowds allows them to go about their business relatively unnoticed.
5. Relax with a Thai Massage
After all that shopping, the chances are you’ll need to have a lie down and what could be more relaxing than to have a massage in the process?
The traditional Thai massage is perhaps the most famous and will leave you feeling re-invigorating and ready to face the world again, even if the massage process itself will leave you feeling far from relaxed at points!
The whole process can last over an hour and during the course of a traditional Thai massage you will have your body stretched and contorted in to all sorts of unnatural positions.
This isn’t for everyone but there are many other massage options out there including oil and foot massages.
The oil massage takes place in a curtained booth and involves the masseuse rubbing a number of scented oils into your skin. This is much more like your traditional massage and won’t put your nose out of joint quite literally!
Top Tip: Be careful about your choice of venue for your massage- There are hundreds if not thousands of massage parlors in Bangkok and many do great massages but there are also many parlors out there that offer massages with benefits if you catch our drift!
As a general rule of thumb avoid any massage parlor recommended by tuk-tuk touts as these normally offer more than your standard massage. Parlors with glass fronts where you can see people being massaged are generally a safe bet along with most hotels and spas if you don’t want a massage with a ‘happy ending’.
6. Try some authentic Thai cuisine
While there are pizza and fast food joints aplenty in Bangkok, you can’t spend time in Thailand without trying some of the authentic Thai cuisine.
Pad Thai- a chicken noodle dish full to the brim with vegetables and finished off with crushed peanuts- is one of the most popular options and is available for just 60 baht from almost all street stalls.
The street vendors also offer a number of fried snacks from grasshoppers and beetles to live shrimps!
Beyond the streets stalls, there are Thai restaurants everywhere serving all the classics like Green Thai curry along with a range of more unusual options. The Tom Yum noodle soups are particularly good while the sweet Thai desserts, often overlooked by backpackers, are the perfect antidote to the hot and spicy curries!
If you want to really treat yourself during your time in Bangkok, dine at the Vertigo Restaurant at the Banyan Tree Hotel on Sathorn Road. The food here is expensive by Thai standards but is among the best in town. Situated on the 61st floor of the hotel the views from the restaurant aren’t half bad either, especially at sunset.
Top Tip: Avoid eating at a restaurant in and around the main tourist areas like the Kao San Road as these restaurants have a nasty habit of hiking up their prices to take advantage of the vast number of hungry tourists. If you’re adventurous head over the bridge to the North side of the river and go to the huge local only restaurant where all the fish and meat are laid out on trays and you cook your own food!
7. Take a walk down Kao San Road
While it’s the most beaten path in town, no trip to Bangkok would be complete without a stroll down the Kao San Road. Featuring three Boots drug stores, a McDonalds and street stall after street stall selling all manner of tourist tat and Bangkok memorabilia, Kao San Road is backpacker central.
The street stalls sell T-shirts, sun glasses and fake watches in the main, while many of the bars are overpriced and about as authentic as Jordan’s bust. However, despite the street’s obvious shortcomings, it is a great place to meet backpackers and get to grips with the hectic and relentless pace of Bangkok in a relatively safe environment.
At night the stalls are cleared away and the relatively quiet day time bars come alive and are full to the rafters with beer guzzling gap-years and fun-seeking locals, looking to party the night away!
Top Tip: Walk up and down all the stalls before you contemplate buying anything to gauge an idea of what the prices are and then haggle to get yourself the best deal.
8. Enjoy a night out Bangkok style!
Whether you’re after a quiet couple of beers by the river front or a raucous night of revelry in one of the city’s bars and nightclubs, a night out in Bangkok has to be sampled at least once.
The reputation of the city’s go-go bars precedes them and you regularly hear stories of groups of young backpackers being stitched up by girls and ladyboys looking to make quick bucks.
However, the reality is that there is much more to Bangkok and go-go bars than seedy old men and ping-pong shows, even in the notorious Pat Pong district.
Many of the go-go bars are relatively harmless, downstairs at least. Yes, pole dancers and (girls and ladyboys) are rife and feature in all the bars, but the downstairs parts are no worse or less than safe than your average strip club. It’s the upstairs bars that need to be avoided at all costs.
If you do want to see what all the fuss is about then the King’s Corner Bar is probably your best bet.
Beyond the seedy surrounds of Pat Pong there are a number of great places to enjoy a drink in the evening. Kao San Road and the Soi Rambuttri area are always lively but head to the Garage Bar for a chilled out beer with a twist. The Garage Bar is a functioning garage during the day that transforms itself into a bar at night.
The cocktails are cheap and served by the bucket while a pimping sound system and an enormous flat screen playing all the English Premier League football ensures that it is always busy.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous head to a real Thai nightclub for a truly Thai experience!
Thai nightclubs are completely different to the ones frequented almost exclusively by western tourists and young Thai girls, featuring Thai music and Thai customers.
Most of the Thai clubs are in Bangkok’s best Thai clubs are in the suburbs of Bangkok. Tawan Daeng on Pattanakarn Road is probably the easiest to find.
Top Tip: Go easy on the Chang’s! Chang beer is Thailand’s national beer and is among the cheapest you can get in Bangkok, making it the tipple of choice for many backpackers. However, before you get necking the beers just remember that the beers vary in strength from bottle to bottle! Thai brewing laws aren’t as tight as those in the UK and only one in the crate has to be the advertised 6.5% ABV which means you can get bottles as strong as 13%!
9. Explore Bangkok’s Temples
Bangkok’s temples are an essential part of the city’s soul and no visit to Bangkok would be complete without visiting at least a couple of them.
The intricacy of the designs and the glittering gold decorations and pretty glass patterns are truly dazzling, while the veneration that the Bangkokians hold the temples in and the devoutness of the monks that live in them is inspiring.
The most famous Wat is of course the Emerald Buddha, but there are many others worth a look including Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, which is situated on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river and Wat Pho, and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
If you’re up very early you’ll catch a glimpse of the monks walking around town collecting alms and performing duties in and around all of the marvelous temple complexes.
Top Tip: Visit the temples early in the morning. It’s much cooler in the morning and is generally much less crowded too.
10. Check out Bangkok Floating Market
No trip would be complete without a visit to the famous floating market, despite its distance from Bangkok.
The market is frequented by more tourists than locals but the frenzied sight of traders hopping from boat to boat and jostling for position to sell you something is worth the trip alone.
The narrow canals are packed to bursting with longboats piled high with fresh produce and there is something magical about bartering and buying products off a woman on a barge.
Boats and bank side stalls sell anything and everything from locally produced items to fresh fruit and clothing.
It can get very crowded and you have to get up early to get to the market as it’s all over by 8 am. It is a long way, but it’s a great experience which is probably best sampled as part of a Bangkok day tour so you make the most out of your day.
An air-conditioned mini bus to the market on an organised tour costs about €15 and includes the price of the boat trips for a half day tour.
You can also go independently by bus which costs just 10 Baht- less than a euro!
Top Tip: Stay clear of the guys on the riverbanks offering to put a python round your neck. Beyond the fact that snakes are terrifying and should not be put round your neck under any circumstances, this isn’t free and they will demand money off you for taking a picture.
Thanks to permanently scatterbrained, KTRawlings, Keng Susumpow, pahonyontin, thalling55, side guacamole, thomaswanhoff, avlxyz, Chrissy Olson, rbrands, mckaysavage, spotter_nl, Jack A Hunter & travlinman43 for the fabulous flickr images.