Bangkok is one of the world’s most polarizing holiday destinations: love it or hate it, it’s certainly not a city one forgets in a hurry. What tends to stain people’s hearts and soul usually has nothing to do with the major attractions and sites, the delectable food, the crazy nightlife or even the unbelievable shopping; but rather the chaotic and vibrant essence of it all.
Oh…and the horrendous traffic congestion. Yep, that’s rather unforgettable too.
Return visitors to the City of Angels also know that there is nothing angelic bout it. This, in fact, is the kind of place you need a holiday from, rather than one you take a holiday to. If this doesn’t make sense to you, then best you just trust us on this and add a few days of relaxing island-hopping at the end of your trip. You’ll be needing the rest.
The ins and outs of Bangkok
The lack of an all-encompassing ‘city center’ means that whether you like it or not, you’ll be privy to every nook and cranny of Bangkok; making a holiday here seem more like an old-fashioned discovery expedition rather than a sanitized and relaxing affair. That’s just fine; you couldn’t avoid the rawness of Bangkok even if you tried.
Rather than describe the most popular areas of Bangkok, we’ll aim to navigate you through the head-spinning maze of the city by highlighting what each main quarter is most famous for.
Bangkok’s most famous backpacking quarter is centered on Khaosan Road and its neighboring blocks. It is here where you’ll find the cheapest food and accommodation. Head here to mingle with like-minded hippie folks or to organize everything from shared island trips to day-long sightseeing trips out of the city. Khaosan Road is about a half an hour walk from the major sightseeing mecca in Bangkok, detailed below.
Bangkok’s most famous sites, including the Grand Palace, the Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho and the Emerald Buddha of Wat Phra Kaew are clustered around the old part of town on Rattanakosin Island. The best way to cover this whole area is to hop on the Express Boat and spend an entire day meandering between the charming streets and absolutely stunning sites.
Partying & Pampering
Bangkok’s Silom embodies the idiosyncratic nature of the city perfectly. Clean, sleek and businesslike by day, the commercial district morphs into one of the most eclectic, and even sleazy, party hubs in town by night. Head here to scour super-famous Patpong (for that not-to-be-missed Bangkok trashy scene) or take your drink in a little more upmarket surroundings at one of the many dizzying rooftop bars like that of the Banyan Tree Hotel (61 floors up!) and State Tower.
This is also where you’ll find the best hotels in town, so whatever Silom lacks in the sightseeing department it more than makes up in the delightfully opulent beauty & health spa department.
As if Bangkok is not enticing enough, it is also home to a brilliant area intensely packed quarter brimming with Chinese and Indian eateries, temples and markets. Head to Yaowarat Road for fantastic noodle houses and authentic Chinese stalls and, for the best curries in town, head to Phahurat Road instead.
Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport is one of the largest in the world and certainly the busiest in South-East Asia. It’s located about 30km out of the city center, yet can take even two hours to reach during peak hour. The airport itself is like a mini-city, with abundant eating and shopping choices; although dare we say it is still nothing compared to the city itself so trying to negotiate your way in and out through customs as swiftly as possible should really be your top priority.
Once you’ve managed that, it’ll be time for a rude introduction to Bangkok’s maddening traffic and equally maddening touts! Make sure you jot down the approximate prices for services so you don’t risk getting ‘done’ within minutes of arriving in the country.
There are a few of ways to get into the city:
By ignoring all touts: oh such a friendly country and such over-friendly people in Bangkok…not! Keep walking…
By taxi: hopping in a metered taxi is by far the most convenient way to reach your hotel/hostel, even if it could take twice as long as by high-speed train. There’s a taxi rank outside the first floor entrance, but keep in mind that you’ll first need to reserve your ride and buy your ticket from the taxi desk near the rank. The attendant will write down your desired destination in Thai (for the driver) and also give you a ticket to keep for the duration of your ride, which details all of the taxi’s info in case of problems.
Make sure you’ve changed some cash before you exit the airport (£20 worth of baht (1000bht) should see you well and truly covered) and have a few small notes ready for the tolls. Insist on paying them yourself so you don’t risk the driver overcharging you at the end. By the time you include booking fee & tolls the whole ride can cost anything between 250 to 500bhat depending on traffic.
By high-speed train: the Airport Rail Link was set to revolutionize transport to and from Bangkok when it was first opened, yet it failed to attract the sort of crowds everyone expected. Even for the ridiculous (yet temporary) price of 20bht, it didn’t seem to do the trick. Surprising this, considering the rail is highly accessible, fast and abundantly cheap. Must be missing something here…
Nowadays, a 90bht fare on the Express Line will see you reach Phaya Thai Station in about 20 minutes; whilst the City Line takes twice as long and costs half as much. Take your pick!
Getting out and about:
The word ‘nightmare’ doesn’t even begin to describe the chaos that is Bangkok, especially during peak-hour traffic. As a tourist, the only way to avoid this is to continuously swap between the underground rail (MRT), sky-rail (BTS), road taxis and river boats. This is not only extremely effective, but it also gifts a well-rounded and comprehensive ‘getting around-Bangkok’ experience.
Reaching the city’s main tourist sites, shopping and entertainment districts may be a little time consuming, but it is all very easily done.
By MRT: Bangkok’s Mass Rapid Transport does exactly that, it transports masses of souls across the city, and covers some 18 or so stations. Download this map to get familiar with the routes.
By BTS: where the MRT doesn’t reach, the BTS takes over. Online map & travel planner available right here.
By Taxi: metered taxis in Bangkok are abundant and very cheap, with each fare starting at about 35bht. Whilst some drivers will try to barter with you and not use the meter, keep in mind that this is not only illegal, but also one of the biggest rip-offs in town. Insist on the meter being turned on! Having said this, taxis are only a better choice after midnight, when both the MRT and BTS call it a night. During peak hour, using the other options is infinitely cheaper.
By Boat: taking a boat ride along the Chao Phraya River is not only the best way to reach all the riverside attractions in Bangkok, but it’s also one of the very best activities to do in town. Whether you want to use them as just a fun and quick means to get around, or want for an extended guided cruising experience, choices are plentiful. The Express Boat is a great way to get to the most famous riverside attractions. There are three lines to choose from; download this map for future reference. Prices on this boat range between 20 and 30bhat depending on how far you want to go.
If you’d like a more touristy ride, then opt for the Tourist Boat, which includes English commentary and many more stops than the Express Boat. An all-day pass costs just 150baht. Head to the Taksin Pier right next to the Taksin MRT station and buy your ticket there…ignoring all the touts you’ll no doubt meet along the way.
Bangkok by night via Wiki
Khaosan Road via Wiki
Grand Palace via Wiki
Chinatown via Wiki
Airport via Wiki
River Transport Boat via Wiki