Bangkok is a cacophony of sights, sounds and smells; one which can put your through heaven and hell several times, even on the same day. Yet say what you will, Thailand’s most visited city is never dull, never predictable and never, ever, monotonous. It’s a city which entices you from the very first moment and one which continues to entice you long after you’re returned to the sanity-preserving calm and safety of your own four walls.
To absorb the atmosphere, culture and essence of this provoking city, you must be ready to dive in head first: visit all the temples, shop for all the knick-knacks and taste your way through all of its infinite personalities. Only then…can you really say you’ve only ‘half-way done’ Bangkok!
Bangkok offers a near-infinite choice of things to do and see, but if you need a helping hand in getting your exploration off the ground, here’s our list of the very Top 10 things to do in Bangkok.
Make your first cocktail a head-spinning affair
Bangkok is a sprawling and bustling city and may at first come across as chaotic, dirty and utterly maddening. Well, in fact it is all those things, but the city is also intensely beautiful. The best way to appreciate its inherent charm is to view it from above.
You’ll no doubt be doing plenty of drinking when in Bangkok, yet your first-ever cocktail should definitely be enjoyed in style. Bangkok is home to some stunning high-rise hotels and it is there you’ll find some of the best rooftop bars and restaurants which offer breathtaking and all encompassing views.
Sky Bar is the world’s highest open-air bar and is a stunner in every way, even though it is as ‘touristy’ a joint as can be expected. The cocktails are expensive and not even the best in town, granted, but the view and the atmosphere, not to forget the novelty factor, are quite worthwhile to experience. Perhaps this may not be the kind of place you’d want to linger with friends, but if you want to be WOWed for an hour then head here at least once when you first arrive.
Vertigo & Moon Bar , on the other hand, makes for a more subdued yet equally enticing high-end experience. Located on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Resort, this bar offers delectable cocktails in elegant surroundings, while gifting a mind-blowing view of Bangkok’s skyline. This is the kind of place where indulging in a 5* dinner is much more doable, thanks both to the quality of food and the respectable prices, all things considered.
Go on a temple-a-thon
Spend a few hours walking around Bangkok and you’ll realize that there’s a temple on every other corner. While most ‘suburban’ wats may appear understated and subdued, Bangkok is also home to some opulent and magnificent houses of worship. Here are the best three!
If you’re a fan of superlatives you may not want to miss Wat Kalayanamit, which boasts the highest temple roof in the country, possibly because it also houses its largest indoor-sitting Buddha too! The addition of Thailand’s biggest bell completes the ‘best of’ trifecta.
Wat Arun is one of the most iconic sights in Bangkok, if not the whole country, and is by far one of its most photogenic. Its riverside location and impeccable night-time lighting, as well as unique multiple-spire design, make it a worthwhile attraction both by day and night. Immortalized on the back of all 10baht coins, Wat Arun’s popularity is nothing short of phenomenal, so expect big crowds here.
Not to be outdone, Wat Pho offers you a glimpse at the largest reclining Buddha in the world, proving in fact that Buddha is as flexible as he is omnipotent.
Whatever you do in Bangkok, never forget that as touristy and crowded as temples may get, they are still very much places of worship. Wearing shorts and boob-tubes just won’t do! Dress conservatively and respect the customs and you won’t be one of those visitors who exasperate the at times overly-obliging locals.
Channel your inner explorer…and hop on a boat
Most people will say that you’ve never really experienced Bangkok until you’ve scoured every turn of its river at canals at length, yet we believe this was perhaps true only in years gone by. Nowadays, concrete seems to be claiming more and more canals, as the city continues its struggle to remain somewhat afloat. Canal-floating in Bangkok is not what it once was, admittedly, yet hopping on a boat and spending a few hours admiring the sights from the midst of the Chao Phraya River is still a not to be missed activity.
There is a plethora of canal tour companies along the river, but their tours tend to be overpriced and under-delivered. A better and cheaper option is to take the commuting Express Boat and, if you don’t fancy stopping off at the various sites along the way (including temples and floating markets), you could always stay on board till the end of the line and spend a few hours exploring the much less visited outer suburb of Nonthabury.
For a truly sparkling river excursion, book a sunset dinner cruise with Apsara by Banyan Tree and revel in the glistening sights of Bangkok by night while luxuriating in supreme surroundings.
Taste the real Bangkok
Like most Asian destinations, Bangkok boasts a myriad of touristy eateries which tend to offer a sanitized, yet often bland, eating experience. While these may be fine for the uninitiated and tentative eater, foodies-in-the-know tend to steer clear of them.
For an authentic gastronomic indulgence you just can’t go past Bangkok’s premium street food scene. Sure, you may risk a bout of gastro here and there…but we’re of the theory that no holiday is ever complete without a little adventure!
If you’re game, indulge in deep-fried grasshoppers along Khaosan Road or discover just how spicy a tom yam kung soup should really be. To top off your street culinary exploration, sweeten your taste buds with a delectable kanom roti, possibly the best banana pancake you’ll ever savour.
Follow our Bangkok Eating Out Guide for more priceless tips on how to make your Bangkok holiday a truly delicious one.
Go shopping crazy
Shopping in Bangkok is as popular and varied as the sightseeing and food savouring. The city is littered with amazing shopping malls, open-air markets, floating markets and more retail-therapy strips than most other countries combined.
Siam Square is usually the #1 haunt of tourists, who find the concentration of trinket and clothing shops too big a magnet to ignore. The MBK Centre is the ideal mall to head to, if you want to splurge on good quality wares at half the usual home-price; and Khaosan Road is perfect for lovers of all things hippie chic.
For a more cultural shopping trip, head to Chatuchak Weekend Markets, where a mind-boggling 8,000 stalls will try desperately to vie for your attention; or visit the floating market of Taling Chan for a glimpse of some of the unique fresh produce Thailand is so renowned for.
Having anything tailor-made is also high on most tourist’s agenda, although you’ll need to have a good plan of action is you don’t want to get ripped off, or be forced to take home something you’ll only wear once! Don’t forget to read our Bangkok Shopping Guide for inside tips on how to make shopping a true highlight of your Bangkok vacation.
Indulge in some R&R
Asia’s pleasure capital may be talked about more in terms of ‘naughty relaxation’ pursuits, yet its infinite array of massage parlours (without the happy endings!) and health and beauty spas also cater for those who are after a more holistic approach to R&R.
From reflexology to authentic Thai massages, meditation courses and yoga sessions; there’s nothing you won’t find here. As it reasons, Silom’s very best hotels offer the most luxurious (and expensive) pampering sessions in town, yet if you’re after a one-off indulgence this may be the ideal choice for you. Spending a little extra cash, especially at the end of your trip when all your sense (not to mention your leg muscles) will be in dire need of some TLC may feel like a God-send.
So Thai Spa is one of many exceptions in Bangkok; it’s not connected to any hotel and offers great multi-hour packages at really good prices. Yet it’s not the only one! Do some researches before you head here and try to find a good spa nearby your hotel which has several good reviews by fellow travelers. The only people you should perhaps not take advice from, are taxi or tuk tuk drivers, who will no doubt steer you towards an ‘excellent, super-good spa’ which will be owned by the cousin of a friend’s sister. As enticing as this may sound…do yourself a favor and steer clear of those.
Get your culture fix with a cabaret show…
Thai culture is one of the best known, respected and exported in the world, yet getting your authentic culture fix when visiting Bangkok still has no rival. Whether it’s coinciding your trip with one of the many cultural festivals held during the year, or catching a Thai-boxing match (Muay Thai), a cabaret show or joining one of the many cooking classes offered along Khaosan Road, getting well and truly ‘stuck’ in the culture of the country is one of the most rewarding experiences to be had.
The best festivals to attend are the Thai New Year celebration and the King’s Birthday held on the 5th December. Of all the cultural shows in town, the most loved by tourists is that of Siam Niramit a colorful extravaganza which aims to depict the evolution of the country over the last few centuries.
Within the grounds of the theater you’ll find a quaint ancient village, set up exactly as it was in the past. Well-traveled visitors may find this to be far too kitsch and, while we could definitely agree, we also know that there are plenty of visitors who will not have time to venture outside of the city’s limits and into the most cultural part of all: the countryside. If you happen to be one of those time-strapped holiday makers, and still want to get a taste for Thai music and folklore, then a night out at Siam Niramit could be right up your alley.
…and continue it with a lady-boy show!
For an incredibly over-the-top show of lady-boyhood prowess, don’t miss your chance to spend a night at the newly-revamped Calypso, considered one of the best in Bangkok. As far as ladyboy shows are concerned, most return visitors would certainly not bother going for one, yet they’d all admit that experiencing them at least once should be at the top of everyone’s wish-list.
There’s much lip-syncing and grinding of various body parts, but all in all it’s a fun way to spend a night in Bangkok away from the over-crowded streets, and a great way to get introduced to the more flamboyant side of Thai culture.
Party like you mean it
The good-old days of Patpong being the party hub of Bangkok may now be a thing of the past, yet not everyone seems too distraught about that. The city’s party scene may not be as wild as it once was, yet if anything it’s become even more enjoyable by most accounts.
Silom may still be home to go-go bars and sleazy joints, yet it also boasts some fab and respectable bars and clubs, as well as plenty of rooftop bars and restaurants.
Royal City Avenue (RCA) is where the city’s best nightclubs are to be found and, if latest trends are to be relied upon, it’ll be wise to pick a club with a number in its name; both Route 66 and Check-In 99 being contenders for the top party spot.
Spend your last day out of town
The Ayutthaya Temples complex is about 90kms out of Bangkok and is by far the most worthwhile day-trip destination of all. During the 18th century, Ayutthaya was not only Asia’s trading capital but also the largest city in the world. Its cultural and historical importance is paramount in Thailand, and secured for posterity thanks to its inclusion in the UNESCO Heritage Listing in 1991. While most of the former city was well and truly destroyed by wars and flooding, the remaining stone structures, namely the temples and palaces, are still in excellent condition.
Reaching Ayutthaya on your own is not all that difficult, but if you can’t be bothered negotiating your way there by train, bus and ferry, then opt for an organized day-trip.
Vertigo & Moon Bar by Banyan Tree Resort
Watt Arun, Mark Fischer via Flickr
Bangkok canal, Roger Wollstadt via Flickr
Fried bugs street-stand, Wiki
Floating market, Walter Lim via Flickr
Bangkok Spa, Dennis Wong via Flickr
Calypso, Tracy Hunter via Flickr
Ayutthaya via Wiki