What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city?
Do you expect to find a poor, underdeveloped city teeming with greedy locals eager to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists? Have you heard rumours that the city is overrun by the booming sex industry? Or perhaps you’ve seen Instagram posts that reflect a globalisation-driven metropolis?
I won’t blame you if you expect Bangkok to fit into any of these categories. The city has attracted it’s fair share of labels over the years, but if there’s one thing I’ve discovered about Bangkok, it’s to expect the unexpected.
Bangkok is a city defined by contrast. You’ll find extravagance and poverty, tradition and innovation, nightlife and relaxation, glamour and quirkiness, ancient and modern. Whether you’re a backpacker with a shoestring-tight budget, a retiree relishing your golden years, or just looking to unwind during your annual vacation, Bangkok is one urban destination you don’t want to miss.
Here are 7 reasons why we loved exploring Bangkok, one of the most diverse cities in Southeast Asia.
1. The People
As soon as we stepped off the plane at Bangkok Airport, we immediately felt welcomed by smiling Thai people at every turn. They are the epitome of friendly, respectful and kind. With a strong collective pride in their country, locals from all classes were happy to help us with directions and tips on what to see and where to eat.
The royal family is held in very high esteem so you can expect to find larger-than-life portraits of the king and queen adorning office buildings and small retail shops alike.
Generally, the Thai are very open and accepting of each other so it’s not uncommon to be served by a transgender waitress or masseuse. Don’t be too quick to jump to conclusions about Bangkok’s “ladyboys”. I found these folks to be just as happy, respectful and kind as any.
Getting out of the airport, you can’t help but notice in the crazy amount of traffic! If you don’t want your journey to be monopolised by sitting in traffic jams, take the sky train or a boat taxi along the canals. Bangkok traffic is relentless, but what struck me was the lack of obnoxious honking horns or road rage. Traffic might get backed up as far as the eye can see but drivers are courteous to each other and quietly keep their place in the queue. It’s an organised kind of chaos. And I like it.
Most Thai people can speak pretty fluent English so you don’t have to worry about a language barrier. I can’t say the same about their written English though, I was constantly in fits of laughter over the spelling and grammar errors that look like innuendo to anyone with a sense of humour (or dirty mind).
While it’s rare to find a Thai person in Bangkok who can’t carry out a transaction in English, they’re also more than willing to teach you some basic phrases in their own tongue like “hello” (sa-wat dee), “thank you” (khop koon), and “how are you” (sabai dee ru). Here’s a tip, to be politer add to the end of a phrase “krub” if you’re male or “kah” for female (eg. “sa-wat dee krub” is “hello” politely if you’re a man). If you want to feel more confident in your Thai language skills, I’ve found the easiest way to learn a new language online is through Pimsleur (save up to 25% with our link).
The only warning I’d offer is to be careful of the occasional street scammer, no different to most other major cities, though Bangkok offers its own unique tricks. Some stall owners may try to pressure you into buying their products and the odd taxi driver may try to take you to a family member’s clothing or jewellery store on the way to wherever you’ve asked to go. Most scammers aren’t especially malicious, It’s just their way of life. They backed off pretty quickly each time I firmly told them “no”.
2. The Food
I made a mistake. This should be reason number 1 to visit Bangkok. Bangkok food is uh-mayy-zing!
On seemingly every corner, street food vendors serve delicious Thai cuisine to thronging flocks of locals during the daily lunch hour and dinner rushes. You can pick up curries, satay sticks, fried rice, pad thai, and more for next to nothing (less than US$2 per meal). And that’s before you even get to the primetime eating districts like Chinatown.
Insider tip: If you’re worried about sanitation, rest assured that most of the time street food is safe. But what you want to look for is the cleanliness of the cook’s fingernails and apron. If those are grubby then it’s a sign that hygiene is not top priority and you should just move onto the next vendor.
Chinatown in Bangkok is a street food lover’s paradise. Food stalls line Yaowarat Rd in the early evening serving all manner of cuisines, and side streets dish up eyebrow-raising snacks. I challenge you to taste something completely new. This is the place to get out of your comfort zone. I don’t just talk the talk, so I tried a fried grasshopper! It’s super crunchy but rather lacking in the flavour department. Oh well, it’s worth trying at least once. Your friends at home will freak out!
If you prefer a more conventional dining experience, you’ll never worry about starving, thanks to options ranging from local cafes to gourmet international restaurants. I’m an unashamed fan of the in-your-face flavour punch unique to Thai cuisine and was not in the least bit disappointed by our culinary escapades in Bangkok. What did pleasantly surprise me was the quality and diversity of international food available when we tired of Thai (shame on me, how could I say such things!?). We grazed on delicious Japanese, Mexican, Chinese, and French and Italian cuisine.
Here’s a mish-mash of my favourite places to eat in Bangkok (so far):
If you’re dining with someone unfamiliar with Thai food, this is the place to take them. I ordered every traditional Thai dish I could think of and was blown away by attention to detail in every dish. This restaurant also serves up gorgeous views of the effervescent Chao Phraya River.
Almost everyone we spoke to in Bangkok recommended we eat at El Mercado, so we had high expectations. This restaurant is inspired by a traditional Italian market with local and imported produce on display. You can select your own cut of meat, cheese and salads to take home or order mouth-watering meals off the large chalkboard menu. The menu is primarily Italian cuisine, pasta, risotto and pizza, but you can also find Australian steaks, salads and other western dishes. One time was not enough! Upon returning we brought my mother-in-law and couldn’t fault any dish we tried.
Located within the prestigious Amari Watergate Bangkok hotel, this gourmet buffet is not to be missed. Many international cuisines are on offer, each with their own themed station, including Thai, Indian, Chinese, Italian, a salad bar and of course, a scrummy desert station (try the Asian-styled shaved ice called Nam Kang Sai!). I like that each dish has a not only a label with the name, but also a vegetarian-friendly icon identifying the protein such as chicken, fish, or seafood and a notation for spicy dishes.
This boutique-style restaurant located within the elegant Oriental Residence Bangkok hotel offers a fusion of French and Thai cuisines. We were lucky enough to sample the new menu designed by Chef Eric. If you are a foodie at heart, you will get weak knees by the melt-in-the-mouth steaks, vegetables roasted to perfection, and decedent drool-worthy deserts.
We stopped at Sunrise Tacos on our way to the nearby Patpong Night Markets and discovered why it has a reputation as Bangkok’s most authentic Mexican restaurant. As delicious as their nachos and tacos were, the best thing about this taqueria was the brightly coloured margaritas, which come in three flavours and three different sizes. Ay caramba!
If you want to eat like a local, Sara Jane’s is the place to go. Dozens of officewear-clad Thai folks flow in and out every lunch hour, and we were amazed at how quickly the staff could pump out the food. The atmosphere is much more relaxed at dinner when you can enjoy the natural bungalow-inspired outdoor area with softly glowing fairy lights winding through the treetop canopy. Sara Jane’s also serve a few western dishes, but we couldn’t resist their Thai food which was stop-the-press delicious every time.
3. The Culture
The Thai people are understandably passionate about their culture. After a few days touring Bangkok, you’ll begin to see why.
Buddhism is the most prevalent religion, expressed in carefully crafted, intricate Buddhist temples throughout bustling Bangkok. The first temple we visited was Wat Bowonniwet Vihara. We were awestruck by the painstaking attention to detail in this temple’s construction.
Next we visited the famous gold reclining Buddha at Wat Pho (the full name is “Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn” – can I buy a vowel?) which is also the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. The unmissable 46-meter-long reclining Buddha (150 feet) is the main attraction in the complex. Wide-eyed tourists queued to take photos while a constant tinkle of coins being placed in offering boxes by reverent visitors filled the hall. It would be a mistake to leave after seeing the statue as there’s much more around the complex. From walls covered in intricate paintings of prominent events from the Thai faith, to endless stone and golden statues. Tucked in a corner is the Thai massage school where tourists can receive a massage from students. Entry is B100 per person, which includes a free bottle of water, but be aware of the strict dress code requiring visitors to cover their shoulders.
A not-to-be-missed example of Thai craftmanship is The Grand Palace. We were amazed at the elaborate use of mosaic, painted ceramic and carved statues to adorn buildings within the palace grounds. The site was well worth the B500 fee and snaking entry queue which started across the street! There is a very strict dress code requiring legs and arms to be covered. If like us, you didn’t dress appropriately, you can buy a t-shirt for B350 and pants for B250 or rent pants outside the entrance from as little as B50.
Located within the palace grounds is Wat Phra Kaew, home to the sacred Emerald Buddha and arguably the most stunning example of Thai craftmanship in Bangkok.
Skilled Thai craftmanship is still alive and well. Locally crafted jewellery, art pieces and other knick-knacks can be purchased at the Bangkok Art & Cultural Centre. We visited during a photography exhibit featuring a large Bangkok-inspired collection of submissions from local amateur shutterbugs alongside wall-sized pieces from renowned artists. I might just enter next year! They allow you bring a camera in, but not backpacks (in the upper floors). These are self-stored in lockers requiring a B100 key deposit.
Thai artists are also highlighted in Queen Sirikit's Gallery. Modern paintings, prints, and multimedia are featured on the walls of this three-story gallery. Entry is B50 per person.
While Thai people are typically reverential, they also enjoy letting their hair down by watching grown men bash each other up. I’m talking about the all-time favourite pastime of Muay Tai fighting. We watched professional fighters clash at Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium. The atmosphere was electric with locals chanting and cheering at every blow. Over 10 matches, each lasting 5 rounds, skilled fighters pull out their best moves using their hands and feet to get one up on their opponent.
Tickets can be purchased at the stadium entrance, from a badge-wearing official, in 4 categories (cash or credit card payments). 3rd class tickets were seated behind a wire fence and cost B1000. This is where most of the locals were. 2nd class tickets were standing in front of the wired fence for B1500. Seated club class tickets cost B1800 and seated ringside tickets cost B2000). Snacks and drinks, including beer can be bought in the stadium and visitors are welcome to take photographs. If you’re looking for a post-fight bite, more substantial food can be purchased outside the stadium from food carts.
4. The History
If you feel like you’ve got a grasp on the Thai Buddhist religion, local customs and culture, you could mistakenly overlook the country’s history. A visit to the Bangkok National Museum will correct that. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of Thai artefacts and presents a vivid picture of the journey that saw Thailand become the country it is today. The collection includes artefacts that depict the Thai nation’s origins as modest fishermen through to golden-clad chariots used in royal funeral ceremonies.
Another interesting spot to learn about Thai history is the Jim Thompson House. Jim Thompson was an American businessman who fell in love with Thailand in his later years and set himself a mission to revive the art of Thai silk weaving. Hundreds of meters of Thai silk was used in The King & I musical and kicked off demand for Thai silk resulting in Jim creating a silk empire. After his mysterious disappearance in 1967, his house was turned into a museum. Every inch of architecture and furniture has a story. Jim Thompson collected many broken buddha statues, which the local people discarded from temples believing they were cursed. Entry is B200 per person. The café onsite serves very good food, but the prices are exceptionally high.
5. The Shopping
The only question to ask about shopping in Bangkok is where to start? A short sky train ride to Siam station will get you to the doorstep of five multi-story shopping malls: Siam Paragon, Central World, Siam Discovery, Siam Center, and MBK Center.
Central World is the largest mall in Thailand and houses every store you could need for a modern lifestyle. It also has a cinema and over 100 restaurants and cafes.
Siam Discovery was our favourite mall for the leisurely shopping experience. The mall’s atmosphere is a welcome break from typical shopping malls with its boutique layout and elegant product placements. If you’re in the area for lunch, treat yourself to Jamie’s Italian located on the ground floor.
Just across from Siam Discovery is Siam Center, a boutique shopping mall that encourages Thai designers to showcase their work. Popular international brands are the majority, but if you come across a store you don’t recognise, it’s probably a local Thai brand.
MBK Center is home to over 2000 discount stores offering locals and tourists reasonably priced technology gadgets, luggage, homewares and clothes. Just in case you can’t find a movie to watch, this mall has a cinema too!
If you don’t want to spend your holiday in shopping malls, try a more authentic Thai shopping experience at one of Bangkok’s many markets, like the Chatuchuk Weekend Markets. Every weekend over 1,500 vendors form a maze-like grid of market stalls making it the largest outdoor markets in the world. This is a popular source of clothing, souvenirs, homewares, jewellery and street-food, all at very reasonable prices. Insider tip: Most tourists stick to the outer ring path, but the inside alleys are often air conditioned and less busy.
If you can’t be in Bangkok on a weekend but still want to see some markets, try the Patpong Night Markets. Located in one of Bangkok’s busiest nightlife districts. Many clothing and souvenirs are available here but the first price offered is definitely not the best. Bargain hard.
Bangkok’s most famous shopping experience is without a doubt its floating markets. There are a few locations on the outskirts of the city. The most popular due to its proximity to downtown Bangkok is the Tailing Chan Floating Market, open on Saturdays and Sundays. The markets get very busy so it’s best to get there early to enjoy the fresh produce, street food and souvenirs before hordes of tour groups descend. This can be accessed via Grabcar, taxi, tuktuk or canal boat.
6. The Nightlife
If you’re a bit of a party animal, Bangkok’s wild side is undeniable. Chances are you’ve heard of the famous Khaosan Road, Bangkok’s backpacker mecca. Lining the street, amongst jewellers, souvenirs and tattoo parlours, are bars and restaurants with reasonably priced drinks. Most joints are open during daylight hours, but the street really comes to life at once the sun goes down. We enjoyed a relaxing cocktail (or two) at Khaosan 1986.
Perhaps Bangkok pioneered the trend of mixing shopping destinations with nightlife, because squished in between market stalls at the Patpong Night Markets are bars and nightclubs of every shape and size. If you get invited to ping pong shows, be aware it has nothing to do with table tennis. Enough said.
If you’re like us and prefer to enjoy a drink or two in a swanky bar with grooving music and luxe atmosphere, you’ll go gaga for Bangkok’s sky bars. Sweeping panoramic views of the city skyline somehow make even your favourite cocktail even better. We ran out of time to explore every sky bar exhaustively but our favourites were Up & Above Bar, Red Sky Bar, The Roof @ 38th Bar, Sky on 20, and ZOOM Sky Bar.
7. The Scenery
It only takes one sunset drink at a Bangkok sky bar to see the beauty in the twinkling sea of lights. I could easily sit up there for hours watching the bustling city life below, but that doesn’t mean the city is starved of natural beauty. We stayed at the Shama Lakeview Asoke and were treated to views of the serene Benchakiti Park and lake from our balcony.
The hotel shuttles guests to the park on-demand where they can enjoy a picnic, walk around the lake, or hire a bicycle or paddle boat. Insider tip: try to get there before 4pm, as after that time locals finish work and the solitude subsides.
A short distance from Benchakiti Park is Lumphini Park, another popular spot for both tourists and locals to stroll, picnic, and admire the lush gardens.
Where to Stay in Bangkok
Centrally located near Bangkok’s most popular locations and major public transport lines (sky train and underground metro), the Shama Lakeview Asoke was our home away from home. With 3 on-site options for breakfast (The Coffee Club was our favourite), outdoor swimming pool, gym and close proximity to some of Bangkok’s best restaurants and shopping malls, this apart-hotel offered the comfort and convenience we sought. We stayed in a recently renovated 1-bedroom apartment which featured a fully equipped kitchen, welcome bag (with tasty goodies), and city views. If you feel like cooking, a buggy to the nearby supermarket runs every 15 minutes. Whether you’re staying in Bangkok for a few days or even a few months, I can highly recommend Shama Lakeview Asoke.
Want to see more of Thailand? Catch a southeast-bound bus for 2 hours to reach the coastal city of Pattaya. See what I got up to in Pattaya in my recent article: How to See Pattaya, Thailand in 48 Hours.