by Roy Cavanagh
WITH FABULOUS FOOD, amazing accommodation and stunning sights, Bangkok is one of the most vibrant cities in Asia. The Thai capital can appear overwhelming at first glance, especially for first-time visitors landing at Suvarnabhumi airport bleary-eyed after a long-haul flight. Bustling Bangkok can be an all-out assault on the senses, but if you take time to explore the city it tends to have a happy habit of growing on you. Even for regular visitors to Bangkok, the City of Angels still retains the capacity to surprise with something new to do and discover on every visit. And you don’t have to travel too far out of Bangkok to discover the diversity that makes Thailand such a rewarding destination to visit. Take time out from the Thai capital and explore ancient Ayutthaya, enjoy the natural beauty of Khao Yai or pay your respects at the wartime locations in Kanchanaburi.
Where to stay in Bangkok
Take your time before deciding where to stay in Bangkok. First-time visitors may find it easier to stay near a Metro or Skytrain station. There are pros and cons to different areas, but wherever you choose it’s comforting to know that the Thai capital is home to some of the best value hotels in the region.
For a classic Bangkok experience, base yourself at any of the city’s excellent riverside hotels. Many have free shuttle boat services to get you to and from the central Sathorn Pier from where it’s easy to connect to the Chao Phraya River boats and also to the BTS Skytrain at Saphan Taksin.
Known as Rattanakosin Island, the area that forms Old Bangkok was once surrounded by city walls and protected by the Chao Phraya River on one side and a network of canals on the other. If you enjoy walking, staying in this historic area of Bangkok puts you within range of some fascinating city walks taking in the most iconic sights of Bangkok. Pick up a free copy of the excellent Bangkok European Heritage Map or download their app for more ideas.
With convenient access to Skytrain and Metro services and an excellent choice of accommodation in all price brackets, the Sukhumvit Road area is a popular choice with visitors.
Silom and Sathorn
Silom and Sathorn are home to many offices and international businesses, but it’s also where you will find some of the best hotels in the city.
What to see and do in Bangkok
These sites will provide you with the picture-postcard images you will have seen in the glossy travel brochures. There are more excellent suggestions on this site for the top 10 things to do in Bangkok, but I want to provide you with some ideas to let you see a different side of the city. These are some of my favourite things to do when friends and family come to ‘Krungthep’.
Golden Mount and Wat Saket
For some of the best views in Bangkok, head to the Golden Mount (Phu Khao Tong). There was a time when the Golden Mount was the highest point in Bangkok. Although that claim to fame has long since gone, the panoramic views from the top remain as impressive as ever and will cost you just 20 Baht plus a bit of legwork and sweat to walk up the 300-plus steps to the top.
Baan Bat Community
The bowls used by Thai monks on their daily alms round used to be hand-made in Thailand, but these days most are mass-produced at factories elsewhere in Asia. Fortunately, there is one local community in Bangkok that is keeping the old traditions alive. The Ban Baat monk’s bowl community is a fascinating place to visit and welcomes visitors. Buying a handmade bowl from one of the artisans is a beautiful souvenir and helps preserve the tradition. You can also try your hand at making a bowl yourself. The Ban Baat community is a short walk away from the Golden Mount.
M R Kukrit’s Heritage Home
Many visitors to Bangkok may already be familiar with Jim Thompson’s House, but there is another architectural gem tucked away in a quiet lane in the Sathorn district. M.R. Kukrit’s Heritage Home, also known as Baan Suan Phlu, is a delightful collection of traditional Thai pavilions set amongst picturesque gardens.
The house was the residence of a former prime minister, M.R. Kukrit Pramoj. Although the owner passed away in 1995 it retains its homely atmosphere and has been lovingly kept by the owner’s son who you may well bump into if you visit.
Relax and unwind
After a hot and tiring day of sightseeing, treat yourself to a massage or spa treatment. And what better place to get a massage than at Wat Pho, the home of traditional Thai medicine and massage. For something slightly different, Perception Blind Massage is a venue I recommend. Opened in 2014 in the Sathorn district of the capital, Perception provide employment for blind or visually impaired therapists. The set-up is excellent and it makes an ideal add-on to a visit to the nearby M.R. Kukrit’s Heritage Home. More options for treatments are available from the well-respected Health Land Spa which has number of convenient locations across Bangkok. Also worth seeking out for some pampering is the Oasis Spa in the Sukhumvit area.
A day at the races
If you ask people to name a sport they’d associate with Bangkok, most would probably plump for Thai Boxing (Muay Thai) and a night out at the famous stadiums of Rajadamnern or Lumpini. Not many would opt for horse racing. In fact, it comes a surprise to many people when they discover that there is horse racing in Bangkok. It may lack the glamour of the Derby or the prestige of the Grand National, but this is a cheap afternoon out where the people watching rivals the racing. The racetrack is also one of the few places in Thailand where betting is legal. If you do fancy a flutter, head for the Royal Turf Club in Dusit or the Royal Bangkok Sports Club a short walk from Siam Skytrain station in central Bangkok. Most meetings are held on Sundays, but check the racecourse website or local listings for full details.
Bangkok Art and Culture Centre
Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) is a wonderful venue that never seems to get the attention it deserves. With free entry it’s an ideal way to escape the heat for a few hours. If art galleries and exhibitions aren’t usually your thing, don’t worry. BACC is a welcoming space and with some excellent little boutiques, cafes and coffee shops, this is the perfect place to relax for few hours or sit down and plan the rest of your day in Bangkok. BACC also happens to be handily placed for the central Siam shopping district which leads us neatly on to retail therapy.
Shopping in Bangkok
Bangkok is a haven for shopaholics. Ranging from super-chic malls to street stalls to floating markets, Bangkok is retail paradise. Head to Siam BTS Skytrain station where you’ll find a cluster of malls close at hand. Terminal 21 near Asoke Skytrain is cleverly designed and the roof gardens at Em Quartier (adjacent to Phrom Pong Skytrain) offer city views and a chilled atmosphere. The latest addition to the big malls in the ‘Big Mango’ is Central Embassy which describes itself as the most luxurious shopping mall in Asia. At the other end of the scale there is the much-loved MBK Centre and the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market.
For that quintessential Bangkok experience, take a trip out to one of the city’s floating markets. The most famous one is at Damnoen Saduak. Although the floating market here can be touristy it’s still sanuk. There are plenty of other floating markets to choose from in and around Bangkok although many are only open at weekends.
Enjoy Bangkok’s open air
Bangkok might not have glorious parks to rival those found in London or many other British and Irish cities, but there are some gems dotted around the Thai capital. Lumpini Park is the first and arguably still the best park in the Thai capital. Ever popular with locals, Lumpini is something of a Bangkok institution, but there are some decent alternatives. A personal favourite of mine is the picturesque Saranrom Royal Garden opposite Wat Pho. To really make the most of Bangkok’s quieter areas consider taking a bicycle tour into the ‘Bangkok Jungle’ or ride around the quieter neighbourhoods of the city.
Food and drink in Bangkok
Bangkok isn’t just a shopper’s paradise, it’s also foodie heaven. Locals will have their own preferred go-to street vendors so follow your nose and look for where Thai people are eating. If you want to try street food but are slightly hesitant, pay a visit to any of the food courts found at many of the city’s shopping malls (usually on the basement level). These food courts offer a good introduction to many Thai favourites with dishes served in a clean and comfortable environment. If you love Thai food and are staying in Bangkok, then you have the chance to join a cooking class with a lady called Poo who has become something of a local celebrity.
Bangkok is justifiably famous for its street food, but it also has some stand-out restaurants and bars. If you haven’t yet visited, do pay a visit to Cabbages and Condoms. Don’t be put off by the name because the food is tasty and the restaurant supports an important cause. For a special dining experience, the Manohra River Cruise is a great choice. Converted rice barges provide an elegant way to see the Chao Phraya River at night and the food is superb too as you might expect from the chefs at the Anantara Riverside. Staying with the riverside theme, pay a visit to either Eagle’s Nest at Sala Arun for sunset drinks with exquisite views of Wat Arun or next door at Sala Rattanakosin for dinner.
It seems that hardly a month goes by without another rooftop bar or restaurant opening in Bangkok. Traditional favourites can be found at Banyan Tree (Vertigo and Moon Bar) and Lebua State Tower (Sirocco and The Dome) to name just a few. For delightful views over Lumpini Park, check out Park Society at Sofitel So. If you’ve over-indulged at the shopping malls in the Siam district, take time-out to recover at Red Sky Bar above the Centara Grand Hotel.
Bangkok travel tips
The BTS Skytrain and MRT Metro are modern, clean and comfortable and are an excellent way to get around Bangkok. At the moment their reach is limited so depending on where you are staying or what you want to see, you may need to use taxis too.
For taxis that are flagged down in the street, they should all use their meters. Tell the driver where you want to go, they put on the meter and away you go. Fares are cheap compared to the UK and Ireland and they are an affordable way to get around the city although Bangkok traffic jams can be notorious. The taxis that tend to offer a higher fixed fare are the ones that are parked up outside hotels and tourist attractions. These can be convenient, but you will save money by flagging a taxi down in the street rather than use one that is parked up waiting for customers.
Tuk-tuks can be fun, but generally will be more expensive than taxis. If you want to try a tuk-tuk, but are concerned about getting scammed, try the highly recommended Bangkok night-lights tuk-tuk tour with Expique.
Beyond Bangkok – day excursions from the Thai capital
In may cases you may find yourself wishing you had longer than a day to explore, but these are three recommended day trips from Bangkok (there are lots more, but these three excursions will give you a little bit of everything).
You don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy the scenic Ayutthaya Historical Park. Dotted with ancient temples and Buddha images, the ancient Siamese capital is wonderfully photogenic and is easy to reach from Bangkok. Start the day with a hearty hotel breakfast in the Thai capital before taking the train, bus or a private tour to Ayutthaya. Enjoy a full day of exploration and arrive back in Bangkok in time for sundowners over the Chao Phraya River. If you travel independently to Ayutthaya, hire a bicycle at the Historical Park to get between the main sites of interest. The old-fashioned Ayutthaya tuk-tuks can also provide a tour of the most interesting historical sites. Highlights of Ayutthaya include the Buddha head in tree roots at Wat Mahathat, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Chaiwatthanaram and the reclining Buddha at Wat Lokayasutharam.
A trip to Kanchanaburi is one of the most popular day excursions from Bangkok. Kanchanaburi has a tragic recent history, but it is also a beautiful location with rolling countryside, sweeping rivers and waterfalls. The city is worthy of at least a one night stay, but you can get a good overview of Kanchanaburi on a day trip.
Many visitors to Thailand know Kanchanaburi because of the classic film, Bridge on the River Kwai.
Although the true story behind the bridge differs from the movie portrayal, the area is an emotional one to visit. The immaculately kept war cemeteries are a powerful reminder of how young many of the men were when they died. Stretches of the Death Railway that claimed so many lives during the Second World War are still in use today although there are also sections, such as the infamous Hellfire Pass, where the site is preserved as a memorial to the fallen.
Khao Yai National Park
The oldest national park in Thailand and one of the largest in the country, Khao Yai makes for a rewarding day trip from Bangkok for those interested in nature. Journey time is approximately three hours so make an early start to get the most out of your trip. Khao Yai is home to countless species of birds in addition to gibbons and wild elephants. The scenery in the park can be stunning especially in the green season where waterfalls are at their most impressive. Find out more at the Khao Yai National Park website.
by Roy Cavanagh www.thaizer.com