Bangkok – an eclectic medley of cultures, aromas and flavours. It’s a fascinating city, one that takes its history just as seriously as its future and where East and West collide and co-exist in a vibrant union of neon-lit streets and Buddhist temples. It’s a place every traveller will see differently – but see it they should. Bangkok is one of my favourite cities in the world and here is my essential guide to its delights. Part 1 focuses on top things to see and do.
The Temple of the Reclining Buddha as Wat Pho is also known, is an absolute must for any visitors to Bangkok. The impressive temple complex houses a 46 metre Reclining Buddha, obviously the main draw, but is also fun to explore in its own right. Beautiful halls and courtyards are surprisingly peaceful and there are loads of Buddha images scattered around. Wat Pho is even considered Thailand’s first university and also houses a traditional Thai massage school – one of the most prestigious in the world – which also provides a massage service for visitors.
Getting There: I’d recommend arriving to Wat Pho by ferry – get off at Tha Tien – Stop N8 (near Wat Pho) or Tha Chang – Stop N9 (near the Grand Palace)
Hours: 8am-6:30pm daily, Admission: Adult 100 baht. Children (under 120cm) free. Massage at Wat Pho Traditional Medical School from 260 baht for 30 mins. From 8am-5pm daily
More info: http://www.watpho.com/index.php
Just across the Chao Phraya river from Wat Pho is Wat Arun or the Temple of Dawn. Its prang (spire) is one of Bangkok’s most famous sights and it’s usually possible to climb up it via some very steep steps for some great views (last time I visited it was getting renovated). The temple dates back to 1768, however there was likely an older temple on its current site. There is also a hall with a golden Buddha and impressive murals on walls.
Getting There: Take a ferry across the river from Tha Tien pier by Wat Pho – it only costs a few baht.
Hours: 8am-5:30pm daily, Admission: 50 baht
The Grand Palace is one of the most stunning landmarks in Bangkok if not the whole of Thailand. It was built in 1782 and houses many beautiful buildings and halls. It was the Royal residence and home to the Government until 1932 but still retains a regal feel today. The complex is still used for ceremonies but is predominantly a tourist attraction. Within the grounds is the impressive Temple of the Emerald Buddha (see below), throne halls and many examples of master architecture and craftsmanship.
IMPORTANT: There is a strict dress code in place for visiting the Grand Palace. Men must wear long trousers and long sleeved shirts while women must also dress modestly. No bare feet. If you don’t have appropriate clothing, there is an option to rent some near the entrance for a deposit.
Tip: There are usually touts outside the entrance who will try to tell you the Grand Palace is closed – ignore them and head through the main entrance
Hours: 8:30am-3:30pm daily, throne halls closed on weekends. Try and arrive early to avoid the crowds. Price: 500 baht. Free English tours available throughout the day
Getting there: The closest ferry stop is Tha Chang – N9 but it’s easy to walk to from Wat Pho via a shaded sidewalk that turns into a flea market during the day.
More info: http://www.bangkok.com/attraction-palace/grand-palace.htm
Wat Phra Kaew
The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is part of the Grand Palace complex and is the most important temple in Thailand. It was purpose built to house a large jade Buddha brought to the city in the late 18th century. The temple complex also has chapels, statues and stupas – all beautifully decorated with epic murals stretching around the walls.
See Grand Palace for admission details and dress codes
Khao San Road
Khao San Road is like a backpackers’ Mecca. Popularised in “The Beach” novel and film, the legendary street is a key stop on a visit to South East Asia for many travellers. Acting as a hub of sorts, Khao San has everything – bars, hotels, restaurants, market stalls, you name it. Want a tattoo? No problem! Feel like relaxing with a massage? Done deal! Ready to party the night away with cocktail buckets? Easy! People come to Khao San to indulge and Khao San is only too happy to please. It’s brash, loud and colourful – and whether you love it or hate it, you should experience it at least once.
Tip: For a very different view of Khao San Road, come early in the morning (around 8 am) when the revellers have mostly gone home but the street traders are yet to set up their stalls. It makes for a much calmer stroll and offers an alternative perspective of the famous street.
Getting There: Many travellers stay in the vicinity so you won’t be able to miss it. Otherwise, get the river ferry to stop N13 (Phra Arthit) and walk past boutique shops and artisan cafes to Soi Rambuttri – lined with food stalls, bars and guesthouses but a lot leafier and more chilled than Khao San, which is just around the corner. Alternatively, every taxi driver will know Khao San.
This huge weekend market is a shopper’s paradise, selling pretty much everything you can think of across its 8000 stalls from plants to pets. Exploring its 27 sections is a challenge even for the most die-hard shoppers but browsing its alleyways and shops is a great way to spend half a day in the city. There are plenty of food options too and getting lost among its stalls is definitely likely to work up an appetite. I would definitely recommend including a weekend when planning your visit to Bangkok.
Hours: Sat-Sun 9am-6pm. Some vendors open on Friday nights (8pm-12am) and during the week there is vegetable, plant and flower market in one section.
Getting There: Take the BTS train to Mo Chit and follow the signs (and crowds) to the entrance – it’s on the same side as the park.
Chao Phraya River
Taking a boat along the Chao Phraya river is one of my favourite things to do in Bangkok – it gives you a glimpse into the city’s life and history. The River of Kings runs past some of Bangkok’s key historical buildings as well as modern hotels and high rise offices. Barges, dinghies and tourist boats hustle up and down the river while glimpses of local life can be caught on its banks. For an authentic way of traversing the river, hop on the Chao Phraya Express Boat ferry and get prepared to engage your senses. Smell of diesel powering the boats, shouts of the ticket ladies telling you to get out the way and splashes of brown water are all part of the experience!
How: The ferries are a cheap and efficient way of reaching some of Bangkok’s top sights! A single ticket costs 15 baht and boats will stop at key tourist spots. If you are going somewhere off-the-beaten-path, check with the conductors onboard. Sathorn (Central Pier) is a great place to hop on board. This site has a great guide to all the stops along the network.
When: Ferries operate between 6am and 7:30pm daily.
Experiencing the vibrant and colourful Chinatown in Bangkok is a great experience, especially for foodies. At night, the busy Yaowarat Road gets filled with street food traders and market stalls and wandering along its length is a great way to taste some amazing food, people watch and get caught up in the area’s incredible atmosphere. I was lucky enough to visit the area during Chinese New Year celebrations and ate my weight in delicious fare from spring rolls to satay sticks to fluffy bao dumplings.
Getting There: The China Gate at the start of Yaowarat Road is about a 10 minute walk from Hua Lamphong station.
Wat Traimit is the home of giant Golden Buddha statue that has a fascinating history. The statue is thought to have originated from the 13th or 14th century because of its distinctive style. In the 1950s it was being moved to a new home within the temple complex when it was accidentally dropped. The exterior plaster cracked on impact and revealed a gold statue underneath! It is thought the statue was part of an Ayutthaya temple and was covered up in the 18th century to protect it from raiders. The 3 metre, 5.5 tonne statue is a definite highlight of a visit to the temple.
Getting there: Wat Traimit is about a 10 minute walk west from Hua Lamphong station. It’s located just off Mittaphap Thai-China Road
Hours: 9am-5pm, Admission: 40 baht (statue only), 140 baht (statue, exhibition and Chinatown Heritage Centre)
Other Things To Do
Visit Lumphini Park
Green spaces are at a premium in Bangkok so this oasis in the heart of the city is all the more welcome. It’s pretty big at 500,000 sq m and is a pleasant place to stroll, jog and cycle through. There is a boating lake, pagodas, statues and even an outdoor gym! Fitness classes and tai chi sessions take place in the open spaces, playgrounds swarm with laughing children and huge water monitor lizards wander the paths. If you get hungry, there are usually street food stalls near the Rama VI statue opposite Si Lom MRT station and there is a popular weekend food market. Concerts often take place on weekends.
Getting There: Lumphini Park is opposite Si Lom and Lumphini MRT stations and Sala Daeng BTS station is only a short walk away. It’s just a few blocks away from Patpong Night Market.
Jim Thompson House
Just a stone’s throw from the shopping malls and high rises of Siam, lies this interesting museum. Jim Thompson was an American silk businessman and his impressive South East Asian art collection is housed in his old house, surrounded by dense foliage. It’s a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of Bangkok and learn about Thompson’s curious life. You need to visit as part of a guided tour but there are many throughout the day in different languages.
Getting There: It’s a 5 minute walk from National Stadium BTS station on Soi Kasemsan 2.
Hours: 9am-6pm daily. Last compulsory guided tour at 6pm.
Admission: Adult 150 baht, Students (under 22) 100 baht
More info: http://www.jimthompsonhouse.com/
Watch a Muay Thai fight
Muay Thai is akin to a national sport in Thailand and there is no better place to watch it than at Lumpini Boxing Stadium – one of the country’s premier venues. The traditional headdresses and the pre-fight rituals add to the spectacle. Tickets are not cheap – ringside seats can go for as much as 2000 baht but it’s an interesting experience to say the least. Cheaper seats and standing areas are usually occupied by locals shouting encouragement and betting on fighters with majority of foreigners at the front. A band playing a theme during fights just adds to the noise. The fights themselves are technical and exciting with ridiculously athletic fighters matched by weight.
Getting There: The stadium moved from its original location near Lumpini Park but has retained its name. A taxi from Mo Chit station or a tour booked through your accommodation are both viable options
When: Fight nights are on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays but it’s always worth to check the times before you go.
Price: From 200 baht for standing tickets to 2000 for ringside seats. Most foreigners go for the latter but the atmosphere high up in the stands is incredible.
Explore Hidden Bangkok
If you prefer to go off-the-beaten-path, taking a cycling tour through hidden Bangkok neighbourhoods refreshingly free of tourists is likely to satisfy your intrepid itch. Bike through the web of streets and alleyways of Khlong Toey and navigate through a slum before taking a boat ride across to the green oasis of Bang Kra Jao. Enjoy riding along its canals and tree-lined paths in this amazing urban jungle before heading back to the hustle and bustle of the city.
How: ABC Biking offer a number of cycling tours for all ages and abilities. Visit http://www.realasia.net. Their office is near Phra Kanong BTS station.
More info: Check out my post on the above itinerary here
Visit backroads and temples of Nonthaburi province
If you want to venture even further afield without heading too far out of Bangkok, another bike trip to explore the small communities, farmland and ancient temples of nearby Nonthaburi province can see you go from the bustling Khao San Road to the city’s outskirts in almost no time. The areas you will head through are almost uncharted by tourists and you will have a chance to see a boat-shaped Wat Chalo temple, cycle past stilt houses and try delicious Thai food along the way.
How: Grasshopper Adventures offers the Bangkok Trails tour – a 6 hour, 40 kilometer ride around the countryside near the city.
More info: For more details about this trip, check out my post here
Look out for Part 2 of my Bangkok Guide where I will look at where to eat, drink and shop in the Thai capital!