After a tumultuous few years, Bangkok is back.
The stabilisation of the political unrest that dogged the country for much of the last decade has seen the Thai capital well and truly back in business as a world-class travel destination — and one that has so much to offer visitors. Foodies, fashionistas, history buffs and culture vultures will all find plenty to keep themselves occupied in this sprawling metropolis of just over eight million people.
This Bangkok travel guide is packed with ideas for things to see and do. Enjoy your visit.
Bangkok for history lovers
If you’re after a history lesson that’s a bit livelier than a museum, Muay Thai Live is the answer.
This high-energy martial arts romp is staged at the Asiatique riverfront precinct. The show covers 300 years of Muay Thai history, and features awesome stunts and fight scenes, some hold-your-breath moments and even a dash of high camp to lighten the mood. The guys work their butts off and they’ve still got enough energy at the end of it all to meet guests for a photo opportunity.
Bangkok’s early history as a trading port is inextricably tied to the course of the Chao Phraya River. The river functioned as the gateway to the city for centuries, and many of Bangkok’s most historic landmarks (including the Grand Palace) and oldest neighbourhoods can be found along the banks of this winding waterway. An evening bike tour is a popular way to explore as the reflected light from the glittering temples and monuments dances on the surface of the water.
Top cultural experiences in Bangkok
Bangkok has a mind-blowing array of Buddhist temples and stunning historical monuments to enjoy.
Wat Pho — which houses the Temple of the Reclining Buddha — is a must-see, as is Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha) in the grounds of the Grand Palace. Wat Arun is located on the Chao Phraya River (almost directly opposite Wat Pho), and looks absolutely stunning lit up at night.
The fabulously ornate Grand Palace is the city’s top tourist attraction. Construction of the palace began in the late 1700s and was completed a century later. While the royal family hasn’t resided here for several decades, the complex is a fascinating showcase of Thai royal history. It’s open daily.
Bangkok is a city of distinct cultural precincts. Head out and explore utilising the MRT (Bangkok Metro) and BTS Sky Train. The bus boats that traverse the city’s khlongs (canals) are also a great (and very local) way to travel. Key areas to check out include the Old City around the Grand Palace (including famous Khao San Road); the historic riverfront; Ratchaprasong, Siam and Sukhumvit — the central shopping destination of choice for many visitors (and home to top hotels, restaurants and mega shopping malls); financial hub Silom — also home to the Patpong Night Market and some of the city’s most colourful nightlife; and Chinatown — with its jumbled landscape of neon signs, bustling streets, eclectic eateries and traditional shops. A stroll through Lumphini Park in the city’s south-east reveals a very local slice of Bangkok life. It’s a leafy escape from the city’s relentless traffic.
Bangkok offers so many amazing and inexpensive ways to connect with Thai history and culture with the help of a local guide. Consider activities like a cooking class, a traditional dance class, a short course in Thai massage, or even a Thai kickboxing class!
Great places to eat in Bangkok
There’s certainly no shortage of amazing culinary experiences on offer in Bangkok.
The choice of places to eat is mind-blowing, but here are a couple of tried and tested recommendations. If you’re looking for a special spot to celebrate — the Marriott Sukhumvit’s Octave Rooftop Lounge and District Grill Room and Bar may fit the bill. Start with a cocktail or two up on the rooftop. The building is far enough down Sukhumvit Road to give you a great view back towards the city centre. Head downstairs for a sumptuous steak or seafood dinner, served in an edgy, contemporary setting.
For something a bit more boutique, book a table at the wonderful Issaya Siamese Club in Thung Maha Mek. It offers an innovative menu, served with great aplomb in a beautifully restored 19th century villa. Request a downstairs table.
Enjoying Bangkok’s glittering city lights from the water is a must-do during your stay, and a dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River is a delicious way to do it. Cruises generally include a buffet of traditional dishes, and live entertainment.
Where to shop in Bangkok
Bangkok has transformed shopping into an art form.
However, it’s generally fairly pricey to shop for authentic designer labels. While you may not want to blow your entire holiday budget at Prada or Versace, a visit to the high-end Central Embassy ‘lifestyle mall’ still comes highly recommended — if only for the people watching opportunities. The mall itself is very snazzy. It’s like wandering around inside a giant spacecraft. Head up to level five for a bite to eat or a restorative latte.
At the opposite end of the retail scale, it’s well worth heading out to the heaving Chatuchak Weekend Market in the city’s north. Eight thousand stalls offer everything from souvenirs and second-hand fashion to homewares, antiques and original artworks. When you first arrive the market will seem completely overwhelming, but it’s actually fairly easy to navigate. There’s one main central circuit, with branches that lead off to a network of lanes and alleys. There are maps available that outline where to find what.
For a local take on doing the weekly shop, book a day trip to the famous Damnoen Saduak floating markets — located 1.5-hours’ drive west of the city.
Ways to relax in Bangkok
Sore feet are a part of life for visitors to the Thai capital.
For some respite, head for the Renaissance Hotel Bangkok’s tranquil Quan Spa in the heart of the Ratchaprasong shopping and dining district. It’s the perfect place to rest, revive and rejuvenate. Quan means to be caressed by water and the spa offers an indoor pool to do just that, along with a myriad of soothing treatments.
While you’re trekking around Bangkok’s temples, take some time out at Wat Pho to visit the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Massage School. The school opened back in 1955. It’s possible to enrol in a Thai massage course yourself, or simply enjoy a great value massage from one of the students.
Where to stay in Bangkok
The fabulous Intercontinental Hotel in Ratchaprasong is the perfect location for leisure or business travellers. The guest rooms are contemporary in style and beautifully finished. Check out the pillow menu available in all rooms, which includes an Igusa pillow stuffed with Igusa grass from Japan.
Mandarin Oriental Bangkok
There are few hotels these days like the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. For almost 140 years, this riverside property has hosted the who’s who of visitors to the city, including royalty and rock stars. The guest rooms are magnificent, with plush furnishings, a sitting area, well-appointed executive desk and a luxurious marble bathroom. There are lots of small details that make the experience even more impressive, including the embossed notepaper and complimentary boxed body lotion from the hotel spa.
St Regis Bangkok
One could very easily get used to life at the St Regis Bangkok. Located on Rajadamri Road in the heart of the central business district, the St Regis offers chic surroundings and an elegant sophistication. It’s all based on the traditions established in the early 1900s by the Astor family at the famous St Regis New York.
The butler service is a time-honored tradition at St Regis properties the world over. The concept was introduced by John Jacob Astor IV, who sought to redefine the concept of hotel service at the St Regis New York. Every guest room has access to the 24-hour butler service, which includes complimentary pressing of two items per day.
Two traditions that you shouldn’t miss during your stay are the Siam Mary and the champagne sabring. It’s said that the Bloody Mary was invented at the King Cole Bar at the St Regis New York, and today every St Regis Hotel serves up their own take on perhaps the world’s most famous cocktail. The St Regis Bangkok’s Siam Mary is a pretty fiery concoction, so be warned.
Finally, watch out for flying champagne corks at sunset. The St Regis Bangkok has revived the art of champagne sabring (another fine tradition originally established by the St Regis New York), which happens each night in the bar as the sun goes down.
Do you have any tips to add to our Bangkok travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.