After a tumultuous few years, Bangkok is back.
The stabilisation of the political unrest that has dogged the country since 2010 has seen the Thai capital well and truly back in business as a world-class travel destination, with so much to offer visitors. It’s worth noting that while the official period of mourning over the passing of King Bhumibol in 2016 has officially ended, visitors should continue to maintain a respectful manner.
Enjoy this Bangkok travel guide.
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. A temple tour with a local guide is a great way to get the most from your visit to each complex.
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 precincts 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.
The Peninsula is one of Bangkok’s finest hotels, and their Academy Programme offers guests access to a range of bespoke experiences that explore unique cultural aspects of life in the capital. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, use the programme for inspiration, then head out and create your own version! Consider activities like cooking classes, traditional Thai painting, guided walks through the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, massage courses, or even a Thai kickboxing class!
There’s certainly no shortage of great places to eat and drink in Bangkok.
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 little more boutique, the wonderful Issaya Siamese Club in Thung Maha Mek is a must. It offers an innovative menu, served with great aplomb in a beautifully restored 19th century villa. Book in advance and request a table downstairs.
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. Evening bike tours are a popular way to explore as the reflected light from the glittering temples and monuments dances on the surface of the water.
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. Handy maps outline where to find what.
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.
Five tours we love
See Bangkok’s main cultural attractions on this comprehensive half-day city tour. Highlights include the temple of Wat Pho with its gold reclining buddha (46 metres long and 15 metres high) and the stunning Grand Palace.
Bangkok after dark is a magical place. Head out to explore in a tuk-tuk on this small group tour. You’ll follow the course of the Chao Phraya River and visit a number of temples and markets.
See Bangkok from a different perspective on this guided walk through the old city. You’ll also travel on a local canal boat and enjoy a selection of street food snacks.
A visit to Bangkok is not all about the city! Experience rural life on this day trip to the famous Damnoen Saduak floating markets.
See Bangkok’s glittering city lights from the water on this great value dinner cruise along the Chao Phraya River. Enjoy a Thai feast and onboard entertainment.
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 Melbourne-based travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. Adam has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. He 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. Adam also appears regularly as a travel commentator on Sky News Business Class. 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.