BANGKOK – Bangkok is a multifaceted and multicultural, but often misunderstood, city.
All its stereotypes and cliches hold true to a degree, and whether you find it relaxing, traditional, modern or chaotic (or a combination of all) will depend on how you fill your time.
You can visit affordable spas and luxury urban resorts, or follow the trails of “The Hangover Part II” and dip into “go-go” bars and Ping-Pong shows. Backpackers will rejoice at how cheap it is on a budget, while in equal measure, one drink at a hip rooftop bar will make Bangkok seem expensive for even a well-salaried worker. But there is no disputing that it deserves its place as the capital city of the “Land of Smiles.”
December through February is tourist season. It is Thailand’s “winter”: The temperature drops to around 27 degrees Celsius, making it more pleasant to visit temples and markets during the day. But winter in Thailand is also when the dust settles and there’s no rain to clear atmospheric pollution. Particulate matter levels can become dangerously high during this period.
If you can bear the high temperatures, come in April to celebrate Songkran (Thai new year), the highlight of which is a nationwide three-day water fight that erupts to beat the smothering heat. Rainy season from July till October is low-season for tourists, and while the rain can make it impossible to get from A to B, flights are cheaper and the climate cooler.
A city of smiles
Beat the sultry weather with an early start at Chatuchak Market: It’s the world’s largest weekend market and accommodates 200,000 visitors each week. The maze spreads across 35 acres and boasts a whopping 15,000 stalls, selling everything from art and vintage clothing to pet chickens and lizards. Grab a freshly squeezed lime juice, some skewers from the vendors and cool down with a local favorite: coconut ice cream served in a fresh coconut, which you’ll find sold by vendors every 100 meters or so.
Alternatively, if you begin to feel claustrophobic in the concrete jungle, take a stroll or jog through Lumpini Park for comparatively fresher air. To a backdrop of sky scrapers, elevated highways and train lines, there’s tranquility in this 142-acre park, with its padded running track that circles the park’s scenic pond. From 6 a.m., seniors shake their booties to a Thai version of Zumba, monitor lizards slide out of the pond and peacefully sunbathe on the grass, and runners, walkers and cyclists begin circling at full speed. All of that comes to a standstill at 8 a.m. (repeated at 6 p.m.) when the national anthem plays. Everyone is required to freeze in place to honor king and country. If you’re walking or running with headphones in, make sure you take notice when everyone pauses what they’re doing.
For a more touristy cultural and historical excursion, head to the river, where most of Bangkok’s famous temples and landmarks are. Admire the Grand Palace and Wat Pho‘s high-rising pillars, colorful mosaic tiles, statues of gods and demons, and well-maintained gardens. If you get there between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., observe monks on their morning walk, holding alms bowls that locals fill with instant noodles and sports drinks in return for a blessing. Monks are prohibited from buying food for themselves, thus the one meal a day they’re allowed depends on donations. If you want a blessing, opt for a healthier offering — diabetes and obesity among monks has become a crippling social issue in Thailand.
If temple-hopping by foot is not your cup of tea, tick off the landmarks on a Supanniga Cruise (while seated, wined and dined — from 1,250 baht, ¥4,500). Supanniga is a famous restaurant with its very own catering company, so its food is authentic and tasty.
Afternoons are best enjoyed out of the sun — a perfect excuse to indulge in a Thai massage. While you’ll likely receive a good massage in any seemingly hygienic and well-maintained massage joint, the abundance of massage parlors, combined with the potential of an accidental “happy ending,” makes deciding on a shop a daunting experience for some (especially men). A standard one-hour massage should cost no more than 250 to 400 baht (¥900 to ¥1,400), but for the creme de la creme of body-healing, try out the Asia Herb or Let’s Relax franchises that are scattered across the city: A standard massage there will cost upward of 500 baht (¥1,800), depending on the treatment.
If you’re the ticklish type, opt instead to see Jim Thompson House. The house is the former home of an American military and intelligence officer during World War II, who made a name for himself as an architect, art collector and father to Bangkok’s silk industry. He disappeared 52 years ago in Malaysia, and his body has yet to be found. His will was discovered hidden inside the roof of his house, and the house went to his nephew, who subsequently donated it to the government, who turned it into an art museum, silk shop and restaurant.
Mai tais and muay thai
Come evening, Bangkok obverts and the streets crowd with vendors and party-goers. While many conflate Bangkok nightlife with lewd sex-tourist traps, it has truly evolved from this cliche and the spotlight is now on specialty rooftop bars and trendy speakeasies.
For a 360-degree view of the concrete jungle, head to Octave Rooftop Lounge & Bar in Thonglor, or the infamous Sky Bar in Silom, alternatively known as the “Hangover Bar.” For a rainbow-colored night, Silom Soi 4 is the most colorful gay street of Bangkok. Step into the iconic DJ Station — the biggest, flashiest gay club in Bangkok that spreads over three floors and plays nonstop guilty-pleasure 2000s pop.
If you’re a martial arts fan, trade the mai tais for muay thai, the beautifully lethal “art of eight limbs” and Thailand’s national sport. To catch the action, head to Rajadamnern Stadium or Lumpinee Stadium — top stadiums that have televised fights on most nights of the week. Opt for the ringside tickets for around 1,500 to 2,500 baht (¥5,000-¥9000, depending on whether it’s a championship night). Warning: Second- and third-tier zones are reserved for the rowdiest gamblers, and can be a hazardous place for a visitor.
Fight nights are intoxicatingly fun chaos. In between rounds, you see gamblers making hand gestures to each other, trying to find people to make bets with, putting up special signals for blue corner, red corner and the odds. Be cautious when putting your hand up in the stadium: One wrong move and you could be in a bet with a gambling king (subsequent, unofficial fights have been known to start from a misplaced hand gesture).
Street carts and Michelin stars
Bangkok has no shortage of Michelin-starred restaurants. Gaggan notably rose to popularity after its appearance on Netflix’s “Chef’s Table” — but since chef Gaggan Anand will be relocating to Fukuoka to begin his new venture, GohGan, try his sous chef’s restaurant, Gaa, instead. Eat Me Restaurant or Bo.Lan are similarly brilliant additions to the Michelin list.
That said, the city is synonymous with street food: a democratic, unifying part of life in a city where inequality is ubiquitous. Sadly, the government has been cracking down on stalls in recent years but you’ll still be able to find vendors in most areas.
If you’re staying in Sathorn, near Sala Daeng, particularly on Convent Road, you’ll find some of the most famous stalls. Grab a 50 baht (¥180) wonton noodle soup at the stall in front of the 7-Eleven on the corner of Convent Road and Phiphat 2, or try the locally famous moo ping (grilled pork skewers) for 12 baht (¥45) a skewer at Moo Ping Hea Owen a few meters down the road. While most vendors park up every day, they do take days off — be prepared to change plans last minute.
If you want to graze afternoon through to evening, head down to Yaowarat Chinatown for everything from fresh fruit and freshly squeezed juice to meat skewers and grilled seafood. Burn off the fried calories by strolling down the congregation of gold shops and admiring the Chinese-influenced architecture, or pay a visit to the nearby Wat Traimit, the temple of the golden Buddha.
Be mindful that the default setting of most food is the dish plus sugar plus MSG plus fish sauce. If you’re ordering drinks and don’t want them sweet, make sure you say “mai sai namtaan” (don’t add sugar). “Espresso” in Thailand translates to a milky coffee with far too much sugar and syrup. If you’re vegetarian, make sure there’s no beef stock or fish sauce used to stir-fry your veggies. Warnings aside, it’s time to revel in Bangkok’s culinary delights.
From Don Mueang, there are local buses that cost as little as 30 baht (¥100) into the city. However, most of the buses lack air conditioning. Taxis are recommended and inexpensive, with a ride into central Sukhumvit or Sathorn costing 250 to 500 baht (¥900 to ¥1,800). While taxis from the airport usually turn the meter on, give them a gentle nudge if you notice it’s not running. Often the driver will tell you the meter is broken; pretend to walk out and they will usually find it now magically works.
From Suvarnabhumi, there is a simple rule: if you arrive between the rush hours of 4-8 p.m., get the Airport Rail Link. If you don’t mind being stuck in traffic for two or so hours or if you arrive outside rush hours, hop into a taxi, which should also cost no more than 500 baht.
To get around the city, use a combination of the BTS Skytrain, and both ordinary and motorbike taxis. An average fare on the Skytrain should cost no more than 30 baht (¥100), and is a reliable way to get close to majority of the main attractions. However, a supplementary motorbike taxi or a sweaty walk might be necessary from the train station.
The GrabTaxi app is essential and will save you from having to barter with taxi drivers. Grab also offers the GrabBike (Win) feature. Motorbike taxis are a hazardous but necessary part of life in Bangkok. Drivers are skilled and cut through the traffic like the night bus in “Harry Potter” (usually by alarmingly narrow margins), and get you at impressively cheap rates to places public transport can’t. Take the bike option if you’re going short distances between soi (side streets) and not on the thanon (main roads).
Hints and tips
Thailand’s coups (most recently in 2014) have portrayed Bangkok as unstable and, at times, dangerous. While local politics are volatile, the city is largely safe and friendly. Note that Thailand’s lese-majeste laws are some of the strictest in the world — avoid insulting the monarchy at all costs.
Don’t disrespect people by touching their heads as it is the most sacred part of the body. Equally, don’t point with your feet or rest your dirty feet near people as they are considered the most unholy part of the body. Remember these rules, and you’re ready for an otherwise disorderly weekend.
Bangkok consists of multiple self-contained neighborhoods and city centers, each with their own flavor and level of urbanization and development.
Sukhumvit Road is the heart of business and commercial activity in Bangkok and, with the BTS Skytrain running above the entire road, it is the most convenient strip for visitors to stay.
Stay near Siam and Chit Lom stations if you want to shop your heart out, or Thonglor and Ekkamai stations for trendy rooftop bars, hipster coffee shops and plenty of local and international cuisine.
The Silom area is another popular area that is next to Lumpini Park, the infamous Patpong market and has unrivaled street food.
Tomo Greer has lived in Bangkok since 2016 where she works as a lawyer and practices muay thai.