Get a sensory overload on Thai culture with colors and chaos, smells and sounds, food and night life.
Bangkok has always been every traveler’s introduction to Asia. A budget-friendly city of modern skyscrapers and temples, Bangkok is a great place to soak up culture, food, spirituality and madness, all in one big breath. While Asian cities in general are known for their buzz, overflowing traffic and swarming pedestrians; Bangkok ranks higher on the sensory overload compared to other cities. The sensation of colors, smells and tastes, are unique to Bangkok.
In Bangkok, Thailand’s Buddhist tradition has combined with a modern young generation to shape an international city of non-stop action. The city continues to leave its Asian counterparts behind as a popular destination in South East Asia, whether as a pit stop on an Asian journey, or a culmination of traveler curiosity.
The local name of Bangkok, Krung Thep, literally translates into “The City of Angels”. Although Bangkok enjoys its fair share of names – ‘Venice of the East” to “Backpacker’s city” – the “Food Lovers paradise” is what describes it best. Wherever you go, you come across food stalls laden with the widest variety of foods you can imagine. Every street corner, roadside or mall, is filled with stalls offering amazing culinary delights and some of the cheapest food options in the world. It is no wonder that Bangkok has earned the title of “World’s Street-Food Capital”.
City of Angels and Food Paradise
The streets of Bangkok are the most chaotic. Brightly colored cabs and motorcycle taxis zoom past unflappable pedestrians, compelling the tourist to fast-track navigation skills. This frenzied pace of life and street savvy marks the character of this incredible city.
At the same time, Bangkok offers you a diversity of experience. You can absorb the local culture, revisit your taste buds, sample the pulsating night life or choose to escape the throngs to secluded beaches across Thailand.
Planning the Trip
Bangkok is perhaps the easiest place to travel amongst Asian cities. The open and warm policy of Thailand towards travelers from the West is legendary. A 30 day visa-on-arrival is easily available. Tourist visas allow you 60 days of entry. Visas can be easily extended by 30 days at any immigration centre in Thailand.
You may like to get yourself a print map of the city to help you navigate and avert getting tricked by unscrupulous tuk tuk drivers or finding yourself in dubious places.
Best time of year to visit Bangkok
Summers are extremely hot and humid. Air fares also peak during June to September. A great time to go is November to January, when the climate is cool and comfortably humid. If planning a November visit, we suggest the first week of November coinciding with the Full Moon. This is the time of the annual Loi Krathong festival. Thousands of candles and baskets are floated down the Chao Phraya River in homage to the river goddess, and the sight at night is truly magical.
A great time to visit Bangkok is November to January.
How to get there
International carriers like Delta, Cathay Pacific, Air China, Air France and British Airways offer cheap direct flights to Bangkok city. Suvarnabhumi Airport is the international airport handling long-haul international flights. It is located about 30 km east of the city and is connected with buses, train services, private metered taxis and car rentals. Free mobile SIM cards are available upon arrival. ATM and banking counters for currency exchange are located at the airport.
If you choose to travel to Bangkok from an Asian country or on low cost carriers, you may however arrive at Bangkok’s second airport, the Don Mueang International Airport.
Where to stay in Bangkok
It pays to put some thought into where you stay, as the location and proximity to attractions and the Skytrain or Metro, will likely define your Bangkok experience. The city offers you the widest choice of accommodations possible. Cheap hostels, budget-friendly accommodation and boutique hotels are easy to find. For luxurious stays in world class hotels, we suggest establishments like the Hilton and Mandarin Oriental across the River Chao Phraya. These are accessed by short boat rides from the Riverside areas, and are close to the main attractions.
How to get around
The sheer size of the city and its never-ending traffic congestion may seem overwhelming, but with some planning you can easily get around without getting stuck in the traffic. The range of transportation options is wide, and largely depends upon your location. The BTS Skytrain is the quickest way to get around the central city and business districts, while the MRT underground transports you through the heart of downtown Bangkok. Colorful metered taxis and motorcycle taxis are easily available. Calling up an Uber cab is another alternative. River and canal boats are other quick ways to get around the city to avoid traffic jams. Bangkok is also known for its iconic three-wheeler tuk tuks, a quaint way of local travel.
A tuk tuk experience and a canal boat ride in the waterways are must-dos for a quintessential Bangkok experience.
What to do in Bangkok
Bangkok offers you many choices, from a DIY tour to guided excursion or a mix of both. We recommend the latter, as it offers you an opportunity to take in the best of attractions in a short time, leaving you free to walk around soaking in the sounds, smells and sights. By and large, Bangkok remains the backpacker’s hotspot, especially the millennials. You will come across student backpackers, young couples and solo travelers, many of whom are also travel writers and food bloggers. With a night-life like no other, streets teeming with people and spicy foods, this may not be your typical family-friendly city but is high on fun quotient. Everything has an element of gaiety and playfulness, whether it is a ride on a tuk tuk or a food tour with a witty guide.
Bangkok offers plenty to do:
- Tour the glittering well-preserved temples.
- Cruise the Chao Phraya River.
- Walk down Khao San Road, the venue where all foreigner travelers converge.
- Have a culinary adventure in the vendor-lined streets of Chinatown.
- Take in a day trip to Ayutthaya.
- Venture into a shopping mall.
- Watch a typical Muay Thai fight.
- Imbibe the pulsating and nuanced flavors of Bangkok at an open-air Market.
- Watch the sun set from a sky-high rooftop bar or a river boat.
What more could you ask of a city?
Explore the extensive network of canals (khlongs) to see why Bangkok is called “The Venice of the East”. Book yourself a touristy long-tail boat, straight out of the James Bond chase scene in “The Man with the Golden Gun”. Grab some Thai food from a floating vendor as you glide past Bangkok houses and markets.
Bangkok has hundreds of markets – weekend markets, themed markets, riverside markets and night markets. They sell everything from antiques, vintage fashion and handicrafts to food, devices, flowers and more. Although each market has its own character, we suggest visiting Pak Klong Talat, the biggest flower market, for a remarkable experience.
Thai cuisine has increasingly gained popularity worldwide and tourists are interested to learn the secrets of Thai food. Cookery learning schools are to be found everywhere at Bangkok, where you can master the finer nuances of Thai cooking in half a day or longer.
Experience the soul of Bangkok through taste. Discover why Bangkok is the “Street-Food Capital”. Walk through neighborhoods with savvy culinary guides who take you through Thai eateries, famous street food stalls, and fine dining restaurants. Discover hidden food gems and indulge in some of the best food tastings in Bangkok. Connect with the local food and culture scene as you explore on foot and tuk tuks, and dig-in to the aromas and sounds of street vendors.
Traditional Thai Spa
You cannot be in Bangkok and not indulge in a traditional Thai massage at one of its many spas. A Thai spa treatment is available at any hotel spa. A traditional Nuad Phan Boran massage at cheaper venues will cost you only a few bucks, but you may want to avoid dodgy massage parlors.
Regardless of where you get your massage, the Thai massage is surely a life-changing moment!
What to see in Bangkok
Bangkok city is in a constant state of flux, but its attractions remain its most constant and endearing features. Heavy on temple visits and traditional locations, they can be done in a day or two.
The Grand Palace
This is Bangkok’s star attraction. The Grand Palace was the royal residence till 1925, and is now open to visitors. Tour the majestic throne halls, see the Emerald Buddha, and admire the spectacular craftsmanship of the palace architecture. If you wish to avoid the mid-day sun and crowds, make it a point to visit the complex in the early morning.
Sleeping Buddha at Wat Pho
Down the street is Wat Pho, the site of the famous 46 metre-long and 15 metre-high Sleeping Buddha build by Thai Kings in the 17th century. Completely swathed in gold leaf, the sculpture is an impressive sight that fails to be captured in a single photo frame. Make sure to drop coins in the 108 bowls for good luck!
Jim Thompson House
This is the house of a famous spy who disappeared long back. Touring the house is a crash-course in Thai history. The Thai-style house, graced with exquisite silk tapestries, wood work, sculptures and paintings, offers a great introduction to Thai culture and lifestyle.
The Bangkok National Museum showcases Thai culture with royal artifacts, wooden carvings, musical instruments, religious sculptures and archeological finds on display. The Museum of Siam is another great place for multimedia exhibits of the history and culture of Thailand.
This is the Temple of Golden Buddha, site of the world’s largest seated Sukhothai style Buddha in solid gold. It measures about 10 feet in height and weighs 5.5 tons, and is a magnificent must-see.
Also known as the David Beckham temple, this temple is likely to liven up your day. The tourist draw is the quirky collection of vividly hued shrines dedicated to Japanese warriors, Disney characters and panda emojis embedded into the architecture. Below Buddha’s altar is a tiny golden shrine of David Beckham!
Shopping in Bangkok
Bangkok is one of the best and cheapest shopping destinations in the world. You can buy just about anything at any budget. Gucci shoes and Jimmy-Choo bags to handmade Thai silks, spa products, spices, handicrafts, silver jewelry, and even computer peripherals; you have a wide choice of takeaways. Orchids and instant Thai snacks are other souvenirs that remind you of your Bangkok visit.
What to eat in Bangkok
Bangkok has hundreds of restaurants. With so much choice it is difficult to know the best places to eat. As a rule of thumb, if you want to taste Thai dishes, head to places where you find locals dining. Check out online listings of the best restaurants by area, type of cuisine and your budget. Street food is best available at Sukhumvit Road and Khao San Road.
Thai Cuisine is predominantly rice and noodle-based, with heaps of vegetables and meat, and loaded with tangy flavors. The best way to experience Bangkok food is with a food tour that gives you both, an overview of what you are eating and a range of tastings in the shortest time.
Night Life in Bangkok
Bangkok has a legendary nightlife as the city comes to life at night. Like any other international city, the partying scene ranges from classy to trashy, and calls for prudence. The best neighborhoods for night life are Sukhumvit, Khaosan and Royal City Avenue. Dance parties, rooftop bars, chill-out-lounges with live music, nightclubs, dance clubs, classy jazz bars, hole-in-the-wall bars, cocktail lounges and cultural shows, sum up Bangkok’s night life scene.
Bangkok’s neon-lit rooftop bars are currently giving New York stiff competition as the rooftop bar capital of the world. Alfresco 64, Vertigo and Sirocco are Bangkok’s famous addresses for sky-high bars with fabulous views that you may like to check-out.