How to spend the ultimate holiday in Bangkok

Advice

Welcome to Bangkok – a sprawling, humid metropolis of more than 10 million souls that rose along the eastern banks of the Chao Phraya river a little more than 200 years ago.

Today, the Thai capital brims with interesting historic sites, stylish hotels, incredible culinary adventures, and fantastic shopping, and none of this need break the bank. The city has had some success in shedding its longstanding image of sleaze for a younger, more cosmopolitan mantle and is a pretty safe urban space. And while the kingdom’s conservative government has put the break on non-stop partying, the arts scene and the world-famous street food culture, many visitors continue to feel enchanted by this cornucopia of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and moods. Bangkok remains on the map for its temples, palaces, malls and markets, but it’s the ever-present smiles of its citizens that give the city a quite lovely human dimension. 

Tom Vater, our resident expert, offers his top tips on the hottest places to eat, drink and stay this season.

And for more Bangkok inspiration, turn to our guides on the city’s best hotelsrestaurantsnightlifeattractions and shopping.


In this guide


How to spend your weekend

Day one

Morning

Start the day on Rattanakosin Island, the heart of historic Bangkok. A trip to the Grand Palace complex is a must for first-time visitors. The main palace building was designed by British architects, in a mix of Thai and Italian building styles. Inside the palace complex, Wat Pra Kaew houses Thailand’s most revered religious icon, the Emerald Buddha, and features spectacular murals that depict key scenes from the Ramakien, the kingdom’s interpretation of the Ramayana.

In walking distance, the sprawling temple complex of Wat Po is famous for its huge reclining Buddha and its traditional massage techniques which are both offered and taught here. Visitors should be dressed appropriately to enter either site.



Wat Pra Kaew, Bangkok


Visit the Grand Palace and Wat Pra Kraew for a glimpse of the Emerald Buddha


Credit: Tetra/Thatree Thitivongvaroon

Afternoon

Grab lunch at nearby The Deck, a small riverside restaurant that’s part of the boutique hotel Arun Residence. There’s a good choice of excellent Thai food on the menu including a succulent lamb loin in yellow curry and white tiger prawn spicy salad, prepared with lychee, mint leaf and lemongrass. After you’ve eaten, you can take a look at the small shops and stalls that are found all over this part of the riverfront, especially at nearby Tha Prachan Market, which sells amulets, statues and other esoteric objects.

Go a little off the beaten track and take a regular river boat from any downtown pier, all the way north to the final ferry stop at Nonthaburi. Watching the city slide by and fade into suburbs and rice fields, this hour-long journey is especially rewarding in the winter months when a cool clear breeze on the Chao Praya River offers respite from the downtown pollution.

On the return journey, Wat Arun, the iconic temple of dawn, makes for a spectacular afternoon stop over. Continue south on the river to the pier at Saphan Taksin, from where the BTS Skytrain will whizz you to downtown restaurants and bars in a few minutes.



Wat Arun, Bangkok


It’s worth getting off the river boat for a closer look at Wat Arun


Credit: Ed Norton Photography/Ed Norton

Late

For excellent Issan food, head to Baan Somtum, a short cab ride from Thong Lo BTS. Regional favorites include fifteen delicious varieties of papaya salad, fried chicken with sticky rice and grilled catfish. Baan Somtum has several other branches around town.

Finish the night with a Cuba Libre at the Havana Social, a speakeasy-style bar with a 1940s pre-revolution Cuba theme. The bar can only be entered through a fake phone booth, and only if one is armed with a secret code for which one needs to call the venue. Numerous rum-concoctions and Coca-Cola ice cubes are popular with Bangkok’s well-to-do night-owls.



Soul Food Mahanakorn, Bangkok


Street food standards such as pad Thai with crab and somtam (papaya salad) are recreated with richer flavours at Soul Food Mahanakorn

Day two

Morning

Jim Thompson, Bangkok’s best known Asia Hand (a foreigner who has lived in Asia for a long time and is familiar with local culture) and one-time American spy, almost single-handedly put the kingdom’s silk industry on the map. Jim Thompson’s House, a series of interconnected wooden country homes he had transported to Bangkok from up-country, is open to the public (guided tours are frequent and mandatory) and contains a fascinating collection of eclectic antiques and personal baubles. The museum is located in a lush tropical garden compound on the banks of a canal.

Close-by, the gigantic old-school MBK Centre shopping mall offers an astounding variety of cheap Thai eats in its sixth-floor food court, as well as a pricier range of international foods at Fifth Food Avenue, one floor down, both perfect for lunch. The astounding variety of shops and vendors, offering everything from cameras, luggage, clothes, smart phones and other gadgets to tacky souvenirs, is likely to keep shoppers enthralled for some time.



Jim Thompson's House, Bangkok


Jim Thompson’s House contains a fascinating collection of eclectic antiques

Afternoon

Bangkok’s wonderfully authentic Chinatown is at its best in the afternoon, with its roads and alleys clogged by shoppers perusing traditional medicine and gold shops. During Chinese New Year, which usually takes place in late February, the area comes alive with colourful, boisterous street processions, a Chinese street food bonanza and countless stalls selling Chinese souvenirs.

A couple of impressive temples can also be found in the area, including the towering Wat Traimit, which contains the world’s largest solid gold Buddha.

Follow the lead of the locals and enjoy some excellent early evening street food meal along Yaowarat Road, as this is one of the few places where it is still available and plentiful. A fantastic alternative is the near-by Klong Ong Ang, a picturesque, recently restored stretch of canal, lined with excellent Indian eateries, of which the Punjabi Mama Restaurant is a particular highlight.



Chinatown, Bangkok


Peruse the shops or stop for a street food snack in Chinatown


Credit: © 2018 Frank Bienewald/Frank Bienewald

Late

On the edge of Chinatown, tiny Soi Nana is currently home to Bangkok’s trendiest nightlife scene. Forget the vulgar bars on Sukhumvit, here it’s all about craft beers, tapas, cool music, and more street food, with a couple of cultural spaces that host interesting exhibitions thrown into the mix, all located in traditional, well restored Chinese shop houses.

El Chiringuito is a popular tapas bar that spills onto the alley’s pavement on weekend nights and welcomes punters with tortillas, sangria and a funky selection of gins, while Asia Today, a vibey, somewhat kitschy bar in a side alley of Soi Nana, serves eclectic cocktails created with local and regional herbs and spices. 



Cho Why, Bangkok


Find places to eat tucked into small alleyways and roads


Insider tips

City hack

While Bangkok’s taxis are amongst the world’s cheapest, bear in mind that they are best utilised outside rush hour periods. Always insist on drivers switching on the meter: a trip across town should be around 100-150 Thai baht (£2-£3). Alternatively, there are two Uber-type Apps, Grab and Bolt, that give the regular cabs a run for their baht.

Attractions

If the concrete canyons get too much, consider an adventure at Bang Krachao, Bangkok’s hidden jungle peninsula. Take a boat from Wat Klong Toei Nok across the Chao Praya and rent a bicycle at the pier to explore in your own time. The rental places here provide visitors with a map and there are cafés and restaurants along the way. The Bangkok Tree House is one good option to stop off at for a drink and watch the river from its private pier.

Neighbourhood watch

The Khao San Road, Bangkok’s infamously famous backpacker strip, offers great, simple street food, including what must be the cheapest pad Thai noodles the city has to offer, plenty of souvenirs and a great party atmosphere.

Stay

Sala Arun is a delightful boutique riverside property housed in an 80-year-old Chinese shophouse opposite iconic Wat Arun. With just nine smart rooms, a decent restaurant and a great roof terrace, this intimate hotel is a perfect fit for visitors interested in Bangkok’s historic heritage. The Praya Palazzo, an Italian style riverside mansion, is the perfect romantic getaway – the hotel is only accessible by boat. The two hotel boats run around the clock and are free of charge to and from Phra Athit pier.

Eat

Thai food with a Danish touch may sound strange, but the innovative interpretations of culinary classics at Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin at the Siem Kempinski Hotel Bangkok have retained their well-deserved Michelin star for a second year running.

Drink

FooJohn Building houses the Foo John Jazz Club, one of the city’s foremost jazz venues, and 100 Bit, Bangkok’s first retro-gaming barcade, in a beautifully restored 1960s corner house on the edge of Chinatown. It attracts an eclectic crowd of locals and ex-pats, and there’s a rooftop concert space too.

Did you know?

Some of the best city views can be had from the revolving deck on the 84th floor of Bayoke Tower II. Entry is 450 Thai baht (£10) including a drink on the Roof Top Bar on the 83rd floor.


When to go

Bangkok is at its best during the cool season, from November to February, after the monsoon and before the sweltering heat sets in at the beginning of March. April, May and June are infernally hot – sitting on a motorbike in the day time is like riding through a fire storm – though by mid-June, the rains usually arrive, bringing much needed respite, taking the dust out of the air and making the plants grow in record time. The rainy season is actually a great time to visit – few tourists, lower temperatures and the occasional monsoonal downpour that floods the streets and brings the children out to play.


Where to stay

Luxury Living

The Siam is an exquisite and one of a kind heritage-style luxury hotel that seamlessly marries classic Thai influences with Art Deco aesthetics. Public areas and rooms are decorated with stunning antiques and huge efforts are made to offer guests complete privacy amidst silent, sumptuous serenity. Oh, and there’s a 23 metre-long pool overlooking the river too.

Doubles from £603. 



The Siam Bangkok, Bangkok


The 23 metre-long pool at The Siam is a refreshing place to go for a dip overlooking the river

Designer Digs

Sala Arun is a delightful boutique riverside property housed in an 80-year-old Chinese shophouse, once a palm sugar wholesaler, opposite iconic Wat Arun. Just nine smart rooms feature classic dark wood Thai furnishings, Mediterranean design elements, Turkish floor tiles, Vietnamese art and modern amenities and there’s a decent restaurant and a great roof terrace. Better still, Sala Arun is in walking-distance of Bangkok’s major historic sites, including Wat Po and the royal palace.

Doubles from £93.



Bangkok Publishing Residence, Bangkok


The eight spacious rooms at the Bangkok Publishing Residence have a distinctly cosmopolitan Old World feel

Budget Beauty

China’s ‘Roaring Thirties’ come to life in a retrofitted, 70-year-old building in the heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown. The Shanghai Mansion offers the right balance between old world movie set feel and modern facilities. Antique telephones, carved dragons, blood-red chandeliers, rich tapestries, intricate locks, wooden partitions, and plenty of pillars add to the perfectly executed ambience.

Double rooms from £69.



Shanghai Mansion, Bangkok


Rooms are spacious and as exquisitely designed as the Shanghai Mansion’s common areas


What to bring home

One-time American spy and bon vivant Jim Thompson helped create the Thai silk industry. Products sporting his name are available from numerous outlets, including a shop at his house, now a museum. Browse quintessential Thai silk products, vintage photographs and facsimile reprints of ancient horoscopes.



Jim Thompson's House, Bangkok


Pick up colourful silk products at Jim Thompson’s House

Travellers with a generous luggage allowance may be tempted to grab a Thai triangular pillow, an object of comfort made from natural fibres that ingeniously unfolds up to four times. Look out for them at street stalls and markets.



Thai triangular pilllow, Bangkok


Thai triangular pillows ingeniously unfold up to four times


Credit: UpPiJ/UpPiJ


Essential Information

  • British Embassy: 0066 2 305 8333, AIA Sathorn Tower, Floor 12 A 11/1 S Sathon Rd, BTS St. Louis.
  • Tourism Division; Culture, Sports and Tourism Department: 00 66 2 2257612; 17/1 Phra Athit Road. Open daily, 9am-7pm. Phra Athit pier
  • Tourist Police: Dial 1155, 1699

Local laws and etiquette

  • It is strictly against the law to criticise the monarchy. Smart appearance goes a long way in Thailand. Visitors to Buddhist temples should be covered up, take their shoes off and never point the soles of their feet at Buddhist icons.

The basics

  • Currency: Baht
  • Telephone code: Dial 00 66 2 for Bangkok numbers from outside Thailand, 02 from inside Thailand
  • Time difference: +7 hours
  • Flight time: 11hr 25min

Author bio

Tom moved to the Thai capital 20 years ago, drawn by the hot weather, friendly smiles and laissez-fair vibe. Today you can find him exploring river side markets such as Tha Pra Chan, and checking out the city’s eclectic music venues. 

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