Bangkok

Get caught up in Thailand’s lively and energetic capital. Chill in cafes, party after dark and shop till you drop. 

There’s a raw energy about Bangkok that makes it one of the most exciting cities on earth. The heat is steamy, the pavements teem with Thai food stalls, and after dark you can party anywhere from posh nightclubs to camper vans converted into cocktail-selling bars at the side of the road. Restaurants run the gamut from cheap local cafés to Indian, Mexican and branches of Michelin-starred modern European.

Shoppers have an ever-increasing number of gigantic malls to browse. They bustle past the world’s top brands from fashion houses like Armani and Gucci to the showrooms of Ferrari and Porsche. Chinatown alleys recall the days of Bangkok’s early settlers, with dragon costumes, gold shops and traditional medicines. North of town is the world’s biggest flea market, Chatuchak.

Bangkok is never quiet, but hunt around and you’ll find enclaves of peace, often around the ancient Buddhist temples of the Old City. Or take a boat along the canals of Thonburi and see hints of the wooden-house waterside communities that were normal throughout the city less than a century ago.

And to help you enjoy it all, Thais are some of the most fun-loving people on the planet; there’s a good reason why Thailand is called the Land of Smiles.

When to go

The best time is November to February, for sunny skies, low humidity and little rain.

Visa requirements

Nationals from most countries are granted a visa on arrival valid for 15-90 days. Details are on the website of the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Singapore nationals are entitled to 30 days. Sixty-day tourist visas are available from a Thai embassy before leaving home. All can be extended by 30 days at the immigration office. Tourists can stay in Thailand for a period not exceeding 90 days within six months from the date of first entry. Your passport should be valid for at least six months after arrival.

Money

The baht is the principal Thai monetary unit.

Transport

Metered taxis take about 45 minutes to get to the city from either of Bangkok's airports. There's also a rail link from Suvarnabhumi Airport to the city's Skytrain system. The Skytrain and MRT (underground metro) are the best way of beating central Bangkok's traffic. Tickets for both cost B15-40. There are day passes, but no ticket system that links the networks.
 

Taxis are metered, air-conditioned and cheap. Three wheeled tuk-tuks have novelty appeal, but fares are rarely lower than those of taxis. Motorcycle taxis are quick and cheap but drivers can be reckless. Buses are also cheap and some are air-conditioned, but they have little English signage, so can be challenging. Chao Phraya Express Boats (B10-40) are a relaxing way to get to the Old City.

Health and safety tips

No vaccinations are required to enter Thailand. Hospitals are good, but there are no reciprocal healthcare agreements with other countries, so arrange health insurance. There are 24-hour pharmacies across the city. Bangkok tap water has been passed safe to drink, but bottled is preferable. Ice is generally fine.
 

Thais tend to be non-confrontational, and the country is generally safe. Scam artists are the main risk, so take particular care when buying gems and antiques.

Emergency details

129 South Sathorn Road (tel: (66) 2286 2111 or (66) 81 844 3580 outside office hours, www.mfa.gov.sg/bangkok).
 

Tourist Police National Hotline: 1155 (anywhere in Thailand), www.tourist.police.go.th.

Basic greetings
English Thai
Hello Sah-waht-dee
How are you? Bpehn yahng-ngi?
Fine, thanks Sah-bie dee korp-kuhn
Goodbye Sah-waht-dee
Excuse-me! (to get attention, to get past) Kor-toet
Thank you Korp-kuhn
Yes Krahp/kah
No Mi
OK Dtok-long
What's your name? Kuhn chuee ah-ri?
My name is… Pom/chahn chuee…
Nice to meet you Yihn dee tee die roo-jahk
Are you on Facebook/Twitter? Kuhn l`ehn fes-buhk/tah-wiht-ter mi?
Where’s an internet café? Ihn-dter-neht kar-fe yoo tee-ni?
Where can I get a taxi? Pom/chahn jah reark tak-see die tee-ni?
Where is the bus/train station? Sah-tar-nee kon-song/rot-fi yoo tee-ni?
A one-way/return ticket to… Dtoar teaw deaw/bpi glahp bpi…
Do you have a room for one/two? Kuhn mee hohng sahm-rahp kon deaw/sorng kon mi?
When's check out? Dtorng chehk-ou gee moeng?
Can you recommend a good restaurant/bar? Kuhn choary na-nahm rarn ar-harn/bar dee dee hi nohy di mi?
A table for two, please Kor dto sahm-rahp sorng kon
A menu, please Kor me-noo nohy
The bill, please Chehk bihn doary
Where's the toilet? Hohng-narm bpi tarng ni?
Help! Choary doary!

  Destination content brought to you by Insight Guides

The Ancient City

296/1 Thanon Sukhumvit, Samut Prakan

The Ancient City, a parkland site, has over 100 reproductions or reconstructions of long-lost buildings that celebrate Thai history, culture and architecture. Some of the monuments, palaces and other buildings are life-size or nearly life-size. Tour the site by car, bicycle, golf cart or guided tram tour. The park is loosely divided along geographical lines. Highlights in Central Thailand include a reproduction of the 15th-century Sanphet Prasat Palace, the main royal residence in the early Ayutthaya era. There are period houses in regional styles and mock-ups of villages with local crafts, open-air cafés and a floating market.

Grand Palace & Wat Phra Kaew

Thanon Na Phra Lan

The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew are Bangkok’s principal attractions, and are breathtaking despite the crowds. The royal temple Wat Phra Kaew is a picture of glistening golden chedis, glass mosaic pillars and towering mythological gods. It houses the Emerald Buddha, the country’s most revered religious image, as well as several museums. Ignore the touts outside who say it is closed (they are working a scam), and dress appropriately (no shorts or bare shoulders). Keep your ticket as it also admits you to Dusit Park.

Dusit Park

Thanon Ratchadamnoen Nok

The northern reach of Ratchadamnoen Boulevard ends at Royal Plaza in Dusit Park, which contains a bronze statue of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) on horseback. This is Thailand’s most revered monarch, who developed many of the buildings in this area during the early 20th century. Immediately behind is the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, a monumental Italian-Renaissance-style structure of grey marble. Among other features in the park are the Royal Elephant National Museum, the Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall and Vimanmek Mansion, the world’s largest golden-teak building. All have displays on aspects of Thai royalty and culture.

Soi Thonglor

Sukhumvit Soi 55

Much of Bangkok’s young, hip nightlife happens along Soi Thonglor, a side street of Thanon Sukhumvit. The area is full of pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants. Notable destinations to look out for include Iron Fairies, modelled on a workshop making, yes, iron fairies. The Water Library has very good modern Euro-Asian cuisine by Singaporean chef Haikal Johari, and the club Demo has an urban warehouse ambience and House music blasted through a monster sound system.

Wat Pho

Thanon Thai Wang

Bangkok’s largest and oldest surviving temple, Wat Pho is home to the monumental Reclining Buddha. The statue is 46 metres long and 15 metres (49ft) high, and depicts the resting Buddha passing into nirvana. The temple grounds also have walls inscribed with lessons on astrology, history, morality and archaeology; consequently it is known as Thailand’s first university. Wat Pho is one of the best places to study traditional medicine, particularly massage and meditation. Many of the city’s masseuses train here, as can visitors (www.watpomassage.com).

Thonburi Canals

The easiest place to hire a longtail boat to tour the Thonburi khlongs (canals) is Tha Chang pier, near the Grand Palace. A popular tour covers the sites of Khlong Bangkok Noi. These include the National Museum of Royal Barges, where the dry-dock contains eight vessels from a fleet of over 50 that sail on auspicious occasions. Other attractions are the village of Ban Bu, which still has one active workshop making bronze bowls that were traditionally used by monks, several temples and weekend floating markets. Longtail boats are noisy, so sit at the front for a quieter ride.

Shop

Chinatown Markets

Off Thanon Yaowarat

There are several Chinatown Markets. The oldest is around Sampeng Lane, which bustles with small shops selling goods frequently imported from China. You’ll find everything from cheap clothes and footwear to sticky confectionery, cosmetics and costume jewellery. They’re also often available wholesale. Other markets with equally wide choices can be found on Soi Itsaranuphap and, further northwest, in Bangkok’s Little India, which is centred on Pahurat Market.

Budget $

Jewellery Trade Centre

919/1 Thanon Silom, Bangrak

Thailand is a conduit for stones from Burma and Cambodia and also has its own mines in the provincial areas of Chantaburi and Kanchanaburi. The Jewellery Trade Centre has a wide choice of outlets, where you can spend a few dollars or thousands. Fakes are common in Thailand, so stick to shops endorsed by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Thai Gem and Jewellery Traders Association. These carry the Jewel Fest logo. The JTC is also home to the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences (tel: 66 2267 4315, www.aigsthailand.com), where you can have gemstones graded.

Budget $$$

MBK (Mahboonkrong)

444 Thanon Phayathai, Pathumwan

The huge MBK mall is a crowded evocation of a Thai market, where stalls spill chaotically into the aisles. Its prices are very reasonable and, unlike other malls, bargaining is common. You can find anything here, from cameras and clothes to software, furniture and crafts. It’s close to both Siam Square and the more upmarket malls of the area.

Budget $$

Pak Khlong Talad

Thanon Chakkaphet

Stalls in Pak Khlong Talad cover the streets in a riot of fragrance and colour from displays of roses, carnations, sunflowers and myriad orchids. The market occupies a convenient river location to supply funeral wreaths for use in the Old City temples. It’s open 24 hours a day and best visited at night to combine browsing with the adjacent Saphan Phut Market, which sells bargain clothes amongst other items. Memorial Bridge (Saphan Phut) has views of the river.

Budget $

Siam Paragon

991/1 Thanon Rama I

Siam Paragon is Bangkok’s premier mall if you're looking to do some luxury spending. The windows display quality tags like Ferrari and Porsche, Jimmy Choo shoes and Oriental silk and wool carpets at Aslam Qureshi. Bulgari and Cartier handle the bling. Add the department store, multiplex cinemas and plentiful restaurants and you could spend all day here.

Budget $$$

ThaiCraft

242 Soi Akharn Songkroh

The organisation ThaiCraft adheres to fairtrade practices, so you can shop and feel good about yourself, too. It has no retail outlet, but holds regular Bangkok fairs selling crafts from around Thailand. Weaving and pottery projects are common, with many from minority communities such as those in hilltribe villages. They often hold demonstrations and workshops if you want to learn yourself. Check the website for events.

Budget $$

Dine

Gaggan

68/1 Soi Langsuan

In a summer-house interior of white wood and rattan, the progressive Indian restaurant Gaggan boasts El Bulli-inspired molecular cooking techniques. You can order dishes such as roasted foie gras with raspberry chutney either a la carte or on tasting menus. Gaggan is one of the best chefs in town and also cooks excellent traditional fare such as bhunna mutton curry and even Italian-inspired Indian dishes.

Budget $$$

Nahm

Metropolitan Hotel, 27 Thanon Sathorn Tai

Run by celebrated Australian chef David Thompson, Nahm is a branch of what was Europe’s first Michelin-starred Thai restaurant. The ultra-traditional menu includes intriguing flavours such as northern pork, prawn and tamarind relish served with braised mackerel, sweet pork, crispy acacia and soft-boiled eggs. The food is exceptional.

Budget $$$

Opposite Mess Hall

27/1 Sukhumvit Soi 51

Helmed by the popular chef Jess Barnes, Opposite Mess Hall is the dining operation of the trendy art bar WTF, opposite. It’s small, with a working men’s vibe and simple Aussie-Euro food that’s big on lesser-used ingredients. Dishes like smoked bone marrow dumplings with beef broth, pumpkin and fermented daikon are delicious. Or try steamed Chinese bun with fried tempeh, kimchi, sriracha mayo and scamorza cheese. It’s tasty, and great with a beer.

Budget $$

Oskar Bistro

24 Sukhumvit Soi 11

The smart but casual Oskar Bistro is bar-like in atmosphere but serves very tasty international food. Choices include burgers, pastas and salads, using ingredients like Waygu beef, lavender and grilled fig. The loungey electro sounds morph into something easier to dance to as the night matures, so it’s a good venue to linger in. Alternatively, you could move on to clubs in the same street.

Budget $$

Soi 38 foodstalls

Sukhumvit Soi 38

Open till 2am, the Soi 38 foodstalls are a favoured place for top-up Thai meals after a night drinking in the bars of Soi Thonglor. It’s located at the entrance of the soi opposite, next to Thonglor Skytrain station. There’s a good mix of rough-and-tumble food stalls, where you can try rice gruel, spring rolls, spicy crab salad, crispy pork, nam kaeng sai (desserts with ice) and countless others. Wash them down with fruit juice or beer.

Budget $

Soi Texas foodstalls

Soi Padung Dao

Famed for its food, Soi Texas is a small Chinatown lane with two stalls at its mouth, Rut and Lek and T & K (open from 6pm). They are packed with diners at streetside tables feasting on great curried crab and a whole host of seafood, the latter coming in many variations such as charcoal-grilled and fried with garlic and chilli.

Budget $

Stay

D&D; Inn

68–70 Thanon Khao San

D&D; Inn is located in the middle of Khao San Road, where raucous nightlife at reasonable prices is right on the doorstep. This operation is more of a hotel than a guesthouse, and offers great value. It has 200 rooms, a rooftop swimming pool, bar and open pavilion for traditional massage. The rooms are well equipped with bathrooms, air-conditioning, TV, fridge and IDD phone.

Budget $

Peninsula

333 Thanon Charoen Nakorn

The contemporary international decor of the Peninsula has neat Asian undertones, and all 370 rooms overlook the Chao Phraya River. There’s a lovely spa, a pool overlooking the river, and the superb Chinese restaurant Mei Jeang is one of the best in the city. There’s a heli-pad on the roof and a free shuttle boat that makes the 60-second journey to Saphan Taksin BTS station from 6am–midnight.

Budget $$$

Sofitel So Bangkok

2 Thanon Sathorn Nua

Sofitel So Bangkok's urban chic brand has lots of youthful elegance, starting with the chocolate 'lab' by the entrance. The semi-alfresco Park Society bar-restaurant throws regular DJ parties and has great city views across Lumphini Park. The 238 rooms have an elements theme of Water, Earth, Wood, Metal or Fire, all from a different designer, and contain Mac Minis. Christian Lacroix designed the uniforms.

Budget $$

Suk 11 Hostel

1/33 Soi 11, Thanon Sukhumvit

Although the 67 rooms at the family-run guesthouse Suk 11 Hostel are typically bare budget accommodation with no TV or fridge, there is plenty of rustic and wooden decor. The location is great, being a short walk from the Skytrain and on one of the city's best streets for bars, clubs and restaurants. There is internet access in the lobby, plus a common room with TV and DVDs. They have a no-smoking policy.

Budget $

The Siam

3/2 Thanon Khao

The Siam is a beautiful boutique hotel on the river just north of the Old City. It has its own museum, and the stylish Art Deco suites and villas are individually designed with nods to historic Siam. Along with artworks and antiques, each of the 39 rooms has a personal butler and free wifi. At the top end of the accommodation price range is Connie’s Cottage, a 100-year-old wooden house brought from Ayutthaya by Jim Thompson and his close friend Connie Mangskau. Dine in the very good traditional Thai restaurant, Chon.

Budget $$$

W Bangkok

106 Thanon Sathorn Nua

The contemporary-style W chain has its Bangkok flagship, W Bangkok, right beside Chong Nonsi Skytrain station, in the middle of the rapidly developing business district. The colour scheme includes lots of purple, silver and black, and the 407 rooms have i-Pad docking to link with TV screens. The casual all-day restaurant serves international food, and the pool has underwater lighting and speakers for pool parties.

Budget $$

Bangkok Vegetarian Festival

Date varies in October

Although not as extreme as the festival in Phuket, the one in Bangkok’s Chinatown will be full of parades, Chinese opera and cooking demonstrations. The best action is around Yaowarat and Charoen Krung roads.


International Festival of Dance and Music

Date varies in September, October

This comprehensive month-long festival gathers artistic companies from around the world at the Thailand Cultural Centre. Performances range from Indian dance-theatre to Russian ballet and American jazz.


Loy Krathong

Full-moon night of November

This lovely festival pays respects to the goddess of water. People give thanks by releasing banana-leaf floats, beautifully decorated with flowers, incense, candles and small coins, onto rivers. Most riverside hotels have special parties.


Songkran (Thai New Year)

13-15 April

Thai New Year is celebrated with an extraordinary bout of good-humoured water throwing. Festivities may last as long as four or five days and involve music, dancing and parades. Tourist areas, including Khao San Road and Patpong, are very lively.


The King’s Birthday

5 December

The royal birthday is celebrated nationwide, but most spectacularly at Rattanakosin in Bangkok. The Grand Palace is illuminated and there is a fireworks display opposite on Sanam Luang Ceremonial fields.


The Royal Ploughing Ceremony

Date Varies in May

In this Brahman festival on Sanam Luang field, two sacred cows are led to a choice of seven foodstuffs such as rice, green beans and liquor. Whichever they consume first prophesises the year’s harvest. The festival dates back nearly 1,000 years.


Culture

Start the day with the royal buildings in Rattanakosin, a fortified island made by King Rama I in 1782. The walled Grand Palace complex on Thanon Na Phra Lan once held the king’s and king’s wives’ quarters, ceremonial buildings, military and civil wings, and a prison. You'll also find several museums, religious buildings and the sparkling gold-and-glass royal temple Wat Phra Kaew, home of the famous Emerald Buddha.

 

Five minutes away, the National Museum (www.nationalmuseums.finearts.go.th) has a large collection of Southeast Asian antiquities, from prehistoric art to Ayutthayan architecture. Towards the river, at the end of Thanon Phra Chan, the small market alleyways lead to the Amulet Market. People come here to bargain for religious items, from large Buddhas to tiny carvings.

 

Another cultural attraction is the Loha Prasat (on Thanon Maha Chai), an unusual black metal building in step pyramid style, which is part of Wat Ratchanatda temple complex. In the forecourt is the Buddha Centre market, selling prayer beads, Buddha images, amulets and wooden phalluses. Many have been blessed by monks for use in exorcism.

 

Ten minutes' walk away, on Thanon Chakkaphatdi Phong, is Wat Saket, known as the Temple of the Golden Mount. The man-made hill topped with a golden chedi was Bangkok’s highest point when it was completed in 1865.

 

Along Thanon Bamrung Muang is the Giant Swing, situated in a square next to Wat Suthat, which houses the city’s largest and oldest cast-bronze Buddha.

Places to visit:
Rattanakosin, National Museum, Loha Prasat, Wat Saket, Giant Swing.

Foodie

For Thai ingredients many Bangkok chefs visit Or Tor Kor Market, on Khampaengphet Road. You'll find good quality produce and a wide selection of shrimp paste (gapi), glorious fruits and regional specialities like nam pla (fish sauce) from Ranong. Have lunch at the foodstalls as you savour the surrounding colours and aromas.

 

Check out what upmarket kitchens do with all this produce over dinner. Former Michelin-starred chef David Thompson cooks ultra traditional Thai food at Nahm (www.comohotels.com/metropolitanbangkok). This outlet of Copenhagen’s Michelin-starred Kiin Kiin has dishes like green curry mousse, tom klong soup served as jellies, and red curry ice cream.

 

Sunday brunch is a Bangkok institution. Many hotels as well as small restaurants like Crepes & Co (http://www.crepesnco.com) serve it, so the choice is plentiful. Some of the most interesting are at the Four Seasons (www.fourseasons.com/bangkok), which has top class food outlets; the riverside Millennium Hilton (www.bangkok.hilton.com) which offers 75 varieties of cheese; and the Sheraton Grande (www.sheratongrandesukhumvit.com) with its live jazz.

 

For dinner, there’s a delightful little place near the clubs and bars of Thonglor called the Water Library (www.mywaterlibrary.com/thonglor). This is where Singaporean chef Haikal Johari creates inventive food for just ten diners a night at a sushi-style counter. The 12-course set menu displays modern techniques in dishes like Belon oysters with beurre blanc ice cream, caviar and yuzu, and rib eye with porcini marmalade and violet potatoes.

Places to visit:
Or Tor Kor Market, Nahm, Sra Bua, Sunday brunch, Water Library.

Shopaholic

Join the hordes en route to Thailand’s most famous shopping experience, Chatuchak Weekend Market (www.chatuchak.org). Some 250,000 people swarm over nearly 10,000 stalls, making it the biggest flea market in the world. The maze-like alleys are filled with antiques, books, opium pipes, woven fabric, weird lamps, funky fashion and whatever else you can imagine. Chatuchak closes around 6pm, so gear up for a jaunt to Patpong Night Market (on Thanon Silom). Considering the location amid Bangkok’s best-known red light district, it has a surprisingly light atmosphere. The stalls sell illegal knock-offs, including watches, branded clothes and DVDs, but also have many home-crafted items that make good souvenirs.

 

The next day, head for the city’s monolith malls for some upmarket therapy. There’s a cluster of them close to Siam Square and Ratchaprasong Intersection, linked by an overhead skywalk so you can avoid the traffic. All have numerous international fashion outlets, restaurants and cinemas. Highlights include the flagship store of hot local fashion label Fly Now (www.flynowbangkok.com); modern-traditional fabric designs at Mae Fah Luang Foundation (www.doitung.org); and 800,000 square metres (8,600,000 sq ft) of chic clothes, beauty, home decor and electronics at Central World (www.centralworld.co.th).

 

At night take a boat to the riverside Asiatique Market (www.asiatiquethailand.com), a well organised, less frenetic alternative to Chatuchak. It also has several shows, including Calypso ladyboy cabaret (www.calypsocabaret.com) and The Joe Louis Puppet Theatre (www.joelouistheatre.com).

Places to visit:
Chatuchak Weekend Market, Patpong Night Market, Bangkok malls, Asiatique Market.