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.
The best time is November to February, for sunny skies, low humidity and little rain.
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.
The baht is the principal Thai monetary unit.
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.
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.
|How are you?||Bpehn yahng-ngi?|
|Fine, thanks||Sah-bie dee korp-kuhn|
|Excuse-me! (to get attention, to get past)||Kor-toet|
|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?|
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The Ancient City
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Rattanakosin, National Museum, Loha Prasat, Wat Saket, Giant Swing.
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.
Or Tor Kor Market, Nahm, Sra Bua, Sunday brunch, Water Library.
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).
Chatuchak Weekend Market, Patpong Night Market, Bangkok malls, Asiatique Market.