Bangkok is Asia’s mega-city portal to the region, so we knew that sooner or later we would have to pass through this giant Thai metropolis. What we didn’t know is whether we would enjoy the experience, especially considering the contrast it would be to the holy city of Varanasi, our last destination in India.
The mere mention of Bangkok signals (neon) warning signs to flash in your mind about seedy stag dos, underground overindulgence, ping-pong balls used in…ahem…creative ways and messages with
unexpected endings. Don’t worry though, Bangkok is as culturally rich and interesting as any other big city, but of course you can still find that back street debauchery if you want it!
Despite our initial misgivings, we found Bangkok a captivating city to explore, with great art, history, culture and food. Our plush AIRBNB condo on the 27th storey of a skyscraper with view of the city didn’t hurt either!
Here’s our – hopefully – helpful Bangkok city guide to help you navigate Asia’s giant hub.
Bangkok, in the south of the Kingdom of Thailand, is like many cities in that it is built around a mighty river, the Chao Phraya, and it is very much an essential part of this city’s identity. Buy a hop on hop off tourist boat ticket (Chao Phraya Blue Flag Tourist Boat) to experience the modern skyscraper-scape from the water. The boat takes you between the main tourist sights and it is an easy way to escape the traffic of the streets. You can also buy tickets for the less comfortable commuter boats just to get from A to B.
Alternatively the Bangkok Metro system is very modern and efficient for visiting the city away from the river. Meter taxis are plentiful and cheap, just make sure that the meter is switched on when you get in!
Arguably the most important tourist stop in Bangkok, the Grand Palace, built and modified by successive royalty over 200 years is a must see in town. It’s stuffed with glittering temples and royal glory and we particularly enjoyed the Ramakian myth murals which loop around the main courtyard.
Don’t forget to look for the small Emerald (actually nephrite) Buddha, which we christened Yoda Buddha, in the Ordination Hall.
Temples, temples, temples
Bangkok is peppered with other smaller temples called wats, many of which are free, but visiting them all can leave you a bit templed-out! Aside from the temples within the Grand Palace, we visited Wat Pho and Wat Arun:
Wat Pho, just down the road from the Grand Palace, is a temple dedicated to a gigantic golden reclining Buddha. Tasteful? We aren’t sure, but it certainly is massive! There is also a temple courtyard with many seated golden Buddha.
Wat Arun, on the other side of the river is known as the Temple of the Dawn for the way that the dawn light prettifies its white and mosaic structure. Look out for the trio of elephants on the main dome.
Get up high
Bangkok is a mega city with a mega skyline. We were very spoilt as our AIRBNB accommodation had amazing views, but if you don’t have this then we would recommend trying to get up high. The Sky Bar is very famous, but we didn’t get in as Alex was wearing shorts and this didn’t suit their dress code!
Bangkok has several famous floating markets, but they aren’t exactly in the centre. If, like us, you don’t fancy spending 2 hours in a bus, you can visit Taling Chan Floating Market in the north-east of the city. Most of it is on land but you get the idea! There are some great cheap eats to give you a feel for the world-famous Thai street-food and the option of a boat trip.
Like most major cities, Bangkok has some world-class museums and art galleries. We chose to visit MOCA (The Museum of Contemporary Art) mainly because it is close to DMK airport and we needed to kill a couple of hours before a flight. It did however turn out to be one of the best galleries we have ever visited simply because it is so different from what we are used to in Europe. The blending of traditional Thai art and myths with contemporary style made for a crazy, and sometimes downright psychedelic mixtures of works!
Bangkok was our first introduction to Asian street food, and it really is everywhere! Think holes in the wall, tiny stalls, mobile fruit shacks and plastic tables and chairs on the street. Every occasion is suitable for a meal in Thai culture and ever available corner of real estate ready to become a street restaurant. We were a bit apprehensive of these places at first, but eventually they completely won us over. The atmosphere, quality and last but not least the prices cannot leave you unimpressed. We pretty much only ate street food for the rest of our time in Thailand, and we are glad we did!
You can eat Pad Thai and fried rice pretty much anywhere in Thailand, but if you fancy a treat and some interesting surroundings head for Asiatique. Asiatique is a reclaimed industrial site on the riverside which contains lots of converted warehouses and buildings. It’s filled with hundreds of stalls and restaurants and also a bustling street food market. We enjoyed a couple of evenings out here for drinks, dinner and browsing the shops. We also had close encounters with fried insects including water beetles, crickets and silk worms –supposed to be delicious – be we decided to skip this treat as…ahem…we had already eaten…
When in Rome…or Bangkok that is, one should definitely go to see the ‘seedy underside’. We went to Soi Cowboy (Cowboy Street) to see what the hype was all about, but our experience was limited to a couple of cheap beers in one of the bars while the “performers” where getting ready for the night, having dinner etc. This is clearly a place that many would consider seedy, but at least everything is done under the sun (more like the neon light) and both girls (or ladyboys) and punters are protected by rules and regulations. Whether these are respected at all times we do not know and it is common knowledge that prostitution takes place with the complicity of the Go Go bars. It’s a huge issue, and this is not the place to cover it, but it is undeniable that Thailand has been for many years the capital for sex tourists.
Overall Bangkok feels like a modern European or American business city with huge skyscrapers branded with the names of banks and corporations that have literally taken over huge chunks of the city. Many argue that these are monstrosities built on the ashes of the ancient town full of history that had to be demolished to make room for “progress”. However, if you take a closer look, the Bangkok that came before the economic boom that raised the skyscrapers (some unfinished and abandoned) is still there; as soon as you start to wander the streets below you see how alive they are with little eateries, shops and street food. There is a lot of life and culture squished between the towers! Of course there are also the more modern and trendy places like the reclaimed site of Asiatiqe, all of which contribute to Bangkok’s continued status as top tourist destination.
If you are looking for little old ladies wearing traditional dress and living in bamboo houses then you will be disappointed as globalisation has its grip on this Asian economic hub, and there doesn’t seem to be any turning back. Some activities like the floating market do feel quite contrived, but don’t worry though; there is ample opportunity to see more of traditional tribal Thailand further north.
We felt like we did a good portion of the city, but like any metropolis it must have many more hidden gems. Have you been to Bangkok? What did you enjoy? Let us know in the comments below!