Bangkok is one of Asia’s most vibrant and interesting cities, and we were lucky enough to spend a week there recently. That amount of time allowed us to get a great feel for the city—the neighborhoods, the food, the temples, historical sites, and more—but it still left us with a long list of things to do on our next visit. We loved exploring Bangkok and the surrounding area, and we’ve rounded up our top 10 Bangkok experiences!
1. Live the River Life at Loy La Long
Choosing a place to stay in Bangkok can be overwhelming—there are many fantastic areas of the city and lodging of all varieties. We honed in on a property in Chinatown called Loy La Long, and staying there was a highlight of our visit to Thailand. The small guesthouse is in a 100-year-old teak wood building propped on stilts right over the mighty Chao Phraya River. The two-story building has lots of common areas for lounging, and porches over the river on both floors. We were treated to breakfast on the upper terrace each day, and watched the river come to life with commuter ferries, sightseeing boats, and tugboats pulling massive barges upriver. At night, we enjoyed watching the sun set over the far side of the river and the neon-lit party boats that ply the river at night.
The staff at the hotel made us feel like family and helped us arrange experiences (a driver for day trips, a cooking demonstration) to make the most of our time in Bangkok. Their warm, genuine hospitality and friendliness made our stay there truly special. We also found they cooked some of the best food we ate anywhere in the city, so we opted to stay in for two nights to enjoy their fantastic Thai cooking in the comfort of our “home.”
Loy La Long is located away from the bustle of the city streets on the grounds of Pathum Khongkha Ratchaworawihan temple, so finding it for the first time takes a little work, but it really feels like a hidden gem. Staying on the river provided a wonderful respite in the middle of the chaotic city and a great place to unwind at the end of the day. It also offered us a unique glimpse into daily life on the Chao Phraya River—watching the multitudes of people and goods that depend on the mighty river for transport every day.
2. Sample the Amazing Flavors of the City’s Varied Street Food
Bangkok is a dream city for anyone who loves food and the dining options are incredibly varied. Sampling the extensive street food options alongside the locals is an exciting, adventurous, and delicious experience. From skewers of grilled meat to banana and sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf, you could try different street food for days without getting bored. Most vendors serve snack-sized portions, though several also offer more substantial meals.
While you’ll find street food nearly everywhere you go in the city, Chinatown is an epicenter of activity. It’s a great place to spend an evening making a dinner out of sampling the different cuisines. Lining both sides of Yaowarat Street and branching off into several of the side streets, the street food scene comes alive after 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. every evening (except Mondays, when the stalls are all closed). The cuisine there includes Chinese, traditional Thai, and a mix of the two.
Highlights for us included Chinese noodles with roast duck, scrumptious skewers of grilled sausage and pork satay, and crispy seafood pancakes. Most of the carts have their own tables, so you can sit down, enjoy your food, then wander some more to find the stop for your next course. T&K Seafood was highly recommended to us and we found it a great choice for shrimp, fish, and other seafood. It’s more of a restaurant experience than true street food, with an extensive menu and seating both indoors in an air-conditioned building, as well as tables outside on the street, right next to the giant exterior grills. Look for the staff in the green shirts, not the waiters in red at the similarly-named restaurant across the street.
Much of the street food is meat-focused, but there’s still plenty for vegetarians to enjoy. Keep an eye out for the turnip cake sautéed with vegetables (found at a vendor on the side street Soi Yaowarat 11), the thick, chewy, steamed Chinese “dumplings” topped with a delicious cooked cabbage mixture, and of course, the ever-popular Thai dessert, mango with sticky rice.
3. Visit the Maeklong Railway Market
Visiting local markets is always a highlight for us—we enjoy wandering to see what types of food and goods are for sale and getting a better sense of local culture. In Thailand we visited the most unusual market we’ve ever been to—the Maeklong Railway Market. Located near Maeklong Railway Station in Samut Songkhram Province (about an hour west of Bangkok), the market is built right along both sides of the tracks.
When the train creeps through a few times a day, vendors pull their awnings back and move goods that might be a little too close to the passing train. Shoppers (and gawking tourists) adeptly flatten themselves against the walls on either side of the tracks to let the train pass, and as soon as the train goes through the stalls reopen, goods are spread out, and business continues as usual.
For the rest of the day the train tracks become the main thoroughfare for pedestrians passing through the market until the next scheduled train approaches. Watching the train pass through is obviously the big draw for a lot of tourists, but we found wandering through the market equally interesting. There are colorful display of fruits and vegetables, fresh fish and meats, and other goods for sale.
4. Take a Day Trip to Ayutthaya to See Thailand’s Former Capital
Ayutthaya, the former Siamese capital, flourished from the 14th-18th centuries until it was largely destroyed by the Burmese and abandoned. Today the ruins of the old temples and palaces are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is located just over an hour north of Bangkok by car, so escaping to the ancient temples for a day of exploration is a great add-on to any trip to Bangkok.
Although there are many packaged tours you can take to Ayutthaya, we decided to hire a driver so we could see the sights at our own pace. We visited five temples during our day in Ayutthaya, and if you have to choose just one Wat Chaiwatthanaram was our favorite. Constructed in 1630, the complex has an impressive 35m tall central prang (tower), rows of (headless) Buddhas, and expansive grounds on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. We recommend going early—it was our first stop of the day and we had the place to ourselves!
We also visited Wat Mahathat which has the famous Buddha head entangled in the tree roots, Wat Lokaya Sutha known for its reclining Buddha, the small neighboring Wat Worachettharam, and Wat Yai Chaimongkhon. Wat Yai Chaimongkhon has the tallest chedi (tower-like structure with relics of notable figures inside) in Ayutthaya, and unlike the other sites you can climb to the base of the chedi for great panoramic views. Wat Mahathat and Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon seemed to be the most popular with tourists and both have small shops and places to grab some food near the parking areas.
5. Explore the quieter canals of Thonburi by long-tail boat
Years ago, many of Bangkok’s residents lived along the city’s many canals and traveled around by boat. Over time, as the canals began to be filled in to create more space, cars and motorcycles took over as the preferred means of transport. Fortunately, the city has still retained some of these canal-side neighborhoods and taking a boat ride through one is a nice way to see a different, more peaceful side of the otherwise bustling capital.
Long-tail boats are the distinctive, colorful, long and narrow boats you’ll see darting up and down the waterways. While their converted automobile engines make them a bit noisy, a ride in one is still an interesting experience. The best place to see Bangkok’s canal living is Thonburi, on the west bank of the main Chao Phraya River. Once you turn off the Chao Phraya and into the local canals, the pace of life seems to slow down as you ride past riverside homes, stately historic mansions, canal-side shacks, fishermen, and even a few interesting temples. You’ll typically pass a vendor or two drifting along in a boat with drinks or snacks to sell if you want some refreshments. The boat drivers don’t give any information—it’s not a guided tour—so you just sit back, enjoy the ride, and watch the scenery drift by.
The standard rate for hiring a long-tail boat is 1,000 baht (about $30 USD) an hour. You’ll find them at almost any ferry pier along the Chao Phraya, but your hotel might also be able to arrange a boat for you (sometimes at an even lower rate than just hiring one from the piers). It seems like there are plenty of boats and drivers, so it shouldn’t be necessary to reserve. An hour was enough time for a decent tour; we spent about forty minutes on the smaller canals and the rest of the time on the main river getting to and from Thonburi. Obviously a longer tour would allow you to see more, and on the weekends you might be able to arrange a ride to a nearby floating market.
6. Get a Thai Massage (or Several)
With all the walking around the city, taking an hour off from sightseeing was just what the doctor ordered. Thai massage is its own unique style of massage. Don’t expect a gentle, pampering experience—this is a different. Through the processing of stretching your body and applying pressure to the right places, the massage therapist will work out knots, improve flexibility, stimulate blood flow, and soothe soreness. The practice can include acupressure, pulling, bending, cracking your knuckles, stretching and holding your body in yoga-like poses, and even walking on your back. The experience can be a little painful at times, but it feels excellent once it’s finished!
The practice of Thai massage is said to have originated in the Wat Pho monastery. There’s still an active massage school there today and we found that was the best place in the city to experience a good Thai massage. The same school also operates another location outside of the monastery walls (where there’s typically no wait and you don’t have to pay for admission to the monastery grounds) at the nearby Chetawan Traditional Massage School.
Throughout the city, Thai massage parlors are just about everywhere. They range from fancy, high-end spas at western hotels, to extremely local shops with no frills and a rack to leave your shoes outside the front door. At the recommendation of our hosts at Loy La Long, we tried one of the smaller, local places in their neighborhood and got great massages for half the cost of Wat Pho.
Prices ranged from 200-420 Thai baht (or about $6-13) for a one-hour massage, depending on the location, so it’s easy to justify treating yourself to at least one—or perhaps several—of these invigorating massages.
7. Learn about the flavors and ingredients of Thailand with a cooking class
We love Thai cuisine (who doesn’t?), and were excited to learn more about the local ingredients and dishes during our visit. Our guesthouse happily arranged for us to have a mini-cooking class during our stay, complete with a trip to the local market to purchase the ingredients. We joined a staff member for an early morning walk through Chinatown to gather ingredients for Pad Thai and a green curry. As it was not designed to be a “tourist” excursion, we got to join her on her normal daily walk and meet some of the usual vendors she buys produce from for the guesthouse—a wonderfully authentic experience.
Later that same day, we helped to cook the dishes in the guesthouse kitchen under the guidance of the staff. I’m sure a re-creation of the same dishes at home wouldn’t be nearly as good without all the fresh, local ingredients, but we were quite pleased with the outcome of our cooking which we ate for lunch that day overlooking the river!
There are many organized cooking classes available in Bangkok as well (some of which include ingredient shopping excursions), and we were lucky that our guesthouse was able to arrange this in-house for us. A must-do experience for any food-lover visiting Thailand!
8. Experience the Spiritual Side of the City at the Local Temples
Around 90% of Bangkok’s population is Buddhist, although as a melting-pot the country’s religious and spiritual life includes many Hindu influences as well. Wherever you go in the city there seems to be several Buddhist temples in the vicinity. From smaller local temples to large opulent structures, we found ourselves exploring a variety of temples during our time in Bangkok. We sought out some of the most popular temples—Wat Pho with its famous reclining Buddha (and the Thai massages as noted above) and Wat Traimit located in Chinatown with the 5.5 ton solid gold Buddha were both worth the trip. On the grounds of the Grand Palace you’ll find the stunning Wat Phra Kaew with extensive murals depicting the epic Hindu story Ramayana, ornate chedis, and the petite 66 centimeter Emerald Buddha housed in the ordination hall. (It’s worth noting, however, that once you are on the grounds of the Grand Palace you can only enter the Wat Phra Kaew complex once, so make sure you see it all before exiting to other parts of the Grand Palace).
We also visited Wat Suthat, which was under renovation at the time of our visit so our ability to enter buildings was limited. We were the lone tourists there which was nice, and we were able to go into the ordination hall which is the largest in Thailand. Also within walking distance of Wat Suthat (and not technically a temple) is the Golden Mount, a manmade 100m-high hill which is a massive chedi, complete with a relic of the Buddha at the top. It’s worth the climb for the 360 degree views of Bangkok. Interestingly the streets around Wat Suthat and the Golden Mount are known for their religious shops. It was interesting to see store after store filled with Buddha figures in all sizes and colors as well as other religious memorabilia for sale. Lastly Wat Arun, across the river from the Wat Pho, features colorful ceramic tiles and is best known for its distinctive 82m spire. Wat Arun is easily reached on a cross-river ferry from Tian Pier near Wat Pho.
There is a similar dress code for entering most of the temples wherein women must have knees covered (a sarong to wrap around shorts or a dress did the trick) and shoulders covered as well. The Grand Palace was a bit different, however—men had to be wearing pants (they will happily sell you a pair if you are wearing shorts) and women must have a shirt covering the shoulders (a scarf or sarong wrapped around the shoulders didn’t pass muster). They are strict about enforcing the dress code upon entry. When you go to enter the actual temple buildings you will leave your shoes outside on a rack (or in the case of Wat Pho, carry your own shoes through the building in a plastic bag).
While we highlighted some of the more spectacular and better-known temples in Bangkok above, there are countless other local temples throughout the city and country. Most welcome visitors and it can be fun to explore these temples that are off the tourist track and see what treasures might be hiding inside. At the very least, they offer a glimpse into how the locals practice their religion.
9. Haggle for deals at the Chatuchak Weekend Market
Bangkok is known as a city of commerce and there’s no better place to experience that than the Chatuchak Weekend Market. As a friend who lived in Bangkok told us before we visited, “if they don’t have it, you don’t need it!” You’ll find everything from clothing to housewares and antiques to pets. It’s an interesting place to wander and explore, and perfect if you’re on the hunt for some souvenirs or gifts.
Chatuchak claims to be the largest weekend market in the world—15,000 stalls are densely packed into 27 acres, and the market hosts up to 200,000 visitors each weekend. Most prices are negotiable and haggling is common practice in Bangkok. It’s always worth asking for a better price or telling the vendor what you’re willing to pay, particularly if you’re buying more than one of something. Be prepared to walk away—oftentimes they’ll lower the price immediately, otherwise you can browse some more and always come back if you don’t find a better deal.
The best piece of advice for the market is to go early. It’s open Saturday and Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (some smaller sections of the market have limited midweek hours, but most of the market it is weekend-only). Arriving by 10:00 a.m. means you’ll beat the worst of the crowds and heat. By midday, it can be really crowded and hot, making it a good time to find an air conditioned lunch spot or move on to other activities.
While the market can seem chaotic and disorganized, there are actually different sections for different types of merchandise, so it’s worth getting a map (look for a market employee near one of the entrances) and coming up with a plan. Chatuchak Market is easy to reach, located just a short walk from the Mo Chit Skytrain station.
10. Get a Taste for the Past with Bangkok’s Historic Architecture
Although Bangkok has its fair share of flashy new high-rise buildings, there are also some great historic areas and beautiful old buildings to explore. For a look at traditional Thai architecture, a visit to the Jim Thompson House is a must. Jim Thompson was an American entrepreneur who helped revive and grow the Thai silk industry. He thoughtfully constructed his home from six separate Thai-style teak wood houses that were moved to a canal in central Bangkok. Today the property is a jungle oasis in the middle of the city, and visitors can tour the house, learn more about its construction, and see some of Jim Thompson’s Southeast Asian art collection.
The Bangkokian Museum is a bit more off-the-beaten-path than the Jim Thompson House, and features three buildings from the early 20th century. The houses are preserved as they would have been used while the families lived there and contain items used in daily life during that period. Entry to this interesting museum is free. The Bangkokian Museum is located in the vicinity of a number of other historic buildings, and a half-day walking tour can be planned to look at the exteriors of the East Asiatic Company, Old Customs House, Old Post Office and Portuguese Embassy, among others. Lonely Planet’s Bangkok guidebook has a self-guided walking tour that we followed to see many of these highlights. If you are in the vicinity of Wat Traimit (the Golden Buddha) in Chinatown, the 1916 Italian Neo-Renaissance-style Bangkok Railway Station (Hua Lamphong) is nearby and worth a visit as well.
Tips for Getting Around the City
With a narrow, twisted network of roads and lots of vehicles, traffic in Bangkok can be a real challenge. Whenever possible, it’s best to travel by water or train to avoid the inevitable traffic jams.
The Chao Phraya Express Boat is the most efficient way to travel up and down the river, which forms the main artery of the city and provides easy access to attractions such as the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and Chinatown. The Orange Express line, flying an orange flag, is inexpensive (15 baht per ride) and convenient, making stops at nearly every station. Boats run every 10-20 minutes starting at 6:00 a.m., but unfortunately they stop running at 7:00 p.m., so they’re not available for evening excursions. The same boat line also runs the Chao Phraya Tourist Boat with blue flags; this is about triple the price for a one-way ticket, but they have a one-day rate available and the ride features interesting commentary about everything you see along the riverbanks. Its hours are a bit more limited, running from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. During morning and evening rush hours, there are a few more options including the “no flag” local boat and the Green and Yellow Express lines with more limited stops; we never tried these as the Orange line always suited our needs. Buy your tickets at the pier; if no ticket seller is available, you can pay the ticket checker on board the boat.
Bangkok also has a relatively new Skytrain elevated metro system, the MRT. While its two lines are currently a bit limited in where they can take you, the system is growing with continued expansion. When there’s a station near your destination, including places like the Jim Thompson House and Chatuchak Weekend Market, there’s no better way to travel. The MRT is quick, clean, and inexpensive. Trains come frequently and it’s easy to navigate. The Saphan Taksin station is adjacent to Sathorn Pier, making it easy to connect to the Chao Phraya Express Boat there.
There is a metro line that services the airport, but given the distance (as well as the complication of finding locations within the city when you arrive), we’d recommend organizing an airport pickup through your hotel or guesthouse. Most will be able to do this easily and at a very reasonable price.