An essential guide to Bangkok for first-timers

First time in Asia’s fun capital? Here's a plan for making the most of “The Big Mango”

The photogenic Taling Chan Floating Market (Photo: Shutterstock)

The photogenic Taling Chan Floating Market (Photo: Shutterstock)

Chugging along the Chao Phraya in a water taxi

Chugging along the Chao Phraya in a water taxi

Intricately decorated stupas

Intricately decorated stupas

Jim Thompson House

Jim Thompson House

Revelers in Bangkok's Chinatown

Revelers in Bangkok's Chinatown

Vintage treasures at Talat Rot Fai

Vintage treasures at Talat Rot Fai

There’s nothing quite like that bewildering mix of sights, sounds, smells and tastes that defines the city of Bangkok. It’s the pulsating heart of Thailand, a sprawling and rowdy labyrinth of congested sois (alleys), thanons (roads) and khlongs (canals) where naughty nightclubs and serene temples stand shoulder to shoulder with wet markets, glitzy department stores, towering skyscrapers and tiny, traditional spirit houses.

Bangkok has long been considered the gateway to South-East Asia owing to its strategic location at the heart of the region — it’s one of the planet’s top tourist destinations and, for decades, has ranked high on the bucket lists of travelers the world over. And this tropical megacity of ultramodern high-rises and time-honored heritage sites has a history of upping its game to meet ever-higher expectations. It all starts with futuristic Suvarnabhumi Airport, which welcomes — with seasoned efficiency — more than 50 million passengers annually. Travelers flock to Bangkok for the food (you might have heard about it), the shopping (we’re guessing you’ve already drawn up a list of the malls you plan to visit) and the culture (we still can’t get enough of it).

Best of all, it doesn’t take much time or cash to enjoy the city’s charms if you’ve got your plans suitably mapped out. Never mind if you’ve only got a weekend to spend (though we’d recommend staying a month… or more), the “City of Angels” is sure to leave a lasting impression.

Start with the classics

Simply laying eyes on Bangkok’s bustling, character-laden streets tends to deliver a rush of excitement. You’ll feel this the moment you enter the city, with its colorful tuk-tuks (three-wheeled taxis), its gaudy neon signs and those glittering Buddhist temples. These curious structures with their pointed rooftops and exquisitely painted façades are everywhere in the capital. Theravada Buddhism is, of course, Thailand’s national religion and Bangkok’s wats (temples) are among its most popular attractions.

The most noteworthy temples are in the Rattanakosin area, right beside the Chao Phraya River in the center of town. Of these, the best-known is Wat Pho (2 Sanamchai Rd, Phra Nakhon; +66 2 226 0335), an 8ha complex of shrines, gardens and stupas (sacred mounds) built around a massive gold-covered Statue of the Reclining Buddha. This complex, which is home to a monastery full of saffron-robed monks, makes for an eye-popping first taste of Bangkok.

Your eyes might start blinking from all that Buddhist-flavored bling, but rest assured there’s more to come. Head next door to the much grander Wat Phra Kaew (Na Phra Lan Rd, Phra Nakhon; +66 2 224 3290) and its resident religious relic, the jewel-encrusted Statue of the Emerald Buddha. After that, tour a few more of the nearby temples — don’t miss the imposing Wat Saket (344 Chakkraphat Diphong Rd, Bang Bat, Pom Prap Sattru Phai; +66 2 621 2280), which sits on a hilltop overlooking the city — before heading over to the riverside to marvel at the picturesque, Khmer-style Wat Arun (158 Wang Doem Rd; +66 2891 2185; www.watarun.net) on the opposite bank.

Next to the Lord Buddha, the second most revered figure in Thailand is King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the latest of a two-century-long succession of monarchs. His royal power is most impressively demonstrated at the Grand Palace (Na Phra Lan Rd, Phra Nakhon; +66 2 623 5500), with its numerous throne rooms and pavilions done up in the traditional Ayutthaya style of architecture. Guards in ceremonial attire look out from the main entrances of this royal residence, ensuring that guests pay proper respect to the kingdom’s revered figurehead.

On the other side of town, there’s also a palace of sorts. The Jim Thompson House (6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Rd; +66 2 216 7368; www.jimthompsonhouse.com) — once owned by an American businessman who revived Thailand’s silk industry in the 1960s — pays tribute to the culture of everyday Thailand with its displays of exquisitely restored antiques and architecture from across the nation.

Fiery food

Thai food, with its delightful blend of sweet, salty and spicy flavors, is in a class of its own. And the best place to find it in Bangkok is right on the street. Leave the cushy confines of the hotel restaurant and head out to the roadside stalls where all the locals eat. You can easily get classic Thai food without the watered-down, tourist-friendly treatment: tasty, chewy phad thai (stir-fried noodles), tangy som tam (papaya salad) and the venerable red curry pork alongside lesser-known delicacies like gai yang (grilled chicken) and its delicious partner, laab neua (minced beef salad). Those wishing to dine in more comfortable surrounds, however, can go for the many shopping center food courts in the area of Sukhumvit Road. Highly recommended are the cavernous halls inside The Emporium (622 Sukhumvit Rd; +66 2 269 1000) and Siam Paragon (991 Rama I Rd; +66 2 610 8000; www.siamparagon.co.th) malls.

Shop with a vengeance

Time your trip near a weekend if you’re serious about shopping in Bangkok. That way you’ll be able to check out the mother of all flea markets. Chatuchak Weekend Market (Kampaengphet 3 Rd, Khwaeng Lat Yao, Khet Chatuchak; www.chatuchak.org) is possibly the world’s largest. Covering a staggering 14ha, it’s full to bursting with shops and stalls selling pretty much everything under the sun. Saunter down its narrow lanes to find an entire section devoted to, say, apparel. Turn a corner and you may well find yourself in a leather handbag paradise. Keep walking and you might end up in the pets section, gardening tool city or even a massive bazaar of locally made furniture. It’s a good bet you’ll get lost in this place. When that happens, just relax and make your way to the main avenues where there’s free transportation to the exits.

Also read: The best places for shopping in Bangkok

Should this hardcore shopping spree leave you hankering for a more laid-back retail experience, make a beeline east to the Bangkok suburb of Thonburi for a taste of traditional Siamese market life. Located along one of the many canals on this side of the city, Taling Chan Floating Market (324 Chakphra Rd) is a world apart from its concrete-borne counterparts. Here, merchants on old-school wooden boats from neighboring villages congregate at the water’s edge, selling home-made handicrafts, food items and more.

Believe it or not, this is what Thai markets used to look like, way back when Krung Thep (Bangkok’s original name) was just a cluster of wooden homes connected by khlongs. The city may have replaced many of its waterways with motorways over the decades, but the overwhelmingly local crowd here suggests the city folk have not forgotten their humble roots. You can enjoy a leisurely snack at one of the floating platforms before carrying on with your odyssey and hitting another quirky Bangkok market.

Talat Rot Fai (Srinakarin Soi 51, Nong Bon, Prawet) is far from traditional, yet the merchandise sold here is unashamedly retro. The young and hip hang out here, digging for treasures in old warehouses brimming with boutiques, restaurants, tattoo parlors and Vespa motorbikes. “Vintage” (real or reproduced) is the watchword in these parts, so feel free to pick up that attractive but slightly tarnished picture frame or that well-worn but working typewriter before grabbing a Singha beer at one of the many pubs in the area.

Perhaps it’s in this lively atmosphere of laughing, chatting, haggling locals, with a cold brew in your hand and a plate of pad thai for company that you’ll come to a full appreciation of the seemingly contradictory — bustling yet calm, earthy yet spiritual — but never-less-than-fascinating nature of this one-of-a-kind city.

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Lester Ledesma

Photographed by

David Terrazas

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