If you’re overwhelmed at all there is to wine, dine and shop in the Land of Smiles – you’re in luck. Smile correspondent, Keith Jones, knows a thing or two about how to avoid major buyer’s remorse, while having an amazing budget-friendly weekend in Bangkok’s buzzy ‘hood of Rattanakosin. And all for less than US$200.
Day 1: Eat your heart out
Everyone knows pad Thai and papaya salad. Start your trip off with a deeper exploration of Thai cuisine on a private full-day food tour with the lively Chin, who runs Chili Paste Tours (fee is US$60). From fresh markets to century-old shophouses, Chin takes travelers to parts of Bangkok few others ever reach, and she’s likely to ad-lib as you walk.
She might take you past Sala Chalerm Thani, the oldest wooden cinema in Thailand. It stands inconspicuously at the center of a local community behind the Nang Loeng market. Cultural landmarks, like temples and shrines are located at almost every turn, and if you continue down Nakhon Sawan Road, and then Mahachai Road, you’ll see one such structure — Wat Suthat — near the Giant Swing religious monument. With Chin’s recommendations — think roasted eggplant salad, cho muang (steamed, flower-shaped dumplings), tiny grilled frogs, papaya salad made with fermented fish sauce, and more — you’re likely to leave filled to the gills and better informed about Thai cuisine.
At night, indulge again, this time with a Thai massage at the original Wat Pho Massage School (US$8).
Day 2: Live like a local
Spend a slow day discovering Bangkok’s creative side. First, get your caffeine fix at Eden’s, a new café making waves on hip Lan Luang Road. Opened by the former creative director of a Thai magazine, the café is chic and affordable. A hot latte and home-baked carrot cake will only set you back US$7.
Before you move on to Phra Sumen Road, make the pilgrimage to the top of Wat Saket (also known as the Golden Mount; it’s nicknamed for its gold and gleaming 58-meter tall stupa), then head over to Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall, an old Art Deco building that now houses a museum that colorfully narrates the history of Thailand (US$3).
On Phra Sumen, get spaghetti with pad cha (sizzling stir fry) back ribs at Life and Kuisine; pick up an English-language book from notable Thai author Chart Korbjitti at Passport Book Shop; ogle the mini-museum of vintage scooters at Lambretta Café; and top off a relaxed day with drinks at Ku Bar, one of Bangkok’s coolest new hideaways (US$10-12 for a cocktail), or live jazz at the always-reliable institution Brown Sugar (US$7 for imported beer; US$10 for a cocktail).
Day 3: Get crafty
Check off an iconic attraction in the morning and see the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho (US$5) — but skip the Grand Palace, which is overpriced and always crowded.
Visit Tha Tien to witness the burgeoning urban renewal on the riverside. Get coffee and a bite to eat at Supanniga x Roots, a collaborative effort between two food and beverage empires (US$15 for a latte and lunch). Then spend a couple of hours in Museum Siam (US$9.50), a unique, technology-driven museum showcasing the history of Thailand through interactive displays.
To round things off, join a cooking class at Bangkok Bold Cooking Studio. The small, independent venture is run by professionally trained Thai chefs, who impart the culinary skills required to prepare menus that feature many of the country’s diverse regional flavors. If the US$75 price tag busts the budget, go to the 100-year-old Chote Chitr in Phraeng Phutton, where you can top off the weekend in a shophouse space — enjoy fragrant banana flower salad and aromatic red curry. Then, pick up some fair-trade jewelry, spa products and tapestries from Heritage Craft and Café just around the corner.
Construction on a subway line to the gates of Museum Siam is nearing completion. But until it opens, Uber and Grab are your best bets for getting around. A ride to anywhere within the city shouldn’t ever cost you more than US$7.
Where to stay
Bangkok has an array of accommodations that offer rooms for less than US$100 a night. Some of our favorites include:
This beautifully restored heritage house is one of Rattanakosin’s most quaint bed and breakfasts. Rates start at US$44 for a double room. 78/3 Ratchadamnoen Klang Rd
Designed by a leading local architect, this hostel adds modern touches to six renovated shophouse units. Rates start at US$17 per bed. Private rooms available. 196/3-8 Ratchadamnoen Klang Rd
This rustic and retro-style “cultural hostel” occupies a 150-year-old building and gives you serious bang for your baht. Rates start at just US$13 for a bed and US$35 for a double room. 204-206 Mahachai Rd
Where to hang out
The cool kids left Khao San Road a long time ago. A more sophisticated nightlife scene has reached the Old Town and this is especially evident along bustling Phra Arthit Road.
This brick-and-iron riverside bar serves rare craft beer from all over the world, with an impressive 13 on tap; there’s also live jazz on Sunday afternoons. 47 Phra Arthit Rd
Boozy milkshakes, bourbon-flavored ice creams and whisky cocktails will appeal to adults who are kids at heart. 171 Chakkrapatipong Rd
This craft beer bar serves affordable Thai brews and food, and it has an easy-going ethos that draws an eclectic crowd. 140 Phra Arthit Rd
Do some reading
If you’re looking for a cheap (i.e. pretty much free) way to see all of the Old Town’s sites, pick up a copy of Kenneth Barrett’s 22 Walks in Bangkok. The long-time travel author provides rich historical detail to walks that can be completed in half a day, with lots of sketches and anecdotes.
A couple of years ago, the Flower Market (Pak Khlong Talad) was cleaned up, reorganized and partially closed to make way for Yodpiman River Walk, a community mall among the litany of community malls in Bangkok. Yodpiman hasn’t really caught on as a tourist attraction, but fellow mall Tha Maharaj, just up the river, has. The idyllic riverside setting and 20 different food options — if shopping isn’t your thing — are reason enough to swing by around sunset.
This story first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Smile magazine.