One of the most exciting and energetic capital cities in the world, Bangkok is the perfect gateway for travellers ready to take a deep dive into the beauty, history, culture, and traditions of Southeast Asia. The frenetic metropolis may cause a bit of sensory overload, but getting into its rhythm is part of the adventure.
Built along the Chao Phraya River, modern-day Bangkok is an amalgamation of culture, ethnicities, architecture, and even time periods. It’s entirely possible to pass a 400-year-old temple on one corner and a tech-forward, 21st-century shopping mall on the next. It’s a city where street food mingles with Michelin-starred restaurants and top-rated, modern hotels stand next to antique wooden houses.
The energy of Bangkok is a heady mixture of ancient traditions, swirls of incense, the sizzle of chillis on cast-iron woks, an explosion of colourful flowers, flashes of neon, and endless honking from sputtering tuk tuks. It’s a city that will ensnare the senses and hook you from the very beginning.
“You cannot go to Thailand and not see the capital,” says Grant Ekelund, a senior travel consultant with InsideTravel Group Ltd, and a Travel + Leisure A-List Advisor. “Even if you want to spend all of your time at the beaches or up in the mountains, you cannot understand those parts until you understand Bangkok — until you’ve gone down the klongs, wandered the roads, seen the temples, grabbed the street food, and interacted with people. It’s just a dynamic and interesting city, and you’re selling yourself short if you don’t spend time there.”
But where to begin? With so many wonderful things to do in Thailand’s capital, we’ve spoken to experts to narrow down the list. Read on to discover the best things to do in Bangkok.
The best things to do in Bangkok
Visit the Temple of the Emerald Buddha
In a city with no fewer than 400 temples, it can be a daunting task to try to determine which ones to visit. That said, if it’s your first time in Bangkok, experts agree that there are a few temples to put at the very top of your list, the first being the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Regarded as the holiest Buddhist temple in Thailand, you’ll find it within the elaborate Grand Palace complex.
Inside the shrine is a small, jade-coloured Buddha draped in golden robes to enjoy from a good distance — no one is allowed near the Buddha except for the king of Thailand. While you’re there, spend some extra time exploring the other temples, shrines, and historic halls on the Grand Palace grounds.
Have a drink at a rooftop bar
The Bangkok skyline is known for its towering skyscrapers, and a good number of them have rooftop bars that range in style and budget. There are options for unfussy backpackers, then some that draw the poshest of travellers. We’re partial to Mahanakhon Bangkok SkyBar, Thailand’s highest restaurant and the bar at King Power Mahanakhon. Located on the 76th and 77th floors of the building, both venues promise beautiful panoramic views of bustling Bangkok.
Climb Wat Arun
Another can’t-miss temple is Wat Arun, also known as the Temple of the Dawn. The uniquely shaped temple rises above the banks of the Chao Phraya River and is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Bangkok. In fact, the land on which Wat Arun sits has been home to a temple since at least the 1500s.
It is known for its 82-meter-high tower, which has stairs that lead all the way to the top, where you’ll find gorgeous views of the river and Bangkok. From a distance, Wat Arun appears to be gleaming white, but as you get closer you’ll find that the structure is actually made of beautifully painted floral mosaics that have been constructed from Chinese porcelain.
Visit Warehouse 30
While Bangkok is steeped in centuries of history and art, it is also a thriving capital of contemporary and forward-thinking art and design. At Warehouse 30, an abandoned block of World War II-era warehouses that’s been transformed into creative spaces for artists and designers, you’ll discover cafes, boutiques, and galleries to explore.
View the Reclining Buddha
Yet another temple to add to your itinerary is Wat Pho or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This massive Buddha is covered from head to toe (all 46 meters) in gold leaf and is one of the largest Buddha statues in the world. Wat Pho also boasts one of the largest collections of Buddha images; there are more than 1,000 of them throughout the sprawling temple complex.
Shop for flowers before dawn
Bangkok is one of the most colourful cities in the world, and nowhere is that more evident than at Pak Khlong Talat. In this vibrant flower market is a brilliant kaleidoscope of colours and the sweet and enveloping scent of thousands upon thousands of fresh blooms. Browse stalls full of marigolds, orchids, roses, and more. What’s great about the flower market, particularly if you are battling jet lag and need a late-night activity, is that it is open 24 hours a day.
Sample some of the best street food in the world
Bangkok streets seem to sizzle at all times of day with some of the most coveted street food on the planet. No matter where you are in the city, you’re never more than a few steps from savoury, flavorful, and aromatic foods, most of which can be purchased for less than USD 2 (INR 166) per person. Start the day with a Thai iced coffee (strong coffee made extra sweet with condensed milk) and try snack after snack throughout the day, from pad Thai to braised duck and chicken rice.
“Bangkok’s reputation as a top street food city means you must explore local food culture in hubs like Chinatown and Baan Tad Thong,” says Patty Lerdwittayaskul, director of communications for Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok. “Local dishes offer an authentic taste of everyday Thai life.”
Lerdwittayaskul recommends Lim Lao Sa Noodle Stall in Chinatown, a hidden, family-run stall offering noodles in a clear fish broth. She also points to Phee Mao Rad Na, a food cart by the canal next to Wat Ratchabophit. “The stir-fried noodles are cooked a la minute, and the two-minute walk to Wat Ratchabophit after a meal adds to the experience,” she says.
Eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant
Beyond its bustling street food scene, Bangkok is home to roughly 30 Michelin-starred restaurants. One to note in particular is Le Normandie by Alain Roux, a fine-dining restaurant at the iconic Mandarin Oriental, in Bangkok. This haute, white-glove experience is set within the gorgeous dining room overlooking the Chao Phraya River. Be sure to book a table at the window so can watch the sunset and the colourful boats on the river while you dine on exquisite and artfully prepared French cuisine.
Take a cooking class
Of course, it’s fun to cook your own food, too. A Thai cooking class is one of the best things to do in the country overall, so why not give it a try in Bangkok? The city has dozens of cooking schools to choose from across a variety of budgets. Sompong Thai Cooking School is a top choice; each class begins with a trip to the local market to procure key ingredients before moving back to the kitchen to prepare flavorful Thai dishes.
Get a Thai massage
It’s no secret that the spa and wellness services in Bangkok are second to none — you just have to choose your preferred vibe. Whether it’s a luxury spa palace or a no-frills storefront down a narrow alley, Bangkok has the wellness market cornered. A Thai massage is a distinct and unique style of massage; it uses no oils or aromatherapy and instead focuses on passive stretching, acupressure, and increasing the range of motion of your muscles. If you’ve never had a Thai massage, Bangkok is the perfect place to try it.
Cruise the Chao Phraya River
Bangkok’s main lifeline is the serpentine Chao Phraya River, and along its banks are some of the city’s top luxury hotels, oldest neighbourhoods, and biggest tourist attractions. A cruise down the Chao Phraya is the perfect way to introduce yourself to the iconic Bangkok skyline and catch a glimpse of daily local life. There are many ways to get on the river, from evening dinner cruises to daytime sightseeing excursions. If you really want to travel like a local, though, ride the Chao Phraya Express Boat. The public water taxi stops at busy docks along the river and travels all the way up to the neighbouring province of Nonthaburi.
Bangkok’s Chinatown is among the largest Chinatowns in the world, and walking through this sprawling neighbourhood will have you feeling like you’ve stepped out of Thailand and onto the streets of Beijing. If you like street food, Bangkok’s Chinatown is the place to be. Or come to marvel at the district’s neon lights, dangling lanterns, and dozens of gold stores on the iconic Yaowarat Road.
“Visit the Chinese Shrine in Chinatown during the late afternoon to catch the evening chanting rituals by monks,” says Lerdwittayaskul. “In the evening, the red lanterns in the shrine and candles are lit up. The experience is grounding and serene. After visiting the shrine, I love strolling through the backstreets, trying delicious Chinese dishes like noodles, stir-fried oyster pancakes, dumplings, and refreshing lotus root herbal juice.”
Browse the Chatuchak Weekend Market
If you hear locals talking about the JJ Market, what they’re referring to is the Chatuchak Weekend Market. And if you like bazaars and outdoor markets, this will be the one that will blow you away. It is one of the largest outdoor markets in the world, boasting around 15,000 stalls selling knock-off electronics, clothing, souvenirs, local art, birds, and everything in between.
Cycle in the city
For such a congested city, you’d be amazed at how many opportunities there are for getting outside. If you’re looking for a bit of fresh air, give cycling a try.
“One of the best places for a cycle is in Bangkrachao, an island in the Chao Phraya River — also known as the ‘Green Lung’ of Bangkok, thanks to its abundant green space,” says Wanwisa Maneewatthana, chief culturist at Capella Bangkok. “Despite being a big city, Bangkok can offer great outdoor experiences to immerse [you] into both nature and culture. Visitors can enjoy cycling in an old neighbourhood like Charoenkrung to discover remarkable and non-tourist cultural sights like local wet markets and neighbourhood temples.”
Visit the Bangkok Art & Cultural Centre
After you’ve hit the main tourist sites, you may want to slip a little below the radar for a different look at Bangkok, and the Bangkok Art & Cultural Centre offers just that. This public space promotes both local and international art and cultural exhibits. If you’re interested in seeing the work of young Thai artists, this is the top gallery in the city to visit.
Visit Jim Thompson House
If there’s one Western name consistently tied to Bangkok, it’s Jim Thompson. Thompson was the American businessman who brought Thai silks to the rest of the world in the mid-20th century. His canal-side home has been transformed into a museum showcasing his vast collection of art and antiques. The home is an architectural marvel, made of an amalgamation of six traditional teak houses from Ayutthaya. The lush gardens surrounding it are equally beautiful.
Celebrate a new year at the Songkran festival
If there is one festival to attend in Bangkok, it would be Songkran, or Thai New Year, which is held every year in April. This three-day event is when the city stops its usual business and transforms into one giant (and water-soaked) party.
“The festival offers guests the chance to experience a fun-filled celebration that includes water fights on the street,” says Maneewatthana. “Also, visitors can visit temples to participate in religious celebrations to bring them good luck in the coming year.”
Shop at Siam Paragon
If you’re cruising down the Chao Phraya River, you can’t miss one of the largest luxury malls in Asia, Siam Paragon. This is the ultimate stop in Bangkok for high-end labels, as well as a host of entertainment options, from restaurants and Southeast Asia’s largest aquarium to a 16-screen movie theatre and more than 250 shops. It’s also the home base for the largest foreign-language bookshop in Bangkok, Kinokuniya. It’s easy to get to Siam Paragon, as two BTS Skytrain lines intersect at the stop right in front of the mall.
Cruise the klongs in a longtail boat
Bangkok is known as the “Venice of the East,” and for good reason — the city is quite literally webbed with miles of canals, or klongs. The oldest part of the city, known as Thonburi, sits west of the Chao Phraya River, and a visit to this corner of the city takes you back in time. There are wooden houses on stilts, plus lush greenery, small, colourful temples, and far more locals than tourists.
“I try to have [all of my clients] spend some time on the klongs,” says Ekelund. “I like to do it because it’s an interesting and unique way to experience the city from the water. Experience the neighbourhoods, get a little bit out there, and get a sense of how people live in Bangkok.”
Stroll in Lumpini Park
Another slice of green space in Bangkok is the 142-acre Lumpini Park, also known as the “Central Park of Bangkok.” Set right in the heart of the city, the park includes a man-made lake strewn with swan paddle boats, and it’s a popular spot for trail walking, picnics, Tai Chi, live music, and more.
Explore Charoenkrung Road
Bangkok is a city of many personalities, but if it’s the old-school charm you’re looking for, head to another of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, Charoenkrung Road. Home to the very first paved road in Bangkok, Charoenkrung is slowly disappearing as luxury hotels continue to open. But visitors can still experience myriad cultural activities here, from street food and hidden temples to an emerging art district.
Take a day trip to Ayutthaya
About an hour from Bangkok by train, Ayutthaya is the perfect day trip from Bangkok. Once the capital of the Kingdom of Siam, Ayutthaya gives visitors a glimpse of the ancient days of Thailand. The preserved kingdom capital is home to gorgeous palaces and temples that date back as far as the 14th century. Visitors can wander around the temple ruins for a unique look at how this part of the world used to be.
“A day trip here offers a deep dive into Thai history and culture,” says Lerdwittayaskul. “You can explore numerous historical sites and temples, where the civilisation, traditions, and beliefs of ancient people come alive.”
“Ayutthaya gets more into the history of Thailand,” added Ekelund. “It’s so cool, especially if you are not going to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat and want to see that style of architecture.”
(Hero and feature image credit: southtownboy/Getty Images)
This story first appeared on travelandleisure.com
All currency conversions were done at the time of writing