10 Things to Do in Bangkok
Now, if you find New York City to be overwhelming and stressful, the City of Angels, as it’s called, likely won’t be your cup of (Thai) tea. We’re talking more than eleven million inhabitants, intense heat, high-rise buildings in the clouds and heavy traffic congestion. And, it’s leagues beyond the city that doesn’t sleep; it actually wakes up at night! We absolutely loved the energy in Bangkok.
The city is full of contrasts, with something for just about everyone: Air-conditioned megamalls and 15,000-stall outdoor weekend markets; ornate, historic Buddhist temples and sleazy, neon-lit nightclub strips; street meat food stalls and 22-course, Chef’s Table-featured restaurants…the list goes on.
Food aside (I’ve seriously never said that before), here are our 10 not-to-miss activities in Bangkok:
1) Explore the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun
The Grand Palace complex, built in 1782 after King Rama I ascended to the throne, covers 218,000 square meters and is surrounded by four walls, 1,900 meters in length. It comprises the opulent royal residence, throne halls, government offices and sacred, renowned Temple of the Emerald Buddha – the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand. When we visited in January 2017, the grounds were absolutely packed with mourners dressed in black, paying tribute to King Bhumibol; mourning lasts for one year.
From the Grand Palace, walk 10 minutes to Wat Pho, the enormous (46 meters long and 15 meters high) reclining Buddha, covered in gold-leaf and mother-of-pearl ornaments. The entire complex is huge, so build in time to walk around and explore the additional chapels. Lastly, head across the river to Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn), featuring steep steps and a Khmer-style spire, for incredible views of the city from atop.
For any temples, ensure your shoulders and knees are covered (i.e., no tank tops or shorts). You must also leave your shoes outside before entering.
2) Tour the temples
Thailand is home to more than 40,000 Buddhist temples (yes, you read that correctly). Our favorite temple to explore in Bangkok was Wat Saket (Golden Mount), a low hill crowned with a gleaming gold chedi, traced back to the Ayutthaya period. Be advised that you must climb more than 300 steps to reach the top, but the view is worth it!
Other popular temples in Bangkok include Wat Traimit, Wat Kalayanamit and Wat Traimit.
3) Experience nightlife in Sukhumvit
On the theme of contrasts, Sukhumvit is a distinct mix of work and play. By day, it’s the most popular business and commercial district, yet at night, the party scene is raucous. Sukhumvit Soi 11 houses some of Bangkok’s most famous nightclubs, while Soi Nana (Sukhumvit Soi 4) and Soi Cowboy are infamous, seedy red-light districts; you must at least check out the scenes.
The scantily clad ladies (and ladyboys) within the adult-only Soi Nana strip are shameless, pulling out all the stops to lure guests inside. My husband, for example, was spanked three times by giggly workers in a 10-minute timeframe. We found it hysterical, but if you don’t have this sense of humor, stay away!
You’ll know when you’re on the iconic Soi Cowboy by the plethora of neon lights and go-go bars. And, men trying to close deals with tourists (“designer” wallets, watches, etc.).
4) Discover outdoor markets
There are countless outdoor markets in Bangkok. The mother of all is Chatuchak Market, a football field-sized, nearly 15,000-stall market is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. It’s divided into 27 sections, with food stalls scattered throughout, offering anything and everything you could possibly imagine or desire – at ridiculously cheap prices. Stay hydrated and don’t lose your friends; the market brings in nearly 200,000 people per day.
Treat your senses to the Pak Klong Talat Flower Market in the Old City. Open 24 hours daily, it’s the biggest wholesale and retail fresh flower market in Thailand, operating for more than 60 years. Here you’ll find a kalediscope of colors with endless rows of fresh flowers, reaching peak traffic just after dawn and into the late evening.
We didn’t personally make it to a floating market, but they’re quite the unique sight in pictures. If you’re not familiar, they’re exactly as they sound: boats parked on the riverside, piled high with tropical fruits, vegetables, coconut juice, local food cooked on floating kitchens, souvenirs and so on. Two of the more popular floating markets are Khlong Lat Mayom Floating Market and Taling Chan Floating Market. Get there early – crowds and tour groups flock in the afternoon.
5) Cruise the river
Give your feet a break and see the city through a new perspective by exploring the Chao Phraya River. You can pay extra for a formal tourist boat; however, if you’re most interested in the sights, ride the water taxi up and down the river for less than $1 USD!
6) Find a rooftop bar
Bangkok houses several rooftop bars – some nearly in the clouds – with incredible views of the city. The most well-known is Sky Bar by Lebua, 63 stories high. Thanks to “The Hangover” movies that filmed there, the lines are inevitable and the cocktails are outrageously expensive. We checked out Octave Rooftop Bar at the Marriott Sukhumvit, boasting 360 views of the city among three floors more than 40 stories high. Other recommended spots include Vertigo and Moon Bar, The Speakeasy and Park Society.
Wherever you choose to go, rooftop bars tend to be dress to impress. No sandals, shorts or sleeveless shirts for men; no ripped jeans for women. The doormen won’t hesitate to deny you entry.
7) People watch
People watching is our favorite pastime abroad. If this piques your interest, here are our favorite places (aside from the aforementioned night spots – do not miss Soi Cowboy and Soi Nana).
- Lumpini Park, the “Central Park” of Bangkok (142 acres), is an expansive green space in the middle of the city – a rare find in Bangkok. Aside from the excellent people watching, you’ll also find serenity, fresh air and shade.
- Khao San Road is Bangkok’s backpacking district and overall travel hub of South East Asia. Here you’ll find many hostels and budget accommodations, in addition to infinite vendors and bars. If you’re interested in meeting young travelers, Khao San Road is the place.
- As expected, Chinatown is a culinary indulgence with unbelievably fresh and unique offerings (food scene detailed more here). At all hours of the day, you’ll also find chaotic, vendor-lined streets, mostly selling unnecessary souvenirs. Great people watching but not recommended for those easily aggravated by crowds.
8) Visit a megamall
In all honesty, we don’t particularly enjoy shopping malls in the United States. So, why would we recommend visiting MEGAMALLS in Bangkok, you ask? Aside from being air conditioned, they’re highly entertaining and over-the-top. The 600-store Terminal 21, for instance, is themed as an airport on the first floor. As you gradually climb higher, each floor represents a different region (e.g., Grand Bazaar in Istanbul; San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, Tokyo City, London’s Carnaby Street, etc.), and boarding announcements are made throughout the mall to amplify the theme. Oh, and the food court is phenomenal.
9) Get a massage
Bangkok is chaotic…and, you’re on vacation. Treat yourself! Massages throughout Bangkok are extremely cheap (around $8 USD) and open very late; just make sure you do your research on locations to ensure the ending is what you’re expecting (‘happy endings’ are prevalent in Bangkok).
If the workers are wearing rather sexy outfits, highly made up and going out of her way to attract attention, you can likely get whatever (seriously, anything) you’re willing to pay for, if you catch my drift. If the workers are wearing more conservative, formal uniforms, you’re probably in for a traditional fare.
10) Take a day trip
While we loved the energy in Bangkok, we wanted to explore the history outside. With a private tour guide, we took a day trip to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand. Founded around 1350, Ayutthaya developed into the world’s largest city by 1700 and positioned itself as the trading capital; it was lavish and ornate. In 1767, the Burmese invaded and almost completely burnt the capital to the ground, but remains give us a glimpse into the once-impressive city. In fact, Ayutthaya has become an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We visited Wat Pananchoeng (known for its enormous seated Buddha), Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, Wat Mahathat (highlight is a Buddha head, carved into a tree trunk), The Grand Palace, Wat Logayasutharam (features a huge, reclining Buddha), Wat Na Phrameru and Wat Chai Wattanaram – the latter being our favorite.
If you venture to Ayutthaya, don’t miss some of the signature specialties of the region, namely seriously big freshwater prawns and kuay tiao ruea (boat noodles). A bowl comes out to about 60 cents USD; order at least two. Our 90-pound tour guide crushed four!
Other popular day trip destinations are Khao Yai National Park (Thailand’s first official national park) and Kanchanaburi (a historical city a few hours outside of Bangkok).
Goodbye, beautiful Thailand. Next stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia.