When people tell me they hate Bangkok, I understand. When I first went to Bangkok in 2006, I despised the city and couldn’t wait to get out.
It’s not the best tourist city in the world. Outside of shopping and a few temples, there’s not much to do. Plus, it’s dirty and it smells.
It wasn’t until I lived in the city that I really fell in love with it.
Bangkok is not a city that opens itself up easily, and most people spend just a day or two here before leaving to go to the islands or the jungle. But while as a tourist you may not need tons of time to “see” the city, Bangkok has more than a few days’ worth of temples and activities.
Bangkok may not have lot of “tourist attractions” the way that Paris, London, NYC, and Buenos Aires do but that’s OK. Bangkok is not that kind of city – this is a place to wander, eat, and imbibe. It doesn’t have to be a love-it-or-hate-it city but it is worth seeing.
Here’s my suggested itinerary for the City of Angels that will have you ticking off the major sites and some of the lesser known ones too:
The Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and Wat Arun
Start your visit to the city with a tour of the Grand Palace (Royal Palace) and neighboring Wat Pho, home to the famous reclining Buddha and massage school. The Royal family doesn’t live in the palace (it’s only used for official state functions) and you can’t go into any of the buildings, but wandering the grounds and open temples is worth the visit. It’s beautiful and the craftsmanship in the architecture is amazing. Go first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds.
Afterwards, wander down the street to Wat Pho and the famous reclining Buddha (as well as the famous Golden Buddha). The Wat Pho complex fills a city block so while seeing the statues doesn’t take long, you could spend a solid hour wandering the maze-like temple grounds.
Next, head across the river to Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) and get stellar views of the city from atop the temple. It’s my favorite temple in the city because of the view!
Note: Be sure to wear clothes that cover your legs and shoulders; it’s considered disrespectful to wear revealing clothes. If you don’t, you can rent pants or shirts at the palace. At Wat Pho, they give them out for free.
Cruise the river
Take a tour of the Chao Phraya river, a relaxing and beautiful experience that shouldn’t be skipped. Don’t take an overpriced tour, though. You can ride the water taxi up and down the river for around 20 baht (less than $1 USD). Start at the central pier, go to the end, and come back. Presto! Instant tour! (The difference with the official tourist boat, which makes less stops, is that they have someone that gives brief descriptions about important sites as you go.)
Tour the temples
Bangkok has a lot of beautiful temples. Hire a tuk-tuk driver to take you around for the day to see the temples. Just make sure he doesn’t take you shopping along the way — drivers get kickbacks if they bring customers into certain shops. They can be annoying about this but stay firm! This is often the cheapest and most efficient way to see the temples throughout Bangkok. My favorite temples are:
- Wat Saket and the Golden Mount
- Wat Traimit
- Wat Benchamabophit
- Wat Kalayanamit
Visit Khao San Road
The backpacker capital of the world, this road (along with Soi Rambuttri) in Bangkok is where you’ll find endless bars, shops, street food, international restaurants, vendors, locals, and activity all day and all night. It’s also a popular spot on the weekend for Thais. I personally like the quieter Soi Rambuttri, but Khao San is an awesome place to sit outside and meet other travelers. Be sure to visit Brick Bar, the hidden-away Thai ska bar where only locals go.
Check out the floating market
You can enjoy a half-day visit to the floating markets around the city (Khlong Lat Mayom and Thaling Chan are the two most popular). It makes for a filling morning adventure and if you get there early, you can avoid a lot of the crowds. Thaling Chan is the more touristy one so to avoid the hordes of tour groups, definitely get there early. Both markets can be visited by public transportation. I love the chaos, the smells, and the little ladies cooking and selling you various treats as they paddle by you. You never leave hungry!
Chinatown in Bangkok is a culinary feast. You can go shopping here and buy lots of useless souvenirs, but what I love about this area is the food. On the chaotic vendor-lined streets, you’ll find a ton of vendors selling food you hardly see anywhere else in the city. This is a crowded and busy part of the city but one of my favorites. At night, the area is one of the best places in the city to get delicious seafood.
Visit the malls
Okay, hear me out on this: Malls in Bangkok are more than just malls – they are social hubs (thanks in part to the air-conditioning) where people eat (mall food courts in Bangkok are delicious), drink at bars, see movies, sit at coffee shops, and even go bowling! A lot of life in the city happens in the malls and each has its own character. Start knocking some off your list by heading to Siam Square to visit MBK (cheap phones, shirts, and DVDs), Paragon and Emporium (upscale shopping), Terminal 21 (delicious food court), or Central World. Mall life is part of Bangkok and if you want to understand the city, you need to visit a mall.
Experience the Siam Rush Hour
Make sure you’re in the Siam BTS train station at 6pm. A unique cultural thing happens then. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so I won’t tell you what it is but it’s worth it!
Watch a Muay Thai fight
Muay Thai (a combat sport involving striking and clinching) is everywhere in Thailand and Thais take it very seriously. Fighters train for years. Don’t bother seeing the tourist Muay Thai fights on any of the islands. Instead, spend a night seeing an authentic match with world-class fighters in Bangkok at Rajadamnern Stadium.
Shop and eat at the Chatuchak Weekend Market
The weekend market is one of the best things in Bangkok. It’s the size of many football fields and quite crowded. You’ll find everything and anything from authentic designer clothes to their fake counterparts to phones to knockoff movies to pets to backpacks to kitchenware. There’s a big dining area with great, cheap food. Don’t miss coming here.
Tour Jim Thompson’s House
Jim Thompson was an American spy and silk merchant in Thailand during the ’50s and ’60s who vanished mysteriously in 1967 while in Malaysia. He made his home in the traditional Thai style, decorating it with beautiful teak wood and a surrounding garden. The tours feature a lot of history about Jim, the silk industry, and how and why Thais design their homes the way they do. Admission fees go to underprivileged kids.
Visit Lumpini Park
Lumpini Park is Bangkok’s Central Park. This sizable green space is well worth a visit if you’re a people watcher. At all hours of the day, you’ll find people playing sports, walking, biking, practicing tai chi, or just relaxing. In a city that lacks much green space, you’ll probably crave a little wildlife after navigating all the traffic and vendors in this concrete jungle.
Enjoy an event at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center
This contemporary arts center highlights and hosts art, music, theatre, film, design, and cultural events in its exhibition and performance spaces. In a city that lacks a real art scene, this is an enriching place to see some local art.
Brave the Bangkok Corrections Museum
The Bangkok Corrections Museum is located on the site of a former maximum-security prison and has been a museum since 1939. You can learn about the cruel methods of punishment used in the past and see torture devices and wax figures depicting execution scenes.
Visit the National Museum
This museum focuses on Thai culture, with highlights that include a large collection of musical instruments, recorded music, ornate royal funeral chariots, and impressive wooden carvings. The museum isn’t very big and the signs aren’t very detailed, but the artifacts are interesting to look at. It’s best to go when they offer English tours on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 9:30am.
Take a food tour
Bangkok is all about food. You’ll never stop eating here, but the sheer variety can be overwhelming! To get a deeper appreciation of Thai food, take a food tour. The two best are Bangkok Food Tours and the ones offered by Mark Wiens of Migrationology.
Some other options
- Museum of Siam – This museum uses a variety of media to explore the origins of the Thais and their culture. The galleries deal with the origins of the country and its people told through various multimedia. It’s a fun little interactive museum housed in an old 19th-century European style building.
- Wakeboard at Lake Taco – If you want to get out of the city and have some adventure, head to the eastern outskirts of Bangkok for some wakeboarding (i.e. riding on a short board while being pulled by a motorboat). This is a popular thing to do with expats and though I never did it, my friends always said it was a fun time.
- Take a cooking class – Take an afternoon to learn about Thai cooking and try your hand at making some food. You’ll find cooking classes throughout the city but the vegetarian restaurant Mai Kaidee has a really good one!
There’s more to Bangkok than just temples, shopping, and traffic! It’s a city whose charm emerges slowly. With four days, you can see the major and minor attractions and get a robust overview of one of my top three cities in the world!