Chao Phraya River, in the heart of the city. Photo: Getty Images
Bangkok is one of the world’s great shopping cities, with bargain prices, endless variety, easy access, long opening hours and an ever-growing collection of air-conditioned shopping malls creating the perfect storm for a shopping frenzy. Most tourists make a beeline for MBK, where 2000 market-like shops sell everything from suitcases to DVD rip-offs, fashion, shoes and accessories, with bargaining part of the fun.
2. ROOFTOP BARS
Banyan Tree Rooftop Vertigo & Moon Bar, Restaurant, , Bangkok. Photo: Alamy
In the City of Angels, what better way to drink in views on a balmy evening than from a skyscraper rooftop? Featured in The Hangover Part II, the iconic Sky Bar atop Lebua State Tower is the world’s highest outdoor bar with stunning vistas across Chao Phraya River, while the aptly named Vertigo restaurant and Moon Bar on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel is a stunningly beautiful and incredibly hip venue.
3. STREET FOOD
When Bangkok locals aren’t shopping, they are eating, and doing it with voracity. Every evening, the footpaths become pop-up dining rooms as locals pull up a plastic chair, grab a Singha beer and tuck into tasty meals whipped up by street vendors. It’s cheap, social and delicious, with the general rules of thumb for any street food applying: if it’s cooked fresh, it should be fine.
Acclaimed Australian chef David Thompson has taken the concept of traditional Thai street food and turned it into art, with his restaurant Nahm considered one of the best Asian restaurants in the world. And delectable the food is, with explosions of taste, a subtle balance of flavours and a sophisticated elegance, all served share-style in traditional Thai manner. It costs a little more than traditional street food – 1800 baht ($60) for a set menu, or mains around 400-600 baht. See comohotels.com/metropolitan bangkok/dining/nahm.
5. CHAO PHRAYA RIVER
The broad, muddy Chao Phraya is the heart and soul of Bangkok, a working river that’s shaped the city’s history and economics. Escaping from the choking streets on to this languid artery is sweet relief, with ferry trips to sights such as the Grand Palace and Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) providing the best and quickest form of transportation. Watch heavily laden barges float by from riverside restaurants or on a dinner cruise, or linger longer at a peaceful riverside hotel.
6. GRAND PALACE
This glistening homage to the kings of Siam comprises several eclectic buildings, pavilions and gardens in four main courts. The complex includes the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (housing Thailand’s most sacred Buddha image), royal offices, museums, ceremonials halls and the former residence of the cosmopolitan King RamaV. Since this is a religious site, visitors must be appropriately dressed, with no singlet tops, bare shoulders, exposed thighs, sweat pants or pyjamas allowed. Seriously. See grandpalacebangkok.com.
7. WAT PHO
Located just behind the Grand Palace, this working temple is famous for its reclining Buddha, measuring 46 metres long and 15 metres high, just one of more than 1000 buddhas on display. The massive, serene-faced gilt image is seemingly squeezed into its resting place, head grazing the ceiling, while its feet alone are five metres long. The temple is also considered the first public university in Thailand and the birthplace of traditional Thai massage, with an operating school offering massages for 420 baht an hour. See watphomassage.com.
8. JIM THOMPSON HOUSE
In 1967, American entrepreneur Jim Thompson disappeared into the jungles of Malaysia and was never seen again. As the man who had single-handedly reinvented the Thai silk industry in post-war Bangkok, his legacy was enormous, witnessed by the ubiquitous silk shops bearing his name today. A man of exquisite taste, Thompson’s teak house – called ‘‘the talk of the town” and “the city’s most celebrated social centre” during the late 1950s/early ’60s – is a rare example of traditional Thai architecture as well as a museum of antique Asian treasures collected during his lifetime. Seejimthompsonhouse.com.
9. CHATUCHAK MARKET
Located in Bangkok’s north but easily accessed by Skytrain, this weekend market is one of the world’s largest, covering 6.8 hectares. While it can be hot and overwhelming, take time to explore the 27 separate sections, discovering everything from clothes to handicrafts, homewares and antiques, even pets (and the odd endangered species, with the market often accused of being a hub for illegal trading).When it all gets too tiring, relax over a beer and street food, or stop off for a massage. See chatuchak.org.
When I’m in Thailand, I have a massage every day: why not, when they’re so cheap? Bangkok is full of legitimate massage establishments (and the other kind as well)where you can indulge in a foot or traditional Thai massage for as little as 300 baht an hour. If you are more into pampering and ambience, splash out at one of the more upmarket spa complexes, such as Rarinjinda Wellness Spa.
Bangkok actively promotes medical tourism, with the promise of cheap dentistry luring visitors from all over the world. While many people baulk at the idea of overseas dental work, Bangkok’s clinics are top-notch, with internationally trained practitioners and state-of-the-art facilities. Major processes such as crowns, bridges and tooth removal are a fraction of the Australian price. If you don’t want to risk surgery, indulge in a clean or tooth whitening. The Tourism Authority of Thailand has several recommended clinics on their website, thailand.net.au.
An exclusive district of Bangkok, full of bars, restaurants, hotels, shopping centres and condos for Western expats; but it’s in the laneways, or so is, running off this major artery where you find most of the action. Some of the numbered sois are infamous and have earned names, such as red-light Soi Cowboy (between Soi 21 and 23), packed with girly bars; while Soi 11 is a popular nightclub and restaurant zone. The area is easily accessed via the Skytrain, with Nana Station a good jumping off point.
Amaze of alleyways flanking Charoenkrung and Yaowarat Roads, Chinatown is one of the most vibrant parts of Bangkok, oozing history and a rich cultural identity. Prepare to get lost as you wander through claustrophobic alleyways, breathing in the aroma of herbs, incense, unidentifiable seafood and curries. Glance up and discover living history behind original teak facades. A photographer’s and foodie’s delight.
14. THE KLONGS
A long tail boat excursion along canals and waterways criss-crossing the Thonburi side of Chao Phraya River provides an intimate snapshot of the ‘‘real’’ Bangkok as you pass temples, waterside villages and peer into people’s backyards. A charming stop is Baan Silipan, where a 100-yearold teak house has been converted into a gallery, cafe and performance space for a traditional puppet troupe. Free performances are held every day at 2pm, bringing characters from the Ramayana to life.
15. MUAY THAI
Thailand’s brutal combat sport is known as ‘‘the art of eight limbs’’, using force from fists, elbows, knees, shins and feet. To see champions of the sport in action, head to Lumpini or Ratchadamnoen Stadium for an evening of blood, gore and the bray of avid fans. Or, for amore personal appreciation of the intricacies of the sport, take a lesson: it’s actually great fun and a fantastic workout. The Siam hotel boasts Bangkok’s newest state-of-the- art boxing gym, with private lessons available for guests or by arrangement. See thesiamhotel.com.
16. COOKING SCHOOLS
Australians are suckers for Thai food and the opportunity to learn to cook our favourite international cuisine is an essential part of any Thailand holiday. While most hotels offer classes, there are several independent Bangkok schools where you can souvenir gourmet tricks and the odd classic recipe. Amrita Thai Cooking holds a fun, hands-on half-day course, located in a lovely riverside home with its own herb garden, and run by the charming and amusing instructor, Tam. See amritathaicooking.com.
17. LUMPINI PARK
In a city of skyscrapers, shopping malls and choked streets, this rare green patch is as much a haven as Central Park for New Yorkers. Locals love to sweat it out on morning jogs or cycling excursions, while there’s something wonderfully kitsch about the Thai love of swan paddleboats, available for hire. On Sunday afternoons from December to February, grab a snack from the weekend food market, sprawl out on a hired mat (30 baht), and listen to free jazz or classical music concerts as the sun sets.
18. WEIRD MUSEUMS
If your taste runs to the slightly bent, head to one of Bangkok’s museums dedicated to the bizarre. The Bangkok Corrections Museum, set in the remains of an old prison, highlights methods of torture and execution; while the Forensic Museum has a collection of body parts, organs infested with parasites and foetuses that will truly turn your stomach. Not for the fainthearted.
In the valley of the Chao Phraya River, the ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya is arguably the best day trip from Bangkok. The World Heritage-protected ruins, once proclaimed the most magnificent city in the world, date back to 1350, with highlights including the iconic Buddha head entwined within the roots of a banyan tree at Wat Maharat, and the original elephant kraal (corral). Cycling tours are a great way of getting around, as the whole site is flat.
20. FIVE STAR LUXURY AT A BARGAIN PRICE
Five-star hotels abound in Bangkok, and with competition fierce, you can get great deals on luxury digs for a fraction of the price you’ll pay elsewhere. Discounted hotel sites are advertising apartment-style accommodation for just over $100,while a room at a top-notch hotel such as Banyan Tree is selling for just over $230. Splash out, relax and enjoy.
The writer was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Banyan Tree Bangkok.