Bangkok has something beautiful and special for us. And it really is quite something. For us, the high-rise buildings, the busy traffic and the high humidity are not exactly reasons to visit the Thai capital. But through our many travels in South-East Asia, we often went there on our way through. And since then, we have come to love this cosmopolitan city. It is no longer the tropical metropolis full of traffic jams for us, it is now the city of saffron-clad monks, graceful Thai architecture, spicy food and colourful markets where there is always something to do.
Brief history of Bangkok
For years, Bangkok was just a small trading post on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. This changed when King Taksin made it the capital of Siam in the 18th century. His successor, King Rama I, then moved the new capital to the east bank of the river. Life then still took place on the water. Most people lived on bamboo rafts along the river. Instead of shops, vendors floated by on the water selling fruit and vegetables. The only stone structures on land were temples and palaces.
It was not until the 19th century that Bangkok was greatly modernised. Traditional canals were filled in and turned into roads. King Rama V moved the king’s residence and built the main boulevards. But the city only really started to develop (industrially) after the Second World War. Since then, Bangkok has grown into a particularly fun, bustling city.
Familiarise yourself with Bangkok
To get to know Bangkok properly, you will need at least three or four days. A good way to get acquainted with the big city is by taking a bicycle tour. For example, Co van Kessel, for years the leading company in socially responsible bike tours and boat trips in Bangkok. You can also do it with Baja Bikes, which has worked a lot with Co van Kessel. This company organises a tour accompanied by an English-speaking guide in many cities around the world.
Baja Bikes has two very nice and different bike tours through Bangkok. They are the ideal way to escape the heat and bustle of the metropolis. You will see places where the traffic cannot go: narrow roads, alleys and small, colourful markets. One of the tours that you can book is a day tour in which you get to see the most important highlights. The enthusiastic guide has a lot to tell and provides so much background information. In just under three hours, you will learn about the history, culture and highlights of the city. An optimal start for your visit to Bangkok! The other bike tour takes place in the evening. You will get to know the city in a totally different way with a cool evening breeze.
Besides bike tours, there are also (small-scale) guided city walks. One such tour is a city walk to the Wat Pho temple and the market. There are also themed city tours, such as a Food Tour along the most delicious eateries on the street. But perhaps the best tour that you can do in Bangkok is the combined bike/boat tour by Co van Kessel. We describe this tour below under the highlights of Bangkok. As well as guided tours, you can of course also discover the city on your own.
The must-sees of Bangkok
Whether you get to know Bangkok on a guided tour or on your own, the following highlights should not be missed on your trip.
Temples, temples, temples
Of the hundreds of temples in the city, Wat Phra Kaew at the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun are the three most important. The Grand Palace lives up to its name. The grounds are so large that you can certainly spend half a day here. The Wat Phra Kaew on this site is the holiest Buddhist temple in Thailand. Actually, it is not one temple but a collection of richly decorated sacred buildings and monuments. One of the buildings houses the absolutely magnificent emerald Buddha. The palace is very beautiful, but extremely crowded.
Nearby is Wat Pho. This temple houses the largest reclining Buddha in the world. You must have seen this statue! Afterwards, take the ferry across the Chao Phraya to Thonburi, just outside the old city. Here you will find one of the most picturesque temples of all Thailand: Wat Arun. Impressive to see the thousands of mosaic stones with which the Prang (tower) is decorated. If you look closely, you can see how the mosaics depict Buddha’s life path: from his birth to his death. The temple is so famous that it can even be found on 10-baht coins.
On the way back to the old city, there are many other important temples to visit. Like Wat Suthat and Wat Ratchanaddaram.
If you are still not tired of the many temples in Bangkok after this, visit Wat Saket. This “Temple of the Golden Mountain” is one of the oldest temples in Bangkok. It is located on a hilltop of almost 80 metres. To get here, you have to go up around 300 steps. But the climb is definitely worth it, if only because of the rich decoration and small waterfalls. To get to the temple, take the boat at Petchaburi or Central World Plaza. Or you can walk there, as the temple is only two kilometres south of Khao San Road.
The views of Bangkok from the skybars
Bangkok has a breathtaking skyline, especially at night when the city is enchantingly lit. You can enjoy it best from one of the many sky bars. We have visited a few of them. The Vertigo Rooftop terrace of the Banyan Tree Hotel, and the Lebua Rooftop terrace are our favourites. The latter is also known from the film Hangover 2. Other skybars with equally stunning views are the ABar in the Marriott and the Cru Champagne Bar. But also the Penthouse Rooftop in the Park Hyatt, and the Yao Rooftop Bar. Be prepared for the fact that you usually pay top dollar for (alcoholic) drinks. However, don’t let this stop you from visiting at least one skybar!
Bike and boat tour through Bangkok and surroundings
One of our absolute highlights in Bangkok was a five-hour bike and boat tour. We did this through Co van Kessel. We started in the city where we cycled through narrow alleys in the chaotic but bustling centre. Then, with a longtail boat, we visited the “Venice of the East”. After a delicious lunch at a Thai grandmother’s house, we explored the plantations outside the city. What particularly appealed to us about this tour is the variety. You do not only see the busy Bangkok but also the almost perfectly quiet, watery countryside.
Shopping at the Chatuchak Market
If you like shopping, you should definitely go to the Chatuchak Market. With almost 10,000 stalls in an area of 27 hectares, this is one of the largest markets in the world. You will find pretty much everything you can imagine here: from clothes and souvenirs to delicious Thai meals. Allow at least half a day to visit the market. The market is held on Saturdays and Sundays.
Walk through Lumphini Park
When you’ve had enough of the hustle and bustle of the city, relax in Lumphini Park: Bangkok’s green oasis. The 50-hectare park is a great place to stroll, take a pedal boat ride or just enjoy the scenery. It is the place to recharge your batteries anyway. The older Thai generation does this too. You can see them gracefully practising Tai Chi. On the weekends, the park fills up with people taking part in all kinds of activities. You might want to visit the park early in the morning or just before sunset.
In one way or another, it almost always rains around 1 pm. If you’d rather not be outside then, consider visiting one of the many interesting museums. One of them is the Jim Thompson House. This beautiful mansion, formerly home to the CIA, consists of six traditional Thai-style houses. You will learn everything there is to know about Thai silk, among other things.
Another interesting museum is the National Museum of Bangkok. Here you will find the largest collection of Thai art in all of Thailand. The museum was first opened by King Rama V to show off all the gifts his father had given him. You will see Chinese weapons, gems, puppets, clothes and textiles and Khon masks.
Practicalities for your visit to Bangkok
Bangkok is located in the Chao Phraya River delta in the northern part of the Gulf of Thailand. The city is about 1.5 meters above sea level.
There are two airports near Bangkok: Suvarnabhumi Airport and Don Muang Airport. Almost all airlines use the first one. Only Air Asia, Nok Air, Orient Thai and some budget airlines land at the old Don Muang Airport. If you have a choice in airline, check to which airport it flies. Suvarnabhumi Airport is much nicer (cleaner, less chaotic) than Don Muang Airport! Both airports are about 30 km from the city centre. If you have to go from one airport to the other, use the relatively quick shuttle bus that runs over the toll roads. Otherwise, it might take you at least three hours.
There are numerous ways to get from Suvarnabhumi Airport to the city centre. However, most people choose the Airport Rail Link. This is by far the fastest way to get to the city centre. Prefer a taxi? Taxi fares are very reasonable compared to other world cities.
Walking from A to B in Bangkok is not an option due to the large distances and the usually muggy weather. However, Bangkok's public transport is quite efficient and convenient these days. Except for taxis. The traffic jams are so bad that it sometimes takes more than one hour to drive one kilometre. We have also heard that there are scammers among the taxi drivers who will take you to a family shop. They will only take you further if you buy something in the shop first. We have not experienced this ourselves.
A much better option is the BTS Skytrain and the MRT (metro). Click here for the metro map. Another, more fun way to get around is by water. Bangkok is, after all, a watery city where life used to be. The cheapest and most popular option is the Chao Phraya Express Boat. This is basically like the bus but over water. And as with "real" buses, there is also a hop-on-hop-off version of this: the blue tourist boat.
It is always hot in Bangkok. The most pleasant time to visit is during the winter months of November to February. This is not only the least warm but also the driest period. In March and April it is really hot. The wet season then runs from May to October. September and October are especially wet.
For a big city, Bangkok is surprisingly safe. But as in every city also at home you have to be careful and use your common sense. There is little (serious) crime. Nevertheless, theft, pickpocketing and scams do occur. But traffic is a point of attention. Thai drivers, both mopeds and motorbikes as well as cars and buses, are not known as the best drivers in the world. Traffic lights are regularly ignored and mopeds sometimes take to the footpath.
As elsewhere in Thailand, you should also be careful about what you eat. For example, avoid raw leafy vegetables, egg-based dressings and unpackaged ice-cream and mince. In short, stick to boiled, baked, fried or peeled food. As for drinking water: the tap water is said to be alright; nevertheless, we recommend bottled water. Also in the restaurant.
Bangkok has no fewer than 50,000 dining options. There are not only thousands of Thai restaurants, but also many excellent restaurants with international cuisine. The prices are generally high by Thai standards, but still cheap for us. We have eaten at many restaurants in Bangkok. Some of the ones we remember don't exist anymore. Therefore, we cannot give you any personal tips. However, we would like to suggest you to take a dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River. Yes, this is very touristy, but it is also a nice way to see the illuminated city while enjoying good food! Here is a list of the best restaurants in Bangkok according to TripAdvisor.
Street food is generally of good quality and especially tasty in Bangkok! Typical dishes that are sold on the street are satay with spicy sauce and our favourite Pad Thai. This is stir-fried rice noodles with eggs, fish sauce, tamarind sauce and red chilli pepper with either chicken or prawns. Another delicious but spicy dish is Tom Yam Kung: soup with prawns, lemongrass and galangal. Prefer not to eat meat or fish? Then add the word "jay" to the food you want to order.
Bangkok has a great range of accommodation, including some of the best - but also worst - hotels in the world. Make your choice based on the district where you want to hang out the most. Or based on where you can easily travel to your next destination. Here is an overview of accommodation in Bangkok.
Compared to many other places in Thailand, Bangkok is pricey. But by our standards, Bangkok is still cheap. Unless you go for the best restaurants or hotels, of course. The skybars are on the expensive side though!
This of course depends on how long your trip lasts and what other destinations you want to see. If you have the time, we recommend a stay of at least three days in Bangkok.