I can honestly say that Bangkok is one of my favourite cities in the world.
Sometimes when I say that, people grimace. I get that. Bangkok can be a difficult city to love.
It’s huge and overwhelming. The streets are a rushing river of beeping motorbikes and brightly coloured taxis. The heat is oppressive – you’re soaked in sweat after walking only a few blocks.
The smells are an assault to the senses – a mix of exhaust, frying street food, sickly sweet incense and hot garbage that can make it difficult to breathe. Rats scurry in the gutters, tuk tuk drivers call out to you and mangy stray cats doze in the relentless sunshine.
But if you can look beyond the sweaty grit of The Big Mango, there’s so many things to love about Bangkok. It has a truly incredible food scene, world-class attractions and an exciting vibe that I’ve never grown tired of. If it becomes too much to handle, there are always air-conditioned malls and attractions for escaping the heat, plus rooftop bars where you can take a break from the busy streets.
But really… I’d recommend just taking a deep breath and jumping headfirst into this steamy, concrete jungle and seeing what you discover. Here are a few of my favourite things about Bangkok:
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Khao San Road is described in the book The Beach as the “Centre of the Backpacking Universe.” This crowded, noisy street is lined with budget guesthouses and hostels, bars, massage parlours and restaurants.
At night, loud music booms, street vendors hawk grilled scorpion on a stick and drunk travelers dance with buckets of whisky and Redbull. While it’s a wild and exciting experience to walk down Khao San Road, it’s not really our scene.
Lee and I have always preferred the vibe of the next street over: Soi Rambuttri.
Rambuttri is quieter and more laid back, with a great mix of restaurants, guesthouses and street food stalls. I’ve heard many people describe is as “what Khao San Road was like 20 years ago.” The laid back vibe and great restaurant selection make it our favourite place to stay in Bangkok.
There are actually two different sections to this road. There’s Thanon Rambuttri (Thanon means street) which is the section that runs parallel to Khao San Road and is connected to it by little alleyways. Then, there’s Soi Rambuttri, the smaller street across from Thanon Rambuttri that curves in a “U” shape around the temple Wat Chana Songkhram. (Soi means lane or alley.)
I highly recommend it as an area to stay in – it’s close enough to the action without being in the middle of the Khao San Chaos. There are several great restaurants and the area is a great place to stroll in the evenings.
Bangkok has one of the best street food scenes in the world. On the streets you will find local chefs frying up spicy noodle and rice dishes, soups, spring rolls, desserts and so much more.
You can feast on so much delicious, authentic local food for very cheap prices. Be adventurous and try something new!
A good rule is to look for street food stalls where there is a lineup of locals and the food is selling quickly. This usually means the food is authentic and fresh.
It’s always a good sign when it is cooked fresh in front of your eyes, such as with stir fry noodle dishes. If the food looks like it has been sitting out for a while in the sun, it’s best to avoid it.
For a detailed guide to where to find all the best street food in Bangkok, check out this blog post by Mark from Migrationology.
Ridiculous Shopping Malls
There are shopping malls, and there are the enormous shopping complexes of Bangkok. Siam Paragon, Central World, MBK, Siam Square… they are connected together by elevated walkways and are packed with floor after floor of retail shops, food stalls and restaurants.
You can explore for hours and still not see everything these malls have to offer. From designer shops such as Chanel and Gucci to cheap stalls selling knock-off clothing and electronics – there’s a huge range.
Even if you don’t plan on picking anything up, it’s kind of amazing to see how large these malls are and what they have to offer. (Plus, you can take a break from the intense heat and walk around in the air conditioning for a while.)
Bangkok is known for having fantastic rooftop bars. Having a drink several stories up above the city is one of the things I love about Bangkok. You’ll get to admire the view while escaping from the busy chaos at street level.
The best time to visit a rooftop bar is just before sunset, so that you can watch the sky redden, the sun sink below the horizon and the lights of the city turn on.
You can read our post about one of the rooftop bars in Bangkok – the Red Sky Bar at Centara Grand. It’s on the 55th floor and you can see for miles, the glittering city stretching out below you.
Of course, drinking in rooftop bars is not a budget experience. One cocktail and one mocktail at the Centara Grand cost 800 baht altogether (approximately $26 USD), which is more than our hotel room.
Bangkok has one of the largest Chinatowns in the world – established in 1782. It is also, in my opinion at least, one of the best Chinatowns in the world. It’s an area of the city definitely worth checking out on your visit to Bangkok.
The main artery of Chinatown is Yaowarat Road, which sometimes gives its name to the entire area. The district includes neighborhoods such as Talat Noi along the Chao Phraya River, Song Wat and Charoen Chai.
It is the hub of Chinese culture, with several shops selling Chinese goods – as well as a fantastic collection of restaurants. This is where you will find some of the best eats in the city, including excellent seafood, roast duck, noodles, rice dishes and strange and wonderful desserts.
There are also some beautiful temples to explore, rooftop bars where you can admire the view and intriguing little shops to visit. It’s definitely worth taking a day to wander through Chinatown!
The Chao Phraya River
The Chao Phraya River flows through Bangkok, then on into the Gulf of Thailand. Like all rivers in cities, the history of this waterway is intertwined with the history of Bangkok. It is a major transportation artery in the city for a number of river buses, water taxis and longtail boats. Approximately 50,000 people use the ferries to get across the city every day.
Taking a cruise down the Chao Phraya River gives you a chance to see the city from a different perspective. You don’t necessarily have to pay a lot of money for one of the cruise boat experiences. The budget option is to take the public transport boats that will cost around 15 baht (48 cents USD)
Speaking of the Chao Phraya River, one of the best places to stop along it is the entertainment complex Asiatique The Riverfront. It’s a mix between a mall and a night bazaar, with several restaurants and bars as well. There’s more than a thousand merchant stalls, 40 eateries to choose from and a promenade along the river’s edge.
There’s even a giant Ferris wheel where you can get views of the city and the river. We love to take the boat down the river to Asiatique and spend a few hours there, looking in the interesting little shops, having a meal and enjoying a few cold beers by the riverside.
Massages and Spa Treatments
Another one of the wonderful things about Bangkok is that you can get a massage, manicure, pedicure and other spa treatment for a very affordable price. Good spa treatments are cheap and if you pay a little bit more you will enjoy an incredible level of luxury.
Spa treatments, massages, pedicures and manicures might be things that you don’t treat yourself to in your home country because they are too expensive. This is your chance to try the experience and pamper yourself without having to spend a fortune.
Further Reading: The 10 Best Spas in Bangkok, Thailand
Take some time to explore the temples of Bangkok, because they really are spectacular. Covered in ornate designs and sculptures of sharp-toothed dragons and calm, smiling Buddhas, these elaborate structures glitter and gleam in the hot sunshine.
The Grand Palace and Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) is the most well known temple in Bangkok, but there are many other that are worth visiting such as:
- Loha Prasat: Located a short walk from Khao San Road, this impressive temple is known as the “Metal Castle” and is home to a beautiful golden seated Buddha.
- Wat Arun: The “Temple of Dawn” is located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River and has stunning architecture, with colourful spires decorated with tiny pieces of multi-hued glass.
- Wat Chanasongkram: You might not have realised that this beautiful, peaceful temple is located right in the heart of the busy Banglamphu neighborhood, near Khao San Road and Soi Rambuttri.
*Note: When you visit a temple, make sure you are dressed appropriately. Your shoulders and knees should be covered, so wearing a bikini top or a short skirt is not okay.
Siam Paragon Gourmet Food Hall
I’ve already written about this culinary wonder, as it’s one of my favourite things in Bangkok. It’s essentially a food court and a marketplace within a mall… but it’s oh so much more than that.
It’s an international food lover’s dream, with cuisine from all over the world. There are the classic Thai favourites, but you’ll also find everything from Australian vegemite to Canadian maple syrup to delightful little Japanese desserts and a variety of cookies, cakes, hot sauces, chocolates and so much more.
Outside of the gourmet market there is an international food court with around 100 different stalls and mini-restaurants. Whenever I walk around this area, I’m overwhelmed by all of the delicious foods there are and the fact that I only have one stomach and can only eat so much at one time.
Whether you’re in the mood for ramen, Piri Piri, Indian curry, waffles, Japanese gyoza, Chinese dumplings, British meat pies or any other type of cuisine, you’ll be spoiled for choice here.
The first time I discovered Terminal 21, I was like a kid in a candy store. Of course, there are a TON of excellent, huge malls in Bangkok but this one is travel themed and evokes a different city on each floor.
As you go up the escalators you’ll find yourself in “Paris”, “London”, “San Francisco”, “Tokyo” and “Rome” – with cheesy fake architectural details and themed shops. As a fan of man-made themed environments like West Edmonton Mall and Disneyland, it totally won me over. Plus, the top floor has one of the best food courts in the city.
Jim Thompson House
Jim Thompson was an American businessman who helped to revitalise the Thai silk industry in the 1950s and 1960s. He founded the Thai Silk Company and employed women. He let them work at home so they could be breadwinners while retaining their position in the household.
In Bangkok, Jim built a huge home in traditional Thai style to house his growing collection of historic Southeast Asian artwork. He used materials from old country houses and reassembled them together in unique ways. You can take a tour of this impressive building today and see his Cambodian carvings, Chinese Ming vases, Burmese Buddha sculptures, Victorian chandeliers and much more.
There is an intriguing air of mystery about this house, as Jim Thompson disappeared in 1967. He went for a walk in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia and was never seen again.
The Scala Cinema opened in 1969 and it is the last remaining standalone single-screen cinema in Thailand. Going there for a retro movie experience is one of the things I love about Bangkok. The interior is simply beautiful. It has a stunning Art Deco interior with golden sunburst designs on the ceiling and a huge cascading chandelier.
It’s a very affordable place to see a film and it can be nice to escape the Bangkok heat in air conditioned comfort for a few hours. Before every film the national anthem is played and everyone stands up to pay their respects to The King.
Night markets are a lot of fun because they are often an overwhelming feast for the senses. They have somewhat of a festival atmosphere, with a dazzling selection of strange food, trinkets for sale and more.
There are so many great night markets to choose from in Bangkok. You can head to Rot Fai Srinakarin to find second hand and retro clothing, as well as collectibles. Chang Chi Bangkok Plane Market is located in the huge shell of a recycled Airbus. It’s a great place to pick up unique art pieces. If you are looking for fake brands, cheap electronics and souvenirs, Patpong is where to go.
Here’s our Seven Tips for Night Markets in Southeast Asia to help you get the most out of your experience.
What do you love about Bangkok?
Share your tips and recommendations for the Big Mango in the comments below!