The Thai capital of Bangkok is not unaccustomed to tourists. In fact, it’s always packed full of them! Even though some parts of this chaotic city are a little too touristy for our liking, that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of fun things to do in Bangkok. If you find yourself with just one day in Bangkok, here’s what our local guide Nancia thinks you should do with it.
If you happen to be up before the sun rises and are in the old city – take an early morning stroll past any of its many temples – you’ll see more activity than you might expect as this is the time that monks go out to collect their daily alms. They walk from the temple through the streets with their alms bowls while locals offer them food for the day. You can also enter temple grounds if you’re appropriately dressed (shoulders and knees covered), if you’re lucky you’ll hear the monks chanting.
Start early in the day with a visit to Pak Klong Taalat, Bangkok’s vibrant 24 hour flower market, which is alive with the colour and smells of all kinds of flowers. Why does the city have a 24 hour flower market? You’ll see here that many of the blooms are integrated into everyday worship with garlands of jasmine or marigolds; lotus flowers with the petals neatly folded and the traditional banana leaf based creations called “Bai si” The market is full of makers and sellers supplying the people who sell on street corners all over the city.
If it’s your first time in Bangkok, then jump on a tuk-tuk and head to the Grand Palace, home of the Emerald Buddha, the most auspicious statue in the Thai religion. The city’s most famous landmark is the spiritual centre of the nation and was home to the Royal family for 150 years. It’s architecture and intricate details are dazzling, as are the crowds – the best way to avoid them is to get ahead of them, aim to arrive early when it opens at 8:30am.
A short walk from the Palace is Wat Pho, home to the biggest reclining Buddha statue in the city. At 45 metres, this statue is a Bangkok must-see! Wat Po is one of the oldest teaching universities in Thailand, and is known as the birthplace of Thai massage. There’s much more to the temple than just the famous reclining Buddha, take the time to wonder around the grounds – the rest of the temple tends to be less crowded and you’ll see local visitors engaged in Thai Buddhist practices as well as other beautiful Buddha images and “Chedis” or stupas – these sacred structures contain relics of important monks and Kings, beautifully decorated with intricate details.
Alternatively, If you’ve already seen Bangkok’s most two famous landmarks then spend your morning taking a longtail boat ride into the “khlongs” or canals on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya river where you’ll get a sense of the old Bangkok as it was once known as “Venice of the East”. Be sure to stop at Wat Arun on the riverbank, one of the most famous icons of the city. Moving away from the river, head to the Golden Mount, the short climb to the top will give you a great 360 degree view of the city and next to it at Loha Prasat temple you can wonder through the small local Amulet Market where you’ll see some unusual lucky charms and religious icons.
Time for lunch! In Bangkok, the thing to do is eat with the locals at one of the many street food stalls or simple shop-house restaurants. Always pick one that’s busy, and full of locals (that way you know it’s authentic and delicious!). Enjoy a cheap bowl of noodle soup or authentic Pad Thai for about $1 USD (yes, we’re serious). This is fast food at its best, prepared right in front of you and delivered to you in five minutes. If you need to get out of the heat, you’ll find plenty of riverside options with a/c nearby. Being on the riverside you can dine with a view of Wat Arun and even hop across on the local ferry for only 5 THB to take a closer look.
Bangkok can get really hot, especially in the afternoon, so now may be a good opportunity to take some time out and enjoy a traditional two hour Thai massage. Thai massages are done in a traditional style that involves stretching and deep tissue massaging. This form of body work is usually performed on the floor, and the client wears comfortable clothes that allow for movement. No oils are used in a Thai massage, known locally as ‘nuat phaen boran’. Wat Pho Traditional Thai Massage School is a great place to try one.
Another great place to get out of the afternoon heat is Museum Siam, our favourite museum in Bangkok. It’s housed in a neo-classical style building, but there’s no dusty old artefacts here, it’s an interactive, high-tech experience. Surfaces light up and things pop out of the walls to teach you about Thai fashion, food, history, pop culture, royalty, Buddhism and what their motto “Decoding Thainess” is all about. If you want to understand Thai cultural identity and have fun while doing it – this is the place to go.
The afternoon is also a great time to hit the shops – Bangkok is famous for its malls and they are all well air-conditioned! The newest and most impressive piece of architecture is Icon Siam, and taking the hop on hop off boat there along the Chao Phraya river is part of experience. It’s mostly high-end international stores but the ground floor is called Sook Siam and features Thai handicrafts from all over the country as well as local food in a floating market style setting. The view of the river from Icon Siam’s outdoor terrace is worth seeing as is the 400m long fountain light and sound show every evening at 6:30pm, 8pm and 9pm
Bangkok’s Chinatown is often overlooked by visitors but always a highlight for those that explore it. While there are Chinatowns all over the world, none quite compare to Bangkok’s – the biggest and one of the oldest in the world. It’s an assault on the senses… in a good way! This is the heart of the city’s street food scene, famous for its markets, narrow streets and historic hidden lanes. The best time to explore is late afternoon into evening as the street food vendors start to set up (except on Mondays) and locals are out and about. If you get here late afternoon, start with a visit to Wat Traimit housing the world’s biggest solid gold Buddha and a visit to the Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Center (closes 5pm) to learn about the early Chinese immigrants to Bangkok, how they integrated into Thai society and became integral to Bangkok’s history and trade economy. As you explore Chinatown’s markets and lanes, you’ll also see that today’s way of life isn’t so different from the old days in this part of the old city.
A sunset cocktail at one of Bangkok’s famous Skybars with a panoramic view is something every visitor to Bangkok should experience – our favourite is in Chinatown on the 25th floor of the Grand China Hotel. It’s not quite as high or as well-known as Moon or Sky Bar but that’s a good thing! Being in the old city means you get a closer view of famous temples lit up at night as well as the modern skyline and Chao Phraya river. The dress code is relaxed, it’s much less crowded and the bar prices are more affordable than the famous 5 Star hotel rooftop bars.
Chinatown’s Soi Nana has become one of the city’s trendiest hidden bar-hopping areas, Tep Bar is a tapas and Thai cultural bar with creative cocktails using traditional Thai herbs and liquors where traditional Thai musicians play with a modern vibe; Teens of Thailand is the city’s first gin bar while Asia Today is a simple bar with a focus on exotic Thai ingredients to name just a few.
Alternatively head to one of Bangkok’s night markets where you can shop, eat and drink the evening away. Asiatique is great for families and easily accessible on the free shuttle boat that runs from central pier by Saphin Taksin BTS station. It has a cool river breeze, clean toilets and lots of options for dinner, although market prices are a little higher than elsewhere. From Thursday to Sunday nights the biggest, and we think the best, night-market is Rod Fai Market at Srinakarin. Famous for vintage and retro memorabilia alongside everyday fashion. It’s located a taxi ride away in the suburbs but the bonus of this is that less tourists visit than locals so the vendors are friendly and less pushy, there’s plenty of great street food and bars with cheap cocktails as well. It’s smaller brother Rod Fai Ratchada is open daily and more accessible, located right next to Thai Cultural Centre MRT station but expect the crowds of tourists that come hand in hand with easy access.
If you’re looking for nightclubs RCA (Royal City Avenue) is the centre of Bangkok’s clubbing scene and busy every night of the week with international DJs as well as local artists, the vibe is young and on weekends you’ll be mingling with Thai teens and 20-somethings. For a slightly more mature crowd Suhumvit Soi 11 is the legendary party street with a mix of tourists, ex-pats and locals attracted by its many restaurants, bars, live music and nightclubs and it’s just a few steps from Nana BTS station.