Bangkok is what our US cousins might call a ‘hot mess’. The city sprawls all over the place with no discernible centre; it’s stifling hot even in the so-called cool season; the traffic is deplorable — “the worst in the world except for Jakarta,” my cab driver tells me cheerfully before advancing two metres and falling asleep. And then there are the smells, which can be indescribably awful and always take you by surprise — a pleasant whiff of incense or grilling meat hijacked by violent blasts of drain or stinking durian. Bangkok is frenzied and in-your-face and overwhelming. And yet… and yet, I love it.
I love beating the rush hour by jumping on the back of a motorbike taxi and flying through back streets, hospital car parks and the delivery bays of malls to arrive at my destination in the style of an action movie badass. I love seeing the Skytrain glide over hawker stalls and ficus trees, and spotting orange-robed monks haggling over smartphones in the mall. I love the way the sun glints off skyscrapers and the tops of golden temples. And I love lolling down the river in a long-tail boat, drinking cocktails at fancy rooftop bars, and the fact that in this town, even the mildest exertion warrants a 90-minute massage. It’s a city that’s got it all — and then some.
One thing’s for sure, a stay in Bangkok is never going to be boring — a fact that was unfortunately reinforced at the end of last year when political unrest and sporadic violence gripped the city for months. It didn’t stop me from taking my regular trips up from Phuket (the protest sites were easy to avoid and the hotel prices were slashed by up to half, making them an even bigger bargain than usual), although many travellers chose to bypass the city and go straight to the beach. Peace has been restored for now, though, and the city has returned to the usual levels of organised chaos. So, sure, keep an eye on the news and avoid any lingering demos, but don’t let it stop you from visiting one of the most maddeningly exciting cities in the world.
What to do
Bangkok’s got an embarrassing amount of glittering temples, but let’s be honest, they can all become a bit samey after a while. The hyperbole about the Grand Palace and Wat Pho is entirely justified, though, and they definitely shouldn’t be missed. The bejewelled buildings, peaked roofs, piercing pagodas and fantastical effigies make them staggeringly beautiful sights to behold. Nearby, hidden behind high walls, the riverfront restaurant at Sala Rattanakosin is the perfect place to refuel and has the added bonus of overlooking Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, which lies across the river and is also worth a pit-stop.
As temples go, it’s a good one, with a Khmer-style tower, smashed crockery cladding and dizzyingly steep stairs. The ascent is hairy, so settle your nerves with a tootle around the Thonburi khlongs (canals) afterwards. There are few experiences in Bangkok more agreeable than drifting along its watery thoroughfares, spying crooked wooden houses with grandmas nodding on the porch, swaying fields of water spinach, and monitor lizards lazing in the sun. Long-tail boats can be found for rent outside the temple (expect to pay around 1,200TBH/£22 if you want the boat all to yourself, less if you share) and ask to be dropped off back on the Bangkok side at Sathorn, where you can round off the day with a traditional Thai massage at the Ruen-Nuad Massage Studio.
Big-ticket attractions aside, Chinatown is one of Bangkok’s most atmospheric neighbourhoods; its frantic streets crowded with steaming food stalls and shops selling strings of pearls, silky cheongsams (Chinese dresses), herbal medicines and Chinese coffins. Get dropped off near the food market and then throw away the map, getting lost is its own adventure: a towering gold Buddha here, a live Chinese opera there and plenty of fodder for Instagram in between.
One thing’s for sure, you’re not going to go hungry in Bangkok. Every street and footpath squeaks, sizzles, thwacks and steams from morning to night with cook-to-order dishes. For a fiery lunch, try Hoi Som Tam Convent, in Silom, a white-tiled hole-in-the-wall where serious-looking office workers fuel up on Isaan classics like smoky pork neck and bamboo salads so spicy mere mortals will be struck down with double-vision at the first bite.
Sukhumvit Soi 38, beside the Thong Lor BTS Skytrain Station, is a friendly little spot brimming with locals where you can graze from 20 or so light bulb-lit stalls until the wee hours. It’s worth venturing over here just for Ning’s Mango Stand. His mango sticky rice — the perfect combo of sweet, fruity and gummy saltiness — is hands down the best in town.
Cheap eats aren’t restricted to ground level either; most of Bangkok’s malls have excellent and extremely popular food courts. The best, according to my extremely fickle Thai friends, is on the sixth floor of the MBK Center mall. The dish of choice? A steaming bowl of claypot beef noodles — ‘just look for the long queue,’ they tell me.
And there’s plenty going on away from the markets and malls too. For a munch with the middle classes, try the colourful chain Taling Pling. Stand-out dishes here include the buttery beef green curry and the aromatic massaman curry — best eaten together with a side order of roti (Indian bread). Or hang with the floppy-fringed hipsters drinking craft beer and chowing down on Thai samosas at the cool and cosy Soul Food Mahanakorn.
For something a little bit special, book a table at Bo.lan or Issaya Siamese Club, both of which are housed in beautiful old wooden buildings and never fail to impress with their ingenious cuisine. And if you’re all Thai’d out, stop by Snapper New Zealand on Sukhumvit Soi 11. The owner, Craig Hedley, hails from New Zealand and wows with his wild fish dishes, wholesome salads and chunky desserts.
Bangkok has hotel overload — which is great as it keeps the competition stiff and the prices low. Deciding where to stay is going to be more of a problem.
With its canals, temples and palaces, first-timers are usually drawn towards the Chao Phraya River. Luxury accommodation with fancy restaurants and spas abound here but it’s the 138-year-old Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok that sets the bar. The service is silky-smooth, the vibe classy and cosmopolitan, and even though most of the plush rooms are housed in a modern building (and could do with a touch-up), you can still revel in the beautiful old Authors’ Wing, where the likes of Noël Coward and Joseph Conrad once languished.
Lumphini Park is perfect for anyone with a nostalgic lust for city grit, but a grown-up’s desire for a stylish stay. Sofitel So Bangkok is a soaring glass tower with serene green views, stylish drinking and dining dens, and a superstar spa. Wake up early and you can join crowds of locals doing tai chi in the park. Chinatown, on the other hand, feels much like you’re in the thick of living, breathing Bangkok. The boutique-y Shanghai Mansion Bangkok channels the city’s Chinese heritage with a funky 1930s get-up; a winning combination of tinkling koi ponds, pretty birdcages, brightly coloured balloon lights and hand-carved four-poster beds. It’s definitely worth splashing out on one of the bigger street-facing rooms, where you can watch hawkers selling hot chestnuts in the glow of neon signs below.
If you’re just in town to shop, shop, shop, the Siam Kempinski Hotel Bangkok is a stylish hotel attached to the gigantic Siam Paragon mall and within skipping distance of the major shopping hotspots, including CentralWorld, MBK Center and the markets of Pathumwan. Rooms are exec-spec, and come with free wi-fi and comp soft drinks in the mini-bar, but it’s the hotel’s resort-like gardens and swimming pools that are the best places for a post-shop flop.
It’s difficult to stay in Bangkok for even a day and not shop up a storm — so be sure to bring an extra suitcase, preferably one that’s expandable. If I’m in town over the weekend, my first stop is always Chatuchak Weekend Market, a dozen or so stops from the city centre on the Mo Chit northern-bound BTS line. It’s the world biggest outdoor bazaar, with 15,000 stalls selling everything from trendy patterned dresses for £3 and celadon bowls for a fiver to giant hand-crafted copper lampshades priced in the thousands. It’s Bangkok bargain shopping at its best but by 12pm its airless alleyways do feel like the hottest place on Earth so it’s always best to arrive here early. Be sure to give the live animal section a wide birth; it’s being investigated by the WWF for the trafficking of endangered species.
Back in the city centre, there are plenty of other equally inexpensive, air-conditioned shopping options to be found, the majority of which are clumped around Siam Square. “It’s not what you spend, it’s what you save,” one canny shopkeeper tells me as I dither over a £4 metallic handbag at the Platinum Fashion Mall, a kind of indoor version of Chatuchak, spread over six floors and two mammoth buildings, and specialising in fashion at wholesale prices. I take two.
A few blocks away there’s the MBK Center; the fourth floor is tech heaven, blinking with the latest mobile phones, keyring emergency chargers, selfie sticks and glow-in-the-dark mini-speakers. There are also free Muay Thai boxing bouts here every Wednesday night — you won’t see that in the Trafford Centre. While in Sukhumvit, the seven-story world travel-themed Terminal 21 is the place for cool local design stores and cult Korean beauty products.
When it comes to Bangkok’s best nightlife, go high or go home. For the past few years, rooftop bars have been where it’s at. The Sky Bar at the Lebua State Tower, made famous by The Hangover Part II movie, is on many first-time visitors’ itineraries but although the views are impressive, the, ahem, atmosphere doesn’t quite measure up — 400TBH (£7.27) for a beer, I think not. Mosey on over to the The Speakeasy at Hotel Muse instead, a funky 24th-floor terrace with international DJs and giant gold cupolas to dance around. Or pull up a hexagonal pew at Park Society. Teetering on the 29th floor of the Christian Lacroix-designed Sofitel So Bangkok, it lures pretty young things with lounge tunes and Lumphini Park views from sundown till 2am. Other sky-high settings worth seeking out include the Red Sky Bar at CentralWorld and the low-key Above Eleven in Sukhumvit — although things do get livelier here on a Wednesday when Latin grooves take over and drinks are buy one, get one free for the ladies.
There are a couple of notable exceptions to the go-high rule: Maggie Choo’s, a subterranean sensation with paper parasols on the ceiling and pretty girls singing the blues on swings; and Iron Fairies, a shadowy den in trendy Thong Lo which looks like the inside of Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl, with its multilevel decks, swirling wooden staircases, and purple velvet wing chairs.
If you want a little less conversation and a little more action, head east to the brand-spanking new 5,000-seater Lumpinee Boxing Stadium for a night of Muay Thai boxing. The crowd roars for four solid hours as young contenders try to make a name for themselves and old hands strike, swipe, boot and batter to take home a belt.
British Airways, Thai Airways and Eva Air all have direct flights from Heathrow to Bangkok, while Gulf Air, Emirates, Aeroflot, Singapore Airlines, Jet Airways, Malaysia Airlines and Qatar Airways operate through their respective hubs. ba.com thaiairways.com evaair.com gulfair.com emirates.com aeroflot.com singaporeair.com jetairways.com malaysiaairlines.com qatarairways.com
Average flight time: 11h.
The fastest way to get from Suvarnabhumi Airport to the city centre is by train (150TBH/£2.72; 15-18 minutes to reach Makkasan and Phrayathai Stations respectively), although a 40-minute air-conditioned taxi ride for around 400TBH (£7.28) may be preferable. Car and motorcycle taxis, and tuk-tuks, are abundant and cheap. Or, pick up a 100TBH (£1.81) Rabbit Card (like a London Oyster Card) for the Skytrain (BTS) and MRT (Metro).
When to go
The best time to visit is November-February (a manageable 20-30C and reasonably cool nights). The infernal heat of April and early May are best avoided, as are flood-prone August/September.
Need to know
Currency: Thai baht (THB).
£1 = 55THB.
International dial code: 00 66.
Time difference: GMT +7.
Health: Check FCO advice before travelling. Avoid all political gatherings, demonstrations and marches. fco.gov.uk
Hoi Som Tam Convent. T: 00 66 026 310 216.
Ning’s Mango Stand. Sukhumvit Soi 38.
Taling Pling. talingpling.com
Soul Food Mahanakorn. soulfoodmahanakorn.com
Issaya Siamese Club. issaya.com
Snapper New Zealand. snapper-bangkok.com
Park Society. sofitel-so-bangkok.com
The Speakeasy. hotelmusebangkok.com
Red Sky Bar. centarahotelsresorts.com/redsky
Above Eleven. aboveeleven.com
Maggie Choo’s. T: 00 66 2635 6055.
Iron Fairies. T: 00 66 2714 8875.
Lumpinee Boxing Stadium. muaythailumpinee.net
How to do it
Abercrombie and Kent has a seven-night stay at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok from £1,995 per person, including flights, transfers and a two-day Thai cooking class. abercrombiekent.com
Travelbag offers seven nights, staying in a three-star hotel, B&B, from £560 per person, including flights from Heathrow with Jet Airways via Mumbai. travelbag.co.uk
Published in the September 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)