A cornucopia of sights, sounds, tastes and moods
Welcome to Bangkok – a sprawling, humid metropolis of more than 10 million souls that rose along the eastern banks of the Chao Phraya river a little more than 200 years ago. Today, the Thai capital brims with interesting historic sites, stylish hotels, incredible culinary adventures, and fantastic shopping, and none of this need break the bank. The city has had some success in shedding its longstanding image of sleaze for a younger, more cosmopolitan mantle and is a pretty safe urban space. And while the military government has put the break on non-stop partying, the arts scene and the world-famous street food culture, many visitors continue to feel enchanted by this cornucopia of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and moods. Bangkok remains on the map for its temples, palaces, malls and markets, but it’s the ever-present smiles of its citizens that give the city a quite lovely human dimension.
Hot right now . . .
Tom Vater, our resident expert, offers his top tips on the hottest places to eat, drink and stay this season.
The Bangkok Publishing Residence(31-33-35-37-37/1 Lan Luang Rd; 00 66 2 282 0288) is a very private, museum-like hotel offering just eight retro-fittted rooms in a restored row of shophouses that once served as the printing press of a popular magazine. It is perfectly located to see Bangkok’s historic sites.
Thai food with a Danish touch may sound strange, but the innovative interpretations of culinary classics at Sra Bua by Kiin Kiinat the Siem Kempinski Hotel Bangkok (991/9 Rama I Rd; 0066 2 162 9000) have retained their well-deserved Michelin star for a second year running.
FooJohn Building (831 Charoen Krung 31 Alley; 00 66 87 593 9973) houses a French bistro, jazz bar and American smokehouse all under one roof in a beautifully restored 1960s corner house on the edge of Chinatown. It attracts an eclectic crowd of locals and ex-pats, and there's a rooftop concert space too.
48 hours in . . . Bangkok
Start the day on Rattanakosin Island, the heart of historic Bangkok. A trip to the Grand Palace complex (1 Maha Rat Road; 00 66 2 2241833) is a must for first-time visitors. The main palace building was designed by British architects, in a mix of Thai and Italian building styles. Inside the palace complex, Wat Pra Kaew houses Thailand’s most revered religious icon, the Emerald Buddha, and features spectacular murals that depict key scenes from the Ramakien, the kingdom’s interpretation of the Ramayana.
In walking distance, the sprawling temple complex of Wat Po (2 Sanamchai Road; 00 66 2 2219911) is famous for its huge reclining Buddha and its traditional massage techniques which are both offered and taught here. Visitors should be dressed appropriately to enter either site.
Grab lunch at nearby The Deck, a small riverside restaurant that’s part of the boutique hotel Riva Arun. There’s a good choice of excellent Thai food on the menu including a succulent lamb loin in yellow curry and white tiger prawn spicy salad, prepared with lychee, mint leaf and lemongrass. After you've eaten, you can take a look at the small shops and stalls that are found all over this part of the riverfront, especially at nearby Tha Prachan Market (1 Sanam Phra), which sells amulets, statues and other esoteric objects.
Go a little off the beaten track and take a regular river boat from any downtown pier, all the way north to the final ferry stop at Nonthaburi. Watching the city slide by and fade into suburbs and rice fields, this hour-long journey is especially rewarding in the winter months when a cool clear breeze on the Chao Praya River offers respite from the downtown pollution.
On the return journey, Wat Arun (Arun Amarin Road; 00 66 2 8912185), the iconic temple of dawn, makes for a spectacular afternoon stop over. Continue south on the river to the pier at Saphan Taksin, from where the BTS Skytrain will whizz you to downtown restaurants and bars in a few minutes.
Dinner at the trendy and intimate Soul Food Mahanakorn (56/10 Sukhumvit Soi Thonglor; 00 66 271 47708) in Thong Lo is a great, informal experience. The eatery’s American chef has made it his mission to serve Thai street food with superior ingredients in a salubrious atmosphere. And the cocktail menu is legendary.
Finish the night with a Cuba Libre at the Havana Social (Sukhumvit Soi 11; 00 66 206 15344), a speakeasy-style bar with a 1940s pre-revolution Cuba theme. The bar can only be entered through a fake phone booth, and only if one is armed with a secret code for which one needs to call the venue. Numerous rum-concoctions and Coca-Cola ice cubes are popular with Bangkok’s well-to-do night-owls.
Jim Thompson, Bangkok’s best known Asia Hand (a foreigner who has lived in Asia for a long time and is familiar with local culture) and one-time American spy, almost single-handedly put the kingdom’s silk industry on the map. Jim Thompson's House (6/1 Soi Kasemsan 2; 00 66 221 67368), a series of interconnected wooden country homes he had transported to Bangkok from up-country, is open to the public (guided tours are frequent and mandatory) and contains a fascinating collection of eclectic antiques and personal baubles. The museum is located in a lush tropical garden compound on the banks of a canal.
Close-by, the gigantic old-school MBK Centre shopping mall (Phayathai Rd, Pathum Wan) offers an astounding variety of cheap Thai eats in its sixth-floor food court, as well as a pricier range of international foods at Fifth Food Avenue, one floor down, both perfect for lunch. The astounding variety of shops and vendors, offering everything from cameras, luggage, clothes, smart phones and other gadgets to tacky souvenirs, is likely to keep shoppers enthralled for some time.
Bangkok’s wonderfully authentic Chinatownis at its best in the afternoon, with its roads and alleys clogged by shoppers perusing traditional medicine and gold shops. During Chinese New Year, which usually takes place in late February, the area comes alive with colourful, boisterous street processions, a Chinese street food bonanza and countless stalls selling Chinese souvenirs.
A couple of impressive temples can also be found in the area, including the towering Wat Traimit (Yaowarat Road; 00 66 2 2259775), which contains the world’s largest solid gold Buddha.
Follow the lead of the locals and enjoy some excellent early evening street food meal along Yaowarat Road, as this is one of the few places where it is still available and plentiful. If you'd rather sit down, fantastic, funky and eclectic Thai food can be had at the Namsaah Bottling Trust, a short taxi ride away in Silom.
On the edge of Chinatown, tiny Soi Nana is currently home to Bangkok’s trendiest nightlife scene. Forget the vulgar bars on Sukhumvit, here it’s all about craft beers, tapas, cool music, and more street food, with a couple of cultural spaces that host interesting exhibitions thrown into the mix, all located in traditional, well restored Chinese shop houses.
Bar 23 (92 Soi Nana, Charoenkrung Road; 00 66 80 264 4471), with its Brit pop retro soundtrack is one of the street’s most popular watering holes, while Cho Why (17 Soi Nana, Charoenkrung Road) often hosts lively art events that spill into the street in the evenings. The area attracts a young Thai crowd, many ex-pats and just a trickle of tourists.
Where to stay . . .
The Siam is an exquisite and one of a kind heritage-style luxury hotel that seamlessly marries classic Thai influences with Art Deco aesthetics. Public areas and rooms are decorated with stunning antiques and huge efforts are made to offer guests complete privacy amidst silent, sumptuous serenity. Oh, and there's a 23 metre-long pool overlooking the river too.
Doubles from 14,000 Thai baht (£320). Khao Road; 00 66 2 206 6999
The Bangkok Publishing Residence is part hotel, part museum, part artist retreat. Once home to a printing press producing popular Thai magazines, the shophouse property has been lovingly restored into an intimate, classy hotel. There's a piano for guests, the leather couches are comfortable and nicely worn, and while the metal lift is new, it looks like part of a set from an old Noir movie.
Doubles from 3,600 Thai baht (£80). 31-33-35-37-37/1 Lan Luang Road; 00 66 2 282 0288
China’s 'Roaring Thirties' come to life in a retrofitted, 70-year-old building in the heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown. TheShanghai Mansion offers the right balance between old world movie set feel and modern facilities. Antique telephones, carved dragons, blood-red chandeliers, rich tapestries, intricate locks, wooden partitions, and plenty of pillars add to the perfectly executed ambience.
Double rooms from 2,700 Thai baht (£63). 479-481 Yaowaraj Road; 00 66 2 2212121
What to bring home . . .
One-time American spy and bon vivant Jim Thompson helped create the Thai silk industry. Products sporting his name are available from numerous outlets, including a shop at his house, now a museum (6/1 Soi Kasemsan 2; 00 66 221 67368). Browse quintessential Thai silk products, vintage photographs and facsimile reprints of ancient horoscopes.
Travellers with a generous luggage allowance may be tempted to grab a Thai triangular pillow, an object of comfort made from natural fibres that ingeniously unfolds up to four times. Look out for them at street stalls and markets.
When to go . . .
Bangkok is at its best during the cool season, from November to February, after the monsoon and before the sweltering heat sets in at the beginning of March. April, May and June are infernally hot – sitting on a motorbike in the day time is like riding through a fire storm – though by mid-June, the rains usually arrive, bringing much needed respite, taking the dust out of the air and making the plants grow in record time. The rainy season is actually a great time to visit – few tourists, lower temperatures and the occasional monsoonal downpour that floods the streets and brings the children out to play.
Where to go
Bangkok is a city comfortably suspended between the sacred and the profane. For an impression of the former, head to Rattanakosin District by the Chao Praya River, to visit the Royal Palace, Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Po, as well as Wat Arun across the water. To enjoy the latter, a trip to the downtown shopping and nightlife areas – as well as the spectacular Jim Thompson House – around Sukhumvit Road is not to be missed.
Know before you go . . .
British Embassy: 00 66 2 3058333; 14 Wireless Road. Open Mon-Thur, 8amm-4.30pm. Fri, 8am-1pm. MRT Lumphini
Tourism Division; Culture, Sports and Tourism Department: 00 66 2 2257612; 17/1 Phra Athit Road. Open daily, 9am-7pm. Phra Athit pier
Tourist Police: Dial 1155, 1699
Local laws and etiquette
It is strictly against the law to criticise the monarchy. Smart appearance goes a long way in Thailand. Visitors to Buddhist temples should be covered up, take their shoes off and never point the soles of their feet at Buddhist icons.
Telephone code: Dial 00 66 2 for Bangkok numbers from outside Thailand, 02 from inside Thailand
Time difference: +7 hours
Flight time: 11hr 25min
Tom moved to the Thai capital 15 years ago, drawn by the hot weather, friendly smiles and laissez-fair vibe. Today you can find him exploring river side markets such as Tha Pra Chan, and checking out the city’s eclectic music venues.
Experience Bangkok with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel's best hotels and tours in Bangkok, tried, tested and recommended by our Bangkok experts.