A loud, chaotic and over the top city, some people fall in love with Bangkok instantly while others can take a little time to warm to it. I was head over heels in love with the place as soon as we arrived, but I can see why others would be turned off by the noise, traffic and smells that you’re faced with the minute you step off the plane. Read this post to find out the 10 best things to do in Bangkok.
To fall in love with Bangkok you have to discover the soul of the city. Step away from the touristy spots every now and then and go where the locals go. Eat, travel and shop like the locals. Step away from Thai people that are so jaded by tourists that they no longer see visitors as people but just as walking wallets, and you’ll see why this country is called the ‘Land of Smiles’. Thai people are some of the loveliest people we’ve met while travelling, but you won’t find that out by staying in tourist hot spots during your entire stay.
This is a different kind of Bangkok blog post and I’m not just going to just show you the most popular sights in the city. Instead I want to show you its heart. So while I’ll tell you how to get the most out of the popular spots, I’ll let you in on a few local secrets too. I want you to experience the Bangkok in a way that most people don’t get to, so that you leave loving it as much as I do.
Take a trip down the Chao Praya River
If you’re a first time visitor to Bangkok, I would recommend taking a long tail boat down the Chao Praya river. Bangkok can be overwhelming at first, so this is a great way to sit back and take in the beauty of the city without the noise or crowds.
There are lots of gorgeous sights along the river such as Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), and Wat Arun. You can also stop and pay a visit a floating market. Many locals live along the banks of the river and use it to get about their daily life so you can have a glimpse at how the people of Bangkok live.
There are many organised tours of the Chao Praya but for a more authentic experience you can hire your own longtail boat. Go to your nearest ferry port or any section of the river, find a local boat owner and haggle with them for a good price. They usually hang around the ports in case anyone is looking for a fare so you shouldn’t have to work very hard. We usually stay around the Khao San Road so we go to the Phra Arthit pier and find someone there.
By doing this you can choose your route and where you would like to stop along the way, plus you’ll have a private boat which is quieter (and you can bring beer!).
For a rough price guide, a 90 minute boat ride, including a stop at the floating market cost us 240 baht / £5.50 / €6 per person for 5 of us. You could probably get that down to 200THB if you haggled harder!
Get around like the locals do
Taxis are cheap in Bangkok and Grab is becoming more and more popular, so it can be tempting to rely on these to get around. But chosing the convenient option can often mean missing out on really experiencing the city. Walking, riding the MRT, taking a local bus or hopping on a canal ferry are great ways to get away from the hordes of tourists and see a more authentic side of Bangkok life. Plus it means you’re not stuck in traffic for most of your trip!
- Canal boats: We were recently at Siam Square trying to get back to Khao San road and found out we could take a public boat down the Maha Nak canal to get home. For 8 baht / 18p / 20 cent each we got back to Khao San in just 15 minutes, when it would have taken nearly an hour by car. These boats work just like a bus on water, they stop at many points along Bangkok’s canals and are mostly used by local Thai people rather than tourists. Use the Rome2rio app in Bangkok to find out if you can take a boat to where you need to go – they don’t show up on Google Maps.
- River boats: You can take the Chao Praya Express to sightsee in Bangkok for as little as 10 baht / 23p / 26 cent. These boats run every day from 6am to 10pm and stop off at many of the most popular sights in Bangkok so you can hop on and off as you wish. Check out routes here.
- Walking is my favourite way to get around in any city. We have stumbled across so many gorgeous temples, lively markets and other beautiful sights that we never would have found otherwise. What we tend to do is pick a destination that’s around an hour or so walk away and set off early in the morning. We meander through the city, walking down any streets that we think are pretty or look interesting and slowly make our way to our destination. Just be sure to drink plenty of water and wear light clothes and plenty of SPF – Bangkok can get super hot and sticky!
- Tuk Tuks are a fun thing to try when you’re first in Bangkok, but we don’t use them much when we’re in the city. They’re great because they can zip between traffic and they’re fun to ride on, but it’s easy to get ripped off or duped by drivers. Give it a go when you’re first there for the experience – they’re definitely more enjoyable than a taxi! (Pro tip: use the Grab app to get an idea of how much your journey should cost – many tuk tuk drivers will charge ridiculously inflated prices to see if they can get away with it, but they’ll expect you to haggle!)
- Subway: The Bangkok metro system consists of the MRT (subway) and BTS SkyTrain lines. They’re clean, air conditioned and there is mobile reception on the trains so you can check your route (or Instagram!) along the way. It’s a fast and comfortable way to travel around the city for just 16 – 42 baht / 37 – 97p / €0.40 – €1.10 per journey depending on how far you’re going.
Find Hidden Speakeasy Bars
Step away from the loud, brash bars offering beer towers and cheap shots, and go in search of glamorous secret bars hidden around Bangkok. They might be a challenge to find, but the effort is worth it once you get inside!
All over the city there are chic and stylish bars hidden behind grimey public phone booths, discreet photo booths, and down darkened alleys or in seemingly abandoned buildings. You just have to know where to look!
Visit the Grand Palace
Home to the King of Thailand for over 150 years, the stunning Grand Palace is one of the most popular sights in the country- and for good reason. It’s a huge draw for tourists and it gets incredibly busy which turned us off visiting the first few times we were in Bangkok, but I loved it so much when we did go! It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in Thailand, and if you time your visit right it’s not *that* busy.
There is a reason that the Grand Palace tops every list of things to do in Bangkok – it really is spectacular! This sprawling complex of beautifully decorated temples surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens will take you a few hours to get around. Because it’s so popular with tourists so it can take quite a long time to get inside so put aside a half day to see it.
Here are a few tips for your visit to The Grand Palace
- Get there early – the palace opens at 8:30 and tour groups don’t arrive until after 9 so you could almost have the place to yourself if you get there early.
- It can get seriously hot at the Grand Palace – perhaps because of the sun reflecting off the many golden temples! Bring plenty of water, and stay in the shade as much as you can.
- Bring enough cash for entry (500 baht).
- The dress code is strict: you need to have your legs and arms covered, but you can rent long trousers and a shawl once you get inside for a refundable 300 baht charge. Do not be taken in by anyone outside the palace that tries to sell you clothes and tells you that you can’t rent them inside! It’s not true and they will overcharge you.
- Another common scam here is that your tuk tuk / taxi driver, guide or even a seemingly friendly stranger on the street will tell you that the palace is closed and offer to take you to other sights much farther away. If anyone tells you the palace is closed, do your own research and confirm it before you let them take you anywhere else.
Take a Walk Down the Khaosan Road
Khao San road is the legendary backpacker street in Bangkok. It’s loud, it’s brash, it’s cheap, it’s touristy and it seems that every year I return there, a new Burger King, Starbucks or McDonalds has appeared.
But despite all this, I still love the Khao San Road! I have so many great memories of this part of Bangkok, it will always be special to me – but I will say that if you don’t like to party or you are just after a quiet holiday then this might not be the best street to stay on. It’s definitely worth the trip to see it though!
Buy some fresh fruit for 20 baht, choose some souvenirs from the street stalls, get a cheap, but very good facial or pedicure on Susie Walking Street, then continue to neighbouring Rambuttri for a drink and bite to eat on the street while you soak in the atmosphere. Pad Thai is just 40 baht / 90p / €1 from the street stalls and it’s some of the tastiest you’ll find in Bangkok.
Take a few hours to explore the sights, sounds and smells of this legendary street, and think back to the days when the first backpackers in Thailand used to stay in tiny guesthouses on these streets and paved the way for the rest of us to visit.
Take a tour of Jim Thompson’s House
Jim Thompson is known as ‘The most famous American in Thailand’ and has been credited with single handedly saving Thailand’s vital silk industry from extinction. Thompson mysteriously disappeared on a walk in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, and his stunning Thai-style house is now open as a museum.
The house and gardens are stunning, and really peaceful. It’s 150 baht for entry and with that you get a guided tour of the house where you can learn about the history of Thai architecture, and a little background about Thompson. All of the guides are Thai and are great for giving you a history of the house and all of the beautiful pieces inside it. There’s no dress code as it’s not a religious site, but bring bug spray as there are a lot of biters in the gardens.
There’s also a restaurant on site that’s a little expensive but does great Thai food and desserts. This would be a good place to go when it’s really hot or raining as you’re indoors most of the time.
How to get to the Jim Thompson house
Find out opening hours and directions here. If you want to travel by boat you can take the Khlong Saen Saep Express Boat here to Baan Krua Nua pier.
Learn how to haggle at Chatuchak Market
At 35 acres, and with over 8,000 stalls, this is the place to go if you want to shop cheaply in Bangkok. Going to Chatuchak weekend market is an intense, but also a must-do experience for any first time visitor. Over 200,000 people visit here each weekend so it can get a little overwhelming – I’d suggest going there with an idea of what you want to get so that you can navigate through the market better. You can find a map of Chatuchak here.
How to haggle in Asia
You can find anything imaginable at Chatuchak, just be ready to haggle! A rough guide when haggling in Asia is to counter with a third of the price you’re first given, then keep countering until you find a value you’re happy with. And always be friendly and polite! If you treat the vendor like they’re trying to rip you off then they probably will. A smile and a friendly demeanour will go a whole lot further than being aggressive when it comes to haggling in Thailand.
Closer markets to the city
If you can’t make it out to Chatuchak check out MBK in the city – it’s like a hawker market within a shopping mall. It has over 2,000 stalls that sell anything from mobile phones, to cosmetics, fake designer bags or clothes for your pets. It’s insane and I guarantee you that you will get lost in there, but it’s a fun place to shop. Then when you’re done pop over to the air conditioned paradise that is Siam Paragon mall for ice cream, a bit of shopping in Zara and H&M, and maybe a visit to the top floor to the most extravagant cinema I’ve even been to – Paragon Cineplex.
Eat, Drink & Shop at Train Night Market
The Train Night Market in Ratchada is our favourite night market in Bangkok and we go there every time we visit the city for a night out away from tourists. This market is really popular with young Thai people and not on the tourist trail at all so you won’t see many westerners here – it was recommended to us by a friend who lives in the city.
Because this market is catered to Thai people it won’t be like other night markets you visit. The food is quite different and the shopping is very on trend fashion items and accessories rather than souvenirs. There are great designer copies of bags and clothes, multiple vintage stalls, accessories, sunglasses and trainers.
The food is mostly Asian, but the kind of stuff you have to Instagram. If there is a trend like unicorn lattes, ice cream curls, tiny cupcakes or macarons then there will be stalls selling them. There are western dishes with a Thai slant like Spicy Tom Yum and Laab flavoured fried chicken, there’s lots of sushi stalls, Korean hot pots, lots of seafood and so many sweet treats.
Behind the stalls, there are bars built into large shipping containers. You can sit on top of the containers and have a drink looking out over the market which is an amazing view. Drinks are served Thai style in most bars and a lot of them just offer either beer or a full bottle of Thai whisky or rum with a mixer. Cocktails and wine are offered in some bars there though, just check the menus before you go in.
Tour Bangkok’s Golden Temples
Even if you’re not a spiritual person, temples in Bangkok are works of art and should definitely be seen while you’re here. There are over 400 temples in the city so choosing which ones to visit can be tricky but here are our favourites: Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), Wat Pho (Temple of Reclining Buddha), Wat Kalayanamit (The Friendship Temple, this one isn’t on the main tourist trail so it’s much quieter), Wat Saket (The Temple of the Golden Mount), Wat Ratchabophit (again not super touristy so will be more peaceful) and Loha Prasat.
There is a dress code for the temples so you need to make sure that your shoulders and knees are covered. Not all temples will supply cover ups for you to wear so pack your own in your day bag. I usually wear a long dress and bring a pashmina to put around my shoulders.
Also you’ll have to take off your shoes at each one so wear the right footwear, you won’t want to be tying and untying trainers at each temple you visit.
Eat, Eat, Eat, Eat, Eat
Bangkok is a foodie’s paradise and you can enjoy some of the best meals you’ll ever have on even the smallest backpacker budget. The food here is incredible and there is so much variety for meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans alike. Your meals are always made fresh so you can easily ask for something to come without meat, peanuts or for it to be less spicy.
Some of my favourite Thai dishes are;
- Massaman Curry: A coconut milk & potato curry with meat and peanuts if you want them.
- Garlic & Pepper Chicken: As the name implies this is chicken stir-fried with tons of garlic and black pepper – delicious!
- Laab Moo: Very spicy minced pork salad.
- Pad Thai: Sweet flat noodles with egg, peanuts and spring onion, and meat if you like.
- Pad Pong Gharee: Yellow curry paste with vegetables, coconut milk, eggs and meat if you wish.
- Som Tam: A sweet, sour, spicy salad of young papaya, this one is great. Peanuts and prawns are optional.
- Tom Yum: Spicy hot and sour soup. This is usually served with prawns, but you can have it with chicken or vegetarian.
- Khao Soi: This rich coconut-curry noodle soup is only available in the north of Thailand. If you’re in Chiang Mai or Pai and see this on a menu you must order it!
Read my post ‘8 Of The Best Places To Eat In Bangkok‘ to find out where to go for the best meals.
And if you feel like a short train ride…Take a day trip to Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya is the old capital of Thailand and was once one of the richest cities in the world. When the capital moved to Bangkok, Ayutthaya was abandoned for decades and fell into ruins. Restoration began again in the 60’s and the city is now a Unesco Heritage site, with many beautiful historic temples and sights for you to tour.
How to get to Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya is around 80km from Bangkok and you have a couple of options to get there depending on your budget. The more expensive options are to go as part of a tour group or hire a private taxi. Mid-range option is to take a shared minibus, which leave from the Victory monument each day. And the cheap as chips, and much more scenic option is to take the local train!
Getting the train is really pretty easy and super cheap, just 74 baht / £1.70 / €1.92 return for the both of us for a third class seat. You don’t need to book in advance, you can just show up and buy your ticket on the day. The train departs from Hua Lampong station but we got on at Bang Sue station a few stops later as it was closer to our Airbnb. You can spend a few days here but we just did it as a day trip because we were short on time – plus we could leave our things in Bangkok and travel light.
That’s all of my favourite things to do and see in Bangkok! Check them out next time your there and don’t forget to let me know how you get on. If you have any different things on your Bangkok list let us know below.