As the backpacker’s gateway to Southeast Asia, Bangkok is often a traveller’s first taste of the subcontinent. It’s commonly depicted as an urban jungle (and yes, it is busy) but from its breath-takingly beautiful temples to its sprawling parks Bangkok is a city of many layers.
Bangkok is around 400 years old but only became the city’s capital in 1782 when the royal dynasty was established. To mark its new political importance King Rama I ordered the digging of canal linked to the Chao Praya River, creating Rattanakosin Island, home of the Grand Palace and the original centre of the city. From then on Bangkok grew a system of canals that began to define its geography. Although these are no longer the main form of transport in the city they stand as a reminder of Bangkok’s past for visitors today.
‘Royal Bangkok’ is a backdrop to the city which is present to the exploring tourist, with palaces and temples scattered across it. Placed alongside this are the pockets which immigrants have settled in over the course of Bangkok’s history, Chinatown, Little India and Thanon Silom (European) all offer tastes of different cultures as you explore.
On our 13-day Thailand and Laos tour, we meet up in Bangkok but head up to the slower paced north of the country straight away. If you’re looking to arrive a little early Bangkok’s packed with things to get up to.
If you want to try and get your head around Thailand’s temples, palaces and history before you begin exploring then the Bangkok National Museum is a sensible starting place. It’s full of Thai art and historical artefacts and offers an overview of the country’s history.
The essential 3 royal attractions are the Grand Palace, Wat Arun, and Dusit Palace. They’re stunningly beautiful, historically significant and well worth the visit. Wat Arun and the Grand Palace are situated opposite each other and are probably the two most popular tourist sites in Bangkok. Due to their popularity, it’s important to watch out for the tourist traps outside, with people trying to hassle you with scams or false attractions. Once you’ve made it past them then wander around inside, appreciate the Thai art and learn about the buildings’ history.
No city is complete without markets, and Bangkok is no exception. Chatuchak Weekend Market is a gargantuan sprawl of thousands of different stalls selling everything from food to art to clothes. We can’t emphasise enough how big this market is so if you’re going with a friend make sure you stay nearby to each other. Also, worth noting: if you didn’t guess by the name, it’s only open at weekends.
And if you’re looking to relax (which after a day in Bangkok is pretty likely) then head over to Lumpini Park. It’s an inner city ‘green lung’ for Bangkok, over 50 hectares in size. Relax alongside the young and old alike. The park is also full of wildlife, that includes both slinky reptiles crawling out the ponds and (slightly cuter) squirrels scurrying up the trees.
After you’ve recharged, experiencing Bangkok’s nightlife is a must-do. Khao San Road is backpacker central in the city and a good base for any night out. Relax with a cocktail at Madame Mussur or start to pick the pace up a little bit at the Hippie Dippie Bar (with a playlist of 80s classics and indie anthems). If get an urge to pull yourself away from Khaosan then Royal City Avenue offers a different vibe. It attracts more of a dressed-up, local Thai crowd and it’s a stark contrast to the sweaty backpackers of Khaosan. When picking clubs there, Route 66 and Onyx have both become well respected for providing a good night out.
As much as your local supermarket might have you believe, there’s much more to Thai food than green or red curry. Pad thai (a noodle stir-fry) is a must try while you’re in the city. Our recommended spot to grab a plate is Thip Samai, it’s been running now for over 50 years and its chefs are true masters of preparing the dish.
When it comes to desert it’s all about the mango sticky rice: a straightforward name that lets you know exactly what you’re getting. It’s the most famous of the country’s desserts, made up of sticky rice covered with sweet coconut sauce and slices of mango. As a favourite of the nation it can be found almost everywhere in the city.
Our tours run in Thailand from January right through to November. If you’re looking to avoid downpours then the best time for dry and sunny weather is January to March. September and October are the city’s rainiest months so if you’re scared of getting soaked, avoid visiting then if you can. As for avoiding the crowds, be weary of Christmas, New Year and the Thai festival of Songkran in mid-April, all of which lead to surges of people coming to the city.