Vibrant, bustling and exotic. Bangkok may just seem like another Asian capital city but the truth is, it is brimming with surprises. For many people travelling east, Bangkok often appears on an itinerary as a transfer point only. However, after my recent stay I would suggest that it is worth investing more time than just a few hours.
The land of the free
Having never been colonised, Bangkok remains true to its historic origins. The capital city has moved from its initial site in Ayutthaya, 140 kilometres to the north, but the city is now so well established that it is home to some eight million people. Don’t let the sheer size of the city deter you though as the highlights are easily accessible.
Experiences on offer
Whether you’re a foodie, a shopaholic or you’d rather opt to soak up the culture and the energy on the streets, Bangkok delivers a huge variety of experiences.
Chinatown is the place to be right now. During the day, you can walk through the maze of alleys and discover the randomness of products on sale: engine parts, tablecloths, helium balloons. If it exists, you will find it here. Once the sun starts to settle, the night market springs to life with a huge array of food on offer. From prawns larger than my hand to sweet mango with sticky rice and finally, a helping of pad tha, which suited me perfectly.
For more market action, the huge Chatuchak market might work its magic. It is only open from Friday to Sunday and to help me navigate my way through the never-ending stalls, I even downloaded a map. Needless to say I got lost within seconds, but of course that’s when the fun started. Luckily, I was able to resist the temptation to buy a new set of saucepans and crockery and just settled for a variety of Thai curry pastes and some jewellery.
The wonderful smelling flower market is also a must. I visited a few days before the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn so the market was blooming with yellow and orange garlands that would adorn houses and shops. The best time to call in is between 12am and 6am, when the vendors receive their new offerings, but there is plenty to see after breakfast too. I couldn’t get enough of the sweet-smelling jasmine and the exotic lotus flowers.
Buddhism plays a central part in the lives of Thai people and as such temples in Bangkok are numerous, so it is highly likely that during any visit you will stumble across several. Many are coloured partially in gold with grand prangs inspiring the architecture and making for wonderful photographs. During my recent trip I visited Wat Arun: the Temple of Dawn. The prang here is beautifully adorned with pieces of porcelain making it unusual and extremely hypnotic. The story behind Wat Traimit is also spectacular with the world’s largest golden Buddha now sitting gloriously in place for all to view. The other impressive temple, Wat Pho, which means the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, showcases a 46 metre Buddha covered in gold leaf. It is simply astounding and a visit here combines well with a stop at the Grand Palace too.
After a hit of culture and markets, it may then be time to hit a mall. I still struggle to associate South East Asia with big shopping malls but they have now become an integral part of life in many Asian countries. I personally found the amount and size of the shopping malls in Bangkok slightly overwhelming but the convenience of having cinemas, food plazas, aquariums and play centres all under one roof is certainly luring, especially when all air-conditioned. Most of the malls are found along the Skytrain route so all very easy to access. Only the brand new Iconsiam mall on the west bank of the river necessitates a short boat ride.
Bangkok is one of the only capital cities which has a fully working river running through its heart. As well as transporting goods from the sea, the Chao Praya River offers one of the easiest methods of moving around the city, both for locals and visitors. Many hotels operate a boat shuttle service and alongside the regular ferry links and the hop on/off tourist boat, the river provides a perfect way to travel around. I frequently used this method of transportation and I never waited longer than 15 minutes for my next transfer. The river itself runs north to south with most of the main temples, markets and hotels found on the east side of the river.
Once you step away from the bustling riverfront, moving around is still very manageable. The city has both an underground system and a sky train, both which are continuing to expand. They are extremely straight forward to navigate, just try and buy your tickets and travel out of rush hour.
If neither has a stop near your destination, taxis and tuks tuks are always on hand. Friendly bartering with the latter might be necessary but a stay in Bangkok is never really complete without at least one short ride in this iconic mode of transport. With taxis, don’t get confused by the different lights. Both a green and red light mean a vacant taxi and knowing that the metre will give you a fair price makes this a super easy and reliable way to get around.
Where to stay
Staying on the riverfront to catch the spectacular sunset is a perfect choice for Bangkok. The Siam, a Bill Bensley designed boutique hotel, offers a peaceful city escape within the Palace district. The butlers provide impeccable service and with a mobile device given to you on arrival, support when away from the property is never far away. The most surprising element for me was all the historic memorabilia decorating the entire location, making this one museum that not everyone gets to see. The full-size Muay Thai ring in the gym is also super impressive, but of course, this may not be for everyone. If that’s the case, then maybe taking a cooking class or visit the Opium Spa for a Thai massage – a nice ending to the perfect trip.