Bangkok is a city that is full of surprises. A day in Thailand’s capital city could carry you from a luxury hotel foyer one minute to the middle of a crush of people in chaotic Chinatown the next, and a perfectly quiet courtyard of one of the cities many temples, soon after. It is a celebration of modern and traditional Thai culture which makes for a fascinating melting pot of sights, sounds and foodie delights for visitors. This first timer’s guide features some of the must-do and some unique things to do in Bangkok.
Arriving in Bangkok
- You must have 6 months validity on your passport to travel to Thailand. Check the visa requirements for your respective country on booking your ticket.
- November to February offers the most pleasant weather to visit Bangkok. March to April is busy but it is also very hot during those months. Monsoon season runs May to October, but it’s during those months you’ll escape the crowds and get the best deals too. So if you don’t mind a little rain, you could have very affordable holiday during this season.
- Thailand remains in mourning over the passing of His Majesty, King Bhumibol Adulyadej on 13 October 2016. The official mourning period lasts for one year. As visitors, it is extremely important to act respectfully during this period and to also exercise caution during the transition under the new king, His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun. Some events, festivals and functions are effected by the mourning period so confirm with organisers and check the official websites of attractions before booking your trip.
- Ensure you pack (or buy cheaply at a local market) long pants or a long skirt, closed toe shoes and a top that covers your shoulder. It is really important to dress modestly when visiting religious sites and temples throughout Thailand and you simply won’t gain entry if you are dressed inappropriately.
- While tipping is not expected, it is appreciated. If you wish to leave a tip on food and drink, 5-10% is enough. For a tour guide 500-1000 Baht per day (about $AUD18-$AUD36). We usually round-up for taxis and pay around 26 Baht ($1AUD per bag) as we would anywhere else in the world.
- Remove your shoes on entering temples, a person’s home and spas.
Getting Around Bangkok
BTS | MRT
The BTS is Bangkok’s Skytrain system which will take you to the shopping areas, parks and markets. The MRT is the underground with just 18 stations. Tickets can be purchased from the vending machines at each station.
While you’ll often see tourists in tuk tuks in Bangkok, it’s not common to see Thais in them. Unlike some other Asian cities, tuk tuks in Bangkok can be a bit dangerous and very hot to ride in through the heavy Bangkok traffic. If you want to experience a tuk tuk ride while visiting, negotiate on a price before jumping in. You will often find tuk tuk drivers will try to charge you double what the equivalent taxi fare would be.
We generally take taxis or boats around Bangkok if we aren’t walking or on an organised tour. It is the most comfortable way to travel and reasonably priced. Ensure they switch on the metre once you are going so there’s no debate over the fare later. All Thai Taxi is a popular premium taxi booking app.
Uber | Grab Taxi
As you would expect Uber and Grab taxi both operate in Bangkok too.
Express Boats and Long Tail Boats
Express boats are a really lovely way to travel up and down the famous Chao Phraya River. The Express Boats are colour-coded (Blue flag (tourist boat), Orange, yellow and green). The local boats are unmarked and stop at every stop. The blue boat is likely the boat you will take and costs 40 Baht ($AUD1.50) per trip or 100 baht ($AUD3.70) for unlimited rides in a day.
Top Things to do in Bangkok
The Grand Palace | Na Phra Lan Road, Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok
The Grand Palace is at the top of most visitors’ lists when planning a trip to Bangkok. The complex itself is huge at 281,000 square metres and includes a number of historic buildings from the royal residence to the throne halls and the incredible Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The palace was built in 1782 when King Rama ascended to the throne.
Unless you have booked a half-day tour (which we highly recommend), catch the express boat to Chang Pier and walk up to The Grand Palace. Let’s not sugar coat it; a visit to The Grand Palace can be chaotic. It becomes very busy, particularly in peak season and you’ll find yourself using your elbows and dodging rogue umbrellas around every bend. It is still a must-visit site while in Bangkok though. Arriving first thing in the morning or at dusk will help manage the crows slightly but you should prepare yourself. Ensure you are dressed respectfully or you won’t be able to enter the temples and make sure you wear sunscreen and you are well hydrated, the heat can become overwhelming, particularly when coupled with the crowds. Dress appropriately. Opens at 8.30am.
Wat Pho | 2 Sanamchai Road, Grand Palace Subdistrict, Bangkok
While Wat Pho is just next door to The Grand Palace, you may want to divide your visits into two mornings (depending on the time you have) so you can arrive at both at the start of the day. Wandering around The Grand Palace among the crowds in the heat can be taxing and you may want a break. Wat Pho (or Temple of the Reclining Buddha) should definitely be on your list for your first time in Bangkok. The huge reclining buddha is breathtaking and the grounds are beautifully maintained.
As the centre for Thai medicine, particularly Thai Massage, it is also interesting to read the history of the teachings on the walls and if you are in need of a massage, the Wat Po Thai Traditional Medical School is just next door. Dress appropriately. Opens at 8am.
Wat Arun | 158 Wang Doem Road
The Temple of Dawn or Wat Arun is located in the more low-key, traditional neighbourhood of Thonburi on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. Take a ferry from Tien Pier to see the intricately decorated prangs up close; covered in coloured glass and crushed Chinese porcelain pieces or simply admire the iconic temple’s central 82m-high prang tower lit up at dusk from across the water or passing by on a long-tail boat. Wat Arun opens at 8am.
Wat Saket | Between Boriphat Road and Lan Luang Road, off Ratchadamnoen Klang Road
Wat Saket or Temple of the Golden Mount is one of our favourite temples in Bangkok. You won’t come across the crowds you find at The Grand Palace. Built on a man-made hill, climb the 344 steps to the stunning 58-metre stupa that glows in the sunlight. While the chedi houses a Buddha relic drawing worshipers, there is also a great view over the Bangkok skyline from up outside the golden dome. There are several other buildings on site, some dating back to the 14th century that you will no doubt see on your way back down the hill. Dress appropriately. Opens at 9am.
Loha Prasat at Wat Ratchanadda | Maha Chai Road | Bowon Niwet, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok
The Loha Prasat is one of the most iconic architectural structures in Bangkok. Loha Prasat means ‘metal castle’, referencing the structure’s 37 dark metal spires that represent the 37 steps to awakening according to Buddhist teachings. Construction on the building itself began in 1846 and modelled after similar temples in Sri Lanka. Dress appropriately. Opens 8.30am.
If you plan on visiting Loha Prasat and Wat Saket, plan for both in the same morning as you will need to take a taxi or driver there and they are across the road from each other.
There are many more temples that are worth visiting while in Bangkok, but these are those that should be at the top of your list on your first time in Bangkok.
Where to Shop in Bangkok
The Flower Markets | Chak Phet Road, the Memorial Bridge or Saphan Phut Chao Phraya pier
The Bangkok Flower Market or Pak Klong Talad is a busy place to visit. You will mix with plenty of tourist, buyers and flower wholesalers on the market floor but it is still very much worth a visit. You’ll watch shop owners (from the very young to the more experienced) weaving offerings and bunching up lilies, roses as well as plenty of fragrant jasmine and chrysanthemum. Ask before taking photos as you’ll find some vendors a bit tourist weary and not happy with you simply snapping away. Open 24 hours.
Wang Lang Market | Wang Lang Pier
A truly local market on the Thonburi side of the river, Wang Lang Market is a day market selling clothing, accessories at bargain prices (you will need to haggle) and plenty of cheap street food.
Suan Lum Night Bazaar Ratchada | Ratchada-Lad Prao Intersection
Polish up your haggling skills at the Suan Lum Night Bazaar. The Ratchada Road night markets feature more than 1800 stalls selling anything from clothing to souvenirs and cheap jewellery with plenty of entertainment and food along the way to keep you going. Take the MRT to Lad Prao or grab a taxi. Opens at 6pm.
Amphawa Floating Market | Amphawa
About 2 hours drive from Bangkok, Amphawa is one of the busiest floating markets near Bangkok and you may find slightly less tourists here than the famous Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. Take a taxi or simply book a tour or guide through your hotel to take you there but make sure you lock in all prices before you go and confirm they will take you door to door to the market as there are plenty of taxi scams around. You’ll find everything from clothing to souvenirs and plenty of fresh seafood to snack on. Open Friday to Sunday.
Bangkok Shopping Malls | Multiple Locations
When shopping at malls or more established stores look out for a VAT refund policy in the window or on the counter. If you are leaving Thailand within 60 days from the purchase date you can claim back the VAT when you spend 5000 Baht (about $AUD190). You need to have your passport with you and ask the store to fill out the VAT refund form for you (with a copy of the receipt attached).
Many of the big malls are located down town and are accessible by BTS Skytrain. Siam Paragon is ideal for mid-30s style fashion and mixed food outlets, Siem Center is the spot for young teen fashion, the MPK Center is the other good pick for teen fashion. For those with a generous budget, Siam Discovery is where you’ll find designer goods and beautiful homewares. Fashionistas will love The EM District with trendy stores, gourmet food buys and Qurator, where you’ll find about 60 up and coming Thai designers’ pieces, perfect for those looking for something unique to take home. These are a just a few of the major shopping centres, with many more to explore.
Unique Things to do in Bangkok
Witness the Monks Alms Giving
Watching for the swish of saffron robes, weaving through a busy morning market crowd is both an exciting and mesmerising experience. Book a driver or guide to take you to the Trok Mor markets at about 5am and wait to watch the monks alms giving. The markets have been operating for more than 60 years but are tricky to find unless you are a local, located in an alleyway behind the Ministry of Defence. The alms giving is a way for worshipers to support monks, who spend their days studying. To make an offering simply ensure you are dressed modestly and take your shoes off. Make sure you position yourself lower than the monk, bow your head and bring your palms together and into your chest. There is plenty of street food at the market in case you are hungry after your early start.
Try the Famous Bangkok Street Food
The street food in Bangkok is a huge part of the culture, making it an important part of a visitor’s immersive experience too. Like many southeast Asian countries eating street food is a fun, if not slightly chaotic experience. However, it can also be a little precarious if your stomach isn’t accustomed to the food hygiene (or lack there of). On the rare occasions I eat street food now, I only choose freshly cooked vegetarian options. But, I’ll admit after years of falling ill from street food, I very rarely eat it. Many love the street food in Bangkok though and even if you don’t want to partake, you should definitely go to the markets to walk through, mix with the locals and check out some of the traditional dishes on offer. Yaowarat Road in Chinatown and the infamous Khao San Road in central Bangkok are both popular street food strips.
A tuk tuk foodie tour is a great way to try a little street food and a unique way to see the city too. It’s a unique way to go for a tuk tuk ride if you are tempted, too. You’ll drive in tuk tuk convoy around Bangkok at night, stopping for street food and drinks at a mystery bar along the way.
Book a Long-Tail Boat Tour
Riding the Chao Phraya River is such a special and unique way of seeing Bangkok. A long-tail boat tour is a fun way of seeing a number of sights in one day from The Grand Palace to the markets. Book a boat through your hotel (expect to pay a little more) or simply negotiate at your nearest pier. Make sure everything is clearly negotiated before you head off with your driver or guide and don’t forget to take some cash for a tip if you are happy with the service.