What to Do in Bangkok: The Black Book
If you arrive at Suvarnabhumi Airport directly from Europe, USA or Australia and have a short layover before getting your connecting flight to Koh Samui then you should check out Erin Florio‘s insider tips on Condé Nast Traveler, because you don’t just “wing” a trip to this Thai city.
Imagine a city of 10 million people that’s twice the size of New York with no decent subway and traffic that feels like all 10 million hit the road at once. Maddening, right? Not when it comes to Bangkok, whose unconventional charms make the far larger impression. Instead of little shops or galleries down the alleyways of its old districts, you’ll find neighbors drinking tea and laughing in small plazas where their homes meet. Tuk-tuks feel slightly less safe than you’d like but are a ton of fun (hold on and you’ll be fine). And if you miss that 7 p.m. dinner reservation because you didn’t budget one hour—yes, one hour—for the two-mile drive, there’s a vendor nearby with a table on the street whose spicy noodles will be tastier than any meal at a restaurant that takes credit cards. That being said, you don’t just “wing” Bangkok. You need to plan in order to do it right. That can mean beating the crowds to some of the more popular sites by starting your day early, avoiding others altogether in favor of the places known only to the locals, and always taking the Skytrain when you can. Don’t worry, we road tested all of that. We sat in that traffic, hit all the temples, and ate (and ate and ate) the phenomenal street food to make sure you don’t misstep.
Embrace the Jet Lag, Get Started Early
Regardless of where in the States you fly in from, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll wake up super early on your first full day. Don’t fight it: At 7 a.m., the roads are relatively traffic-free, so have your hotel call a taxi, or use Uber, and go to Pak Khlong Talat, the 24-hour flower market in Old Town. Just as you arrive, vendors will be replenishing their stalls with that morning’s delivery of jasmine and chrysanthemums, and stringing together rose garlands as monks from the temples walk around offering blessings for the workday ahead. It’s truly a magical scene and a great tone-setter for the whole trip, as long as you don’t let the nearby Starbucks kill the mood. Focus instead on ordering an iced coffee with condensed milk sold in plastic bags from the guys on the sidewalks down by the river.
From the market, it’s a 10-minute walk north to Narry Bespoke Tailors in Sukhumvit, who can do anything made-to-measure in two days., the largest of Bangkok’s Buddhist temples and home to the famous 150-foot Reclining Buddha. We can’t stress enough that you get there at the stroke of eight when the site opens: You’ll have the entire complex of golden pavilions, ancient Chinese statuary, and rows of Buddha images all to yourself before the crush of flag-wielding tour groups arrive around 8:30 a.m. Wat Pho is about a 15-minute walk from the Grand Palace, the gilded seat of the monarchy for more than 200 years. It’s an impressive example of Thai architecture, but you’ll spend at least half your time here waiting on line behind swells of Chinese tourists. We say skip it and grab lunch at Wang Lang Market, which you can reach from the ferry terminal near the Grand Palace. Or hop a tuk-tuk for a seven-minute ride over to colorful Phahurat Road, which is loaded with Thai silks and woven fabrics. If you see something you’d want for a dress or suit, take it to Rai at
“The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, just outside the gates of the Grand Palace, has gorgeous silks, native mudmee fabrics, and royal growns. You really get a sense of the history of Thailand through the tales from weavers over the centuries.” – Lauren Yates, Bangkok-based Designer
How to Get Around
Our simplified guide to navigating Bangkok’s famous gridlock.
Pro: They’re everywhere.
Con: Some are rickety, and traffic here is chaotic.
We Say: If you take one, hail it. The tuk-tuks parked at popular sites overcharge.
TAXI AND GRAB (a ride-hailing app)
Pro: Efficient and cheap.
Con: So much traffic. Go by ferry or Skytrain in the afternoon.
We Say: It’s good for after dinner. Make sure the taxi driver turns on the meter.
CHAO PHRAYA FERRY
Pro: At 30 cents a ride, it’s the best deal in town.
Con: The last sail is 8 p.m.
We Say: Position yourself to see the European-style architecture and temples on the east bank.
SKYTRAIN (elevated rail)
Pro: Clean, quick, and easy.
Con: It only goes to about 30 percent of the places you’ll want to be.
We Say: Do it. Even if it means taking a tuk-tuk to the station.
Old Is New (and Cool) on the Chao Phraya
Development of Bangkok’s downtown in the 1950s and ’60s left the Italianate buildings on the east riverbank empty. “We needed to save this architecture and restore life here,” says David Robinson, director of Vivid Bangkok and a co-founder of Bangkok’s Creative District, a mile-long pedestrian area in the Bang Rak neighborhood that promotes local arts in those abandoned spaces (Bangkok’s first biennial, in January, took place inside a 19th-century Danish trading post). It’s home to galleries, cocktail bars, and the most innovative fashion and home-design shops. Start at the south end (near the Warehouse 30, a massive World War II artillery storage unit converted by in-demand Thai architect Duangrit Bunnag into a mixed-use space filled with shops, restaurants, and a screening room. Rungsima Kasikranund, a founding editor of Elle Decoration Thailand, is the director-curator here, where 80 percent of the clothing is locally made.) and pop into Atta Gallery for its one-of-a-kind, limited-edition jewelry by local and international artists. From there, continue north to
Then Walk Over to Talat Noi
The Creative District leads into Talat Noi, a 300-year-old neighborhood with European and Asian architecture, heaps of auto parts on the sidewalks (this area became known for the buying and selling of these relics after WWII), and charming glimpses of everyday life. You’ll come across groups of men drinking beers and playing Chinese poker, and thick, centuries-old banyan trees wrapped in ribbons and offerings. Start at Soi Wanit 2 street, where the smiling lady at number 945 serves the tastiest bowl of duck noodles in town from her storefront. Then continue down any of the alleys, all lined by sloping Vietnamese-style homes where neighbors gossip under lanterns. Pop into So Heng Tai, a 200-year-old Hokkien mansion near the river that’s open to visitors. You’ll know you’ve hit Chinatown when you pass Wat Pathumkongka, the unofficial divide between the two neighborhoods. Stop to clink Singhas with the locals at beer stalls along its alleys before finding your way to Yaowarat Road, the hub of Chinatown’s street food, for a bowl of wok-fried noodles.
On the River’s West Bank
Wang Lang Market
The food at this market is the real deal (we’ll bet you’re the only nonlocal on the ferry over). Of all the noodle and dumpling joints crammed into Trok Wang Lang alley, Orathai is a must for its seriously fresh papaya salad loaded with black crab. You’ll be grateful for the ceiling fans in its seating area too.
Catch the ferry to Bangkok’s dazzling, Cambodian-style Buddhist pagoda, or tack it on to your Wang Lang run (it’s about five minutes from there via tuk-tuk).
Bangkok’s only Portuguese settlement has the Catholic Santa Cruz Church, brightly painted homes that have been here over a century, and a 200-year-old bakery that still makes traditional Portuguese cakes.
Hotels Here Are More Than Just a Bed…
They are a vitally calming contrast to the dizzying city. Their sun-flooded atria are exactly where you want to be after a day of sensory overload. The Mandarin Oriental—née the Oriental, as locals still call it—understood that when it debuted here in 1876. Though the name has changed, it remains the city’s loveliest sanctuary. The best seat in the house, as Somerset Maugham would attest, is in the Authors’ Lounge, tea in hand, while looking toward the Chao Phraya River. For something more energetic, the Bamboo Bar has live jazz and excellent Scotch. Farther up the river, The Siam is to Bangkok what the Royal Mansour is to Marrakech: an immediate oasis with tranquil ponds and antiques (co-owner and creative director Krissada Sukosol Clapp’s 16th-century Burmese Buddhas and herbal cabinets are displayed throughout). Even if you opt to stay elsewhere, stop in for a spritz at either (or both) of these properties. The Peninsula, meanwhile, is directly across the river from the Mandarin Oriental and has an epic spa (book a Royal Thai Massage as soon as you arrive). If you’d prefer downtown, you can’t go wrong with the sleek Park Hyatt, which opened last year on top of the Central Embassy shopping mall. The best value, however, is COMO, home to the can’t-miss restaurant, a chic pool, and doubles that go for about $100 a night.
Don’t Miss the Jim Thompson House
Some background on Bangkok’s most famous American expat: He came during World War II, turned Thai silk into a global industry, and then mysteriously disappeared in a Malaysian jungle in 1967, never to be seen again. Fascinating, right? His home—a beautiful example of midcentury Thai architecture, filled with Asian antiques—is just as he left it. You’ll need to take the 30-minute tour of(you cannot just wander in), but it’s absolutely worth it; the gift shop has lovely silk bags and dresses too. Across the footbridge behind the home is Aood Baan Krua Thai Silk, one of two silk weavers that have been operational since Thompson’s day, selling gorgeous scarlet silk scarves right off the loom for around $18.
This Is a Street Food Town
It’s everywhere, it’s affordable, and generally speaking, it’s incredibly tasty. Trying to find the best stall in the city is like trying to find the best pub in London. Which is to say, don’t bother. The no-fail strategy is to narrow in on a single area (whole blocks are given over to vendors in many neighborhoods). Lines can be long, and there’s really no point in waiting two hours for’s $20, Michelin-starred crab omelet in Old Town when the $2 pad thai from Thip Samai two stalls down is nearly as mind-blowing. You definitely don’t want to miss Yaowarat Road—it’s Bangkok’s largest outdoor kitchen, worth a visit as much for its fiery display of wok-manship as for the salt-and-pepper noodles, pork rice, tom yum soup, or any other dish you decide to try.
… But You’ll Want to Sit for Dinner
If you splurge just once, do it here, on those utterly tender oxtail noodles.
80/20, Talat Noi
Its charcoal-grilled pig jowl with betel leaves is the future of Thai cuisine.
“For the past 20 years, I’ve found vintage French carpenter tables and southeast asianstone carvings at House of Chao. It’s an old home from the 1950s. I still pop in once a week to see what’s new.” – Krissada Sukosol Clapp, Creative Director, The Siam Hotel
The Floating Market Tourists Don’t Know About
If you go to Amphawa or Damnoen Saduak, Bangkok’s two most popular floating markets, you’ll find yourself 12 canoes deep behind dumpling-seeking Europeans and Americans. Instead, splurge on a rainbow-painted longboat (Smiling Albino can arrange one for $125 per person for a half day) and do Taling Chan market. This small floating market is open only on weekends and has a long dock filled with vendors making pad thai and papaya salads, and tables where canal folk eat their pork dumplings, sweet pancakes, and fried rice for breakfast (at the far end, you’ll find stalls stocked with beautifully handwoven skirts from the north of Thailand). On your way there, hop off at the Wat Suwannaram temple, completed in 1831, which has a dock right on the canal. It’s just 10 minutes upriver from Wat Pho and Wat Arun, but even that’s just a touch too far for most travelers. You’ll almost certainly have it—and its Jataka murals that cover nearly every inch of the interiors—all to yourself. On your way back into the city, take the long way, circling southwest down Khlong Chak Phra canal to see how communities have, and still do, live life completely on the water.
Chatuchak Market: Touristy but Worth It
Do take the Skytrain. It goes direct to the market, passing the stop for the Jim Thompson House on the way. You can do both the same day.
Do get a map—it’s brilliantly organized (i.e., books, gardening), making it supereasy to find what you want in one of the world’s largest outdoor markets.
Do visit Section 26, which has excellent antiques and vintage travel books by such writers as Thomas W. Knox and R. Talbot Kelly.
Don’t start early. The whole market is weekend-only and opens at 9 a.m., but many vendors get there at 10.
Don’t rush. Half the fun is stumbling upon a funky café or gallery space while seeking out the best handmade leather sandals (Cosmo; Section 23).
Don’t buy the first thing you see. A good amount of the merch is junk (steer clear of the elephant pants), but you’ll find gems; plus, it’s great for people watching.
Malls Are a Good Thing. These Are Our Favorites
Central Embassy: Its blond-wood food court, Eathai, serves great som tam, and you can learn how to make perfect tom yum at its cooking school, run by top Bangkok restaurant Issaya Siamese Club.
Emporium: Go to shop the clothing, gifts, and gadgets at concept store Another Story, and to check out Soda, which has a sweet secret cocktail salon in the back.
Siam Center: It’s near the Jim Thompson House, so you can stop at its high-end Food Republic food court for excellent duck larb (salad).