Bangkok: The Ultimate A to Z Guide
In this series of city guides, we highlight the top spots in each destination, from the most iconic landmarks to the least-known hidden gems, with a sprinkling of survival tips from A to Z.
From rustic floating markets to a futuristic laboratory-inspired shopping mall, Bangkok is a city where old-world charm meets modernity, and with no shortage of quirky characteristics either. Discover the multiple facets of this ever-evolving metropolis in this city primer, including cultural customs and tidbits you’ll need to know before embarking the journey to the capital of Thailand.
Poke around the hollow, spray painted airplanes, some of which have been turned into makeshift homes, at the Airplane Graveyard in Thanthip Village. On the flip side, an abandoned aircraft has been given a trendy makeover as the centrepiece of the Chang Chui night market.
Tucked away from the hubbub of central Bangkok is Baan Silapin, or The Artist’s House, which is a calm haven of wooden shophouses built above a river. Here lives a community of local artists and artisans, some of whom you may be lucky enough to catch painting the peaceful skyline.
Chao Phraya River
Christened the “River of Kings” by King Rama I, the founding father of modern Bangkok, the Chao Phraya River was where the early settlers of the land planted themselves, before it blossomed into the modern metropolis that it is today. Take the river taxi across the body of water for a more scenic, tranquil way to get around the city.
Doodles on the street
An alternative way to explore the city is through its street art. Bangkok’s thriving graffiti scene has seen a diversity of building facades transform from blank canvases into vivid, psychedelic expressions of individuality. The Charoen Krung, Chinatown and Song Wat neighbourhoods are sure bets for a visual feast.
You don’t have to go to the zoo to get up close to exotic creatures. Hop over to the Little Zoo Cafe where animals like meerkats and fennec foxes roam free. If you’re a reptile lover, the Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute (a snake farm that manufactures anti-venom remedies) should be on your itinerary.
One of the most romantic images of Bangkok is that of floating markets, where you’ll see middle-aged men and women wearing conical hats, sitting in little wooden boats filled with baskets of fruits and vegetables. These vendors sell produce (and sometimes hot dishes) along the river, giving us a glimpse of the old days. Among the most vibrant ones to visit include the Khlong Lat Mayom and the Damnoen Saduak floating markets.
Built in 1782, this royal complex of traditional landmarks is the beating heart of Bangkok. The Wat Phra Kaew, where the Emerald Buddha sits, is the centrepiece of this destination surrounded by grandiose spires and golden stupas. As a sign of respect, opt for a modest outfit that covers your shoulders all the way down to your ankles. Sandals will also attract disapproving eyes.
The culture of haggling is intrinsic to the DNA of Bangkok. Though the cost of living here is already pretty affordable, you should always bargain for lower price tags. Thai salespeople tend to jack up the bill when serving tourists, so be bold when you haggle. A trick is to simply walk away when you’re not getting a good price. At the same time, don’t saunter into a fine dining establishment and start negotiating—there’s a time and place for everything.
Insects in the Backyard
Gourmet fare meets fried creepy crawlies at Insects in the Backyard, a fine dining restaurant that champions the eco-benefits of eating these protein-heavy creatures. If you find a winged ant floating in your margarita or silkworm in your tiramisu, don’t call for the waiter—it’s not a hygiene issue.
Known more readily as the Chatuchak Weekend Market, this place is a Bangkok icon with a bustling, eclectic personality. With more than 15,000 stalls, it is the largest open-air market in the country. One moment you’re admiring locally designed handicraft, the next you’re digging into ice cream served in a coconut husk. From vintage antique stores to cat cafes, this versatile paradise is one you’ll never want to leave.
Khao San Road
This neighbourhood in Bangkok is the epitome of beauty in chaos. Dubbed “the centre of the backpacking universe”, Khao San Road is a high-energy, high-traffic street lined with hordes of food stalls, hostels, bookstores and pushcarts selling clothes, accessories and other knick-knacks. Embark on an alternative walking trail here, where the people you encounter are at times more interesting than the location itself.
Whoever said all shopping malls are uniformly dull? Enter Siam Discovery, an exploratorium and luxury retail centre hybrid. Spanning 40,000 sqm, the laboratory-inspired mall is the work of Japan’s Nendo, who designed a double-layered glass facade for the building. Inside, there are 13 retail points that are curations of various brands, where products are classified by themes like street lab and play lab. Stylish, Instagrammable interiors are also paired with motifs of test tubes and DNA sequences.
The national sport of Thailand that dates as far back as two millennia, Muay Thai is a type of boxing that involves eight parts of the body. Score the best seats at the New Lumpinee Boxing Stadium and the Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium as the cream of the boxing crop battle it out.
“No water buffaloes” sign
If you find yourself in a cab in Bangkok, chances are, you’ll see a sign with a crossed out image of a water buffalo. Contrary to what it looks like, this sign actually translates in the local language to the prohibition of silly behaviour. So unless you want to anger your driver, don’t monkey around when you’re in a taxi.
Skip the tourist-filled arts and heritage attractions for these lesser-known sights. The Siriraj Medical Museum (or Museum of Death), which showcases spooky exhibits of conjoined infants, body parts, and the mummified body of a murderer, is not for the faint of heart. On the other hand, the Counterfeit Goods Museum is good for a laugh, while the Erawan Museum, topped with a three-headed elephant, boasts exquisite stained-glass windows and intricate architecture.
Pak Khlong Talad
Situated in close proximity to the Chao Phraya River, this is the largest flower market in Bangkok that operates 24/7. Expect vibrant blooms of every kind sold as wreaths and bouquets, permeating the air with their fragrance. Whether for religious, funerary or ornamental purposes, the flowers never fail to attract an appreciative audience.
Bangkok is home to a plethora of temples, the most stunning of which include the Wat Traimit that houses the 5,500kg golden Buddha statue. These are ideal places to revel in quiet contemplation and try your hand at meditation. The Buddhist university at Wat Mahathat Yuwaratrangsarit offers free meditation classes as well.
Take in the dazzling Bangkok skyline from rooftop bars and restaurants that take fine dining to the next level. While Mezzaluna Bangkok, a two Michelin-starred establishment, serves innovative French gourmet cuisine, Nest Bar features a more laid-back approach, where diners (or lovers) can lounge on what looks like king-sized beds with piles of pillows as they nibble on tapas-style treats.
Why settle for a humdrum hotel when you can try a more experiential alternative like Sook Station, a prison-themed hostel inspired by The Shawshank Redemption? You’ll get a set of black-and-white striped pyjamas and sleep behind actual bars—though swanky luxuries like a rooftop hot tub and an in-house cafe, in this case, are available.
No trip to Bangkok is complete without a ride on a Tuk Tuk, a motorised rickshaw that originated from the Japanese mini cargo trucks of the 1960s. Over time, it turned into a taxi-like service, though a lot more fun than the modern vehicle, thanks to the technicolour embellishments drivers add to their petite three-wheelers. To avoid getting scammed, never allow drivers to make stops during a trip.
Umbrella Pulldown Market
Also known as the Maeklong Railway Market, this is an off-the-beaten-path experience that sees local produce vendors peddling their goods along a railway track. A unique market that’s been around since 1905, linger around long enough to witness how everyone moves out of the way like clockwork as the train approaches, and returns to their original positions as soon as it’s over.
Bangkok is a treasure trove of affordable shopping destinations, but the real gem is found in its diversity of vintage boutiques. Bookworms can travel back in time at Dasa Book Cafe, with more than 18,000 tomes from bygone eras. For quirkier curiosities, head to the retro Papaya Studio, a massive art and furniture store that offers anything from disco balls to mannequins. Nightingale-Olympic, which is more a dusty gallery than a retail outlet, is another peculiar spot worth visiting.
A wai is a prayer-like gesture that goes with everyday greetings in Thailand. A quintessential element of the local etiquette, it comprises of a slight bow of the head, while your palms meet just below your chin. The higher your hands, the more respect it indicates. For instance, the fingertips can land on the nose, eyebrows or hairline, which is a gesture reserved for monks and royal figures.
Located in Chinatown (a mecca for street food in Bangkok), Xing Li is one of the most underrated food stalls there that is famous for their bird’s nest soup. It opens from 6pm to 3am every day, and offers other sweet and savoury dishes such as fried rice with crab meat.
Thai yoga massages are not like your usual spa experience. Instead of lying passively on a bed, the masseuse twists and stretches you into yoga poses (or asanas). Prepare yourself for maximum relaxation with this ancient practice, based on Ayurvedic principles, at the city’s top spots such as Let’s Relax Spa, Luxsa Spa, and Wat Pho Thai Traditional Massage School.
Zero Baht Shop
In the district of Prawet lies a unique store that is combating environmental pollution in a radical way. Known as the Zero Baht Shop, it is like any departmental store that sells basic household items and food products, except there are no price tags. Instead, customers pay with recyclable waste like cardboard and plastic bottles. Beyond its green initiative, this ingenious effort helps meet the needs of poverty-stricken families as well.