5 Essential Bangkok Experiences

Bangkok means many things to many people. It can be a spiritual haven, a racy playground, a foodie’s dream or a shopper’s Mecca. It can be pretty much anything you want it to be and more. At the cost of sounding clichéd, Bangkok is truly a city that offers something to everybody. I went there with my wife and mother so I’ll let you guess what I was looking for from the trip.

There is no dearth of literature on “Things to do in Bangkok”. Most articles are full of recommendations on the temples to visit – of both the spiritual and carnal kind. Of course, the major temples – Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha, located inside the Grand Palace) and Wat Arun are all fabulous and worth your time. Bangkok also offers the entire spectrum of shopping experiences – from high-end malls like Siam Paragon to street shopping in the Chatuchak market.  But in this short piece, I am going to call out the five things that defined Bangkok for me and made it different from any city I have ever visited.

#1 of Things to do in Bangkok- Chao Phraya Cruise

things to do in Bangkok Chao Phraya Cruise
Chao Phraya Cruise

We started our Bangkok trip with a ferry ride on the Chao Phraya river on the evening of our arrival in the city. There’s nothing like the ferry ride to get your bearings in the city and for the first glimpse of some of the popular attractions.

There are several options for a ride on Chao Phraya – from luxury dinner cruises to hopping on board the ferries that locals use for their daily commute. The local ferry ride costs between 10-30 Baht. There is no right or wrong way to do it, but we went for the local ferry and found it to be amazing value for money. After all, Wat Arun looks the same from onboard a luxury cruise and a local boat! It was also the Thai Queen’s birthday and the sky was peppered with fireworks. It made the experience doubly special.

#2 of Things to do in Bangkok- Rooftop Bars

things to do in Bangkok Rooftop Bar Octave Bar
Rooftop view from Octave Bar

Bangkok is full of these. If you are a fan of cityscapes and dazzling city lights, you should definitely put one of these on your itinerary. The highest of them is simply called The Rooftop Bar at Baiyoke Sky Hotel. The Sky Bar at lebua at State Tower, where the hit Hollywood flick Hangover 2 was shot, is arguably the most popular one. It’s a very difficult job selecting between more than 20 available options. I found this site very useful in picking the right one for us.  It has almost the entire list and could make your job easier (or tougher!)

We chose Octave Bar located on the 45th Floor of Marriot Hotel in the Sukhumvit area. The bar is spread over three levels and each floor has a very different vibe to it. Head to the top floor for 360-degree views of the Bangkok skyline, something that not many rooftop bars offer. We loved the food and mocktails and absolutely adored the views. From the plethora of options available, I recommend choosing one that fits your budget and is close to a location that you would be visiting anyway.

#3 of Things to do in Bangkok- Khao San Road

things to do in Bangkok Khao San Road
Assorted Insects – For your eyes only? Maybe not!

Khao San Road is backpacker central. It is full of budget guesthouses and hotels drawing foreign travellers by the droves. The evening spent in Khao San Road was an undoubted highlight of our Bangkok trip. The street is lined with pubs on both sides and the pavements are choc a block with street food vendors, beer sellers, massage parlours, souvenir shops and the like.  Whatever you are buying, be sure to bargain. It is not frowned upon. In fact, it is expected.

The place has a vibe that’s hard to match. The best time to hit Khao San Road is after 11 in the night when the place is full of partygoers.

Khao San Road also has carts selling fried insects as delectable snacks to go with your beer. If you are sane (like my wife), then you can simply photograph the wares by paying 10 Baht. If you are more of a daredevil (like me) then you could try a fried scorpion or two and get the photo for free.

things to do in Bangkok Khao San Road
Yours truly conquering fears and biting into a Scorpion!

#4 of Things to do in Bangkok- Thai Massage at Wat Pho

The term “Thai Massage” has been much maligned. The original Thai massage, as practised at the Wat Pho Traditional Message Centre is a unique experience. Expect no frills. Don’t go in expecting to be pampered. The massage happens in a communal environment where you are simply made to lie down in your own clothes or in a loose-fitting robe.

The well-trained masseuses will apply very strong pressure and stretch many of your muscles you didn’t know you had. The massage is painful but the rejuvenation it provides as you walk out is divine. We did this on our last day in Bangkok, after having walked the streets for three days. We walked in with aching bodies and walked out feeling as fresh as we ever had.

The traditional Thai massage for an hour costs 420 Baht as of November 2017. Other options include facial massage, foot massage or massage with oils. Refer to their website for the latest details. The place gets a lot of clients so be prepared to wait.

#5 of Things to do in Bangkok – Street Food  

things to do in Bangkok Street Food Mango and Sticky Rice
Mango and Sticky Rice

Thai street food is ubiquitous and it’s very good. Chinatown and Sukhumvit 38 are among the most popular areas among the most areas among tourists. But you will find great street food almost anywhere in Bangkok. Your options could range from the mellow ‘Mango and sticky rice’ to shrimp noodles and the sweet Roti Gluay to scorpions and assorted insects. Sausages, grilled squid and noodles are other common street snacks. My personal favourite was Mango and Sticky rice, which is rice mixed with coconut milk served with slices of mango.

If you are particularly interested in cuisine, it might be worthwhile to go on one of the many guided food tours. They can help explore hidden gems and give context to dishes like origin and

I was shocked to read this recent report that Street Food is being banned in Bangkok. I am not sure where things stand right now but sincerely hope that future visitors to the street food Mecca and indeed the millions of locals are not robbed of the treasures.

Bonus Pro Tips 

Pro tip 1# – Beware of the Tourist Scam

While in the tourist areas, it is very common to be approached by a perfectly regular looking local who will chat you up first on random topics and proceed to reveal that the Grand Palace and the Wat Pho temple are closed today. They will suggest an alternate itinerary comprising some other temples and proclaimed tourist attractions. They can be very persuasive and may well give the impression that they have absolutely no self-interest and are just being good Samaritans.   DO NOT FALL FOR IT. Check the opening hours of the major attractions on official websites beforehand and politely disengage from such conversations.

There are several other common scams designed for tourists. I found this website very helpful in dodging some.

Pro Tip 2# – Know your Airports

Bangkok is serviced by two airports – The Suvarnabhumi airport which handles international flights and the Don Mueang airport which handles domestic traffic as well as some international traffic, primarily of low-cost carriers. The two airports are almost 40km apart. In peak traffic, it can take close to 2 hours to get from one to another. Note the airports you are booked to arrive at or depart from. There is a free shuttle bus service that operates between the two and carries passengers with onward connections. The service operates from 5am till midnight with buses every 12 mins in peak hours and every 30 mins in off-peak hours. You can find more details here.

Pro Tip 3# – Avoid the Tuktuks

Travel folklore and publicity has made Tuk tuks into an essential part of the Bangkok experience. They are not. The more benign ones may simply overcharge by taking a circuitous route or by simply quoting an inflated price. The more pernicious ones may quote a low rate upfront and then ruin your day by coaxing you to visit tourist scam jewellery shops and tailors.

Well, I really do not want to end the post on this note. So I am back to cheery things. Apart from being a fantastic destination in itself, Bangkok is also the springboard for beachside wonders like Phuket and Krabi and Koh Samui. If you chose to head to Krabi like we did, you may stay at Ao Nang or better still at Railey. Krabi town itself is nice and quaint but far from the beach. The day trip to Phi Phi Islands and Maya Bay is a compulsory inclusion if you visit Krabi (or Phuket). Maya Bay is among the prettiest spots on earth that I have set foot on.

things to do in Bangkok Krabi
Longtail boats

Final word- Bangkok will easily make it worth your time and money with the attractions that it is packed with. Let it overwhelm you with its frenetic pace and breathtaking sights, its scrumptious food and charming people. Go now!

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