A pulsating Asian metropolis that has long topped the destination lists of global travellers, Bangkok knows many ways to pull eager crowds into its magical folds. And while each traveller has their own reason for visiting this splendid city, there’s a sacred list of top sights and activities that constitute a rite of passage for virtually everyone passing through.
Arguably home to the world’s most vibrant street food culture, Bangkok offers travellers a mindboggling variety of light bites and cheap meals at literally every street corner. Be it Thai-style fried noodles, dumplings in myriad flavours, fiery curry and jasmine rice platters, meaty skewers on barbecue, fresh-cut tropical fruits or a vast array of deep-fried desserts, the choice is endless for the hundreds of thousands of people who dine daily at countless stalls and carts lining Bangkok’s roads, the robust flavours of their offerings rending the city’s air with their distinctive aromas.
In recent years, some of Bangkok’s boroughs have seen clean-up drives resulting in the closure of many stalls, but the collective street food movement still thrives. Mondays, though, are a bad day to go on a food adventure, when many stalls remain shut.
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Chatuchak Weekend Market
Widely reputed as Asia’s biggest open-air marketplace, the vast Chatuchak Weekend Market — otherwise known as JJ Market — is the ultimate shopping experience for those in a mood to burn their baht. Rows of pavilions, each housing hundreds of shops, are organised in neat sections across an expansive ground, with each section dedicated to selling specific categories of merchandise. Garments, shoes, kitchen essentials, glassware, handicrafts, antiques, healthcare products, home décor, food stuff, gardening supplies or even pet products — there’s pretty much everything that can be found here. Needless to say, one would want to schedule the better part of a day to immerse in this hugely popular and democratic experience.
As its name suggests, Chatuchak opens for business only on Saturdays and Sundays. On other days, it remains fairly deserted, except for the nearby JJ Mall that operates through the week. The BTS Skytrain serves nearby Mo Chit station, from where it’s a 500m walk.
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The 16th-century shrine of Wat Pho is home to a magnificent 46m-long sculpture of the Reclining Buddha — gracefully adorned with gold leaf overlays and mother-of-pearl relief — that commands its pride of place as one of Bangkok’s most iconic sights. Unsurprisingly, Wat Pho is visited by hundreds of people every day, either to marvel at the jaw-dropping image, or pay their respects at the many shrines that dot the peaceful grounds of the complex, or simply spend a few meditative moments in the silent corridors and prayer halls before returning to the ceaseless din of the city.
Given Wat Pho’s religious significance, one must take care to dress modestly in order to gain entry into the temple complex. A 200B entry fee is applicable for adults, and includes a complementary bottle of water (a welcome freebie on a hot day).
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A photographer’s muse, a foodie’s dream, a shopper’s paradise and an anthropologist’s ultimate fantasy. Packed into one of Bangkok’s oldest boroughs, Chinatown is a riotous supernova of smoke-spewing food carts, gold-laden jewellery stores, atmospheric temples, vibrant fresh markets and quaint family homes. Walking down the quarter’s main thoroughfare is a sensory overload, when the nose tingles with aromas of burning incense, jasmine tea and burnt garlic oil, even as the eyes feast on a colourful jamboree of flashy neon signage and rows of ornamental lanterns and streamers dangling above streets bustling with open-air kitchens and a multitude of residents and visitors. During the Chinese New Year celebrations around late-January, a carnival spirit sweeps through the entire district, with lively dragon dances and sumptuous food galas adding their festive touch to the proceedings.
While Chinatown is a fabulous budget dining destination, it’s worth noting that most street vendors here only operate in the evening (and remain shut on Mondays).
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Wat Phra Kaew & Grand Palace
Spectacular and majestic, the royal complex of Wat Phra Kaew & Grand Palace was established by erstwhile Thai kings to mark the nerve centre of the country’s capital city that eventually expanded to become today’s Bangkok. Consecrated in 1782, the sprawling premises — which formerly served as the residence of former Thai monarchs — is home to a number of imposing palaces, halls, temples and courtyards, and is easily the city’s biggest tourist attraction. The most important reason to come here, however, is to visit the hallowed Wat Phra Kaew temple, home to the Emerald Buddha — Thailand’s most sacred religious artefact dating back to the 12th or 13th century.
The inside walls of the corridors lining the Wat Phra Kaew’s courtyard feature the famed Ramakian Murals, which were originally painted in the 18th century to depict scenes from the Ramakian (the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana). Recently restored, these murals symbolise some of the finest panels of public art from Thailand’s past.
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Ranging in mood from subtly romantic to humorously tacky, a dinner cruise on the limpid green waters of the Mae Nam Chao Phraya River can be an enduring memory of one’s visit to Bangkok. Depending on one’s choice of cruise (options stretch from sophisticated teakwood boats with curated fine-dining facilities to hulking catamarans outfitted with flashy lights and loud on-board entertainment), one is treated to either an atmospheric candlelit dinner served up by a private chef or a raucous floating party with thumping music and a buffet to feed a few hundred guests. Either way, it’s worth an evening’s adventure, not least for the cool evening river breeze that blows away the discomfort of a hot and sultry day.
Being wildly popular with tourists, most dinner cruisers — especially the top-end ones — tend to get booked out weeks in advance. It helps to reserve a table with enough time to spare. Most dinner cruises operate from the piers at the River City Mall, picking up passengers from around 7pm.
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A signature blend of ancient healing techniques and natural products aimed at holistically reviving the mind and body, Thai massage is among Thailand’s top offerings in the service industry. And given Bangkok’s unshakeable reputation as the massage capital of the world, a spot of massage is a must-do activity for everyone visiting the city, especially after a long day of sightseeing. Ranging from a cheap foot massage at a street-side shophouse to a pampering wellness package at a posh spa, Thai massage comes in many therapeutic avatars, some incorporating aromatherapy oils or herb compression while others simply focusing on a mix of pressure and stretching moves to relax muscles and increase blood flow.
Several well-known spa chains across Bangkok — Health Land, Divana Massage & Spa and Asia Herb Foundation to name a few — offer high quality massages at reasonable prices (typically 1000-1500B for a 90-minute therapy session). But they can often be crowded (especially on weekends), and advance reservations are a wise move.
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Bangkok’s celebrated night markets are a delightful combination of guilt-free holiday shopping, socialising with friends over buckets of boozy drinks and tucking into heaps of waistline-indulging dinners at outdoor food stalls. The legendary Talat Rot Fai Night Market located in Northern Bangkok promises one of the city’s foremost nightlife experiences, while the fashionable Artbox on centrally located Thanon Sukhumvit draws young hipster crowds with its arty creations, smooth jazzy music performances and an irreverently laid-back atmosphere. In relative contrast, the infamous Patpong Night Market is a curious mix of souvenir stalls, massage spas, pubs with live music, food carts and go-go bars peddling various forms of adult entertainment for sleaze-seekers.
The underground MRT is a convenient way to get to Talat Rot Fai, while the BTS Skytrain has jump-off points for both Artbox and Patpong Night Market.
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