Beautiful Bangkok is a city with plenty of wonderful, free things to do © Thatree Thitivongvaroon / Getty Images
And if you're really counting the pennies, Bangkok has a whole host of sights and activities – unique temples, contemporary art, world-famous markets, warehouses filled with flowers – that can be enjoyed without spending a thing. Here are 11 ways to explore the city for free.
Prime souvenir shopping can be found at Chatuchak Weekend Market – though browsing is free © Paul Beinssen / Getty Images
Lose yourself in one of the world’s largest markets
Window shopping doesn’t get any better, or more diverse, than at Chatuchak Weekend Market. Step into compact corridors lined with shops selling everything from mass produced souvenirs and custom-made leather goods, to Thai designer brands and imported vintage clothing. There’s nothing you can’t buy here and that includes animals, meaning along with fluffy kittens it’s not uncommon to spot illegal wildlife.
Contemporary art in a modern space
If you like contemporary art (and air-conditioning) head to the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center, a modern building with shops and galleries flanking a central atrium. On the lower floors you’ll find private galleries, boutiques and coffee shops. Upstairs, discover exhibitions from some of Thailand’s best and brightest, along with works by famous foreign artists.
Enjoy a moment of peace in the centre of the busy city © Micaela Marini Higgs / Lonely Planet
Spirituality in the centre of the city
Join the crowds burning incense and making offerings at the Erawan Shrine, located next to an intersection in the city’s main shopping district. Take a moment for reflection and watch the unique blend of Buddhist and Hindu traditions on display. Worshippers can hire Thai dancers to accompany their prayers, and throughout the day there’s a steady stream of visitors keeping the area filled with smoke, music and wreaths of flowers.
Discover Bangkok of the past
Delve into city living during the 1940s at the Bangkokian Museum, a collection of three teak houses showcasing life before today’s modern expansion. The main house is filled with furnishings offering an insight into middle-class Thai life in the mid-20th century, while the third house is a bric-a-brac museum of curiosities with an upstairs gallery showcasing the neighbourhood's history (in Thai).
Visit Lumphini Park at sunset for cooler temperatures and magical views © Prachanart / Getty Images
Spend some time in nature
With manicured lawns, lush landscaping and an artificial lake complete with swan boats, Lumphini Park is an escape from the city located in the centre of Bangkok. An expansive green space filled with benches and shaded by trees, it’s the perfect place to relax with a book or picnic. It comes alive in the mornings and evenings when temperatures are lower – join one of the free fitness classes and work up a sweat with the locals to pop hits from the early 2000s.
Photogenic Sri Mariamman is a little bit of India in the middle of Bangkok © Micaela Marini Higgs / Lonely Planet
Explore the other India Town
Bangkok’s official India Town sits along the edge of Chinatown, but Soi Pan in Silom is another major hub for the community. Pass Indian restaurants and browse window displays of colourful desserts before entering the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple, whose 6m towers are decorated with vibrant, elaborate carvings of deities.
Find out where your food comes from
Make an early morning trip to the city’s largest wet market to discover where most street vendors and restaurateurs source their ingredients. Ironically named Khlong Toey after the fragrant pandan leaf, the air here is usually thick with the stench of fish or the divisive odour of durian. The sights are better than the smells, and food doesn’t get fresher than this – among other things, you can browse a selection of live insects, sheep heads and chickens awaiting slaughter.
See an exhibition, grab a snack and mingle with creative types at Warehouse 30 © Micaela Marini Higgs / Lonely Planet
Check out the newest addition to the Creative District
In a refurbished World War II-era building, Warehouse 30 is a collection of shops, workspaces and cafes offering regular lectures and exhibitions, and joining a growing community of creative spaces in the Bang Rak district. After you’ve browsed the work of Thai designers, cross the street and visit Fifty Years Gallery, where you can find antiques and nearly 2000-year-old Asian artefacts. Around the corner, snap a shot of the Vhils mural, carved out of the concrete wall in front of the Portuguese Embassy.
Experience the smells and colours of Pak Khlong Talat © Micaela Marini Higgs / Lonely Planet
Stop and smell the flowers
For sweet smells, visit the Pak Khlong Talat Flower Market next to Wat Pho to find the source of the city’s phuang malai (floral garlands given as religious offerings or signs of respect). With trash bags filled with fresh flowers spilling onto the street and warehouses bustling with flower traders, you’re guaranteed to get some gorgeous photos.
Check out Chinatown
Its streets thick with the scent of traditional herbal medicines, Bangkok’s Chinatown offers a total sensory experience that you won’t see anywhere else in the city. In the narrow market alleys off Yaowarat Road, find traditional Chinese cooking ingredients and clothing bearing delightfully nonsensical phrases in English. Don’t miss the street food for which the area is famous – at night the crowds of vendors and eager customers are illuminated by neon signs on the main road.
Bring yourself some good luck with a purchase at the Amulet Market © Igor Bilic / Getty Images
In Thailand, amulets are typically worn by men in dangerous professions – chances are you’ve noticed one or two in a taxi. For great people watching, and to appreciate the amount and variety of talismans available, visit the Amulet Market, where you’ll see customers flipping through catalogues and using magnifying glasses to inspect the merchandise.
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First published in October 2017.