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Bangkok is the capital of Thailand and, with a population of over eleven million inhabitants, by far its largest city. Its high-rise buildings, heavy traffic congestion, intense heat and naughty nightlife do not immediately give you a warm welcome — but don't let your first impression mislead you. It is one of Asia's most cosmopolitan cities with magnificent temples and palaces, authentic canals, busy markets and a vibrant nightlife that has something for everyone. For years, it was only a small trading post at the banks of the Chao Phraya River, until King Rama I, the first monarch of the present Chakri dynasty, turned it into the capital of Siam in 1782, after the burning of Ayutthaya by Burmese invaders. Since then, Bangkok has turned into a national treasure house and functions as Thailand's spiritual, cultural, political, commercial, educational and diplomatic centre. (less...) (more...)
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Points of Interest in Bangkok
Most of Bangkok's sights are concentrated on the island of Rattanakosin, often referred to as the "Old City". Out of Bangkok's hundreds of temples, the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun usually make up the top 3. The Grand Palace has an immense size, so expect to spend at least a full morning or afternoon there. Within the palace grounds is Wat Phra Kaew, the most sacred Buddhist temple of Thailand. Unlike other temples, it is not one building, nor are there living spaces for monks. Instead, it is a collection of highly decorated holy buildings and monuments. One of its buildings houses the Emerald Buddha, and while you might not expect it from its size, it is the most sacred Buddha image of Thailand.
Nearby is Wat Pho, home to the world's largest reclining Buddha image and a famed massage school. Take the ferry across the Chao Phraya River to Thonburi for the outstanding Wat Arun. The main structure is about 60 to 88 m high and it is surrounded by four smaller prangs. It is one of Thailand's most picturesque temples, and is engraved on the inner part of all ten baht coins. It is so recognisable that it even became the logo of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). If you climb it, and look closely, you will see that it is beautifully decorated with colourful broken Chinese porcelain pieces. Heading back to Rattanakosin, there are many other major temples you could visit, including the Golden Mount, Wat Suthat and Wat Ratchanaddaram.
Don't throw away the entry ticket of the Grand Palace, as it gives free entry to the Dusit Palace in Dusit. It is situated in a leafy, European-style area built by King Rama V to escape the heat of the Grand Palace. Its main structure is the Vimanmek Mansion, touted as the largest golden teakwood house in the world, but you could spend your whole day in the museums if you wish. There are many museums in Bangkok showing traditional Thai-style residences. Many visitors take a tour through Jim Thompson's House, the CIA-operative's mansion assembled by combining six traditional Thai-style houses, conveniently located near Siam Square. Ban Kamthieng in Sukhumvit, M.R. Kukrit's Heritage Home in Silom and the Suan Pakkad Palace in Phahonyothin are not quite as impressive, but still make for a nice experience. Rattanakosin's museums are mostly dedicated to history and culture, including the National Museum (about Thai history and archaeological remains), the Museum of Siam and the King Prajadhipok Museum. Bangkok has a small, but vocal art community, and you might want to visit the National Gallery or The Queen's Gallery, or one of the numerous smaller galleries spread over the city. Siam Square features the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre which has temporary art exhibitions throughout the year.
Lumphini Park in Silom is the largest park in central Bangkok, and a good way to escape the fumes. Backpackers around Khao San Road can head for Santichaiprakarn Park, a small but fun park along the Chao Phraya River with a breezy atmosphere, usually with locals juggling or practicing tricks. It is built around the 18th-century Phra Sumen Fort with a nice view on the modern Rama VIII cable-stayed bridge. Zoos and animal farms are some of the more popular tourist attractions in Bangkok, but before visiting, please be aware that animal welfare in Thailand is not strictly regulated. Poor living conditions of the animals and inadequate veterinary care are examples of the sad mistreatment of the animal population. You can't go wrong at the Queen Saovabha Institute Snake Farm in Silom, as the staff takes good care of their snakes and they have a job of informing the public about the risks associated with them. Another nice family attraction is Siam Ocean World in Siam Square. It has a steep price tag, but at least you get to see the largest aquarium in Southeast Asia.
- One day in Bangkok — if you have just one day to spare and want to catch a feel for the city
- Rattanakosin Tour — a quick tour along Bangkok's famed historic district
- Yaowarat and Phahurat Tour — a full-day walking tour through this multicultural district
"Bangkok" was originally a small village on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. After the fall of Ayutthaya in the late 18th century, King Taksin the Great turned that village into Siam's new capital and renamed it Thonburi. In 1782, King Rama I moved the capital to the eastern bank of the river at Rattanakosin; originally the site of a Chinese community, which was moved outside of the new city walls to Yaowarat. King Rama I named the city Krung Thep, as it is now known to Thais and which in English translates as the "City of Angels".
The full name "Krung thep mahanakhon amorn ratanakosin mahintharayutthaya mahadilok popnoparat ratchathani burirom udomratchanivetmahasathan amornpiman avatarnsathit sakkathattiyavisnukarmprasit" (กรุงเทพมหานคร อมรรัตนโกสินทร์ มหินทรายุธยามหาดิลกภพ นพรัตน์ราชธานี บุรีรมย์อุดมราชนิเวศน์มหาสถาน อมรพิมานอวตารสถิต สักกะทัตติยะวิษณุกรรมประสิทธิ์) is listed as the world's longest location name by the Guinness Book of Records; an English rendering goes like this: "The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city of Ayutthaya of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn". Foreigners never caught on to the change, so in foreign languages Krung Thep inherited the name Bangkok, which became its formal English name. For Thais, the name Bangkok refers to the former village on the west bank of the Chao Phraya, which was incorporated into Greater Bangkok in 1971.
Life was taking place on the water; ordinary people lived on bamboo-rafts along the river, while floating vendors roamed the water to sell fruit and vegetables. The only stone structures built on land were temples and palaces. In the 19th-century, Western powers incorporated much of Southeast Asia into their colonial empires. King Rama IV and V felt that the only way to keep Siam independent was to modernise the country along European lines. Traditional canals were filled up and turned into roads. King Rama V moved the residence of the King to Dusit and laid out that district's grand boulevards along European lines.
Bangkok really started to develop after World War II. The economic centre shifted from the orderly planned city of Rattanakosin in an eastward direction, leaving Bangkok without an obvious centre. Bangkok established itself as the driving power behind Thailand's new role as a newly industrializing country from the 1980s onwards. Rapid economic growth has attracted migration from the countryside, with millions of Thais moving here from Isaan and other regions to make a living.
This rapid expansion turned Bangkok into one of the most cosmopolitan and happening cities in Asia; but also ensured numerous problems. A wide gap has emerged between those who profit from economic activity, and those who came to the city from the countryside in search of work. Bangkok's seemingly never-ending traffic jams continue as the new Skytrain and metro systems are too expensive for the working class. Getting a break from the fumes in a park would seem to be a good idea, but unfortunately Bangkok has the lowest amount of green space of all capital cities in the world.
According to the World Meteorological Organization, Bangkok is the world's hottest city. Just 14 degrees north of the equator, Bangkok is sunny at all times of the year with temperatures over 30°C (86°F).
The most pleasant time to visit is the cool season that lasts from Nov-Feb. It is both the coolest and driest period — the Emerald Buddha statue in Wat Phra Kaew even wears a scarf during this period! Don't think that's necessary though — daytime temperatures still hover around 30°C (86°F), but it does cool down into the lower 20s as it gets dark (lower 70s in Fahrenheit). March and April represent the hot season, and hot it is — 35°C (95°F) on average, but don't be surprised to see temperatures rising into the 40s °C (around 100 °F+). This is the worst season to visit Bangkok, so plan in a lot of air-conditioned shopping mall visits and get a hotel with a swimming pool. Then there's the wet season that runs from May-Oct. Expect massive downpours resulting in floods all over the city, and spells of thunder at times. It's not all bad though — the afternoon showers are actually a pleasant way to cool down from the heat, and while they may last all day, usually they're over within an hour. Extreme rainfall happens in September and October, so these months are best avoided.
Whatever season you're visiting, don't take the weather lightly — temple-tramping in the scorching afternoon sun can be a challenge, so come well-prepared. Dress lightly for the weather, but keep in mind that some palaces and temples (notably the Grand Palace) have a strict dress code. Also be sure, and this cannot be said enough, drink enough fluids! You don't have a reason not to, as 7-Elevens and other convenience stores are abundant in Bangkok and they sell cooled beverages for as little as 10 baht. Locals get their water from "reverse osmosis" purified water machines that fill up a one litre bottle for 1 baht.
All of Thailand's major festivals are celebrated in Bangkok. New Year is celebrated three times. There's the new year following the Gregorian calendar at January 1, celebrated with a huge fireworks display at Ratchaprasong intersection. Then there's Chinese New Year in January or February, with grandiose and colourful Chinese lion and dragon processions in Yaowarat. Finally, the water festivities of Songkran celebrate the traditional Thai New Year in the middle of April. Khao San Road degenerates into a war zone as farangs and locals duke it out with super soakers. More respectable celebrations are held at Sanam Luang, where the revered Phra Phuttha Sihing image is displayed and bathed by devotees, and at the Wisut Kasat intersection, where a Miss Songkran beauty contest is held and accompanied by merit-making and entertainment.
During the Royal Ploughing Ceremony in May, farmers believe that an ancient Brahman ritual, conducted at Sanam Luang, is able to forecast whether the coming growing season will be bountiful or not. The event dates back to the Sukhothai Kingdom and was re-introduced in 1960 by H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It is considered the official commencement of the rice-growing season (and the rainy season). Nowadays, the ceremony is conducted by Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Loi Krathong (ลอยกระทง), the Festival of Lights, usually takes place in November. Krathongs are floating rafts made from lotus flowers and banana leaves with a lighted candle and incense on top. On the night of the full moon, Thais send their krathong down a river, canal or pond, and the owner's bad luck carries away along with it insuring a fresh start. Celebrations take place all over town with parades, concerts and beauty pageants. Loi Krathong coincides with the Lanna festival Yi Peng (ยี่เป็ง). At this festival, a multitude of Lanna-style paper lanterns are launched into the air. Lumphini Park is the best place to launch a krathong down the pond or to launch a paper lantern into the sky.
The Trooping of the Colours in early December is an impressive annual event, held in the Royal Plaza near the equestrian statue of King Rama V in Dusit. Dressed in colourful uniforms, amid much pomp and ceremony, members of the elite Royal Guards swear allegiance to the King and march past members of the Royal Family. December 5 is Father's Day, the King's birthday, and Ratchadamri Road and the Grand Palace are elaborately decorated and illuminated. In the evening, hundreds of thousands of locals line the route from Sanam Luang to the Chitralada Palace to get a glimpse of the King when he is slowly chauffeur-driven past.
Until the late 19th century, Bangkok (just like Ayutthaya) was known as "Venice of the East". Most people lived near or on the water and an intricate network of canals was the primary mode of transport for the city's inhabitants. Most canals have since been paved over, but plenty of them remain and some still function as transport routes as of this day. The traditional canal-side way of life has almost vanished, but as Thonburi was largely undeveloped until the 20th century, there is still some authenticity to be found. Floating markets had completely disappeared by the 20th century, but have been reinstated for tourism purposes and are a fun visit.
You can see the Chao Phraya River and the backwaters of the city by canal tour. Most of these boat trips start at the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya and then ply through the backwaters of Thonburi taking in Wat Arun, the Royal Barges National Museum, a floating market and some other minor attractions. More information about these canal tours can be found in the Thonburi article. At 1,000 baht or more, they are quite expensive. You can also negotiate a price with individual boat drivers. Damnoen Saduak is a floating market that often appears in tourist brochures of Bangkok, but in practice it is 109 km west of Bangkok and has to be visited by bus from the Southern Bus Terminal.
Probably just as fun is to take the public express boat along the Chao Phraya River. You can get off anywhere between the Thewet and Sathorn (Taksin) piers as there are many things to see in all of these neighbourhoods. You can even take the express boat all the way north to Nonthaburi in the morning, enjoy the afternoon in this laid-back traditional urban town, and take the boat back around rush hour. Another option is to get on one of the free hotel shuttle boats at Sathorn (Taksin) pier and have a bite at one of the associated cafés. In the evenings, Asiatique has a free shuttle boat from Sathorn (Taksin) pier to the new shopping centre downriver. A good place to see beautiful sunsets over the river.
Spas, traditionally, were towns where public baths, hospitals or hotels were built on top of mineral springs so that people could come and make use of the healing properties found in the water and its mud for medical purposes. These days, a spa doesn't have to be a town built on natural thermal springs. It can be a place anywhere that anyone can go to, to relax in tranquil surroundings with a variety of treatment administered to recontour and rejuvenate the body and mind.
Spas were unheard of until the 1990s, but now Bangkok is one of the highest ranking spa destinations in the world with an amazing array of treatments. All self-respecting luxury hotels in Bangkok have a spa that at least offers a traditional Thai massage. Prices are exorbitant, but they offer some of the best treatments in the city. Well-regarded spas at exceptionally high rates are given at the splurge hotels in Silom; particularly the spa at the Dusit Thani Hotel stands out. Independent spas offer much the same experience, but offer much more competitive rates. Figure around 1,000 baht/hr for most treatments.
The ubiquitous little massage shops found on every street corner in town offer the best value for money, but the smallest range of services, with offerings usually limited to massage only. Particularly Khao San Road and Sukhumvit have plenty of these popular places. It is fairly easy to distinguish legitimate massage shops from more dubious places (where massaging is only a front for prostitution); the real deal will charge 250-400 baht for a typical two-hour massage and will often have a row of beefy farmers' daughters in white coats working on customers' feet in public view, while the other kind has wispy girls in evening dresses wearing too much make-up and saying "hello handsome" to every passing male.
Muay Thai is both a combat sport and a means of self-defence. Contestants are allowed to use almost any part of the body for fighting: feet, elbows, legs, knees and shoulders. There are two venues in Bangkok to see this sport in action: Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Silom and Ratchadamnoen Stadium in Rattanakosin. Sessions can take the whole evening and it's not that bad if you come in slightly late as the more interesting fights tend to happen at the end. The playing of traditional music during the bouts is enjoyable as well. A downer is the steep 1,000-2,000 baht entry fee for foreigners. Thais chip in for 100 baht or less.
If you want to see Muay Thai for free, go to the MBK Fight Night outside MBK Center near Siam Square. Fights take place every Wednesday evening (starts at 18:00, lasts until around 21:00). Another option is to walk to the end of Soi Rambuttri into an alley known as Trok Kasap (near Khao San Road). Foreigners are getting classes in Muay Thai out in the open there, and many tourists generally sit on a bench in front of it to look at the action. Besides looking, this is an excellent place to do some Muay Thai yourself.
Cycling is inherently dangerous if you don't know what you're doing, so you might want to think twice about hitting the road. But it is certainly a worthwhile experience if you know where to go. Bicycles can be rented for free in Rattanakosin, but cyclists are officially not allowed to leave the set route along the island. Even when following the route, it's still not for the faint of heart.
If renting your own bicycle, avoid the main roads and cycle through the vast system of small streets and alleys. You can cycle through the backstreets of Yaowarat, but you might want to think twice before making a turn. You can also experience life in Bangkok's countryside by cycling through green paddy fields, orchid farms and lotus fields. Bang Kachao, in brochures often referred to as the "Bangkok Jungle", is Bangkok's last green frontier. It's a semi-island across the river from Bangkok with few cars and buildings, and a great destination for cycling.
Cyclists are treated as pedestrians, so you can use your bicycle to explore parks, temple complexes, markets and the more quiet residential areas in eastern Bangkok. In more crowded places you can cycle on the pavement. Exploring the town by bicycle has all the advantages of going by foot, combined with a much greater action radius and a cooling breeze. Cycling is the best way to discover the city up close, but as there are safety issues involved, you need some insider knowledge on where to cycle. Because of this, many tourists take a bicycle tour organised by an operator.
- Co van Kessel, ☎ +66 2 322-9481. Many cycling tours through Bangkok, taking in Chinatown, the canals of Thonburi, the "Bangkok Jungle" and many other places in between. 950-1,950 baht.
- Follow Me Bicycle Tours, 126 Sathorn Tai Rd, ☎ +66 2 286-5891. Half-day bicycle tours through Bangkok's residential streets. Included in the asking price is a fish spa and a barbecue meal after the tour. 1,000 baht.
- Grasshopper Adventures, 57 Ratchadamnoen Klang Rd (near the Democracy Monument, right around the corner from Khao San Rd), ☎ +66 2 280-0832, e-mail: email@example.com. Tours through the historic Rattanakosin district of Bangkok, to the outskirts of Bangkok and one that takes place at night. Tours regularly book out so make a reservation in advance. 1,000-1,600 baht.
- Recreational Bangkok Biking, Baan Sri Kung 350/127, Soi 71, Rama III Road, Yannawa, ☎ +66 2-285 3955. Daily bicycle tours in small groups only (a maximum of 8 participants). Colors of Bangkok starts every day, 08:00 and 13:00. Book in advance as availability is limited. 1,000 baht.
- SpiceRoads, 45 Soi Pannee, Pridi Banomyong Soi 26, Sukhumvit Soi 71, ☎ +66 2 381-7490. Many one and multi-day cycling trips in and around Bangkok. There are trips to the Bangkok Jungle, Ko Kret, Yaowarat, and Thonburi. 2,950 baht.
There are many theatre performances in Bangkok that depict traditional Thai culture and dance. Siam Niramit in Ratchadaphisek is a spectacular performance as more than 150 performers depict the historical and spiritual heritage of each region of Thailand. The first act depicts Siam as a crossroads of civilisations throughout history, the second act is about the role of karma in Thai culture, and the third act focuses on religion and the role of merit-making in Thai society.
The Aksra Theatre in the King Power Complex Building in Pratunam holds spectacular shows that are a combination of Thai traditional puppet shows, orchestral performances and classical dances. The Joe Louis Theatre in the Asiatique is completely dedicated to the art of operating Hun Lakhon Lek puppets. One segment has the puppets interact with audience members, which is a fun activity with children. Both Aksra and Joe Louis feature stories taken from the Ramayana epic.
Of a completely different nature are Bangkok's famous transvestite shows. These cabarets generally take about two hours, and besides singing, dancing, glamour and costumes, there's also has some comedy thrown in. The most famous of these is the Calypso Cabaret at Ratchathewi intersection with two sessions every evening at the Asia Hotel. An alternative is Mambo Cabaret, once in Sukhumvit but now at a new location far off the tourist path in Yan Nawa. Three shows are given each evening. Always book these shows a couple of days in advance as they are almost guaranteed to be sold out if you just show up.
Bangkok is a great place to go to the cinema. Compared to Western countries, the cost of a ticket is a complete bargain at around 120 baht. Most cinemas have world-class standards and show the latest Hollywood and Thai releases. They are up to par with the latest technological innovations in the film industry, so expect to wear 3D glasses for some of the latest Hollywood releases. You can also visit the IMAX Theatre in Siam Paragon. Thai films can be seen by foreigners as they are usually shown with English subtitles. For non-mainstream cinema, House RCA (in Royal City Avenue) and APEX (in Siam Square) offer art films with English subtitles.
For other means of entertainment, Ratchadaphisek is a newly created entertainment paradise. Its bowling centres are of a superb standard with some of them resembling the interior of a nightclub. Dance while you play in style. Private karaoke lounges are usually connected to these bowling centres and are available at major hotels. There's even an ice skating rink and a top-class go-kart track in this district. As Ratchadaphisek is mostly aimed at locals, you might want to go to similar venues in Siam Square or Sukhumvit. Horse races are held on Sundays at two alternate turf clubs: the Royal Turf Club of Thailand in Dusit and the Royal Bangkok Sports Club on Henri Dunant Road near Siam Square.
Bangkok boasts a stunning 50,000 places to eat; not only thousands of Thai restaurants, but a wide selection of world-class international cuisine too. Prices are generally high by Thai standards, but cheap by international standards. A good meal is unlikely to cost more than 300 baht, although there are a few restaurants (primarily in hotels) where you can easily spend 10 times this. Sukhumvit by far has the best restaurants of Bangkok, though prices tend to be high. Practically every cuisine in the world is represented here, be it French, Lebanese, Mexican, Vietnamese, or fusion combining many of these together in a quirky, but delicious mix. Bangkok's Italian town is Soi Ton Son near Siam Square. Of course, for those on a budget, street stalls abound with simple Thai dishes at around 30 baht. There are especially plenty of budget restaurants in Khao San Road.
There are plenty of vegetarian restaurants in the more tourist-friendly parts of town (especially in hippie district Khao San Road). Vegetarian dishes are also readily available on the menus of regular restaurants. On request, even typical street restaurants will easily cook a vegetarian equivalent of a popular Thai dish for you. Ask for "jay" food to leave the meat out of the dish. For example, "khao pad" is fried rice and "khao pad jay" is vegetarian fried rice. For vegans, the most common animal product used would be oyster sauce. To avoid it, say "mai ao naam man hoi". Be aware that all street noodle vendors use meat broth for noodle soup.
Don't miss out on a cold ice cream in hot Bangkok. Western chain stores Dairy Queen and Swensen's have booths in many malls and shopping centres. Or better yet, try an exotic fruit-flavoured ice cream at an Iberry shop. Their ice creams are tasty, cheap and safe to eat.
While not particularly high class, street food is among the most delicious food and can be found all over Bangkok—wherever you're staying, you rarely have to walk more than 100 m for a cart or street restaurant. Many street vendors sell satay (สะเต๊ะ) with hot sauce for 5-10 baht a piece.
One of Thailand's national dishes you can try is pad thai (ผัดไทย), stir-fried rice noodles with eggs, fish sauce, tamarind juice and red chili pepper. It can be prepared for you on one of the ubiquitous carts or served in a street restaurant for about 50 baht. You can order it with chicken (kai) or shrimps (kung). Another one of Thailand's national dishes you should try is tom yam kung (ต้มยำกุ้ง), a sour soup with prawns, lemongrass and galangal—beware, as it is very spicy! Khao man kai (ข้าวมันไก่) is another popular street food. You can identify it at stalls displaying boiled chicken. Served with a bowl of fragrant chicken soup is a mound of rice topped with sliced chicken pieces and cucumber. Side sauces are spicy and go well with the bland chicken and rice. You can sometimes add optional liver and gizzard if that is your taste. If you like sweets, try to find a kanom roti (โรตี) street vendor. The crepe-like dessert is filled with sweetened condensed milk, lots of sugar, and can also have bananas inside. Also fun to watch them being made.
Khao San Road is known for its carts selling bugs—yes, insects. They are deep fried, nutritious and quite tasty with the soy sauce that is sprayed on them. Types available: scorpions, water beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, bamboo larvae, mealworms and some seasonal specialties. Break off the legs from grasshoppers and crickets or they will get stuck in your throat.
Around the corner from Khao San Road in front of the department store and supermarkets the street is lined with a myriad stalls selling all manner of tempting delicacies: sweets and crackers, coconut jellies, candied fruits, fish balls on skewers, tamarind sweets dipped in chili and sugar and a host of other delights.
Thai dishes can roughly be categorised into central, northern, northeastern and southern cuisine. What's so great about Bangkok is that all these cuisines are present. Isaan food (from the northeast of Thailand) is a backpacker favourite; generally street restaurants serve on plenty of small plates that can be shared. Som tam (ส้มตำ) is a salad made from shredded and pounded raw papaya — again, it is spicy, but oh so delicious. If you want to dine the Isaan way, also order some khao niew (sticky rice), kai yang (grilled chicken) and moo yang (grilled pork). Isaan food is very spicy; say mai pet or pet nit noy to tone it down. Southern Thai cuisine is also worth it; many of them have congregated around Wang Lang in Thonburi. At least try the massaman curry (แกงมัสมั่น), it's delicious.
The place to go to for Chinese food is Yaowarat. It has a range of street stalls and cheap restaurants selling expensive delicacies at affordable prices. Soi Phadung Dao is the best street for huge seafood restaurants. Try 1 kg of huge barbecued prawns for about 300 baht. Phahurat, Bangkok's Little India, has some decent Indian restaurants.
Dinner cruises on the Chao Phraya River are a touristy (but fun) way of spotting floodlit temples while chowing down on seafood and watching Thai cultural performances. Most operate buffet-style and the quality of the food is so-so, but there's lots of it and it's not too spicy. While the river can give a romantic experience, it can also be dirty and smelly with lots of plants floating around.
Note that drinks and tips are usually not included in the listed prices below. Always make a reservation before heading out to the pier. There are many competing operators, most of them depart from the River City pier next to the Si Phraya Express Boat pier. Major operators include:
- Chao Phraya Princess, 723 Supakarn Building, Charoen Nakhorn Rd, ☎ +66 2 860-3700. Departure 19:30. Large operator with four modern air-conditioned boats seating up to 250 people. Departure from River City pier. 1,300 baht.
- Loy Nava, 1367 Charoen Nakhorn Rd, ☎ +66 2 437-4932. Departure 18:00 or 20:10 daily. This dinner cruise heads out with 70-seater rice barges. Departure from Si Phraya pier (near River City), and there is a free pickup from most hotels. 1,400 baht.
- Manohra, 257 Charoen Nakhorn Rd, ☎ +66 2 477-0770. Departure 19:30 daily. These restored Thai rice barges seat 40 people. Departure from Marriott Resort pier, with an optional pick-up from Saphan Taksin BTS station. 1,250-1,990 baht.
- Wan Fah, 292 Rachawongse Rd, ☎ +66 2 222-8679. Departure 19:00 daily. These two-hour dinner cruises include a set meal of farang-friendly Thai food and seafood, live music and Thai classical dancing. Departure from River City. 1,000 baht.
- Yok Yor Marina, 885 Somdet Chao Phraya Soi 17, ☎ +66 2 863-0565. Departure 20:00. Operated by the famous seafood restaurant, this is a much more local (and cheaper) option than the tourist cruises: pay a 160 baht "boat fee" and then order off the menu at normal restaurant prices. Departure from Yok Yor Marina on the Thonburi side of the river. There is a free shuttle service from Saphan Taksin BTS station.
Bangkok's nightlife is infamously wild, but it's not quite what it used to be: due to recent social order campaigns, there have been quite a lot of crack-downs on opening hours, nudity, drug use etc. Most restaurants, bars and clubs are now forced to close at 01:00 sharp, although quite a few are allowed to stay open till 02:00 or later. Informal roadside bars do stay open all night, particularly in Sukhumvit and Khao San Road. You must carry your passport for ID checks and police occasionally raid bars and discos, subjecting all customers to drug tests and searches, though these mostly occur at places that cater for high-society Thais.
One of Bangkok's main party districts is Silom, home not only to perhaps the world's most famous go-go bar strip Patpong, but plenty of more legitimate establishments catering to all tastes. For a drink with a view, the open-air rooftop bars of Vertigo and Sirocco are particularly impressive. A large number of superhip and more expensive bars and nightclubs can be found in the higher sois of Sukhumvit, including Bed Supperclub, Q Bar, and Narz, as well as the hip area of Thong Lo (Soi 55).
Hippie hangout Khao San Road is also slowly gentrifying and a score of young artsy Thai teenagers have also made their mark there. Going out in Khao San Road is mostly casual, sitting at a roadside bar watching people pass by, but the Gazebo Club is a nightclub that stays open till the sun gets up. Most of the younger Thais prefer to congregate around Ratchadaphisek, home to the Royal City Avenue strip of nightclubs where you can find popular nightclubs like 808, Route 66, Cosmic Cafe and more.
RCA the Royal City Avenue strip is home to much more than nightclubs. You will be able to find fun karaoke clubs, go-carting, arcades and bars like the Overtone Music Cave which is a place where music students to perform. The Overtone Music Cave is frequently visited by recording artists as well as music students and is becoming a real Bangkok music hot spot.
Smoking is forbidden in all restaurants, bars and nightclubs, whether air-conditioned or non-air-conditioned. Remarkably for Thailand, this rule is strictly enforced.
Go-go and beer bars
The go-go bar is an institution of Bangkok's "naughty nightlife". In a typical go-go, several dozen dancers in bikinis (or less) crowd the stage, shuffling back and forth to loud music and trying to catch the eye of punters in the audience. Some (but not all) also put on shows where girls perform on stage, but these are generally tamer than you'd expect. Nudity, for example, is technically forbidden. These are not Western- or US-style strip clubs. Expect a stage in the middle with seating all around, and 5-10 girls just dancing or standing around on stage in various states of undress. No lap dances, but girls will sit with you for the price of a lady drink. In a beer bar, there are no stages and the girls are wearing street clothes.
If this sounds like a thinly veiled veneer for prostitution, it is. Although some point to the large number of American GIs during the Vietnam War as the point of origin of the Thai sex trade, others have claimed that current Thai attitudes towards sexuality have deeper roots in Thai history. Both go-go and beer bars are squarely aimed at the foreign tourists and it's fairly safe to assume that most if not all Thais in them are on the take. That said, it's perfectly OK to check out these shows without actually partaking, and there are more and more curious couples and even the occasional tour group attending. The main area is around Patpong in Silom, but similar bars to the ones at Patpong can be found in Sukhumvit, at Nana Entertainment Plaza (Soi 4) and Soi Cowboy (Soi 23). Soi 33 is packed with hostess bars, which are more upscale than the Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza bars and do not feature go-go dancing. Before heading to these places, be sure to read the Stay safe section for some additional advice.
As go-go bars close around 01:00, there are so-called after-hour clubs that stay open till the sun comes up. They are not hard to find — just hop in a taxi. Taxi drivers are eager to drive you there, as they get a hefty commission from club owners to bring you to them — you might even get the ride for free. These clubs generally feel grim and edgy, and there are so-called "freelancers" among the girls (prostitutes). Some well-known after-hour clubs include Bossy Club in Pratunam, Spicy Club near Siam Square and the always famous Thermae on Sukhumvit between sois 15 and 17 in the basement underneath the Ruamchit short-time hotel.
Thais are generally accepting of homosexuality and Bangkok has a very active gay nightlife scene, concentrated in Silom's Soi 2, Soi 4 and a short strip of gay go-go bars known as Soi Twilight (off Surawong Road). Gay strip bars all have free entry, but charge an extra 150 baht or so for drinks. The most popular gay drinking bars are The Balcony and Telephone Pub at Silom Soi 4, which are busy until 23:00. For the disco crowd, DJ Station and its late-night neighbour G.O.D. Club (located at Silom Soi 2) are packed every night beginning around 23:00. Between 17:00-22:00 over 200 men from around the world cruise, swim, dine and party at the nearby Babylon, considered by many to be the best gay sauna in the world. Babylon also has a budget and luxury accommodation.
All of these bars and clubs are aimed at gay men and the lesbian scene is much more low-key. Since the opening of full-time lesbian bars Zeta and E-Fun, a small lesbian community is starting to emerge along Royal City Avenue. Lesla (near Phahonyothin) is a lesbian bar that is opened on Saturday nights only. Bring along your passport for entrance age checking (they do not allow people under 20 years old).
In a league of their own are Bangkok's numerous transsexuals (kathoey), both pre- and post-operative, popularly known as ladyboys. A part of Thai popular culture for ages, Kathoey face increasing prejudice as Thailand imports rigid Western gender concepts. Many male Westerners obsess about the risks of "mistaking" a ladyboy for a "real" woman, in the fear that being attracted to them would make of them homosexuals. Tired clichés about "tall, large-handed, large breasted transsexuals with garish makeup" are belied by the fact that most kathoeys strive to blend in with the general population. However, legal change of gender is not possible in Thailand, which means they find it difficult to access many "respectable" jobs. Some work in the famed transvestite cabarets and there are some dedicated kathoey bars as well.
Note that some Thai regulars in the gay nightlife scene skirt the fine line between partying and prostitution, and the Western visitor, being considered richer, is expected to pay any food and drink expenses and perhaps provide some "taxi money" in the morning. It's usually wise to ask a boy you pick up in a bar or club if he is after money, as it's not uncommon for them to start demanding money after sex.
Dump a teenager in Siam Square with a few thousand baht and she'll stay occupied for the rest of the week! Siam Square is the place to shop in Bangkok; the small sois of Siam Square have dozens of small designer boutiques. MBK Center and Siam Center are the most popular shopping malls, as they sell fashion well below Western rates. Siam Paragon and the shopping plazas at Ratchaprasong feel even larger, but are much quieter, as most local Thais cannot afford the Guccis and Louis Vuittons on sale there. Ladies will also feel well at home in the Emporium in Sukhumvit.
Just take a few steps out of your hotel and Bangkok feels like a huge street market. Sukhumvit has the usual souvenirs, t-shirts and other tacky tourist junk. Browsing Khao San Road's roadside stalls is particularly good for clothing and accessories, many of them for a bargain. While many of these stalls still cater to the traditional hippie crowd, they have been slowly gentrifying to appeal a broader audience. The nearby Banglamphu Market sells cheap knock-offs of everything, just like the night markets in Silom and Rattanakosin.
In the weekends, the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Phahonyothin is a must as its 8,000 stalls together form the largest market in Southeast Asia. Shoppers can buy just about everything from clothing to potted plants and everything in between — it is a paradise for browsers and bargain-hunters alike. A weekday alternative is Pratunam, one of the city's renowned garment markets. Clothes shopping here goes on wholesale, and you're even cheaper off if you buy in bulk. At Pantip Plaza you can buy computer-related stuff from branded laptops to pirated DVDs.
Yaowarat and Phahurat give a more authentic experience, although many stores sell the cheap teen accessories found elsewhere as well. Just sitting at a plastic chair and watching daily commerce evolve is a fun activity in itself. Phahurat is the best destination for fabrics, available in all colours and sizes. Pak Khlong Talat is a surprisingly fun wholesale market for all kinds of cut flowers and vegetables. If you're a morning person, visit it around 03:00, when new flowers from upcountry arrive and the marketplace is beautifully illuminated.
Thonburi, being one of the least developed areas of Bangkok, is the best place to experience what the city used to be like. A must is the weekends-only Taling Chan Floating Market, which feels at least somewhat authentic as it blends a rural market with the canal side way of life. Wang Lang Market is an undiscovered gem with strictly local prices. The other side of the river, Rattanakosin, has everything a good Buddhist would need, be it amulets, monk bowls or human-sized Buddha statues.
For antiques, Silom is the place to go, as most potential buyers stay there in expensive hotels. River City in Yaowarat is the largest antique mall of the city, and priced to match. Gold and gems are popular buys, but be extremely wary as many tourists buy worthless pieces of cut glass believing it to be valuable gems. Never let a tuk-tuk driver convince you into a gem store, as more often than not, you're being ripped off. The same rule goes for tailoring shops; you can get a custom-made suit for amazingly cheap prices, but you have to know where to go, as many tailors provide bad quality — see the box for advice on finding a good tailor.
Browsing second hand English-language books can best be done on Khao San Road. For new releases, there are plenty of chain stores in shopping plazas, including Asia Books, B2S, Bookazine and Kinokuniya. There's a particularly wide array of books on Asian culture and history; some have a good selection of foreign newspapers and magazines as well.
Getting money in Bangkok is relatively easy; credit cards are widely accepted and ATMs are spread all over the city, especially in downtown areas. All banks charge a 150 baht commission for using foreign cards, Aeon Bank and HSBC being the sole exceptions to this. Two of the most conveniently located Aeon ATMs can be found in the central part of the second floor of MBK Center in Siam Square and at the first floor of Central Department Store at Silom Complex in Silom. HSBC Thailand's branch is located at 968 Rama IV Road, in front of Lumphini Park.
This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Bangkok on Wikivoyage.