When you first arrive in Bangkok and step out onto the city streets, you’re hit by two things: first the heat, and then the smell. An unmistakable plethora of scents fills your nose with hints of jasmine, barbecue chicken, tuk-tuk exhaust, and durian fruit. That initial smell of Bangkok was the first real message to me that I had left the United States and was now in a strange land. Not strange as in bad, just, different.
This concrete jungle of the east is intoxicating, buzzing, crammed with cars and motorbikes, is incredibly photogenic and is also, full of contrasts. It’s an amazing combination of ancient traditions and cutting-edge technology, traditional architecture and modern skyscrapers, revered temples and red-light districts, ornate palaces and shanty houses. This dynamic city seems to make no sense at all…until it does.
All it took was one day before I fell completely head over heels in love with Bangkok…and eventually, I even got used to the smell.
From how to get around the city to what you should eat, I’ve included all of the basics you’ll need when planning your trip to the Thai capital in this Bangkok Travel Guide.
Bangkok Travel Guide
When to Go
Peak season: November – March (Thailand’s “cool season” featuring low humidity and slightly lower temperatures, although still pretty hot. Peak season also means that you’ll be rubbing shoulders with many more tourists, as this is the most popular time to visit Thailand.)
Low season: July – October (This season is also known as “monsoon season” because Thailand’s rains are the heaviest during this time, however, the name is slightly misleading. I spent the entire month of August in Thailand and it only rained one day for a few hours. Perhaps I just lucked out, but from what I gather, rainy season typically means more overcast skies and more frequent, but short, rain showers. While I can’t guarantee that it won’t rain for just one day, I can guarantee that hotels will be cheaper during this season, so it’s the perfect time to visit if you’re looking to save some money!)
Where to Eat
For first-timers, those who just aren’t sure what to order, or those who want to explore, Eathai provides a great introduction to Thai food. This food-court-style restaurant can be found on the ground floor of the Central Embassy Mall and offers food from all of the different regions of Thailand. Upon entrance into the restaurant, you receive a prepaid “cash card” that you use to buy food at each of the stands inside. When you’re all finished, you pay the total on your way out.
A lot of locals eat here too, and that’s always a good sign.
Other recommendations: Kalpapruek (on the 7th floor of Central World), Somtum Der (the best place to try papaya salad!)
Unfortunately, I cannot recommend many more restaurants because the majority of our meals were eaten either at the Bangkok University food court (where we were studying) or at…STREET FOOD stalls! I’ll be the first to tell you that I was super apprehensive about trying street food in Thailand. Honestly, some of the most delicious food you will ever have will most likely be from a street food stall, so don’t be afraid to try it! To be on the safe side, choose to eat from stalls that are high traffic and where you can see the food being cooked in front of you.
What to Eat
Here are just a few of my favorite dishes from Thailand that, I think, are totally worth trying!
Pad Thai – We all love this salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and bitter stir-fried noodle dish, but you haven’t had real pad thai if you haven’t tried it in Thailand.
Som tum – An addictively spicy and refreshingly crunchy salad made from green papaya.
Mango sticky rice – Sweet coconut rice pudding topped with only the juiciest of mangos…this dessert was my all-time favorite.
Gai pad pongali -Thai yellow egg curry with chicken.
Jim sum (soup hot pot) – This is a great meal to share with friends! A clay pot is placed in the middle of your table along with a selection of veggies (eggs and meat can also be ordered) and you cook them yourself to create your own personal soup.
Khao neow moo ping (or “meat on a stick” as we like to call it) – This utterly delicious grilled pork on a stick is the greatest go-to snack when your tummy starts grumbling in the sweaty streets of Bangkok.
Larb moo (minced pork salad) – Served with lime juice and crunchy toasted rice.
Pad gra pao (holy basil stir fry) – One of Thailand’s most popular street food dishes of all time, and a great go-to meal if you’re not sure what to order at a restaurant.
Durian fruit – Ahh, the sweet stench of durian! If you haven’t guessed it already, this spiky fruit is notorious for its smell. A smell so…smelly…that it’s even banned in many public places! However, if you’re in Bangkok, you should definitely give it a try because who knows when you’ll ever get the chance to sample this stinky fruit again. And hey, you just might like it! Once you get past the rotten smell, it actually tastes pretty sweet.
If I could describe what Bangkok traffic looks like 90% of the time, in one word, it would be gridlock. With millions of people living in Thailand’s biggest city, all needing to get somewhere, the traffic-jams are endless. Have no fear though, there are a number of ways you can beat Bangkok’s traffic:
Taxi – If you skipped the paragraph above, you should scroll back up and read it. If you absolutely must take a taxi, make sure that they are metered (the pink ones are always a safe bet).
BTS (Skytrain) – One of the cheapest and most convenient ways to get around the city. The Skytrain is not difficult to use and will get you to your destination much faster than a taxi will. The Skytrain runs from 6:00 AM to midnight and offers single journey tickets, 1 day passes or 30 day passes.
MRT Subway – Similar to the BTS Skytrain but underground. It’s also a great way to escape Bangkok’s traffic and runs from 6:00 AM to midnight.
Tuk-tuks – Tuk-tuks are fun to ride but almost always more expensive than taxis (make sure you bargain the rate down before you start driving).
Motorbike taxi – Motorbikes are all over Thailand and are just as common as any other mode of transportation. These rides are not for the faint of heart – though the drivers know the city very well and have no problem weaving in and out of Bangkok traffic, you’ll have to hold on tight and prepare for a fast (and sometimes scary) ride.
Bus – Although they are often much cheaper than the BTS and MRT, they are also trickier to figure out. The best way to make sure you’re heading in the right direction is to ask the driver where they are going before jumping on.
What to Do
Grand Palace – The former official residence of the kings of Siam, this palace is located right next to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (the most important temple in all of Thailand). The complex consists of over 100 buildings, each of them intricately decorated with gold, and is one of the most beautiful sites you will see in Bangkok!
Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) – Featured on countless postcards, this is one of Bangkok’s most famous landmarks! This ancient temple can be identified by its massive tower, or “prang”, that is decorated with thousands of tiny pieces of colored glass. Be sure to climb to the top to catch one of the best views of the city!
Wat Pho – Home to the famous reclining Buddha that is 46 meters long and completely covered in gold leaf and mother of pearl! This is a must-see for any first-timer in Bangkok.
Jim Thompson House – Probably one of my most favorite activities in Bangkok, the Jim Thompson House gives you a great insight into Thai culture. Jim Thompson was an American spy, entrepreneur, and founder of the world-renowned Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company. This traditional Thai home is beautifully decorated, full of antiques and features a gorgeous outdoor garden as well. Be sure to take one of the guided tours for a more thorough explanation of the house and the mystery of Jim Thompson’s disappearance. (Pictures are not allowed inside the Jim Thompson house so, below is the spirit house, a tiny house built for the spirits who inhabited the land before the current owners/humans moved in.)
Lumphini Park – Like Bangkok’s own Central Park, Lumphini Park is a lush green oasis in the middle of the busy city. Here you can find plenty of shade, people working out (there are so many people running you’d think there was a marathon going on!) and the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra offering free weekly concerts from December to March!
Chao Phraya River Cruise – Escape the heat of the city and cruise down the Chao Phraya river! We did a combo of a cruise and dinner, but you can also opt for the hop-on-hop-off riverboat or the water taxi (though it doesn’t come with a guide, it’s the cheapest option and you still get to enjoy all of the sights, not to mention, the breeze).
Chatuchak Weekend Market – Chatuchak is a massive market made up of over 15,000 stalls! Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll be sure to find it here. From furniture and handcrafted souvenirs to tasty Thai snacks and even pets, this market has got it all.
Sky Bar at Lebua (The Hangover Tower) – The Hangover 2 movie made this hotel rooftop bar ultra-popular, so bear in mind that it will be quite expensive. We went up just to have a drink (about $25 each) and to catch a glimpse of the killer view. (No flip flops allowed here so be sure to dress up a little if you go).
Terminal 21 Mall – if you’re interested in some shopping, Terminal 21 is a great place to get your hands on some locally made clothing. This mall is filled with boutiques and Thai designers, so you’ll be sure to find some unique pieces to take home. Plus, the mall is airport-themed and each floor is dedicated to a different area of the world!
Massage – When in Thailand…get a massage! Here, massages are an affordable luxury, so you’ll want to make time for one…or five! Two good places to check out are Health Land Spa & Massage and Divana Massage & Spa.
That wraps up my ultimate Bangkok travel guide! I hope that you found this guide helpful. Bangkok is an amazing city and a lot of people don’t like it at first, but I promise, it will grow on you. Once you spend some time in this city, you’ll come to realize that there’s much more to Bangkok than negative stereotypes, temples, and tourists. Peel back the layers and you’ll discover a rich cultural heritage, some of the best shopping in Southeast Asia, a world-famous culinary scene, and an incredibly sweet and hospitable nation of people.
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