Why go to Bangkok?
Well everyone does, don’t they? But while Bangkok is one of the most visited capitals in the world, many people just pass through this bustling metropolis on their way to one of Thailand’s beaches for a good lie down. And that’s a shame, because Bangkok is more than just heaving traffic, oppressive humidity and befuddled architecture, it’s one of the most fascinating and complex cities – not just in Asia – but the world. Oh, and it’s fun.
For the people
From the first Sawadee-ka (wai) greeting you’re made to feel at home – just learn to say it back! While the reputation of Thailand as the ‘land of smiles’ is a little tired (you’ll still encounter the occasional cranky street vendor or over-zealous Skytrain official), hearing a warm Sawadee-ka never wears out its welcome.
For the street life
Much of Bangkok life is played out on the streets and while you’ll only play a minor role, you’ll be entertained just wandering around. In the charming ‘old town’ of Phra Nakorn and Chinatown, for example, with their ramshackle buildings and quaint shophouses, people eat, sleep, drink, and socialise on the footpaths outside their homes. In contrast, the modern life of Silom, Sukhumvit and Thonglor with shiny office buildings, shopping malls and chic restaurants and bars might appear very Western, but people still live their lives on the sidewalks.
For the food
Thais love eating. They love it so much they eat countless times a day. Sure there are set meal times, but there are also snacking times – times for visiting that favourite cart with the best mango and sticky rice, or that dried squid vendor with the amazing sauce. You can find food 24/7 – or it finds you! One of the great things about Bangkok eating is that there’s everything from flashy French fare in five-star hotels to modified mobile motorbikes bearing sublime soups.
For the Thai culture and arts
From Buddhist murals at the National Museum and modern art at the National Gallery to contemporary art-film-multimedia at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, as well as smaller galleries (such as H Gallery and Kathmandu Photo Gallery), you can be certain of getting your culture fix in Bangkok. Plus the city is great for experiencing quintessentially Thai arts such as classical dance, puppetry, Muay Thai boxing and at the other end of the spectacle spectrum, OTT Kathoey (ladyboy) cabarets.
For the history and spirituality
The former capital of Siam, Bangkok has a history dating back 40,000 years. Successive kingdoms have bequeathed the city some fine architecture. In parallel, the history of the dominant religion of Buddhism is evident in colossal Buddhas, wats, temples, shrines – many making a peaceful retreat from the frenzied beat of the streets.
For the pummelling and pampering
When it comes to wellness, Bangkok is king. From dirt-cheap street-side pampering for as little as £2 for a shoulder or foot massage and (freaky) fish ‘spas’ to luxurious spas, urban retreats and holistic health centres (the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, Banyan Tree, Chi, Peninsula Spas, Baan Thai Wellness Retreat to name just a few), Bangkok is a great place for a massage or a makeover. If you really get into it, you can have lessons in pummelling at myriad massage schools, like the famous Wat Pho School.
For the rivers, canals and parks
Bangkok’s ‘Grand Canal’ Chao Phraya River, is the lifeblood of Bangkok and a must do, whether by public boat, tourist boat, longtail boat, dinner cruise or a day-trip river cruise to Ayutthaya. While many of the old canals have sadly disappeared in what was once called the ‘Venice of the East’, you can still take a bumpy ride on a rua song torn speedboat that locals take along the minor khlongs (canals). Slowing down, green spaces such as Lumphini Park are also very popular with locals, particularly on weekends.
For the shopping
From markets to malls, shopping in Bangkok is a treat. Shopaholics will love Chatuchak or JJ markets for funky clothes and souvenirs, Sampeng in Chinatown for everything, Pahurat in Little India for textiles, the Amulet market for Buddhist trinkets, Pak Khlong Talad, the flower market, for the atmosphere, and Khlong Toei, Sam Yam and Or Tor Kor for the food. To escape the humidity there are malls for everything from fashion (such as Siam Centre and Siam Paragon) to electronics (Panthip Plaza) to both (MBK). And I haven’t even started on the street-side stalls and boutiques – both are scattered all over the city.
For the nightlife
Bangkok is a hedonist’s hardware store. You can find anything you desire here, it’s just a matter of finding the right aisle. There are glam rooftop bars such as Vertigo, the big dance clubs of RCA, the intimate and quirky HiSo and expat bars of Thonglor and Ekkamai, the self-consciously sleazy nightspots in Patpong and go-go bars of Soi Cowboy, and the Khao San backpacker bar scene.
For the affordability
Bangkok can be as expensive as any other global city if you stay at a five-star hotel and dine at the same restaurants as Bangkok’s HiSo, but you the beauty of this city is that you can also get a terrific hotel room for £30-50 a night and eat-until-you-drop at street food stalls for less than £10. Including ice-cold beer. Cheers.