Bangkok is one of the most vibrant and exciting cities in the world and with a bit of insider knowledge it's easy to avoid the gridlocked streets allowing you to focus on the exotic sights and sounds
I love Bangkok but it certainly wasn't love at first sight.
As a back packer I didn't really get beyond Khao San Road, which is a pity as this city has so much more to offer than fake goods and hair braiding services. It wasn't until a friend, who also happened to live in the city, showed me the easiest ways to navigate this sprawling capital. After a while I became hooked on the atmosphere generated by the sights, sounds and smells which permeate this amazing city 24 hours a day which has been dubbed by locals The City of Angels. So much so I ended up living in the city and teaching English as a foreign language.
The golden rule is to stay off the roads wherever possible. Bangkok has been built over a network of canals and the narrow streets cannot cope with the hundreds of thousands of cars which populate the city resulting in gridlock in many areas. However, since the introduction of the BTS Skytrain, a mono rail which runs above the streets around the CBD, there is no need to spend hours sitting in stationary cars. It's also a joy to see the teeming streets of Bangkok from an ariel perspective. The BTS is simple to use and cheap with English speaking attendants at each station on hand to deal with any questions you may have. If you are staying in any of the city hotels you will almost invariably be within walking distance of a BTS station.
To really get around the city effectively you will need to combine the BTS with the river. The major cultural attractions are situated on or near the river so jump off the BTS at Saphan Taksin station and hop on one of the frequent public river taxis which ferry commuters and tourists up and down the Chao Praya River. I used to take the river taxi to work and never got bored of the scenes of river life which unfolded every time I took the boat.
If the traffic fumes don't faze you why not hop on one of the noisy tuk tuks which can be seen zipping around the city and are great fun? You will need to haggle with the drivers for the best fare and some will offer to take you to gem shops - they get commission from the owners. A more civilised option is to take a taxi - there are thousands of these in the city and I have never had to wait more than a couple of minutes for a taxi to become available. Just make sure the driver turns his meter on so you get an accurate fare. If he won't turn it on politely decline his services and flag another one down.
There are hundreds of hotels in Bangkok ranging from budget options on the Khao San Road to five star palatial hotels on the riverside. I tend to avoid the characterless city hotels and favour the more boutique options which offer a more intimate experience. If you do want to be near the Khao San Road and the Royal Palace I would go for the Old Bangkok Inn. Family run and operated, the property where the Old Bangkok Inn sits was originally a palace bestowed by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and has been in the family's care for seven generations. The four guest rooms, four loft rooms and two suites (ten rooms in total) are named and decorated with Thai floral themes: Rice, Lemon Grass, Jasmine, Orchid, Rose and Lotus . Each room is individually and tastefully appointed with heirloom furniture and many are even decorated with hand-painted porcelain done by the inn's owner herself!
For those who wish to be in the heart of the city but still want a traditional property, The Ariyasomvilla Bangkok on Sukhumvit Soi 1 is another family-owned property which is set on a quiet soi (street) but in easy walking distance of the BTS and the vibrant street market which sets up at dusk. The building is beautiful and shady with a lovely pool. The rooms are tasteful and all furnished with hand-crafted teak furniture. The restaurant is stunning and offers a range of delightful Thai food and a few western items - influenced by David - an Englishman who co-owns the property with his Thai wife. I was lucky enough to stay here on my last trip to Bangkok and would definitely return.
If money is no object the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok would be my first choice based on the history, riverside location and attention to detail shown by the excellent staff who look after your every need. The amount of visitors who stay and then return to this hotel is testament to the quality. Whenever I sit in the Authors' Lounge I feel myself transported back to an era when the world moved at a slightly less frenetic pace!
My advice for a day tour of the city would be as follows. Get to the river and jump on a ferry boat. When you reach Tha Thien pier disembark to visit Wat Po, home of the Reclining Buddha and the renowned Thai massage school. From here it is a short walk to the beautiful Grand Palace - somewhere I never get bored of visiting. This is the nation's most revered landmark and houses the mysterious Emerald Buddha, the most respected Buddha image in Thailand. One small tip is to get to the palace early in order to beat the crowds of tourists but also to hear the monks chanting; one of those evocative sounds which will really make you feel you are in the Far East.
In the afternoon, walk or take a tuk tuk across the royal fields of Sanam Luang and eventually reach the backpacker’s mecca of Khao San Road. This is a great place to practice your haggling skills with the market traders and pick up a tasty Thai snack. Then continue on to Thailand's answer to the Champs Elysées, Rachadamnoen, where you can hire a tuk tuk to reach the end of the avenue and the historical klong (canal) Saen Saap. Take the bus-boat along a commuting canal to visit Jim Thompson’s House, a beautifully traditional teak house formerly owned by the Thai silk magnate.