32 Best Things to Do & See in Bangkok, Thailand – Cheap Activities & Attractions
Located on the flat, swampy, ever-steamy Chao Phraya River delta, not too far north of the Gulf of Thailand, Bangkok is Thailand’s capital and largest city.
That’s actually an understatement: Bangkok is by far Thailand’s most important city, and inarguably the economic center of the Southeast Asian subregion encompassing Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. In this part of the world, all roads truly lead to Bangkok.
With thousands of glittering glass high-rises and soaring expressways slicing through (and above) its densely packed central core, central Bangkok’s long north-south spine resembles a super-sized, under-planned downtown Miami. The precincts that aren’t under construction (a perennial feature of life in rapidly growing Bangkok) are urbane, clean, and (thankfully) well air-conditioned. You can spend a week or more in the right parts Bangkok and, were you to somehow ignore the beautiful but utterly foreign script and unfamiliar spoken language, never really know you’re not in a major Western capital.
But that wouldn’t be much fun. The “real” Bangkok is still out there, thriving in plain sight along the concrete banks of the murky Chao Phraya and the innumerable side canals that snake like overgrown capillaries through the city’s residential precincts. You can find it at the iconic night markets, the aromatic street food stalls, and the seedy side alleys where adventurous visitors go to forget their troubles.
My wife and I spent five days in Bangkok in August 2017. We barely scratched the city’s grimy, glitzy surface. But we still learned a ton about Thai culture, had some truly unforgettable experiences, and came away better for it.
This guide combines firsthand experiences with exhaustive primary and secondary source research. If you’re planning to follow in our footsteps in the near future, please keep it handy. In the following sections, you’ll find:
If you expect to spend more than a night or two in Bangkok, consider purchasing a Bangkok City Pass. It comes in two- and three-day packages that’ll set you back $45 and $96 per adult, respectively. With it, you’ll get free or discounted access to dozens of Bangkok attractions and vendors:
Plus, you’ll get unlimited rides on BTS Skytrain and Chao Phraya Tourist Boat, which together provide fast, reliable transit service to much of central Bangkok.
Bangkok is a city of wats, or Buddhist holy sites. Entire districts of Bangkok, especially the Old City area around the Grand Palace, seem dominated by their distinctive spires.
Wats are holy places where modesty is the rule. Both genders are expected to cover the legs down to the ankles. Women need to go further, with shoulder and upper arm coverings. We were aware of these restrictions in advance and dressed appropriately, but we saw several Western tourists turned away from Wat Pho’s entrance for insufficient modesty. Good thing the street outside had a dozen or more vendors doing a brisk trade in inexpensive saris and shawls – if you aren’t appropriately dressed, a few bucks will rectify the situation.
Also, though you’re free to wear shoes around the outdoor portions of each wat complex, they’re strictly forbidden inside the temples themselves. Remove them before entering – and remember where you left them!
Bangkok’s wats are also rife with scam artists looking to make a buck (or much more) off unsuspecting tourists.
We experienced a common scam firsthand near Wat Pho, where a guy purporting to be a guard deceived us into believing the wat was closed for the morning and flagged down a rickshaw to take us on a sightseeing tour instead. We realized something was amiss before we agreed to anything. Later, we learned that this scam typically involves market detour where vendors in on the con pressure (and sometimes threaten) dupes into shelling out hundreds of dollars for overpriced, sometimes counterfeit clothing or jewelry.
If you’re interested, my post about traveling Thailand on a budget explains how this went down in more detail.
The following are among the most notable and centrally located wats and palaces, but know that there are plenty more where they came from. Posted hours may vary on religious and political holidays, so check ahead with each place if possible.
Located in the heart of the Old City, the Grand Palace is more than just a royal residence. It’s the embodiment of the Thai monarchy, which remains the driving force in the country’s political life. (Though Thailand is technically a democracy, the king has considerable sway and exercises the sort of influence of which the British royal family can only dream.)
The Grand Palace grounds are divided into several discrete pieces. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), a wat within the palace grounds, is definitely worth a look, though it’s packed solid during visiting hours. Outside the temple, concentric courtyards flaunt the royals’ vast wealth and charmed lifestyles. This is by far the most expensive religious or political attraction in Bangkok, but you get what you pay for.
Not far from the Grand Palace is Wat Pho, a whimsical temple complex noted for the giant reclining Buddha statue at its heart. Minor temples, outdoor statues, and interior walls all add to the flavor of the place.
But the real highlight is the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical School, a remarkably affordable massage parlor akin to upmarket cosmetic academies like the Aveda Institute. Half-hour full-body massages run 260 baht – less than $10 apiece. Hourlong massages start at 420 baht. If you have an extra hour, I’d highly recommend it.
Soaring dozens of meters into the air just across Sanam Chai Road from the Grant Palace is City Pillar Shrine, one of Bangkok’s most distinctive temples. Virtually every Thai city has a “city pillar” shrine; the complexes usually serve as the unofficial center of town for wayfinding purposes. Bangkok’s is a bit lower key, but the twin spires are certainly worth a look if you’re approaching the Grand Palace from the east.
Wat Saket, popularly known as the Golden Mount, sits atop the highest semi-natural point in central Bangkok. (I say semi because the temple’s low, rocky hill was long ago fortified with rock and fill dredged from the surrounding lowlands.)
With all due respect to the temple itself, the real attraction here is the stunning, 360-degree view of Bangkok’s Old City and, just beyond, the rapidly multiplying glass towers of its downtown spine. But the summit temple’s eclectic artifacts are worth the 75-meter climb.
Wat Ratchanatdaram is a sprawling complex best known for the Loha Prasat temple. Loha Prasat’s 37 pillars each represent a virtue of Buddhist enlightenment. The structure itself is reputed to be the world’s only bronze-roofed palace, though the provenance of this claim is unclear. Regardless, the wat is an oasis in a very busy part of Bangkok – definitely worth a few minutes of contemplative time.
Wat Arun, or Wat Arun Ratchawararam, towers above the low-lying neighborhoods west of the Chao Phraya River. Despite its out-of-the-way location – most of Bangkok is east of the river – this stunning complex is readily accessible by boat and bus. The distinctive funnel-shaped main temple is flanked by four satellite temples, all of which are worthy of exploration. If you cross the river for nothing else, cross it for Wat Arun.
Despite its central location within walking distance of the Grand Palace, Wat Mahathat is a low-key destination that most tourists forgo. It’s home to one of Thailand’s top monastic universities, where members of the public can take meditation classes three times daily (though the roughly $60 fee is quite steep by Thai standards), and boasts an impressive amount of uncrowded green space (a rarity in central Bangkok). On Saturday, Bangkok’s largest amulet market appears out of nowhere on the grounds here. The novelty is worth your time, even if you don’t need a spirit guardian.
Wat Suthat is a comparatively modest wat best known for the nearby Giant Swing, a gigantic, bright-red swing on a public plaza just beyond the wat’s gate. Built in the late 1700s, the swing once hosted an unbelievably dangerous annual ceremony that resulted in countless deaths before its prohibition in the 1930s. Today, it’s merely a curiosity.
Wat Suthat itself is known for the huge Buddha statue at its heart and the more than 150 smaller Buddha renderings along its perimeter. A small Hindu shrine coexists uneasily with the wat just outside its main gate.
Wat Benchamabophit, popularly known as the Marble Temple contains one of Bangkok’s most ornate main temple buildings. Gold leaf and Italian marble feature prominently here, with breathtaking effect. Though often crowded, the spacious grounds offer welcome respite from the busy Dusit district beyond. Inside, the ashes of King Chulalongkorn sit beneath a stately replica of a famous Buddha statue from the north of Thailand.
Located in Bangkok’s bustling Chinatown neighborhood, Wat Traimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha) boasts a lavish temple with – surprise, surprise – a golden Buddha statue at its center. The original temple is more than 700 years old, but the relatively new exterior positively gleams white and gold, thanks to a generous supply of polished marble and gold leaf. The structural symmetry starts at the front staircases and pervades the entire temple – a truly inspired achievement of medieval architecture.
Wichai Prasit Fort is a low fortification strategically perched on a convex bend in the Chao Phraya River’s east bank. Though it’s not as visually stunning as the wats and palaces with which it shares this section, it’s an important piece of Bangkok’s history – dating all the way back to the late 1600s, when Thailand’s political climate was far less stable than today. On the street side, an unfenced park provides a green oasis within walking distance of bustling, seedy Khaosan Road.
These are among Bangkok’s top museums and cultural institutions. Some, such as the Jim Thompson House, are singular. Others, such as the Bangkok National Museum, are the sorts of institutions you’d expect to find in any cultural capital.
The Jim Thompson House is a strange, unexpected attraction in the heart of downtown Bangkok. This traditional Thai residence, cobbled together from six smaller structures transported to a canal-side homestead, pays homage to the life, times, and unusual proclivities of Jim Thompson, an American architect turned Army officer turned CIA agent turned businessman.
Thompson spent more than two decades in Thailand, where he made a small fortune in the silk industry. When he wasn’t hosting celebrities and dignitaries at his house, he took extended business and leisure trips around Southeast Asia. On one such trip, to Malaysia in 1967, Thompson disappeared under mysterious circumstances. His body was never found, and speculation abounds to this day, compounding the mystique (and fueling the steady stream of curious visitors to estate-owned properties like the Jim Thompson House).
No matter what you think of Thompson’s disappearance, the house and its lush grounds are definitely worth a visit. Budget at least two hours for the tour and a pre- or post-tour garden wander.
Housed in the former Bureau of Royal Thai Mint building, the National Gallery is a Thai-centric art museum with original works you won’t find in any Western art museum.
“Collections exhibited here range from century-old art works by legendary painters to contemporary-Thai masterpieces by modern-day art masters such as Silp Bhirasri, Misiem Yipinsoi, Chalermchai Kositpipat and Thawan Duchanee,” explains the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Not to mention, the admission fee is incredibly low by western standards. Budget an hour or so to breeze through.
Bangkok National Museum is Thailand’s archetypal Western-style museum, arguably the grandest collection in the entire country. Spread across multiple buildings on the Grand Palace grounds, the museum features three main collections covering art and culture, archaeology, and history. The archaeology exhibit stretches all the way back to prehistory, offering a rare look at the little-known cultures that have populated Thailand and the Malaysian peninsula for tens of millennia.
Conveniently located in the heart of downtown Bangkok, just steps from the National Stadium BTS station, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre is an odd space that seems loosely modeled after Miami’s popular Design District. Since its opening in 2009, it’s evolved in fits and starts. Today, it’s an eclectic mix of public exhibits and private galleries, most of which focus on contemporary visual art and sculpture.
Given the central location and free admission, I can’t in good faith advise against visiting. Just know that you won’t get a MOMA- or Guggenheim-level experience.
Museum of Contemporary Art Bangkok (website in Thai) is the sort of upscale contemporary art museum you’d expect to find in any major city. Like the National Gallery, it focuses primarily on Thai artists, boasting nearly 1,000 individual works on five gleaming floors. Be warned: Par for the contemporary course, some of the art here is downright provocative.
The Anti-Corruption Museum, alternately known as the Museum of Thai Corruption, is a bold and unflinching look at the ills of state corruption – a perennial problem in Thailand. Notorious schemes from recent Thai history, such as the Klong Dan wastewater management project (1998) and an officially sanctioned luxury car import racket (2013), get close treatment here.
Originally conceived as a mobile museum, the Anti-Corruption Museum now has a permanent (if out-of-the-way home) in Bangkok’s Nonthaburi district. If you’re interested in how emerging democracies treat their own failings, it’s absolutely worth a visit.
The Bank of Thailand is the Thai equivalent of the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States – the country’s central bank and guarantor of its fiat currency. The Bank of Thailand Museum basically comprises the bank’s publicly accessible indoor areas, plus the beautifully manicured grounds of Bangkhunprom Palace, the bank’s current home.
If you’re at all interested in national finance, the museum is definitely worth your time. Just know that all visitors must be accompanied by a tour guide (they’re quite knowledgeable) and weekday visits require advance reservations; Saturday is a better bet for drop-ins. Check the website for more information.
Parks, Squares, and Monuments
Bangkok is littered with stunning green spaces, grand squares, and stately monuments to triumphs and tribulations past. Unless otherwise noted, all of these attractions are free to enter and explore, though some contain admission-restricted attractions. Observe posted opening hours and use caution after dark regardless.
North of Chatuchak Market, adjacent to Chatuchak and Queen Sirikit Park, Wachirabenchatat Park is among the largest, wildest parks in Bangkok proper. Though crowds and uneven paving lessen the magic, Wachirabenchatat boasts miles of walking and cycling trails, making it a great exercise escape for those based nearby. The artificial pond on the northern fringe is worth a circuit, as is the Bangkok Butterfly Garden and Insectarium. Nearby Jatujak Green is a fantastic little market sporting some of the best street food in town.
Dusit Zoo is Thailand’s foremost urban zoo. Set amid a densely vegetated parcel just north of Bangkok’s Old City, it’s home to more than 1,600 individual animals and dozens of species, including charismatic megafauna like tigers and giraffes. The water bicycle station is a great diversion for the kids, even if the murky lake has seen better days.
Once a stately palace, Saranrom Park was converted to public use in 1960. It’s conveniently located across the street from the grounds of the Grand Palace. The landscaping here is fantastic, with bright flowers and immaculately maintained hedges. Fair warning: When we visited, the park had a heavy military police presence, though it wasn’t clear whether this was a fluke due to a special event on the palace grounds or an everyday thing.
Lumphini Park is a densely forested oasis in one of Bangkok’s ritziest neighborhoods. It’s not quite Central Park, but it’s definitely a welcome respite from the chaotic streets outside. Take a stroll around the (artificial lake) early in the morning, when locals’ tai chi routines salute the sunrise, or come back during the afternoon for a glimpse of the park’s resident (harmless) monitor lizards. Illicit activity (including prostitution) is an issue here at night, so use caution after dark.
This former tobacco plantation is now a quiet park with a pretty (if murky) artificial lake and a series of paved walking paths curving through tropical woodlands and lawns. The cycling track is one of the best (and safest) places to bike in central Bangkok – though Bang Krachao (see below) takes the regional cake.
Center Google Maps’ Earth View mode over Bangkok and you’ll notice a curious artifact off to the southeast of the city center, a few bends down the Chao Phraya from the Old City: a dark patch of primordial green set against the metastatic gray of the city center. That’s Bang Krachao, an all-but-undeveloped artificial island that no less than the New York Times calls Bangkok’s “green lung.”
Bang Krachao’s not-so-hidden secret is a vast, if often ad hoc, network of flat paths. Some are paved or wooden; most are dirt or packed earth. All are eminently bikeable. If you’re up for an adventurous DIY excursion, you can rent bikes from a reputable vendor for 100 baht or so per day. For a guided alternative, try tour companies like Follow Me Bikes, which typically charge $30 to $60 per person, per day. Either way, check out The Culture Trip’s guide to Bang Krachao for more detail on what to see on the island.
Erected to commemorate Thailand’s uneasy transition from absolute monarchy to representative democracy back in the early 1930s, Democracy Monument anchors a wide, perennially traffic-choked roundabout on Thanon Ratchadamnoen Klang, one of the city’s biggest thoroughfares. During periodic authoritarian backslides, Democracy Monument is a natural gathering place for pro-democracy protesters. Hopefully, you won’t need to join them on your visit.
Victory Monument is even more imposing than Democracy Monument. Soaring more than 50 feet into the air on a Thanon Phayathai roundabout, it’s regarded as the unofficial center of Bangkok. The obelisk commemorates Thai victory in the Franco-Thai War of the early 1940s – one of many regional conflicts, now lost to history, that presaged the United States’ involvement in the civil conflict in nearby Vietnam two decades later.
The 14 October Memorial (or October 14, depending on your preference) commemorates the bloodiest pro-democracy protest in modern Thai history: a 1973 clash between peaceful demonstrators and the Thai military, which had recently executed a coup, that left some 70 civilians dead. The memorial, housed in a somber amphitheater, is located on Thanon Ratchadamnoen, within sight of Democracy Monument.
Central Bangkok is a warren of broad avenues, through roads, commercial and residential streets, and torturous side alleys (soi). Many road names are borderline unpronounceable, and English signage is not a given. Google Maps isn’t a reliable navigation aid beyond basic GPS-enabled dead reckoning. Bottom line: Get a high-quality paper map of central Bangkok before you start exploring in earnest.
This is a rundown of the most noteworthy neighborhoods in Bangkok, plus some major markets that effectively function as cities-within-cities. Pay close attention to markets’ open hours – some are operational only one day per week.
If you haven’t guessed it by now, Bangkok’s Old City is its spiritual, political, and historic heart. It’s by no means the nicest or most engaging part of town, though. Like the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the sheer scale of the district saps its vibrancy: It’s a “look but don’t touch” kind of place whose streets and paths are made for transit, not exploration. Nevertheless, a visit to Bangkok isn’t complete without a day (or more) in the Old City.
Even busier than the central Bangkok baseline, Chinatown is an unexpected, if welcome, surprise. Ironically, it’s the closest approximation of a Western urban environment we encountered during our time in Bangkok – with the important exception of Bangkok’s long downtown spine, which resembles central Miami. Squint as you look down one of the lively alleys or traffic-choked thoroughfares here and you can almost pretend you’re in Boston or lower Manhattan. Just walking around here is a treat.
Of course, the real reason to visit Bangkok’s Chinatown is the food: Szechuan and Cantonese styles predominate at lunch counters and white-tablecloth restaurants alike. My wife and I had a memorable, if pricey (by Thai standards – we spent less than $20 per person), dim sum feast at the appropriately named Canton House. Don’t worry: The cooking was way more inventive than the name.
Nestled up against the Old City, Banglamphu is a well-preserved neighborhood that – for the most part – is noticeably quieter than areas adjacent. It’s remarkably varied too: Walk a mile and you’ll encounter the soaring heights of the Golden Mount, picturesque canal-side alleys prowled by stray cats, and the seedy (but irresistible) trainwreck that is Khaosan Road.
We spent more time in Banglamphu than any other part of town. Beyond the headline attractions noted above, I’d recommend:
Bangrak or Silom, take your pick. Either way, this is one of Bangkok’s swankiest precincts, with glittering high-rise hotels and residences affording stunning views of the Chao Phraya delta. If you can afford a splurge on Western-priced drinks, head out here for a night of refined revelry. Try the Authors’ Lounge, a literary treat housed in the riverside Mandarin Oriental, or head (straight) up to Distil, an uber-chic bar with a view atop one of Bangkok’s tallest buildings.
Thonglor is another trendy, built-up slice of downtown Bangkok. In my experience, it has less personality than Bangrak, but I only spent a few hours here and your mileage may vary.
One thing Thonglor definitely has going for it: a proliferation of non-Thai eateries (including Mexican cantinas and high-end sandwich shops) for homesick North American travelers. If you’re looking to drive hard bargains on off-brand merch or trinkets, head off the main drag and check out Thonglor Art Village and Eco Ring, two popular stores specializing in secondhand clothing and accessories.
Southwest of central Bangkok’s maw lies Phra Khanong, an eclectic residential neighborhood that begs to be compared with up-and-coming areas of Brooklyn or Oakland.
We’ll see what happens in the years ahead, but for now, Phra Khanong remains an excellent place to find cheap, authentic Thai food, fresh produce (if you’re fortunate enough to have a kitchen), and amazingly affordable drinks at watering holes like W District. Don’t miss Phra Khanong Market, a small but approachable place to stock up on hard-to-find spices for your home kitchen and tasteful accessories for your mantel.
If it’s bargains you seek, Huai Khwang Night Market and the eponymous district surrounding it need to be high on your to-do list. Last-minute packers, take note: Huai Khwang is among the best places in town to grab low-cost clothing, including undergarments – yes, still in the packaging. Isaan-style Thai food, known for its signature sticky rice dishes, is cheap and plentiful here. Grab a couple shirts, a bowl of rice, maybe a new backpack, and call it a night. Or morning – Huai Khwang stays open until 5am most days.
Chatuchak (or Jatujak) Market claims to be the world’s largest weekend market. I can’t independently verify, but at minimum, I can say that this place is impressive. Just remember, unlike many Bangkok commercial zones, Chatuchak is a daytime market – open from 7am to 5pm or 6pm.
With 15,000 vendor stalls covering some 27 acres, plus a satellite market (Jatujak Green, a night market) amid the green space to the northeast, Chatuchak has just about everything you could want. Four hours and $25 later, my wife and I had full stomachs, heaping spice bags safe to carry through Customs, a few items of clothing, and our first taste of Thai iced coffee.
Asiatique, full name Asiatique The Riverfront, is a glitzy, modern night market on the far side of the Chao Phraya River, just 10 minutes from the Saphan Taksin BTS station.
Asiatique’s backers say it better than I can: “Embracing history, but avoiding the cultural clichés and traditional symbols, it strikes a balance between tradition and globalization.” In other words, Asiatique isn’t quite the place to find the “real” Bangkok – rather, it’s an upscale facsimile. If that’s what you’re after, swing by between 4pm and 12am daily.
You’ll need at least one evening to explore all four “districts”: Charoenkrung (souvenirs, traditional shows, and Thai eateries); Town Square (upscale nightlife, including live entertainment); Factory (brand-name and off-brand fashion); and Waterfront (a parklike riverfront stretch with upscale eateries).
Tucked away in the Ratchada neighborhood, Rot Fai Market is a low-key night market known for affordable fast fashion, secondhand accessories, and souvenirs small enough to pack into your carry-on. There’s nothing even remotely upscale about the food court and bar area, but live musical performances are a plus.
Located in Thonburi, on the far side of the Chao Phraya, Klongsan Plaza is instantly familiar to anyone who’s been to an American flea market or swap meet. Cheap clothing, accessories, and jewelry are the main draws here. But, as in most Bangkok markets, cheap street eats aren’t to be overlooked. I’d recommend bite-sized snacks that you can carry in one hand as you thumb through clothing racks with the other. Klongsan Plaza isn’t technically a night market, but it’s open late by day market standards: 9:30pm daily.
Klong Toey is the king of Bangkok’s fresh food markets. Open until 2am daily, with new supplies coming in periodically to replenish depleted stocks, it’s the city’s best place to find super cheap, super fresh meat, fish, and produce. Admittedly, you won’t have too much use for whole fish dredged out of the Gulf of Thailand hours earlier unless you have a working kitchen at your disposal – but if you’re planning an extended stay in Bangkok, you’ll surely be a regular here.
Pratunam Market is the place to revamp your wardrobe in Bangkok. It’s a wholesale fashion market tailor-made (not literally – most stuff is off the rack here) for budget-conscious shoppers looking to buy in bulk. You can find everything from Thai ceremonial uniforms to cocktail wear. By Western standards, bulk pricing here is laughably low, but retail buyers – a shirt here, a dress there – make out well too. Just don’t get so carried away that you can’t cart away your haul. Most clothing shops close by 9pm, so plan accordingly.
These destinations are all within a few hours’ drive or train ride from Bangkok. Some are doable in a long day; others are better done over the course of a weekend or longer.
Kanchanaburi Province is a beautiful swathe of mountainous jungle northwest of Bangkok. Its eponymous capital is a nice home base for visitors looking to explore its four major national parks: Khao Laem, Sai Yok, Erawan, and Chaloem Rattanakosin. The centrally located railway station is within walking distance of Good Times Resort, one of the top places to stay in town. If you’re really looking to disconnect, check out the more secluded rural resorts that dot the countryside around town.
Kanchanaburi’s natural beauty belies a dark past. During World War II, the Japanese army oversaw the construction of the so-called “Death Railway,” a crucial link between Japanese-held territory in Thailand and Burma. The project inspired the 1957 film “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” whose namesake remains visible today. Many of the province’s top tourist attractions are war-related, including the bridge, the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, and the JEATH War Museum.
Ayutthaya Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, houses the ruins of the second capital of Siam. Built in the mid-1300s, it stood for four centuries until its sacking at the hands of an invading Burmese army. Though much of the city’s infrastructure has long since crumbled and been carted away, some of its most impressive features – including towering spires, or prangs, at the site’s two large wats – remain largely intact.
Ayutthaya is directly north of Bangkok, easily accessible in an out-and-back day trip – though there’s several days’ worth of sights to see and places to experience in the surrounding city. The UNESCO site is 289 hectares: big, but not overwhelming.
On the way to Ayutthaya is a small artificial island known as Ko Kret (or Koh Kret). Barely 15 miles north of Bangkok’s center, it’s a largely rural expanse dotted with sleepy villages and market gardens. The place is best known as a Bangkok-area foothold for the Mon people, Thailand’s dominant ethnic group during the second half of the first millennium A.D.
Today, Ko Kret a great place to experience a Thai weekend market without the drama of the city. Think Chatuchak, but smaller and without crushing crowds. As on Bang Krachao, cycling is a popular pastime here, though there’s not quite as much space to stretch it out. Don’t miss Wat Poramai Yikawat, the area’s largest temple complex. And be sure to pick up one of the island’s distinctive clay pots at the market – pottery is a big business here. Ko Kret is best accessed by boat; check with outfitters in Bangkok for more details.
Roughly 60 miles southwest of Bangkok’s center, Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is Thailand’s largest floating market. It’s a true novelty – a sight you definitely won’t find in North America, at least not at this scale.
If you’re not staying nearby, the best play is a full-day out-and-back bus tour from Bangkok. Expect to pay at least $20 per person for the experience; more involved tours (which stop at farms and workshops along the road to Damnoen Saduak) can cost upward of $50 per person. You’ll have hours to explore the market’s many docks, where boat-borne sellers hawk fresh fruit, cold drinks, crafts, and prepared food.
Thailand’s first official national park is one of its most remarkable. Spread across tens of thousands of acres of hilly wilderness in Nakhon Ratchasima Province, Khao Yai National Park is the keystone of Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, a vast UNESCO World Heritage site stretching from Saraburi city to the Cambodian border.
Khao Yai’s main draw is its elephant herd. While there are no guarantees in life, it’s not uncommon to glimpse the majestic beasts in well-traveled parts of the park – no bushwhacking required. Dozens of other mammal species, plus a healthy quotient of birds and reptiles, make Khao Yai a truly fantastic place to sample Thailand’s stunning biodiversity.
Nakhon Pathom is a provincial hub about 35 miles west of Bangkok. The star attraction here is Phra Pathom Chedi, a beautiful temple with the world’s second tallest stupa, or spire. (First place belongs to a stupa in Sri Lanka.) Phra Pathom Chedi roughly translates to “first stupa,” an apropos designation: The soaring structure sits on the site where, according to legend (and the historical record), Buddhism first came to Thailand some two millennia ago. You’ll need a full morning to explore the spacious, intricately laid-out grounds, which boast alcoves and statuettes galore.
Beyond the stupa, Nakhon Pathom has more than its fair share of historical and cultural treasures: an early 20th century palace set amid lush, parklike grounds; a delightfully off-kilter wax museum (the Museum of Human Imagery); a vintage auto museum (the Jesada Technik Museum); and (sources say) the world’s best pomelos, available fresh at area markets.
Bangkok is a big, messy, at times overwhelming city on the other side of the world. You’ll be grateful you took the time to plan your visit (and anticipate as many contingencies as possible). Here’s what you need to know before you go.
Bangkok has a tropical monsoon climate dominated by distinct rainy and dry seasons. Most rain falls during the intense thunderstorms that roll up from the south or southwest between May and October. The weather is most unsettled during the northern hemisphere summer: June through September. The driest period is December through February, when relatively little precipitation falls and the occasional storms are less intense overall.
The hottest months fall on either side of the rainy season – March, April, October, and November. The December through February period is cooler than the unsettled June through September period, which is also the year’s most humid stretch.
Remember that this is the tropics, so “cool” is relative: You’re looking at a humid 80 to 85 degrees during the day and maybe 70 degrees at night, if you’re lucky. During the hot season, highs in the mid-90s and lows in the mid-80s are the norm. Still, if catching nice weather is your top concern, the northern hemisphere winter is clearly the best time of year to visit Bangkok.
Cost and Crowd Considerations
As a global city, Bangkok doesn’t really have high and low seasons. It’s always busy here.
In the city center, lodging prices don’t vary much from month to month. You may find better deals during the rainy season, but don’t bank on it. In smaller Thai cities and especially beach or island destinations, the low-high season discrepancy is much more noticeable – but, again, the timing and duration of the rainy season varies significantly by location.
No matter when you visit Bangkok, it’s always a good idea to look for last-minute travel deals and property-specific offers. These targeted savings opportunities are likely to outweigh whatever low-season arbitrage you’re able to achieve.
If you don’t like crowds at major attractions, or you don’t want to be surprised to find key markets and holy sites unexpectedly closed, try to avoid major Thai and Chinese holidays (due to the high, and growing, volume of Chinese tourists visiting or passing through Bangkok):
While this is by no means a comprehensive packing list, every item has its place in Bangkok:
These are some of the most tourist-friendly districts in Bangkok:
This isn’t a full list of areas to stay in Bangkok by any means. To learn more about your options and suss out lesser-traveled pockets of the city, grab a full-length guidebook to Thailand. Lonely Planet’s is my personal favorite.
As Thailand’s capital and the country’s largest city by far, Bangkok is a natural hub for international travel. For a city halfway around the world, it’s not too hard to reach from major U.S. cities.
If Bangkok is your first destination in Southeast Asia, you’ll probably arrive at Suvarnabhumi, which handles virtually all of Thailand’s intercontinental air traffic. Flights arrive at Suvarnabhumi from as far afield as London and Paris. No U.S. airports (that I’ve found) serve Suvarnabhumi – you’ll need to connect through another major Asian city, even if you’re coming from a West Coast hub like San Francisco or Los Angeles. (We chose Taipei.)
If you’re arriving in Bangkok from elsewhere in Thailand or Southeast Asia, take a hard look at Don Mueang. It has a good reputation as Thailand’s discount airport of choice, with dozens of budget carrier flights arriving every day from as far as India, Japan, and South Korea. From most U.S. cities, fares into Don Mueang are roughly equivalent to fares into Suvarnabhumi – about $700 round-trip from San Francisco, for instance – but Don Mueang usually involves an extra layover.
Getting Around in Bangkok
The first thing I noticed about Bangkok, aside from the sheer scale of the place, was the prevalence of rickshaws (tuk tuks). They are everywhere here.
But you don’t need to take a rickshaw from the airport to the city center, if that’s where you’re staying. Instead, hop on the smooth Airport Rail Link train – part of Bangkok’s growing BTS Skytrain system – for the 30-minute, six-stop jaunt to central Bangkok’s Phayathai station. Fares start at 150 baht ($5 to $6) one-way, and there’s plenty of space for your luggage in the cars. Trains run from 6am to 12am daily.
If you’re not staying in central Bangkok, you can hire a metered taxi. The fastest way into the city is by toll expressway, which unavoidably adds to the cost of the trip. Unlike most local taxi journeys in Bangkok, airport journeys are typically flat-rate affairs negotiated in advance. Expect to pay 200 to 250 baht ($7 to $9) to reach central Bangkok, and 300 to 400 baht ($10 to $14) to reach neighborhoods on the other side of the downtown core.
In Bangkok itself, you’ll have several reliable transportation options:
Bangkok also has a public bus system. The network is comprehensive and fares are cheap: You’ll never pay more than 30 baht ($1) per ride, no matter how far you go. But the drawbacks are substantial:
If you’re resigned to sitting in traffic anyway, just grab a metered taxi and drive a hard bargain with the driver. The air-conditioning is worth the added cost.
Budgeting and Exchange Rates
Thailand has a deserved reputation as a cheap destination for Western tourists. Here’s what you need to know about the local currency, exchange rates, successful budgeting, and more.
Exchange Rates and Currency
You’ve probably guessed by now that Thailand’s currency is the baht. Historically, the U.S. dollar-to-baht exchange rate has ranged from 30 to 35 baht per $1. We visited when the baht was on the stronger side: roughly $1 to 31 or 32 baht.
With notable exceptions, Thailandair con, by and large, remains a cash economy. Other than airlines and hotels, you’ll find few vendors that take credit cards in Bangkok. Even some lower-end hostel guesthouses forgo plastic. It’s wise to assume that you’ll pay for everything you buy on the ground in Bangkok in cash. Plan accordingly.
Happily, ATMs are everywhere in Bangkok – in commercial districts, it’s rare to go more than a few hundred feet without seeing one. Most belong to legit banking networks. The catch is that they’re quite expensive, with flat fees ranging from 100 baht ($3 to $4) to more than 200 baht ($6 to $7). Reduce your exposure to fees by loading up on as much cash as you feel comfortable carrying as soon as you arrive. Unfortunately, this means paying higher-than-usual fees at the airport, but the cost is worthwhile if it means avoiding multiple trips to street ATMs in the city.
Cost & Budgeting
Your money will go pretty far in Thailand.
Other than airfare, your biggest day-to-day expense is likely to be lodging. Shared rooms in basic hostels away from the main commercial areas start at $10 to $15 per night. Private rooms aren’t much more expensive.
Lower-end hotels away from the city center cost as little as $20 to $30 per night. We stayed at a “resort” with a pool and a pretty nice restaurant near Suvarnabhumi airport for just a bit more than that, and we would have paid even less had we not upgraded our room. Western-style hotels in downtown Bangkok sport Western-style price tags: $200 to $300 per night for basic rooms, and sometimes much more. You get what you pay for, of course.
The divergence in food and drink prices is pretty remarkable too. Head to one of Bangkok’s many markets or commercial streets and you’ll find cart vendors serving heaping noodle portions for 40 to 60 baht – a couple bucks. Hole-in-the-wall sit-down restaurants aren’t much more expensive, though authentic seafood dishes can be much pricier. Light Thai beer is readily available at convenience stores and cart vendors (except on holy days, between 2pm and 5pm daily, and late nights); paying more than $1.50 per bottle is obscene.
On the upper end of the scale, downtown Bangkok has plenty of fine Asian and European restaurants with eye-popping prices, plus swanky cocktail lounges that charge big-city North American prices. If you’re up for a splurge, Bangkok has an alluring speakeasy culture; we found a tiny, hidden place (Q&A Bar) charging $10 to $14 for some of the best cocktails we’ve ever had. Time Out Bangkok has some more ideas here.
I’d recommend setting aside a modest amount in a street-market fund. The markets described above, and other not mentioned, have legitimately awesome deals on merchandise that’s difficult or impossible to find in the U.S. – or just much, much more expensive. I’m one of the least fashionable people I know, and even I saw fit to load up on $4 button-up shirts at Chatuchak Market.
Unlike more popular destinations for North American tourists, such as Western Europe or even Japan, much of Thailand is a no-English zone. Things are a bit better in Bangkok, where most people in tourist-facing businesses (including street food vendors) know at least a few words of English.
Still, it’s in your best interest to know basic Thai before arriving in Bangkok. It’s also important that you keep your wits about you at all times – Bangkok’s not a war zone by any stretch, but property crime is definitely an issue.
Thai is a tonal language with a totally alien script. We spent nearly two weeks in Thailand and came no closer to deciphering its beautiful but bizarre lettering on our last day than on our first. The good news is that most major attractions and businesses – and, crucially, most restaurants with menus – have English signage and instructions. It’s not always perfect English, mind you, but it’s usually comprehensible.
Notwithstanding the fact that most vendors and service providers understand very basic English, you should get in the habit of starting and ending conversations in Thai. It’s more polite, and you’ll avoid miscommunication besides. This TripAdvisor guide to basic Thai has some useful words and phrases.
Unless you’re in Bangkok on business, skip the international calling plan – which costs $10 per day to start and carries exorbitant per-minute and per-text charges – and get a cheap, Wi-Fi-facilitated communications app like WhatsApp, Skype, or Line. Your phone’s GPS should still work even without cellular service, so you’ll know where you are at all times.
These basic safety and security tips will serve you well in Bangkok:
Bangkok isn’t the only Thai city worth visiting. Not by a long shot.
In Thailand’s far north, where the country meets Myanmar and Laos, the magical Golden Triangle region harbors the sleepy but stunningly well-preserved city of Chiang Rai.
A few hours south, the ancient city of Chiang Mai has grown into a bustling metropolis – Bangkok in miniature, set amid the rugged hills of northern Thailand.
In the sparkling Gulf of Thailand, Koh Samui anchors a tropical marine wonderland replete with dark island jungles, raucous beach parties, sleepy fishing villages, and stunning archipelagos.
On the other side of Thailand’s southern peninsula, the country’s most popular island – Phuket – draws tourists from dozens of countries with its cacophonous markets, pulsating clubs, and gorgeous vistas.
No question, Thailand harbors a lifetime of adventures. But, no matter where you end up in the Land of Smiles, you’ll probably start your journey in Bangkok. Which begs the question: What, exactly, are you waiting for?
Brian Martucci writes about frugal living, entrepreneurship, and innovative ideas. When he’s not interviewing small business owners or investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine. Find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.
32 Best Things to Do & See in Bangkok, Thailand – Cheap Activities & Attractions
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