Local Thailand contributor Claire Mykura shares insider tips for the best places to see in the buzzing capital of Bangkok, beyond just the usual tourist district.
If you are wondering where to stay in Bangkok then Khao San Road might be the first place that pops into your head. But Bangkok stretches far beyond this popular street and for those returning to the city or looking for something a bit different there are plenty of neighbourhoods worth exploring.
Prapadaeng – Greenest enclave in Bangkok
To the east of the city is a small neighbourhood known as Bangkok’s Green Lung. It’s such a contrast to rest of the capital. Most of the peninsula at Bang Krachao is car-free, but you can rent bikes or walk to explore the elevated concrete walkways that criss-cross the marshland and forest – it’s worth having a map or GPS so you don’t get lost.
Bangnamphueng riverside market is a genuinely local experience. There are plenty of stalls to buy lunch from, including spicy fish mousse parcels and Fak Kao, a spiked orange fruit that never seems to make it to other markets. Nine temples dot Prapadaeng, and there are a host of spirit houses in curious locations. Wat Bang Krachao Nok is a highlight, with ornate painted murals in the main hall of the temple and an impressive golden Buddha.
If you buy food from the market it’s worth heading to the Botanical Gardens for a picnic. It’s a popular spot for local wildlife including plenty of birds and the occasional large monitor lizard. If unusual creatures are your thing then it’s worth visiting the Siamese Fighting Fish Gallery where you can get up close to these stunning creatures and watch them size each other up through a pane of glass (they are kept separate so they don’t hurt each other).
The Bangkok Tree House is worth a visit even if you are not planning to stay overnight. It has a fantastic restaurant on site which serves locally sourced, organic food and excellent coffee. The hotel has excellent eco-friendly credentials, only hiring staff who can walk or bike there and remove trash from the river for every guest who sleeps there.
Prapadaeng feels like it’s far removed from Bangkok, but getting there isn’t too complicated. The easiest way is using the pier at Wat Klong Toey, just a short cab ride from the MRT at Klong Toey.
- Bangnamphueng Riverside Market (Soi Bua Phueng Phatthana Bang Kobua, Phra Pradaeng 10130), for the atmosphere and unusual food
- Bangkok Tree House (60 Moo 1, Petch Cha Hueng Road, Phra Pradaeng 10260) for its green credentials and great lunch menu
- Botanical Gardens (Soi Wat Rat Rangsan, Bang Kachao, Phra Pradaeng 10130), take a picnic and enjoy the wildlife
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Siam – A lot more than shopping malls
At first glance, Siam seems to be a shopping mall mecca without any obvious local charm, but step away from the megastores and you’ll find a quirky, exciting neighbourhood with plenty to eat and explore. Siam is covered by three Skytrain stops: National Stadium, Siam and Chitlom and is easily walkable.
One of the busiest crossroads in the area is home to the Erawan Shrine, where Buddhists come to give thanks. The smell of incense and the chants of traditional Thai dancers offering thanks almost cover up the heavy traffic that zooms by, but the contrast is what makes Bangkok such an exciting place to visit. For a calmer temple experience, go to Pathum Wanaram Temple which is sandwiched between two of the largest malls in the area and is often overlooked by visitors.
The Guggenheim-inspired Bangkok Cultural Centre gives you a glimpse into the art scene in Thailand, albeit curated by the State. Wander past National Stadium Station and visit Jim Thompson’s House. Based in Bangkok in the 1950s he exported Thai silk around the world and faithfully kept this canalside teak house as a homage to Thai history, which is now a museum.
For shopping with more soul than the malls, brave the maze in Siam Square. Here amongst the elephant pants you’ll find up and coming Thai designers. Favourites shops include Today Tomorrow Forever, where they repurpose vintage clothing and WWA, a multi-brand shop that stocks Thai designers. Sneak a peek at Bangkok’s retro Scala cinema to marvel at the art deco entrance before developers get their hands on the site.
For a modern take on Thai street food head to Som Tam Nua for green papaya salad and fried chicken. Baan Khun Mae is so cosy and welcoming. It serves Thai comfort food, from spring rolls to tom yum. Expensive but worth it is Sra Bua – Michelin starred Thai food that arrived in Bangkok via Copenhagen and gives diners a food experience to talk about for months afterwards.
- Erawan Shrine (494 Ratchadamri Rd, Lumphini, Pathum Wan, Bangkok 10330) for the contrast of religion and consumerism, as well as Thai dancing
- Bangkok Cultural Centre (939 Rama I Road, Wangmai, Bangkok 10330) for Thai Art and impressive architecture
- Som Tam Nua (392/14 Soi Siam Square 5, Rama 1 Road, 10330) for great papaya salad
Sukhumvit – Not just apartment blocks
Sukhumvit Road runs all the way down towards Pattaya, but in Bangkok, the area worth exploring runs from Soi 1 to 100, with several Skytrain stops along the way.
Thong Lor is a great place for foodies. Soi 38 still has a decent selection of Street Food including Hainanese chicken and rice, green curry and probably the best dessert in the city: mango and sticky rice. On Soi Thonglor, you’ll find Soul Food Mahanakorn, which does Thai fusion and proper cocktails or Supanniga, where the young Thai chef recreates the dishes his grandmother used to cook when he was growing up.
Head to Octave for happy hour sunset cocktails and a rooftop view. Australian entrepreneur Ashley Sutton has made a name for himself creating quirky and fantastical bars and restaurants across the city including many in Sukhumvit. These include Iron Fairies (imagine a dark forge with live jazz and deep leather seats), Mr Jones Orphanage (Willy Wonka cakes and creepy toys) and Sing Sing Theater (drinks and dancing in a Chinese Brothel).
Soi Nana is known for seedy nightlife, but cross the street to Soi 11 is a popular evening spot with some excellent street food, a fabulous Thai restaurant called Chilli Culture and a host of bars and nightclubs, including a couple of rooftop drinking spots. The famous Cheap Charlie’s Bar, with its quirky decor and excellent value drinks, is located at the other end of Sukhumvit, near On Nut (Soi 50) and is worth a visit – especially as this area is not popular with tourists.
Sukhumvit doesn’t have as much to see as other areas, but Kamthieng House Museum allows you to step back in time and discover traditional Thai life and culture. There are also some lovely green spaces near Sukhumvit: Benjasiri Park and its sculpture garden or slightly further out Rama IX Park, which is worth the taxi ride and has gardens inspired by Italy, China, Japan and The USA as well as a space-age pavillion.
- Soul Food Mahanakorn (56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55, 10110) for great, innovative Thai food
- Iron Fairies (394 Sukhumvit Soi 55, 10110) for strong drinks and excellent live jazz
- Sukhumvit Soi 11 for dancing the night away at some of the city’s coolest clubs
Chinatown – Charm and Chaos
Chinatown in Bangkok is a riot of colour, smells and noise and it’s easy to get the good kind of lost along the small lanes here, although Nancy Chandler’s map will help with navigation. It isn’t well connected to the rest of the city, although the public boats stop at pier N5 and N6 along the Chao Phraya River.
Sampeng Lane may not actually sell anything you need but the narrow paths with stalls packed so high that you fear the might topple over at any second. Visit Wat Chakrawat to see the temple crocodiles and Wat Traimit for the impressive gold Buddha statue.
Street food is the way to eat in Chinatown. Just off Yarowat Road, you’ll find Lek & Rut Seafood for curry fried black crab, Krua Porn Lamai for mussel omelette and Kuay Jab Nai Huan for crispy pork noodles. Traditional Thai sweets make an excellent dessert and can be found at stalls on the corner of Yaowarat Road and Yaowa Phanit Road.
If you have a few more baht to spend then enjoy dinner at Red Rose Chinese Restaurant and Jazz Lounge. The opulent restaurant serves delicious Peking duck and fluffy wasabi fried prawns. Make an evening of it and stay on and listen to the house band. For an afternoon treat, Double Dogs Tea Room serves the best brews from across Asia, including China, Sri Lanka and Japan, with staff who know their oolong from their sencha.
If you are in Chinatown on a Thursday or Friday evening, get tickets for the Khon dancing show, a traditional Thai dance where performers tell folktales and wear elaborate costumes and the occasional painted mask.
Those willing to get up early (or stay up late) should visit Bangkok’s Flower Market. Blooms come in from all over the country and are sold to shops and stalls across the city and it’s just as bustling and beautiful as the rest of Bangkok’s Chinatown.
- Yarowat Road and the small streets off it for night time street food, some of the best in the city
- Wat Traimit (661 Charoen Krung Road, Talad Noi, 10100) with its golden spire and golden Buddha
- Bangkok Flower Market (Jakkrapet Road) for the beautiful bloom and passionate sellers
Thonburi – Across the river for plenty of local atmosphere
Most visitors to Bangkok only see the Thonburi area whilst whizzing past along its canal or visiting Wat Arun, the terracotta decorated Temple of Dawn (which is best visited first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds). These are both noteworthy, but they only really give you a glimpse of Bangkok’s left bank, if you want a taste of real Thailand in the capital, this is the place to be.
Thonburi is home to some fantastic art spaces. The Artist’s House is perched above the canal in a restored wooden house. It hosts traditional Thai puppet shows and you’ll often find artists sketching at the paint-splattered tables. The whole house feels like a gallery and there’s also a café on site as well as some excellent local restaurants just along the lane.
Thonburi is also home to the oldest Catholic church and oldest mosque in Bangkok. Santa Cruz was built by Portuguese traders. Tonson Mosque was first established in 1688 and renovated in the 1950s. Bangkok has always been an international hub and these buildings give you a glimpse of that history.
The Jam Factory is another creative space with a large warehouse space that houses the gallery and a chic home décor shop. There are live music events at the weekend and a monthly farmer’s market. Never Ending Summer, which serves traditional Thai and fusion food.
Thonburi can be reached by public boat (pier N10 or N11) or crossing the river on Skytrain to Krung Thonburi.
- Jam Factory (41/1-5 Charoen Nakhon Rd, Khlong San, 10600) for food, drinks, art, and music all in one place
- Wat Arun (158 Thanon Wang Doem, Khet Bangkok Yai, 10600), an iconic temple best visited first thing
- The Artist’s House (Soi Wat Thong Sala Ngarm, Phasi Charoen, 10600), a gallery and creative space for Bangkok’s artists
Ari – Where the cool kids hang
Two stops along the BTS from Ari is Chatuchak Weekend Market, a maze of covered stalls that sell everything from snakes to socks. It’s worth a visit even if you aren’t a shopaholic – there really is something for everyone. It will take at least half a day to get a sense of the 35-acre site, but there’s a fantastic outdoor food section that’s perfect for pit stops
Future Factory is a collaborative art space and often has live music. Hidden in the basement of an office block, you can visit the gallery at any time or check out upcoming events, where you will be rubbing shoulders with cool young Thais. Numthong Gallery is celebrating 20 years on the art scene and celebrates Asian art at its best, with eight different exhibitions each year.
The locals see Ari as a hip neighbourhood to spend time in, so there are plenty of cool coffee shops and restaurants here. Salt is one of the places to be seen, with a fusion menu and a stunning glasshouse dining room. If you want something more affordable, head to Soi Ari for excellent street food, especially between Soi 1 and 3.
Ari has become a coffee mecca and whether it’s coconut lattes or cold drip there’s a café for your caffeine fix. If you are in a rush, try this streetside macchiato at Bangkok Espresso Bar. Need to get your creative juices flowing? FabCafe is a working space with excellent espressos. For lounging and quirky interiors, The Coffee Zelection offers plenty of coffee treats, including jelly.
- The Future Factory (Samsen Nai, Phaya Thai,10400) for an evening of live music and gallery wandering
- Chatuchak Weekend Market (Kamphaeng Phet 2 Rd, Khwaeng Chatuchak, 10900) for all the shopping you do and don’t need in Bangkok
- The Coffee Zelection (Ban Yossawadee, 7 Phahonyothin Alley, Phayathai, 10400) for all your caffeine needs and great cake
Silom – Park life and nightlife
Step off the Skytrain or subway on Silom Road and you’ll find yourself amongst the hubbub of street food vendors and stalls selling imitation goods. It can feel claustrophobic at first but step down the side sois and it’s far calmer and leafier.
If the hustle and bustle are too much for you, Silom is adjacent to Lumpini Park, the city’s favourite park. Here you can rent a Swan pedalo and tour the lake or wander around the lush tropical gardens. Food stalls operate at the entrance so grab your fresh coconut and chicken satay there.
Silom is known for some excellent restaurants. La Table de Tee is run by a young, creative chef who uses Asian flavours and Parisian training to conjure up a great value fixed price menu. Eat Me serves international cuisine in a sleek dining room and has a daily cupcake on the dessert menu.
Many of Bangkok’s famous sky bars can be found here, including Vertigo and Moon Bar at The Banyan Tree Hotel (no shorts or sandals) and Park Society at So Sofitel. Back at ground level and at the other end of the scale is Wong’s Bar, which opens at 2 am and is open until the last customer finishes their last beer.
- Lumpini Park (192 Wireless Rd, Khwaeng Lumphini, 10330) for an afternoon amongst nature
- Vertigo and Moon Bar (21/100 South Sathon Road Sathorn, 10120) for the best view and Thai themed cocktails
- La Table de Tee (69/5 Saladaeng Road, Bangkok 10500) for reasonably priced, expertly crafted Thai-French fusion
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