There are so many different facets to Bangkok that it’s impossible to narrow Thailand’s capital city into one narrow mold. Yes, Bangkok – called affectionately by some as the “Big Mango” – does have its party reputation, put on garish display in movies like The Hangover Part II. But it also has its spiritual side, as illustrated by its many golden temples; its quiet, reflective side, as shown in its hidden, leafy side streets and canals; and its salubrious side, as seen in its many spas and Michelin Guide eateries. In between, Bangkok gives you glimpses of the bizarre and the quirky.
Here, we’ve put together a 4-day itinerary to make sure that you see as many facets of the “City of the Senses” (as travel author Philip Cornwel-Smith terms Bangkok) as is possible to fit into one trip.
Written by Chawadee Nualkhair
Chawadee is the champion of (street) food in Bangkok – a medium she believes is the most democratic part of Thai life – bringing people from all walks of life together. She has been sharing her escapade since 2010 on comforting, sincere and honest food.
It’s no surprise to learn that Thais love their food and eat almost all day long. As a result, it’s easy to find a quick bite anywhere the mood may strike you (streetside fruit, juices and snacks are popular and safe). However, there are three main meals here: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Thais wake up early, so breakfast is usually around 7am. Lunch is available from 11am until 2pm, while most restaurants are open for dinner from 5:30pm to 9pm. Bangkok is an hour behind Hong Kong and two hours behind Tokyo.
Best time to go
“Winter” (November to early January) is usually the best time of year to go to Thailand, as this is when the rains have stopped and the weather can dip below 35⁰C. It is also when Thailand is at its most crowded and considered the “high season” in hotels, so it can be a bit pricier. If you are willing to brave the period between “winter” and the hot season (generally late January to February), you may find more bargains accommodations-wise, and fewer crowds. And if you want to come during the Thai New Year (the week of April 13), you can take part in the “water festivals” that take place throughout the country, when Thais splash water on each other during the hottest part of the year. Beware: tourists are usually marked to get splashed most of all.
Day 1: Birth of Bangkok
Daytime trek through the Old Town
Bangkok was not the original capital of Thailand, which, before 1939, was known as Siam. Siam’s original capital was Sukhothai, before that kingdom’s disintegration following the death of King Ramkhaemhaeng. The next capital, Ayutthaya, was sacked by the Burmese, forcing then-King Taksin to move the capital to Thonburi. After his death, the land across the river was deemed a prime location for a new start. That land was known as Bangkok and its location was roughly where the Old Town sits today.
That is where our itinerary begins, by wandering through what many consider to be the most charming part of Bangkok. We will start our morning at a century-old market, then wind our way to one of the Old Town’s most famous streets, before ending back at a signature landmark only a few steps away from our breakfast location.
As you will spending a lot of the day in the Bangkok sun, make sure to bring your sunscreen, a hat, and some drinking water. Wear comfortable walking shoes, and cover up your arms and legs in preparation to enter the temple. Tissues, hand sanitiser, and a handkerchief to mop your brow with, are also recommended.
Shop at a 100-year-old market
Nang Loeng Market (map) is one of Bangkok’s oldest and most famous wet markets. Although “wet markets” are typically known for their wet floors from washing animal grime from the concrete floor, Nang Loeng is actually more gentrified, offering ready-made food and old-fashioned dishes for its more discerning, older clientele. You will find many old-school desserts and snacks here, including foy tong, the Portuguese-inspired “golden threads” of egg yolk and sugar; sakoo sai moo, clear tapioca balls stuffed with pork mince and wrapped in fresh cilantro leaves; and kanom pui fai, steamed mini cupcakes flavoured with jasmine extract.
Foy tong © BangkokGlutton.com
Sakoo sai moo © BangkokGlutton.com
“Egg in a pan” breakfast
You can wait for a taxi, or you can clamber aboard a tuk tuk and take the 10-minute ride to your breakfast location: an old-fashioned “cafe” where retired Thai men used to meet to converse over cups of sweet coffee and trade Buddhist amulets. Called Kopi Hya Tai Gi (map), this longstanding spot specialises in kai kata, loosely translated to “egg in a pan”. This was a dish invented by northeastern Thais and Vietnamese who used local ingredients to make American-style breakfasts for visiting soldiers. The area it’s in was once considered the roughest part of town as it was the site of turf wars fought by rival gangs a la West Side Story.
Visit the Golden Mount
After breakfast, turn your back to Siripong Road and walk towards Mahachai Road. Once you get to Mahachai, you will see across the street the Michelin-starred shophouse restaurant of one Jay Fai (map), considered the “queen” of Bangkok street food. If it is not Sunday or Monday, chances are she will be setting up to open. You can try and get your name on the list for lunch with Jay Fai’s daughter, Yuwadee, who serves as the maitre’d. After an hour or two of exploring, you can walk back to this spot to enjoy a leisurely meal when Jay Fai opens at noon (her crabmeat omelettes are her most famous dish, but her tom yum seafood soup is legendary).
Golden Mount © Tourism Authority of Thailand
However, if a full stomach from breakfast means you can’t even think about lunch yet, you can simply smile to yourself and turn right towards Wat Saket, also known as Phu Khao Thong or the Golden Mount. Turn left at the intersection and cross the bridge over the canal. Turn left again at the next road (the loud banging you might be hearing are tradesmen making alms bowls for the monks). On your right, you will see a sign marking the entranceway to the Golden Mount.
Built all the way back in the Ayutthaya period (1351-1767), the Temple of the Golden Mount is one of Bangkok’s oldest temples and plays a big part in the city during Thailand’s Loy Krathong festivities (held during Thailand’s 12th full moon of the year). However, the main attraction is the 300-step climb up the mount itself, which will afford you a beautiful view of the Old Town from above. During the walk up to the golden stupa, which holds the Buddha’s relics brought over from India, you will find a platform of prayer bells with which you can summon the spirits to make your wish.
Lunch back in the 1950s
If you don’t have a table waiting for you back at Jay Fai, go back to Mahachai Road and walk towards the Wat Ratchanatdaram Woravihara (map), where an amulet market buzzes with activity on most days at the temple entrance. Many Thais believe these amulets, blessed by various Buddhist monks from all over the country, will fulfill specific objectives for them while wearing them, for example, success, love, or most often, safety. You might even spy some saffron robe-wearing monks buying amulets for themselves here.
Wat Ratchanatdaram Woravihara © Tourism Authority of Thailand
Then go to the main road in front of the temple complex, a wide avenue modeled after the Champs Elysees and built by King Rama V. It’s known as Ratchadamnoen Klang and is the main artery through the Old Town. Turn left towards the Democracy Monument, the site of many of the country’s biggest protests.
If you are hot and in need of a bathroom break, stop at the Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Center (map) to your left, where different exhibits are held each month. As it is fairly new, it is usually deserted, so if some alone time in a cool spot is what you are looking for, you’ve come to the right place. At the ASEAN Cultural Center on the third floor, you will find a permanent exhibit on the street food, music, national costumes and languages of the ASEAN nations, which is interactive and affords a plethora of photo opportunities.
To the left of the Democracy Monument is an unassuming restaurant marked by a sign reading “Methavalai Sorndaeng” (map). Like Jay Fai, this restaurant was awarded one Michelin star. But unlike Jay Fai, it’s been around since the time of Elvis Presley, and features live singers who may also hearken back to that period. The extensive menu is a snapshot of fine dining in the mid-1900s: gratong tong, or crispy “vol au vent”-like tartlets stuffed with shrimp, carrot and corn; deep-fried shrimp cakes; and gang rungjuan moo, a shrimp paste-flavoured soup with pork. Leave room for dessert.
Gratong tong © Methavalai Sorndaeng
After school treat
After lunch, take a leisurely stroll down Dinso Road, which runs past the left of the restaurant. You are walking back to where you started this morning, but not before soaking in some of that Old Town atmosphere, replete with children in school uniforms congregating at their favourite shops after hours. Some of the most famous shophouse restaurants in the city line this road – Krua Apsorn, Sor Na Wang, veggie haven Arawy – but arguably the most famous of all is the one that serves … toast. Called Mont Nom Sod (map), this restaurant started out as a street food stall selling “Western food” in the form of bread and milk sometime in the mid-20th century. Now helmed by the third generation, the operation has modernised (there is now air-conditioning and queues), but the thick, fluffy toast is the same. The most popular options come topped with coconut custard or condensed milk.
Mont Nom Sod opens at 1pm. If you finish lunch early, go ahead to the Gingerbread House, listed below as an option during the mid-afternoon break.
Photo op at a local landmark
After topping off your “fuel” reserves, walk the rest of the way down Dinso Road with City Hall to your left and the row of shophouses to your right. At the end of the road, you’ll see one of Bangkok’s most distinctive landmarks: the red Giant Swing. Built by King Rama I, it was the site of a dangerous Brahmin ceremony in which acrobats attempted to grab onto a prize secured at the top of the structure. The tradition was stopped in 1935 after several deaths.
Across the road from the Giant Swing, you will see two massive slabs of black granite on which the full Thai name of Bangkok (too long to write down here, but it basically boils down to “City of Angels”) is written. Not surprisingly, it’s the longest city name in the world.
If you still feel like staying out, take a right from Dinsor Road onto Bamrungmuang Road and walk 50 metres until you get to a small alleyway on your left. There you’ll find the old Thai pharmacy Baan Mowaan Bamrungchat Satsana Ya Thai (map), where you can purchase old herbal remedies for everything from headaches to indigestion (which you might need after this trip).
If you feel yourself flagging, but still want to stay out, get your mid-afternoon caffeine fix at The Gingerbread House (map) by doubling back towards Mont Nom Sod and turning left at Soi Nawa. Then you can finally take your afternoon break.
Once you feel refreshed for dinner, it would make sense to head to Bangkok’s most famous feature, the Chao Phraya River, for the evening. You have a couple of options below, but before dinner, you might want to make one more stop for the day.
An unorthodox temple visit
Wat Pho (map) is usually crowded during daytime. In spite of signs that say it closes at 6.30pm, the South gate at Chetuphon Road remains open until 9pm, so you can take a quiet stroll around the grounds (attractions like the Reclining Buddha are off limits though) before your meal. The temple grounds will still be lit and the weather will be a lot cooler. Best of all, it’s free.
A local favourite
For Thai food that is both comforting and local, head to The Never Ending Summer (map), set across the river in Thonburi. It’s located at the Jam Factory, renovated by local architect Duangrit Bunnag out of an old factory that now houses a retail shop, art gallery and restaurants. Explore the grounds before sitting down to Thai food cooked the way Bangkokians like it. You can get there for free from the Saphan Taksin BTS station, where the Millennium Hilton ferry will take you across the river with no charge. After disembarking, make a right turn and walk past Klangsan Market until you get to the restaurant on your left. While everything here is reliably tasty, most popular among locals is the old-fashioned appetiser of watermelon topped with dried fish (pla hang thang mo) and the shrimp paste “relish” (nam prik pla ching chang).
The Never Ending Summer © BangkokGlutton.com
New and splashy
If Western food is more what you’re looking for tonight, why not go all out by flocking to the new and buzzy hotel Capella, which recently opened on the Bangkok side of the river? Called Cote by Mauro Colagreco (map), the concept of this restaurant overseen by culinary superstar Colagreco is “Riviera by the river” and focuses on a mix of Mediterranean French and Italian Ligurian cuisines. Even better, the kitchen has pledged to use as many local ingredients as possible for its food. Worthy of the one Michelin star it holds.
© Côte by Mauro Colagreco
© Côte by Mauro Colagreco
After dinner, head to the famed Mandarin Oriental hotel. It’s about a 25-minute walk or 5-minute taxi ride away from Capella on the same side of the river. if you’re at Jam Factory, take either a taxi or two ferries – the Millennium Hilton ferry to cross the river, then the Mandarin Oriental ferry from Saphan Taksin. This hotel is probably the most famous one in the country and its Bamboo Bar (map) is regularly regarded as one of Asia’s best. Relax with a martini (or two) while listening to the live jazz band.
© The Bamboo Bar
If you think the Bamboo Bar is old hat, or maybe you’d like to compare two competing venues, head on to the newly-opened BKK Social Club, set on the ground floor of the Four Seasons Hotel at the Chao Phraya River (map), just a couple minutes’ stroll from Capella. Sip your drinks while sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Bangkok’s “beautiful people”.
© BKK Social Club
Day 2: Temples and Street Food
Naturally, you can’t expect to take a trip to Bangkok and not get a good dose of its temples or its street food. In the morning, you will be dealing with the Big 3: Temple of the Dawn, Wat Pho (home of the Reclining Buddha) and the Grand Palace. As everything is roughly in the same area, you won’t be covering a lot of ground, but it will still be hot, so remember to bring that water bottle and sunscreen.
As you will be visiting temples, please remember to cover your arms and legs. It is also a good idea to wear closed-toe shoes. If it’s too hot for you to wear pants or a long skirt, you can rent a sarong at the ticket kiosk of each temple.
Good morning, Chao Phraya River
Out of all of the temples in Thailand, the Temple of the Dawn (Wat Arun) (map) can be considered one of the most beautiful. It makes sense then, to beat the crowds by getting there as soon as it opens. To get there from Saphan Taksin, take the river ferry to Pier 8. Climb the central spire to get a panoramic view of riverside Bangkok.
Breakfast with a view
For all of your hard work (two temples down!), reward yourself with breakfast at The Deck By The River (map), which has a stunning cross-river view of the temple you first visited, Wat Arun, as well as both Thai and Western a la carte specialties. (Also, if a climb up Wat Arun and a daytime trip to Wat Pho seem a little too arduous, you can always start your day here!)
© The Deck By The River
Thailand’s spiritual heart
Now is the time to visit the grande dame of all of Thailand’s temples, The Grand Palace (map). Built in 1782, it covers 218,000 square metres and houses the royal palace, throne hall and various government offices. However, it is best known for the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which is your destination. Considered the most important Buddha image in the entire country, the Emerald Buddha was carved from a single block of jasper and measures 66 centimetres high. The image’s costume varies according to the season: hot, rainy or “cool”. Legend has it that the Emerald Buddha was discovered in northern Thailand after a bolt of lightning struck a temple there, revealing the image inside.
Refreshment in Old Siam
After a visit to the Emerald Buddha, take a tuk tuk for the 5-minute trip to The Old Siam Shopping Plaza (map). Although it might not yield much in the way of souvenirs (unless you are a Thai silk or jewellery fan), its food zone (known as Fueang Nakhon) is famous among Bangkokians for desserts, snacks and fruit juices. Stop by for an ice-cold butterfly pea juice (nam dok anchan) or some Thai iced tea.
After a breather at the Old Siam, cross Tri Phet Road to local curiosity The Nightingale-Olympic (map), a treasure trove for lovers of vintage collectibles. Not only is The Nightingale-Olympic the oldest shopping mall still open in Bangkok, but it is also a place frozen in time, still selling the same items that were for sale in the 1960s and ‘70s. It is now owned by the founder’s younger sister, who is in her 90s. Some of the “treasures” I‘ve picked up here include four sets of pristine white gloves, an old mahjong set, and an unopened bottle of 1970s-era Cabochard de Gres eau de toilette.
The Nightingale-Olympic frontage © BangkokGlutton.com
Random item in The Nightingale-Olympic © BangkokGlutton.com
Lunch in Little India
After a trip back in time to the ‘60s, you might want to resurface in one of Bangkok’s most vibrant neighborhoods. Called Phahurat Market, it’s also known as Little India and is only a 6-minute tuk tuk ride from The Nightingale-Olympic. Stop in front of India Emporium (map), where you can either lunch standing up at the samosa cart in front of the building, or venture down the alleyway to the left of the emporium to Punjab Sweets (map). Yes, it does serve Indian sweets like jalebi, but it is also known for its delicious dosas and is completely vegetarian.
However, if vegetarian really isn’t your thing, don’t despair. Cross the street in front of India Emporium and continue walking on the main road to Royal India (map), considered by some to be Bangkok’s oldest Indian restaurant, for a non-vegetarian thali.
© Royal India
Rest back at hotel
After lunch, you can stroll alongside the canal that runs behind Royal India and explore Saphan Han, a recently renovated part of the city. Or you can go back to your hotel for a well-deserved rest. You might need to collect all your energy for your Chinatown street food crawl tonight!
Chinatown street food dinner
Thailand would not even have street food were it not for the Chinese, who came to Thailand en masse in the 1800s. Because they worked menial jobs at first and lived in small rooms, they had to eat outside, hence inventing the country’s first eating spots. Left out of civil service and military posts, some Chinese began plying the canals that criss-crossed the city back then, selling the food of their homeland (soup noodles, rice porridge) to passersby. Today, we remember the street food they brought us by visiting Chinatown, also known as Yaowarat.
A lot of street food spots are closed on Monday, so please call ahead if you’re not sure the place you want is open or swap this food crawl to another day of your itinerary. Of course, if street food is something you’d rather avoid, skip this section and spend the evening at your final destination, Samsara Cafe & Meal.
Before anything else, it’s a good idea to preemptively cool down with a quick beer (or two) at the Red Rose Jazz Bar in Shanghai Mansion (map), which is the perfect location to launch a Chinatown street food crawl. With its open bar and seats looking out over busy Yaowarat Road, the bar is also a great place to take a breather before what will surely be a busy evening.
After drinks, turn right from Shanghai Mansion’s entrance, passing Chinatown Scala shark fin restaurant (map). Four shops later, you should see a flat noodle (guaythiew lod) street vendor, in front International Watch shop (map). These flat noodles are stuffed with pork and smothered under a blanket of bean sprouts, calamari and shiitake mushrooms. Share one.
Flat noodle street vendor © @pdk_pitomi
Continue down Yaowarat Road, the main artery running through Chinatown, past the packed Thai seafood spots (you can get far better at Sornthong Pochana Restaurant (map) another day). Turn right at Plaeng Nam Road. To your left, you will see fried noodle specialist Krua Porn Lamai (map). Order a lard na (wide rice noodles covered in gravy) of pork, chicken, or seafood.
Walk further down Plaeng Nam Road, cross Charoen Krung Road, and immediately to your right, you will see a pork satay street vendor in front of a Chinese temple. That is Jay Eng (map). Get 5-10 skewers with peanut sauce and toast.
Jay Eng Satay © BangkokGlutton.com
Jay Eng Satay © BangkokGlutton.com
Further down into the small street (50 metres), finish your evening meal at oyster omelet stall Nai Mong Hoi Thod (map). Order “grob grob” for crispy or “nim” for soft, and choose between oysters or mussels. The crab fried rice is also delicious.
Nai Mong Hoi Thod © BangkokGlutton.com
Nai Mong Hoi Thod © BangkokGlutton.com
End your second evening in Bangkok once again next to the river, this time at popular hole-in-the-wall Samsara Cafe & Meal (map). Owned by a Thai-Japanese couple, this low-key spot has a prime location over the water and boasts a unique Japanese-inflected Thai menu, as well as a good selection of beers. Of course, here, the main course is the view.
Samsara Cafe & Meal © BangkokGlutton.com
Eggplant salad © BangkokGlutton.com
When you come to the listed address on Songwad Road, you might think that you’ve come to the wrong place. Walk past the discarded hubcaps to the path that runs alongside the river. You will find Samsara on your right after about 50 metres.
Day 3: Bangkok Luxe
You’ve been running flat out now for two straight days exploring the nooks and crannies of old Bangkok. Now might be the time to take a breather, collect yourself, and get pampered in a more modern and residential part of town.
As you will be heading to the spa today, it’s best to call ahead to book your appointment and to arrive 15 minutes beforehand to check in.
Grab an eggs benedict and excellent coffee at Roast Coffee & Eatery (map) at its flagship location at The Commons (map). This restaurant is solely responsible for the recent boom in brunch-focused restaurants across the city. Explore the rest of The Commons at your leisure: snacks and drinks abound in the “Market” space downstairs, while retail shops such as vintage store “Treasures” are perched above.