Insider Guide: Best of Bangkok
So, you're in Thailand on a mission to cram the best of Bangkok into a weekend? It's a big task -- there's no city in the world like this one -- but it can be done.
With incredible street food, world-class hotels, killer nightlife, packed markets and temples so sparkly they make your eyes water, there's almost too much to choose from.
But you're in luck. This quick guide to the best of Bangkok ensures you can at least hit the highlights on your quest for the best of Bangkok.
And, yes, gender-defying lady boys, included.
Keep in mind that hotel prices vary dramatically depending on the time of year. High season runs from October to April, while the best bargains can be had May to September.
Four Seasons Bangkok
Within walking distance of the best of Bangkok shopping in Rajaprasong, the Four Seasons Bangkok lives up to its big-brand hype.
Airport transfers in Bangkok's only Wi-Fi-equipped Mercedes. Luxurious rooms decorated with Thai art and decor. Four incredible restaurants and a super stylish lounge (Aqua) that's packed with well-heeled locals on any given night.
The swanky Explorer's Suite is a huge, two-bedroom space filled with Southeast Asian art and furniture, two sitting rooms and a dining area.
Good luck reverting to normalcy.
455 Rajadamri Road; BTS: Chidlom or Rajdamri; +66 (0) 2 253 9195; from 6,000 baht per night; www.fourseasons.com
Mandarin Oriental Bangkok
This Bangkok institution is a step back to a time when luggage was carried in trunks, dinner dress was de rigueur (tropics or not) and tea on the veranda was served with a stiff G&T to ward off mosquitoes.
More than 100 years old, the Oriental's Author's Wing retains its magical aura with its picturesque parlors, each named for a scribe they once hosted, including the likes of Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway.
The Garden Wing offers similar heights of nostalgic luxury, while the modern River Wing and Tower have a more contemporary design.
And if it weren't patently obvious from the never-ending stream of awards rained upon this five-star, best of Bangkok landmark, high tea in the Mandarin Oriental's library is simply too civilized for the mere words of us regrettably non-famous authors.
48 Oriental Avenue; +66 (0) 2 659 9000; from 10,000 baht per night; www.mandarinoriental.com
If you've seen "The Hangover Part II," this all-suite Bangkok hotel needs no introduction.
A prominent setting in the Thailand-based sequel to the R-rated bachelor romp, Lebua is actually more famous for the views from its incredible rooftop bars and restaurants than the hotel itself.
All 357 luxury suites are spacious, comfortable and offer great views of Bangkok and the Chao Phraya river.
Extra special are the "Tower Club" suites, which feature 330-thread-count sheets, a range of Bulgari accessories and exclusive access to the Tower Club Lounge on the 52nd floor.
There's also the Hangover Suite, perfect for a bachelor weekend in Bangkok.
1055 Silom Road; +66 (0) 2 624 9999; from 6,000 baht per night; www.lebua.com
Bangkok's newest high-end hotel, the super-hip Sofitel So Bangkok is all about lifestyle, with an emphasis on music, fashion and design.
The hotel's decor is among the best of Bangkok and was inspired by the five elements found in the nearby Lumpini Park, as interpreted by big-name Thai interior designers.
It features fire motifs for public areas and restaurants, with the interior of its 238 rooms categorized into water, earth, wood and metal themes. They're all awesome.
Every room comes with an Apple Mac Mini entertainment system and iPads are available for suite guests.
Still not convinced of the cool credentials?
Couturier Christian Lacroix created the property's signature emblem and DJ Ravin of Buddha Bar produced Urban By Nature, a double music CD album with the theme "When Mauritius Meets Bangkok" for Accor's two Sofitel So properties.
2 North Sathorn Road; +66 (0) 2 624 0000; from 4,800 baht per night; www.sofitel.com
Inspired by Henry David Thoreau's "Walden," the 12-suite Bangkok Treehouse allows guests to get back to nature in Bang Krajao, the "green lungs of Bangkok."
Guests arrive via a dedicated shuttle boat across the Chao Phraya, disembarking onto a floating pontoon overlooked by the hotel’s gourmet organic restaurant.
Each standard suite is divided into three levels (living room, bedroom and roof deck), offering views of the surrounding river, mangroves and coconut plantations.
Inside, the rooms are comfortable and cozy, with all the expected features (TV, DVD, Wi-Fi) and optional air-conditioning.
400 meters east of Baan Namphueng Nok Temple in Bang Krajao; from 3,400 baht per night; www.bangkoktreehouse.com
Starwood's Aloft brand takes its cue from the slightly older sister W Hotels, so think trendy and fun, but at a more affordable price point.
Guests willing to cough up an extra US$15 can dispense with room keys. Instead, they're given all-in-one smartphones that open doors, change TV channels, adjust room temperature and, of course, make phone calls.
Once checked in, Alofters can start their night by browsing Crave restaurant's 3,000-plus bottles of wine via an iPad digital menu before mingling at Re:mix lounge over a game of foosball, pool or PlayStation 3.
Bed Supperclub and Q Bar are both among the best of Bangkok nightclubs. Hotel guests get in free.
35 Sukhumvit Soi 11; +66 (0) 2207 7000; from 2,300 baht per night; www.alofthotels.com
The original is on Decho Road, off Silom.
The newer Siam location is opposite National Stadium, close to the BTS SkyTrain and a short walk to Siam Square and the malls of Rajaprasong. It has four-bed dorms, economy twin rooms, doubles and, our favorite, a queen-bed suite with a private bathroom and LCD TV.
The Wi-Fi is free and the beer cheap. You won't find those attributes in too many five-star establishments.
Siam Lub D: 925/9 Rama 1 Road. Dorms from 500 baht per night; +66 (0) 2 612 4999. Silom Lub D: 4 Decho Road, off Silom Road, BTS: Sala Daeng; Dorms from 380 baht per night; +66 (0) 2 634 7999
With Thai-style fine dining with exquisite attention to detail, the best ingredients and authenticity, Nahm provides the best of Bangkok culinary experiences.
Head Chef David Thompson, who received a Michelin star for his London-based Thai restaurant of the same name, opened this branch in the Metropolitan Hotel in 2010.
Through recipes based on archaic Siamese cookbooks and other dishes passed down in “funeral books," you'll receive both perfect renditions of Thai classics such as tom yum goong, as well as fresh surprises difficult to find outside the Thai home.
Metropolitan Hotel, South Sathorn Road; +66 (0) 2 625 3388
Bo.Lan has been making waves in Bangkok's culinary scene since it opened in 2009. Serving hard-to-find Thai dishes in an upscale, hip atmosphere, the restaurant is true to Thai cuisine's roots, yet still manages to add a special twist.
Located in a renovated house on Sukhumvit Soi 26, Bo.Lan serves unique dishes, such as smoked Chiang Mai river trout salad, green curry stuffed egg yolks and stir-fried beef with dried shrimp paste.
Bo.Lan is good for a romantic dinner or a work meeting with colleagues who appreciate fine food. For the especially ravenous, there's a massive set menu.
42 Soi Pichai Ronnarong Songkram, Soi Sukhumvit 26; open 6 p.m. till late, Tuesday-Sunday; +66 (0) 2260 2962; www.bolan.co.th
A liberal use of wood, vaulted ceilings, terra-cotta tiled floors and faded pink napkins give this 18-year-old establishment a Thai country house ambiance.
At first glance, the menu seems uninspiring, full of classics like nuea pad nam mun hoi (beef stir-fried in oyster sauce) and sai ua (northern style sausage).
But Baan Khanitha doesn't skimp when it comes to quality ingredients and proves itself among the best of Bangkok restaurants, especially for first-timers not yet used to Thai heat.
The meal begins with a delicate plate of complimentary miang kham (a traditional leaf-wrapped appetizer). Diners have a choice of seating -- multiple indoor sections, al fresco under the shade of red parasols or in the Thai sala pavilion.
36/1 Soi Sukhumvit 23, Sukhumvit Road; +66 (0) 2258 4181; open daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m; www.baan-khanitha.com
Soul Food Mahanakorn
An expat favorite, low-key lighting and wood finishing define the cozy interior of this three-floor shop house.
Soul Food Mahanakorn's kitchen revolves around what’s fresh in the markets -- seafood from Sam Yan one day or meat from Or Tor Kor another.
Healthy organic foods, such as rice, meats and some vegetables, are sourced from organic farmers in the northeast.
The menu has no boundaries. There's a Burmese-style hang lay curry from the north and Chiang Mai sausages alongside traditional southern Thai dishes such as khao mok gai (chicken biryani) and crispy samosas.
They all frequently go with grilled meats and crunchy papaya salads from the northeast.
Recommended dishes: everything. It's all good at what is one of the best of Bangkok eateries. The cocktails are fantastic, too, especially the "Bangkok Bastard," a mojito-like drink with a Thai-style twist.
56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Soi Thonglor); +66 (0) 85 904 2691; open Tuesday-Sunday, 5:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m.; www.soulfoodmahanakorn.com
Shop houses and street food
Bangkok is famous for its street food and shop-house restaurants, which makes picking just one vendor difficult.
To experience the best of Bangkok street food, head for some of the more famous eating neighborhoods and start sampling. Most specialize in one dish, whether it's duck noodles, pad Thai or red pork on rice.
Some of the best Bangkok street food zones to hit include Bang Rak (between Taksin BTS station and the junction of Charoen Krung and Silom Road), Victory Monument (BTS: Victory Monument), Soi Ari (BTS: Ari), Chinatown and Ratchawat.
This odd-shaped night club has themed music and dinner nights, and regularly hosts touring acts, with 2011 seeing performances ranging from indie group Klaxons to drum 'n' bass celeb Goldie and even 1980s pop icon Boy George.
It's tempting to list this one in the dining section because the gourmet dishes are among the best of Bangkok eats. But Bed Supperclub's main claim to fame is its nightclub, which brings in a regular string of big-name DJs and performers, along with some of Bangkok's most beautiful people.
26 Sukhumvit Road 11, BTS: Nana; +66 (0) 2 651 3537; www.bedsupperclub.com
On Sukhumvit Soi 11, just steps away from Bed Supperclub, is 12-year-old mainstay Q Bar.
Skilled DJs and diverse drinks selection attract high-profile globetrotters, such as Mick Jagger and Colin Farrell.
This is the place if you're serious about your booze. There are more than 10 brands of tequila, dozens of single-malt whiskies and 90 types of vodka.
Staff are well trained, knowing which countries the offerings come from and what makes them special.
Sukhumvit Soi 11, BTS: Nana; +66 (0) 2 252 3274; www.qbarbangkok.com
No best of Bangkok experience is complete without drinks at a roof-top bar offering amazing views over the city skyline.
Among the city's highest is Red Sky, which sits on the 55th floor of the Centara Grand Hotel, part of the Central World shopping complex.
In addition to the fantastic wine and cocktail section, there's an "urban bistro" menu that includes mussels, steak, salmon, lobster and veal.
999/99 Rama 1 Road, BTS: Chidlom; +66 (0) 2 100 1234
A great place for bar hopping, the numerous clubs and pubs that line Royal City Avenue (taxi drivers all know it as RCA) provide a congregation point for youngsters looking to chill out.
Named for the historic American highway, Route 66 is the mother of all clubs here, where the ghetto riche and urban fab descend in throngs to dance to a variety of music.
Similarly, different rooms at Flix offer a range of hip-hop, house and trance, as well as live bands belting out crowd favorites.
The new(er) kid on the block, LED nightclub, takes up the spot on RCA that used to be occupied by 808.
For live music, there's Cosmic Café.
Royal City Avenue, Rama 9 Road
Curious name aside, WTF on Sukhumvit Soi 51 lives up to its multi-faceted (and equally odd) concept of food-drink-art-friendship, attracting the city's intellectual and creative types.
WTF is comfortably tiny, with a few tables scattered around on the first floor near a well-stocked bar, while the second floor serves as a gallery space.
There are mini-exhibitions on rotation upstairs, covering a wide range of art, and WTF regularly hosts new DJs and bands meant to expand one's musical horizons.
7 Soi Thonglor 51, BTS: Thonglor; +66 (0) 2 626 6246; www.wtfbangkok.com
Bangkok's funkiest fairy bar -- we're talking miniature iron statues here, what were you thinking? -- Iron Fairies also cooks a mean burger.
From the outside you barely notice there’s life behind its small wooden door. Step inside and you’ll be greeted with whiffs of an oddly rustic scent lurking within its two-story shop-house confines and, on some nights, the sound of live jazz.
With its spiral staircase that leads to nowhere, shelves of "fairy dust" jars and bar tables converted from rusty barrels, you’re in for a peculiar night.
Owner Ashley Sutton is a friendly Aussie author-cum-blacksmith who creates metallic creatures based on his children’s book series about fairies and their adventures.
Around 9 p.m., band members find corners in this narrow townhouse to play their instruments. It's mainly jazz, but Sunday nights are reserved for the blues.
394 Thonglor Road (Sukhumvit Soi 55), opposite Ton Krueng Thai Restaurant; +66 (0) 84 425 8080
On the surface, this Bangkok retail zone made up of luxury malls Siam Paragon, Gaysorn, CentralWorld, Siam Center and Siam Discovery is only about big brands.
But mixed in with the Chanel and Louis Vuitton are plenty of stores selling impressive locally made wares, from art and home decor to cutting-edge fashion, that definitely qualify as being among the best of Bangkok shopping.
Less-established Thai designers are featured on Siam Square, across from Siam Center. A few blocks away from CentralWorld, on Petchaburi Road, is tourist-favorite Platinum Fashion Mall, a massive wholesale center selling clothes, shoes and accessories.
BTS: Siam or Chidlom
Jatujak Weekend Market
Bangkok's Jatujak Weekend Market -- JJ for short -- is one of the biggest in Asia. Covering 35 acres, it has thousands of vendors and attracts as many as 200,000 shoppers on weekends,
It's the place to go for Thai handicrafts, artwork, clothing, household goods and even pets.
The downside? It's hot. It's crowded. And it's easy to get lost amid the labyrinthine network of stalls.
Yet that's why some people love it.
The rest of us avoid the madness by going early in the morning, before 9 a.m., or later in the day, at about 4 p.m.
Take the SkyTrain (BTS) to Mo Chit station, exit down the right-hand stairs and follow the crowd for a five-minute walk. Or take the subway (MRT) to Chatuchak Park Station and follow the signs. Open Friday evening, 6 p.m.-midnight and Saturday-Sunday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
Weekend Train Market
If Jatujak brings to mind the phrase "been there, done that," an alternative is Talad Rot Fai, or Weekend Train Market, open Saturday and Sunday from mid-afternoon to midnight.
"Talad" means market and "Rot Fai" means train in Thai, an apt name for a market set beside an old set of train tracks on land owned by the State Railway of Thailand.
Even if you're not looking for a new hipster wardrobe, the vibe at this place is really something. Throughout the market are modified VW vans out of which vendors serve cocktails, snacks and beer.
There's also an onsite restaurant/bar and a giant antique warehouse.
To get to the Weekend Train Market, take the MRT to Kampaeng Phet Station. Get out at exit 3 (Or Tor Gor Market) then cross the road and walk about 450 meters west on Kampaeng Phet Road, away from Chatujak Market.
“The curtains are red, the legs are long -- and yes there are feathers on top.” So goes the fantastically restrained intro to the rather magnificent Calypso Cabaret. And there ends any hint of restraint.
More to the point, the costumes are exquisite, the choreography is spectacular, the miming is powerfully impassioned, the show “girls” are charismatic and when they sing “I am who I am” you will weep.
Carmen Miranda, Marilyn, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Kylie, Josephine Baker, Shirley Bassey, a geisha show, a gypsy show, a Chinese ballad, an ostrich parade ... the list goes on and on.
You even get to meet the stars of the show afterward. Truly a best of Bangkok attraction.
Asia Hotel, 296 Phayatai Road BTS: Ratchatewi; +66 (0) 2 653 3960
A massive stage production featuring more than 100 performers, Siam Niramit crams seven centuries of Thai culture into a fantastic 80-minute show that's heavy on special effects.
Shows start daily at 8 p.m. and there's an onsite restaurant offering a fairly standard Thai buffet dinner from 5:30 p.m.
After the show, families can check out onsite attractions like elephant rides, a recreation of a traditional Thai village and other cultural displays.
Siam Niramit operates a free shuttle service from Exit 1 of the Thailand Cultural Centre MRT station.
This is the only way to tour Thailand’s most significant historical sites in a day.
About a 45-minute drive from the city, this Samut Prakan attraction features replicas of dozens of major Thai landmarks, from the Grand Palace in Bangkok to the contested Preah Vihear temple on the border with Cambodia.
Given Ancient City's size, walking isn’t recommended. Better to rent a golf cart or a bike to cruise around the park.
296/1 Sukhumvit Road, Bangpoo, Samut Prakan; open daily, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Jim Thompson House
The legend of Jim Thompson is outlined in every Thailand guidebook, while the iconic brand’s products are in 13 shops around Bangkok and two factory outlets.
For the true experience, head for the historic Jim Thompson House and learn about the brand’s mysterious namesake, an American who gained worldwide recognition for rebuilding the Thai silk industry before disappearing in the Malaysian jungle in 1967.
The traditional Thai-style teak house, surrounded by plants and trees, is filled with Southeast Asian antiques that he acquired through his travels.
But don't let us convince you of its quality.
Somerset Maugham, who dined with Thompson at this house in 1959, summed it up best: "You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare, you have arranged them with faultless taste."
6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road, BTS: National Stadium; +66 (0) 216 7368
Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall
Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall is actually a high-tech interactive museum that recaps two centuries of Bangkok history in one large space.
Sophisticated multimedia displays and touch-screen booths show off content that mainly focuses on the rich past of the Rattanakosin period, highlighting royal culture, Thai architecture, traditional performances and ceremonies.
Open Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m; 100 Ratchadamnoen Klang Road; +66 (0)2 621 0044
As Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist, there are of course hundreds of Bangkok temples -- known in Thai as "wats."
For a look at how locals worship, head to any one of the glittering neighborhood wats, often located far down tiny sois and well out of the way of tourist traffic.
Some are actually in massive complexes filled with halls, schools and revered statues.
The three big ones on the tourist trail -- the Grand Palace, Wat Po and Wat Arun -- should be a best of Bangkok stop on any first-timer's itinerary, as they are genuinely impressive and loaded with historical significance.
Grand Palace: Na Phra Lan Road; open daily, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m; +66 (0) 2 623 5500 Ext. 1124, 3100
Wat Po: Sanam Chai Road and Maharaj Road, next to the Grand Palace
Wat Arun: 34 Arun Amarin Road, Kwang Wat Arun, Khet Bangkok Yai. To get there by boat, take a cross-river ferry at Tha Tien Pier; open daily, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. www.watarun.org