Bangkok, Thailand: A City That Inspired Me To Become a Traveler
Despite having been to Bangkok four times, I’ve procrastinated writing a blog post about it until now. Why? Quite honestly, the capital of Thailand is a place that can’t be put into words. To be sure, it’s one of my favorite destinations, but condensing it into a list of attractions doesn’t do it justice. No blog or vlog can fully convey the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the world’s most visited city.
In fact, Bangkok was my very first experience of Southeast Asia back in the summer of 2016. At that time, I hadn’t started blogging yet, but I had been to Japan, China, and South Korea. That trip to Thailand lasted only three days, but I loved how festive and fun Bangkok was compared to much of East Asia. The energy of the city, the multiculturalism, and the food have inspired me to travel even to this day. I knew I eventually wanted to live in this part of the world, and three years later I do (albeit two countries over, in Vietnam).
In this post, I’ll be sharing some of the highlights of Bangkok. Keep in mind that these attractions are only a piece of the puzzle. Bangkok is atmospheric, so visitors who rush from one site to the next might not have time to appreciate what the city has to offer. Think of this post as a blueprint for exploring, not a ‘must-see’ or ‘can’t miss’ checklist.
Points of Interest
The Grand Palace and Wat Pho
We’ll start off with Bangkok’s most famous sites. This palace and temple are located side by side, so it’s easy to see both in a single day. (‘Wat’ in Thai means temple, and you’ll see that word a lot in Bangkok.)
The Grand Palace
The Grand Palace is Bangkok’s most famous landmark. Thai royalty lived in and used the palace from the time it was built in 1782 until 1932. The grounds are massive and the architecture is impressive, but the most stunning aspect of the Grand Palace is the amount of detail that can be seen on every embellishment and decoration. The murals inside are testament to that.
My one warning about the Grand Palace is that it can end up feeling a bit like a tourist trap. While this shouldn’t deter you from going, I would say that it’s the kind of attraction you don’t need to visit every time you go to Bangkok (I only went in 2016 and don’t feel like I missed out by skipping it on subsequent trips).
You also need to be wearing long pants and covered shoulders to get in. Kailyn, Andrew, and I were considering a visit to the Grand Palace but were turned away for wearing shorts. Since Bangkok is hot, you’ll need to keep this in mind (a change of clothes, perhaps?) or pay a premium for elephant-print pants at or near the palace entrance.
Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho)
If you’re not feeling too hot or exhausted after the Grand Palace, the temple known as Wat Pho is a short-ish walk directly to the south. While the two attractions might seem similar, part of the fun is spotting the stylistic differences between them.
The highlight of Wat Pho is the massive Reclining Buddha housed in the temple complex. It’s off to the side, so be sure not to miss it! Getting a perfect picture here is a bit of a challenge due to the crowds and the massive columns that block some of the best vantage points. Plus, the Buddha is just so big that fitting it into a camera frame is a challenge itself!
Here’s a tip: you could visit either the Grand Palace or Wat Pho in the morning, then head over to the nearby Tha Tian Market (ตลาดท่าเตียน) for lunch and a break from the sun. Then visit the other attraction after you’ve eaten. Visiting the temples is more energy-intensive than you might think, so sunscreen and lots of water are highly recommended.
Ratchada Rot Fai Train Night Market
Bangkok has a ton more temples and palaces than the two mentioned above, but don’t feel obligated to keep visiting more if you’ve had your fill. A nice contrast to the beautiful ancient architecture can be found in one of the many night markets around the city, and Ratchada Rot Fai Train Night Market is a great one worth considering.
This train station-turned-market is now home to hundreds of vendors selling everything you could imagine: souvenirs, food, and clothes, with quite a few bars thrown in around the perimeter. If you want to bring back something interesting for friends and family, this is the place to go.
I’ll speak more in depth about food below, but one noteworthy thing you might see at Ratchada Market is pictured below. Can you guess what it is? It’s a massive mountain of pork spine served on the biggest plate you’ve ever seen. As an adventurous eater, I would’ve loved to try it, but unfortunately we didn’t have time (or big enough appetites) to go for it. It looked like many different restaurants in the market offered this dish if you’re daring enough to order it!
If Ratchada is too far away from your hotel or Airbnb, there are a bunch of other night markets to consider. One expat I met in Bangkok recommended checking out Chatuchak Weekend Market, which I intend to check out on a future trip. If you’ve been there, let me know what it’s like in the comments section!
Neighborhoods to Explore
As I mentioned earlier, Bangkok is an atmospheric city. As such, you should dedicate some time to take it all in while exploring on foot! Here are some areas to consider.
Chinatown (Yaowarat Road)
Chinatown (otherwise known as Samphanthawong, เขตสัมพันธวงศ์) is a unique area to walk around. If you’re curious about the notion of coming all the way to Thailand just to see a Chinatown, rest assured that the area still feels uniquely Thai. As one of the world’s oldest, the neighborhood has a distinct fusion of Thai and Chinese culture. Chinatown is also a great place to get some authentic cheap eats.
Centered around the busy and wide avenue known as Yaowarat Road, Chinatown offers tons of offshoots and narrow alleys filled with small shops and cafes. Be sure to check them out, but watch out: motorbikes still come zipping through them at a moment’s notice!
Sukhumvit (Khlong Toei Nuea)
Sukhumvit is a centrally located part of Bangkok with tons of restaurants and bars, many of which cater to foreigners. We stopped for some drinks here, but don’t expect the most authentic options (or the lowest prices). Nonetheless, it’s still a fine place to cool off with a cold beer or a plate of comfort food.
Harder to find than you might think!
As a cosmopolitan city, Bangkok has no shortage of international cuisine. With that said, I recommend committing to finding some good Thai food for some of your meals. This isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds. (In fact, I think it’s much harder to find authentic local food in Bangkok than it is in Saigon, where street food adored by locals and tourists can be found on practically every street corner).
Of all the areas mentioned above, I think Chinatown had the best selection of authentic (i.e. hole-in-the-wall) options. Sukhumvit and Silom had some Thai restaurants mixed in among the bars. In general, Bangkok’s shopping malls (discussed in more detail below) feature a lot of chains and Western cuisine.
If you’re a bit overwhelmed by the choices, that’s understandable. Here are some specific restaurant recommendations to consider.
The delicious appetizer sampler I got at By Bua was actually perfect as a meal for one. They have a nice interior and good-tasting drinks as well.
This popular restaurant may be a chain, but it has a very large menu of tasty Thai dishes. No matter where you are in Bangkok, there’s probably a Ponn Cafe within walking distance.
This cozy and casual restaurant located in the Langsuan shopping center was a place I visited back in 2016, so I was excited to see that it was still open in 2019. They have standard Thai dishes (my go-to is the red curry).
As mentioned above, this night market is perfect for dinner. For readers not dying to try the massive mountain of pork spine, there are tons of restaurants serving Thai standards. We got pineapple fried rice, papaya salad, and pad Thai from some of the vendors there and all of it was satisfying.
Gargantuan Shopping Malls
Shopping malls may be on the decline in the US, but definitely not in Bangkok. Especially if you’ve never experienced malls in Asia before, Bangkok is home to some really grand shopping centers that are busy from morning until night.
I think part of the reason malls are still such an integral part of life in this city is the fact that they offer so much more than their American counterparts. Far from housing only big box department stores, the malls we saw had everything from multi-level food courts to pharmacies, banks, currency exchange places, boutique shops, and more. You really can get anything you need here, and you’ll see that malls are a gathering place for young and old alike.
Take a tuk-tuk!
Have you really been to Thailand if you don’t take a tuk-tuk ride at least once? They’re everywhere, but crowds of them can be found outside tourist hotspots like the Grand Palace. Know how much you’re willing to pay (price estimates from Grab, the Uber of Southeast Asia, or even Google Maps can help inform what’s reasonable for a specific trip). Practice your bargaining skills and be willing to walk away if the driver won’t budge on an inflated price!
Experience the outskirts of Bangkok in Pak Nam (Samut Prakan)
Last but not least, for travelers who may want to see Bangkok beyond the beaten path, a great option is Samut Prakan. Specifically, the small town of Pak Nam is perfect because it’s located on the southern end of the BTS Skytrain (Sukhumvit Line).
Despite being easy to get to, there are almost no foreign tourists who come out here, so it’s a totally different experience from all the neighborhoods mentioned above. To learn more about Samut Prakan, check out my list of ten things to do there.
What does Bangkok mean to you?
Bangkok is such a big and ever-changing city that no two visits are going to be the same. With that said, the capital of Thailand is a cornerstone of international travel and perhaps the most important city in all of Southeast Asia.
If you’re about to experience it for the first time, you may also find a metropolis that you connect with on a personal level, like I did. If you’ve been before, leave a comment and let me know what impression Bangkok left on you! Did you like it, love it, or hate it? Thanks for reading, guys!