Check out what you can do in Bangkok for an unforgettable experience
With Bangkok being the central hub for travelers flying into Asia, a real and honest “top 10 things to do in Bangkok” is only appropriate. After all, most first-timers get to spend several days up to two weeks in Bangkok and there simply is infinitely more to this city than whatever it is you have heard.
1. ROOFTOP BARS
With a wide range of skyscrapers all over town, and virtually no wind, this is a no-brainer. Where most cities require some serious wind shielding to keep their customers out of harms way, Bangkok has a tropical climate and a gentle breeze, regardless of altitude. Of course this doesn’t apply to the rain season (Approx. July to October), but management is smart enough to check the forecast before they open their rooftop bars. If you have some kind of bucket list with things to do in Bangkok in 3 days, a rooftop bar should definitely be on it.
Contrary to popular belief, Sky Bar (on top of Lebua) is not the nicest rooftop bar to go to, and personally I think it is a little dated. Most of its notoriety comes from The Hangover II, and their luminescent 360-degree bar has been used in countless Instagram shots. Go ahead and see it if you are in the area, because in Bang Rak it definitely is the rooftop bar to go to. Sky Bar insists they are the highest open-air bar in the world, but I don’t think they will be able to hold on to that title forever. The latest skyscraper in Bangkok, the Mahanakhorn is the tallest building in the country and you can expect them to come up with an amazing rooftop bar as well once they are truly in business. But until then, Sky Bar is your place to go if you are staying in Bang Rak or Silom. Dress appropriately and expect to pay a little more than you usually do in Bangkok.
When on Sukhumvit, try the Octave Rooftop & Lounge bar, instead. Not entirely overrun by tourists, but with an amazing view and atmosphere nonetheless, this has to be my favorite rooftop bar in the city right now. But keep in mind that there are many, many more choices. Above Eleven, Red Sky, Vertigo, Park Society, and the list goes on and on.
2. KHAO SAN RD
Normally this is the very last thing I tell people they should visit whenever they come to Bangkok, but in combination with the next point on this list, Thong Lor, a visit to Khao San should definitely be on your list of “Top 10 things to do in Bangkok”.
Well within the backpacker district, Khao San is part of an entire area that lives of Western tourists who start their journey on the “Banana Pancake Trail” in Bangkok. Vietnam and Laos are usually next, but they always manage to squeeze in at least three- to four days on Khao San. Why? Because travelers like to meet other travelers and Khao San is where it all happens. So sit down outside, have a few beers and a foot massage, and start mingling. Khao San is one of the places to visit in Bangkok at night.
During the day, coaches leave towards all major tourist destinations in- and outside of Thailand, and towards nightfall, the streets turn into bars, and from al sides food hawkers appear selling anything you desire. Whether you want a sloppy burger or grilled insects on a stick, Khao San has your poison. Get ready to meet Israelis who just finished their military service, Europeans on a gap year Odyssey, Americans on holiday or South-American anthropologists looking to party. Regardless of the time, you can walk around Khao San and and accommodation that fits your budget as long as you keep asking and stay friendly. From the whole “Mattress in a box” style hostel to essentially 3-star hotels you can find a bed to lay your head on if you stay elsewhere in the city, and after you wake up, you simply go back to your normal hotel in the other part of the city to change. Because there is no way that the backpacker look (flip-flops, Elephant pants and Pink Floyd t-shirt) is going to go down well at your next destination:
3. THONG LOR
If going To Khao San was a culture shock, be prepared to experience the same thing all over again. Thong Lor is very much considered a hi-so district, meaning the better establishments make sure there are Ferrari’s and Porsches standing outside. Girls dress their very best with high heels, elegant dresses and expensive bags while all men have impeccable haircuts, expensive watches and a well-maintained outfit.
Certain bars and clubs tend to attract mainly Thai, while other areas are considered “mixed” locations. Be aware that almost any nightclub you will try to enter actively enforces a dress code so if you are meeting someone later on that night, tell them too they should wear shoes, and a decent shirt if they don’t want to deal with a friendly but very difficult bouncer. “Seenspace” is a great little square to start the night, followed by more intimate-themed bars like “The Iron Fairies” or “J. Boroski”. If you are looking to interact with the locals, bigger clubs like MUSE, DEMO or FUNKY VILLA may be more your style. With all this high-end nightlife going on, Thong Lor is a classic example of “Bangkok attractions for adults”. That doesn’t mean it’s seedy, it means your kids shouldn’t be here.
Another word of advice; unlike Khao San, the locals at Thong Lor are a little reserved and meeting people is done best with the help of a 3rd party: Your “way in”, in you will. Whether it is a westerner you just met or a local who likes to practice his/her English. There are exceptions to the rule, but being polite goes a much longer way here than it does elsewhere.
4. STREET FOOD
With the Military government eager to crack down on everything they deem “chaotic” or “not good for Thailand”, they made a move towards street food recently. The backlash was international as Thailand, and Bangkok specifically is famous for its street food. Around dinner time, you will see locals either queuing up or walking home with a plastic bag filled with their favorite soup.
Depending on how good you are with Thai food, you can go for simple dishes like Hainanese chicken, Thai style. Here we call it Khao-man-gai, and any stand that prominently displays some poached naked chickens and rice will dish it up for you, on a plate or to go. The tender chicken in combination with the oily rice makes a great match, along with chicken broth and it goes down well with Western newcomers.
These stand may be a little harder to find though, so most first-timers start out with a regular noodles soup, wondering what the balls floating in their soup are made of (hint: it’s fish or pork, depending on what you ordered). You will notice four condiments that the locals will often throw lavishly in their soup, and you are welcome to try as well. Go easy though, as we are not sure sugar, dry chili, salt (fish sauce actually) and vinegar will harmonize the flavor you were looking for. Every foreigner in Thailand picks a few favorite street stands over time and when you are in an area you don’t know it’s simple: look where the people are queuing up – that’s where you want to get your grub on!
“Depending on how good you are with Thai food, you can go for simple dishes like Hainanese chicken.”
5. VIP CINEMA
We know this is a little counterintuitive, but seeing a movie is one of the most fun things to do in Bangkok. The Thai embrace the whole pampering culture, so there are massage shops and nail salons in even the smallest streets. The Thai also love to go to the movies and some of the leading chains are constantly trying to outdo one another with luxury cinemas. Perks include free drinks, separate entrances from the regular seats, DJ lounges before the movie starts (with free food and drinks), reclining seats, complimentary pillows and entire two-person beds with your own servant.
And traditionally, between the opening commercials and the main movie itself, one of the National anthems plays while everyone rises to pay respects to the King. This experience alone is worth a movie ticket in Bangkok. For the current most luxurious experience in any Bangkok VIP Cinema, book a bed for THB 3.500 at Paragon’s Enigma theatre. Wine, mixed cocktails or just a soda is served by your own butler, and how about a plate of Italian pasta while you watch the latest James Bond? Sure, it is a little more expensive than a regular ticket, but the Bangkok VIP Cinema is a cinematic experience unlike anything you have ever seen before.
6. NIGHT MARKETS
Since Thailand is a tropical country, a lot of outdoor activities take place at night to avoid the scorching heat. Night markets are a popular pastime for Bangkok locals and if you’ve never been to one, now is the time. Bangkok has a middle class that is consistently growing, and as such, there are more and more Thai expressing themselves artistically. Be prepared to come across vast collections of vintage cars displayed at Rot Fai market behind Seacon Square. Or have your eardrums battered at the different bands and sound systems performing on a typical night at Ratchada night market.
For classic and antique hunting, make sure you check out JJ Green market behind Jatujak park. Hats, sneakers, cacti and leather jackets change owners at very affordable prices, while the food area is organized a tad bit better than the other night markets in town. My heart always bleeds when I see the rows of oldschool GameBoys or Tamagotchis, and on several occasions I’ve had a hard time trying to forget a certain piece of sub-zero cool furniture I absolute had to have but wouldn’t fit in my apartment.
Visiting one of the night markets is a combination of exploring the local lifestyle, vintage shopping and coolhunting, all in one. I guarantee that you will walk away with at least one big filled with T-Shirts, quirky present for your family and friends, and a filled stomach, regardless of whether you had beers or chicken sate.
Thai love to be pampered, and as such, there is a regular “pampering industry” in Bangkok with massage salons, nail studios and spas virtually everywhere. So whether you are looking for a backrub, a foot massage or maybe something a little more exotic, we recommend you get out there and see what it is all about. We are sure you have heard your share of dodgy stories about massages and yes, this is a “thing” in certain areas but if you know what to look for, it is easy to avoid these places. Is a massage shop displaying their “masseuses” outside the shop? Are they actively advertising their services? These are the usual giveaways that this may be a dodgy massage shop.
Besides, bigger chains like Health Land or other renowned Spas are family-friendly and offer 100% professional service. When in doubt, simply talk to your hotel receptionist – they will gladly point you in the right direction. Several upscale hotels also offer in-house massages and you can’t go wrong with those. Having a pressure point massage on the base of your skull and feeling tingling shoot up and down your spine is an incredible feeling and you really shouldn’t deny yourself that experience. At the very least, have a foot massage; you will never know what hit you when a professional goes to work on your tired feet.
8. LUXURY MALLS
I believe the heat in Thailand was mentioned repeatedly in this blog, but it cannot be said too many times. Bangkok is scorching, and as a result the Thai like to do their shopping indoors. Fighting for those very affluent shoppers and their sizzling-hot credit cards, all the shopping malls on premium locations are exceptionally luxurious.
Not only will you find all the brands you have at home in Bangkok as well, but don’t be surprised to see high-end sports cars on the 3rd floor of Siam Paragon. On my last visit there, a black Rolls-Royce was lined up next to a white version of the same car, and the whole thing looked surreal – think of a Drake video without the female models.
“Make sure you visit at least one shopping mall if you are serious about your list of Top 10 things to do in Bangkok”.
Until recently Siam Paragon was the high-end shopping mall that stood out, but its mother company branched out and along the Sukhumvit street, Em-Quartier and Emporium are considered just as prestigious.
Note that the Enigma VIP Cinema mentioned earlier in this blog is located on top of Siam Paragon so Siam Paragon is without a doubt one of the places to visit in Bangkok for shopping, and more! With a movie and dinner, you can easily spend an entire day inside the mall. Of course the other luxury malls have their own high-end cinemas as well, so ultimately the choice is yours. Make sure you visit at least one shopping mall if you are serious about your list of “Top 10 things to do in Bangkok”.
9. MOTOCY TAXI
Yes, you read that correctly. Spoken as “motocy” instead of motorcycle, these orange-vested drivers are the best way to cover short distance in the most efficient way possible. On your way to the airport and caught in a traffic jam? Pay the cab-driver and get out immediately to wave down a motocy taxi. Your friends are two blocks away and reserved a table? Wave down a motocy taxi. While the idea of getting on a motorcycle for transportation services may seem a little foreign, it is easily the best way to get around town without getting stuck.
Bangkok traffic is truly notorious and ranks as some of the worst on the planet. So to be able to get out of a traffic jam, split lanes and regularly drive on the boardwalk is a blessing. Unlike the Tuk-tuk drivers who are notorious for shaking down customers, motocy are much less sophisticated and will agree on a small price upfront.
Once you are in the saddle, make sure you hold on to the frame with one hand behind your back, as these guys have a way of braking and accelerating in quick succession. Throughout almost ten years in the city, I have never seen a motocy taxi crash into anything and I would say that of all drivers in the Kingdom, with minivan drivers being the most dangerous by far, motocy drivers are the best.
Like other South-East Asian countries, Thailand is deeply religious and Buddhism is considered the state religion. So when you come to Thailand, immersing yourself in that culture for at least a couple of hours makes perfect sense. Plus, it helps you to understand some of the cultural idiosyncrasies that are all around us in Thailand.
A temple visit is best done with either an observing Buddhist himself who will take you through the ropes “Now walk around that stupa three times, no wait! Only clockwise!!!” and the next best thing is a paid guide. A guide will be considerably less inspired to teach you the ways of Buddha, but a big tip at the start of your tour will work miracles.
There are easily over a thousand temples in Bangkok alone, so you will have to choose a shrine of your choice by yourself. For a genuine experience, I recommend staying clear from the obvious big temples and find one outside the city center for a more genuine experience. Again, I really do believe that the person you find that will show you around will determine just how good a time you will have, so put some effort into that. Buddhism is fascinating and even if you are not big on religion, the customers and superstitions of a different culture can always be an eye-opener. Go explore!
More Thailand: Check out other amazing things you can do in Thailand
Sacha Albarda is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.