Bangkok, Thailand’s vibrant capital, is one of Asia’s most popular destinations. Both exotic and modern, it offers plenty to see and do. It is also big and chaotic and as a first-time visitor with limited time, it can be difficult to get your bearings. My Bangkok itinerary will help you cover the main highlights, without leaving you feeling exhausted or tourist-trapped!
- Colorful Buddhist temples (Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho, Wat Saket…)
- Exploring everyday life in the “Venice of the East” (take ferries whenever possible, and go for a Thonburi canal cruise!)
- Bangkok is foodie heaven, from cheap Chinatown street food to innovative gastronomic feasts
Bangkok is more or less hot and humid all year round, but as long as you take it easy during the hottest hours, you can visit any time of year. I absolutely loved staying at Ariyasom Villa, a boutique hotel in a beautiful colonial-style villa and an oasis of peace in the middle of the busy Sukhumvit area. Another option is staying in the so-called Riverside district, where many upscale hotels are located. Although there are no real sights nearby, it is pleasant to stay along the river and it’s easy to take ferries and taxis from here. The Peninsula Hotel is excellent.
Day 1: Jim Thompson House, Wat Saket & Chinatown
Upon arrival in Hong Kong, head to your hotel to freshen up. Have lunch at Na Aroon, Ariyasom Villa’s charming restaurant. Na Aroon serves mainly vegetarian Thai food, but also has some fish and seafood options. It’s worth going here even if you are not staying at the hotel!
After lunch, hop in a taxi or take the ferry to Jim Thompson House. The former home of Thompson, an American silk entrepreneur, it is now a museum showcasing his exquisite collection of Southeast Asian art. The complex is made up of six traditional Thai wooden houses set in a jungle-like garden, making hectic Bangkok feel miles away. You can only go inside as part of a guided tour, which start continuously throughout the day. Although the tour is interesting, I felt a bit rushed. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside.
Afterwards, explore the narrow alleys of the Baan Krua district just on the other side of the canal. The Muslim silk-weavers who supplied Thompson used to live here, and there are still a few family-run silk-weaving workshops left in this evocative neighborhood.
Next, take the ferry at Baan Krua Nua all the way to its last stop, Phanfa Leelard. It’s a short walk over the Phanfa Bridge to Wat Saket, a Buddhist temple perched on top of an artificial hill, also called Golden Mount. Aim to arrive around 5.30pm to see the sun set over the city skyline. Both men and women need to cover shoulders and knees at most temples in Thailand. Bringing a scarf or sarong to cover up when necessary is a good idea.
From Wat Saket, walk or taxi to Chinatown, or Yaowarat as it is known to the locals. Chinatown’s famous street food stalls should be getting well under way by now. Try a few dishes or just wander around, the neon lights and crowds make for a great atmosphere. Be aware that most stalls are closed on Mondays for street cleaning.
After all that chaos stop for a drink at Tep Bar. They often have live Thai music. If you still want to have dinner, and finish your culinary tour of Asia, head to Daimasu, a quirky Japanese izakaya. Hidden in a slightly sleazy side-street, they serve mouthwatering Japanese barbecue in individual booths upstairs.
Day 2: Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho, Wat Arun & Thonburi canals
After early breakfast, head to Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, Bangkok’s main tourist attractions. Phra Kaew is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, so be prepared for hordes of visitors. As it is only open between 8.30am and 3.30pm, you can only really visit in the morning if you want to avoid the midday heat (and you do). That said, the complex is quite magnificent. A strict dress code applies, shoulders and legs should be covered.
Wat Phra Kaew is famous for its Emerald Buddha, carved from a single block of jade and highly revered. My favorite part however, are the wonderful Ramakian murals decorating the cloistered compound wall. This is also the only more quiet part of the temple. Most of the Grand Palace is off limits, but even from the outside this fairytale castle is well worth a look.
Afterwards, stop for a well-deserved coffee break at retro Rub Ar Roon, just in front of Wat Pho on Maharaj road. Next, it’s time for a visit to Wat Pho’s giant Reclining Buddha. One of the oldest and largest wats in Bangkok, there is plenty more to see around the temple compound, so take your time to wander around.
Wat Pho has long been a learning centre for traditional Thai medicine and massage, so be sure to stop for a revitalizing foot massage at one of the “massage pavilions” on the temple grounds. The air-conditioned halls are a bit crowded (that’s why I’m not sure I’d recommend a full-body massage here), but they sure know what they are doing! Waiting times for a full-body Thai massage tend to be much longer than just foot massage, consider reserving your spot immediately when you arrive.
From Wat Pho it’s a short walk to Pak Khlong Talat flower market. Although most flowers are packed in plastic, it’s still a fun place to wander around. Have a simple lunch followed by delicious home-made ice cream at the cute Farm to Table Organic Café. Afterwards, head back to your hotel for an afternoon siesta or some pool-time.
Late afternoon, go to Wat Arun, or the Temple of Dawn, in the Thonburi neighborhood on the western bank of the Chao Phraya river. Not only is the temple gorgeous in the late afternoon light, it is also decidedly less crowded. Besides the striking architecture, I loved the intricate decorations made from bits of colorful porcelain and seashells that used to arrive as ballast on Chinese trading ships.
End the day with a sunset cruise of Thonburi’s peaceful and atmospheric canals, a fun way to have a peek at local life. Tourist long tail boats can be hired just outside Wat Arun, prices can be negotiated.
Ask to be dropped off on the eastern bank, from where you can easily get a taxi. End your time in Bangkok in style with a fancy gastronomic dinner at Bo.Lan. The restaurant is housed in a lovely villa and serves a delicious and creative twist on traditional Thai cuisine. Make reservations as far ahead as possible, or try last minute.
Are you going to Thailand? Then you might also be interested in my 10-day Thailand itinerary from Phang Nga Bay to Khao Sok!