Two days is the maximum amount of time you need in Bangkok.
This is my summary of Bangkok: smelly, polluted, dirty, humid, inconvenient.
So why even leave the airport instead of continuing on to another destination in Thailand? There is one main reason: food. We’ll get to that in a minute.
We bookended our time in Thailand with one-day stops in Bangkok. Instead of doing two separate posts about each day, I will instead provide a short guide to this crazy city.
Lesson #1: Getting around.
Probably my absolute number one issue with Bangkok beyond anything else is how hard it is to get anywhere.
Cabs are ubiquitous and dirt cheap. Ensure your cab river does not cheat you by making sure the meter is visible and turned on. Do not ever accept a flat rate. If you cannot see the meter, it is likely hidden. Leave the cab if they refuse to reveal it. The problem with cabs though is the insane amount of traffic. Try not to take them in congested areas.
If you’re going to the temples, the water taxis are your best bet. You can buy a tourist day pass for a boat that only stops at the main attractions, or there are small water taxis with stations up and down the river. But for this option, you must remain by the river.
Some areas have access to the skytrain. If you are going anywhere near a station, take this. Sadly though, its reach is extremely limited.
You could also suck it up and walk—but the main areas you will likely visit are not going to be walkable to each other. Just 20 minutes in 90 degree heat and 100% humidity and you’ll be hailing a cab. Walking only works for very short distances.
Lesson #2: Be an early bird.
Because the sights in Bangkok are actually quite limited, the big ones will be packed come 9-10 am. Start your day bright and early to avoid the intense heat and crowds. Find a way to get to the water taxis and ride to the Grand Palace first.
This is the largest and most popular complex. You can wander around all of the temples, halls, and chedis plastered with gilt gold.
Temple-going note: Your shoulders and legs must be covered to enter any Buddhist temple complex. It’s (unfairly) mainly aimed at women, but some of the bigger temples have the same rules for men too. I brought my trusty Elephant Pants with me and slipped them on over my shorts at each temple, but you can rent sarongs and wraps. You must also remove your shoes before going in.
Walkable from there is Wat Pho, site of the giant reclining Buddha. There is also a massage school at this temple.
Hop back on the boat and head to Wat Arun.
This temple is a break from the gold, with beautiful stone work.
You can climb up the side as well.
From there, you could go up to Khao San road (on the tourist boat route), the “backpacker” street filled with bars and food (this is where you see things like scorpions on sticks), or you can head to back down the river to Taksin where you can connect (yay!) to the skytrain. Take it to the Jim Thompson house, the beautiful home of an architect who mysteriously disappeared but who had helped revived Thailand’s silk industry. The museum is very nice and a break from temples.
Lesson #3: Eating
This is the main reason to stop in Bangkok. The city is actually a melting pot of Thai, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, and many other Asian and South Asian influences. To get your bearings and really get a good taste of the city, I suggest Bangkok Food Tours. We did the Bangrak tour, which allows you to taste of all these influences.
We stopped first at a Chinese restaurant that had been in business for 80 years, sampling chicken, rice and mushrooms.
Our next stop was an Indian restaurant serving the well-known massaman (Muslim) curry—it has also been in business for around 80 years, with photos of each generation of the family owners on the wall.
This meal was one of my favorites in Thailand. The curry was accompanied by a cucumber salad, chat, and lentils. If you go to one place on this food tour, go here.
Our next stop was a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop specializing in a spicy broth.
Ours came with fish balls and pork.
Food note: While Thai food can already be very spicy, every restaurant table has a condiment set of fish sauce, sugar, and chilis so you can customize everything to your taste. My advice: use them all.
We then went down to a Northern Thai (Lanna) restaurant, enjoying papaya salad (the spiciest one of the trip), “waterfall pork” (so named because of the spice level, which will make you cry), and an amazing fried lemongrass dish.
We finished the tour at a bakery to get Thai iced teas and coffees.
We did try to be adventurous on our own as well. At our second hotel we noticed a street market under a bridge filled with locals at lunch.
We went there after checking in and ate an amazing basil chicken dish.
For a really local market, head up on the water taxi to Wang Lang market. You will find very few tourists, if any. It is very narrow and chaotic, and there are not even really signs at the food stalls, so you’ll just have to try something to find out what it is!
Chinatown is another street food destination.
We went unfortunately at a weird time in the afternoon so not much was out, so go in the evening to try it.
Lesson #4: Live in luxury.
One of the best things about Thailand is how cheap it is. You could certainly spend $7 a night to stay in a hostel or guesthouse if that’s the experience you’re after. But for us, I wanted to take full advantage of being able to stay in a luxury hotel for the cost of a cheap one in the U.S.
On our first leg of the trip we stayed at the Millennium Hilton. It looks a little worn on the outside but the inside is beautiful. We had a panoramic view of the city out our window. This hotel sat on the river and, like many others on the river, had its own water shuttle to the main port (Taksin).
For the last leg we chose the Conrad Bangkok. This hotel was by Lumpini Park, in more of a busy area. They do have a shuttle to the nearest skytrain station, or you can get cabs (it’s unfortunately not walkable to much).
Even though the street food is not to be missed, we knew when we booked this trip that we had to visit Gaggan. Gaggan is one of the first (and maybe only) restaurants to take Indian food out of its traditional box as a comfort food and into the fine dining sphere.
The tasting menu is 25 courses, and for the price it’s actually very affordable. The wine pairings are what will set you back the most—you drink as much as you like and it’s paired as you go rather than one pairing for each course. It is expensive, but I recommend doing it—the wines are amazing and unique.
We got to sit at the Chef’s counter and watch as they prepared each dish. The menu was in emojis, e.g. an explosion emoji for the very popular yogurt explosion dish.
I can’t go into every course but all you need to know is that you 100% need to go to Gaggan!
Bangkok is also known for its rooftop bars. You can find this nightlife 60 or so floors up, exposed to the elements, but offering the best views of the city you can possibly get. A popular one is the one from Hangover 2, but on the advice of some other travelers we met we went to Moon Bar on top of the Banyan Tree hotel.
Dress nicely and act like you know what you’re doing—get there on the earlier side around 6 or 7 pm (it fills up fast), take the elevators all the way up, and then after a few flights of stairs you’ll be in the clouds.
The cocktails aren’t anything to write home about, but who cares! In inclement weather the roof won’t be open; however there is another indoor bar underneath it that still has impressive views.
Do I have any inclination to go back to Bangkok? I won’t say no. While we enjoyed the other parts of Thailand more, you can’t skip this city for the food alone. And now that we’ve been once before, we know how to make the next time even better.