Sprawling Bangkok, a metropolis of more than 8 million people, often gets overlooked by travelers to Southeast Asia who land briefly in the city before heading off to beaches in the south or more peaceful Chiang Mai in the north. But these travelers are missing out. Bangkok is bustling and cosmopolitan, a unique melange of centuries-old history in the form of palaces and temples and towering bars and billion-dollar shopping centers. There are seemingly endless things to do in the City of Angels.
Thailand's most important Buddha statue lives in an astounding temple complex on the grounds of Bangkok's Grand Palace. If you've seen the enormous Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, you might be surprised to see that the Emerald Buddha pales in size. At just 26 inches tall, the seated Buddha is sacred in Thai culture and may only be touched by the king. The site is home to many other interesting artifacts too, including a curious model of Angkor Wat, constructed in the late 1800s by King Mongkut.
Whether you know the story of Jim Thompson or not, a visit to his stunning home is a must-do in Bangkok. Thompson, an American who single-handedly started the Thai silk industry after World War II, built an elaborate compound of Thai-style teak houses on a khlong (canal) across from Bangkrua, where his weavers worked. Thompson mysteriously disappeared in Cambodia in 1967, shortly after his home's completion, but luckily, the site—and Thompson's immense collection of Asian art—has been preserved for all to enjoy.
Shop a Floating Market
Floating markets are a massive draw for many visitors to Bangkok, but beware that you might be disappointed. Unfortunately, these markets are over-populated by tourists, so if you go expecting an incredibly authentic experience, you might be disheartened by the overabundance of vendors selling photo ops with animals or floppy sunhats. Still, an early morning visit to a floating market can be an enjoyable experience. Skip the overcrowded Damnoen Saduak market and instead head to Tha Kha. While it's a slightly further drive (it takes about 90 minutes each way), you'll find fewer cheesy souvenirs and much better food, including the famous boat noodles.
Stroll Through a Retail Palace at IconSIAM
Completed in 2018 to the tune of $1.5 billion, IconSIAM is a retail giant among Bangkok's shopping centers. You can expect to find every major American and European retailer here—and then some. IconSIAM is home to the city's first Apple store and a unique indoor floating market. The downstairs food court has more than 100 different dining options and excellent options for Thai gifts. A free and convenient water taxi runs from the pier near the BTS Skytrain Saphan Taksin Station.
Get a Glimpse of Local Life Along Bangkok's Canals
Bangkok's khlongs (canals) are crucial to everyday life for many Thai people. You'll still see wooden stilt houses along many of them, as well as small shops selling groceries and more. One of the most fascinating and unique ways to see what life is like here is to take a long-tailed boat ride along the canals. Most of these tours focus on Thonburi, west of the Chao Praya, and near Wat Arun. On a tour, you'll typically pass the Royal Thai Barge Museum, an orchid farm, or, if you go on a weekend, the Taling Chan floating market.
Have a Drink in the Sky
For a bird's-eye view of Bangkok, head up 820 feet to Sky Bar at Lebua. One of the world's tallest rooftop bars, Sky Bar might look familiar since it played a prominent role in "The Hangover: Part II," but even if you're not a movie fan, the views alone are still cinematic. Grab a drink or have dinner at one of Lebua's sister establishments, which include the Michelin-starred Mezzaluna and the newly-opened, state-of-the-art Chef's Table, where Vincent Thierry, who manned the kitchen at Hong Kong's three-star Caprice, now runs the show.
It's easy to get lost in this enormous market, where vendors line-up to sell everything from elephant pants to live animals. With more than 15,000 stalls, it pays to have a plan when you visit. Go early (Bangkok's hot!), know what you want to buy, and get a map. While the market is a great place for Thai silk, housewares, and cheap and cheerful clothing, some vendors illegally sell wildlife or products made from animal materials like ivory or coral. Avoid these things entirely and also be mindful of any items displaying Buddha, as it's illegal to export these from the country.
It's hot and crowded, yet tourists still flock to Bangkok's Grand Palace. The massive complex, home to the Emerald Buddha and several other impressive buildings is model after the Grand Palace in Ayutthaya, Siam's original capital until the Burmese destroyed it in 1767. If you go, go early—the grounds open at 8:30 a.m.—so you can beat some of the crowds and a little bit of the heat.
If you want to hang out with other tourists—and, hey, maybe you do!—head to Khao San Road. A long-time hub for backpackers and other budget travelers, bustling Khao San Road is lined with bars, restaurants, shops, hostels, and more. It's touristy, yes, but if you're looking to meet new friends in Bangkok or for a continuation of your trip, this is the place to do it.
Admire Wat Arun at Sunset
Wat Arun Ratchawararam Ratchawaramahawihan is one of Bangkok's most iconic temples, situated right on the bank of the Chao Praya. The 220-foot spire, also called a prang, is adorned with porcelain and colored glass and was constructed sometime during the Ayutthaya period. Visitors can climb to the top of the central tower, but the best views of Wat Arun are across the river at sunset—a truly iconic Bangkok scene.
In a city that seems overloaded with asphalt, Lumpini Park is a welcome retreat. Spanning more than 140 acres in the city's business district, the park welcomes visitors looking to golf, run, row around the lake, or relax away from the city's hustle and bustle. During the winter months, the orchestra serenades visitors on weekend evenings, and you can expect to see various groups and clubs gathering throughout the day.
Admire Wat Ben's Marble Facade
A younger temple by Bangkok standards—it was built in 1899—Wat Benchamabophit Dusitvanaram is smaller than many but impressive in its style and architecture. Rama V spared no expense building Wat Ben, even importing thousands of pounds of Carrara marble from Italy for its facade. Inside, there's an image of the Phra Buddha Chinnarat, the base of which contain's Rama V's ashes. (Fun fact: This is the temple that you see on the reverse of the 5 baht coin.)
Have a Moving Meal in Chinatown
Despite its name, Bangkok's Chinatown has more than just Chinese food. Yaowarat Road, lined on both sides with flashing lights and billboards advertising shark-fin soup and other delicacies, is the place to go for any visitor looking to try a whole lot of street food in a short period. Start with kaeng karii neua (beef curry) at Jek Pui before trying the elaborately stir-fried morning glory greens at Fikeaw Yao Wa-Rat. Then, for your main course, try the peppery pork noodle roll soup at Nai Ek Roll Noodle. If you're not too full, mango sticky rice from one of the many streetside vendors is the way to go. The entire meal will set you back less than $10.
Take a Dinner Cruise on the River
While an evening cruise of the Chao Praya can be an excellent way to see a different perspective on the city, most dinner cruises plowing the river offer far from relaxed experiences. You can see them from yards away, with their blaring music and flashing neon lights—not ideal if you just want to enjoy the sunset and admire the temples lit up at night. Supanniga Cruise, which launched in early 2019, aims to turn the loud dinner boat experience into a tranquil one, hosting just 40 guests on sunset cocktail, champagne, and dinner cruises. The latter includes a six-course menu and a welcome glass of champagne for 3,250 baht (around $107). Meanwhile, their sister restaurant, Suppaniga Eating Room, is among the most popular riverfront spots for getting that perfect sunset Instagram of Wat Arun.
See the Famous Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Even if you know very little about Bangkok, you've likely seen or heard of Wat Pho's Reclining Buddha, a 150-foot gold-leafed Buddha in a sideways laying position. While this famous Buddha is undoubtedly impressive, Wat Pho's temple complex is home to four chapels containing nearly 400 gilded Buddha images and other fascinating artifacts. The complex was also the first public university in Thailand, where students would study religion, literature, and science. Today, it's known as a top center for Thai massage and traditional medicine, so if you have the time, don't skip getting a massage.
Learn About Thailand's Rich History at the Bangkok National Museum
As the first public museum in Thailand, Bangkok's National Museum houses an extensive collection of Thai art and artifacts. In addition to Buddhist art from other countries in Southeast Asia, the museum's collection is home to a stone pillar inscribed by King Ramkamhaeng, believed to be the oldest record of Thai writing; Thai ceremonial chariots that are solely used for royal cremations; and the Phra Buddha Singh image, the second-most important Buddha image in Thailand.
See a Different Side of Thai Architecture
Bangkok's Vimanmek Mansion shows off an entirely different side of Thai architecture alongside an excellent glimpse into royal life. The golden teak building was originally a summer home in Koh Si Chang but was dismantled and reconstructed in Bangkok's Dusit district in 1900. Built in the European style completely free from nails, the house is believed to be the largest golden teakwood building in the world. While no royals live there today, the palace is open to the public who can see many of the rooms where King Chulalongkorn the Great and King Rama V lived.
Shop a Local's Market
If you want to immerse yourself in Thai cuisine, visit Thewet Market. Like much of Bangkok, Thewet is a symphony for the senses: You'll spy piles of chilies, hear the sizzle of garlic and oil hitting the pan, and hear the chatter of locals shopping and haggling for their groceries. If you want to learn how to whip up a Thai dish yourself (yum som-o, anyone?), find a cooking class that starts with a trip to the market. The luxurious Siam offers guests an excursion that includes a tuk-tuk ride to the market and shopping with the chef before returning to the hotel to cook lunch in a traditional teak house.