The Big Mango
Set astride the majestic, churning Chao Phraya River, the Thai capital Bangkok represents all that is good and bad about an Asian megalopolis. Loved or loathed, it’s a city with everything for some and nothing for others, and a place that almost every visitor to Thailand will find themselves in at some stage.
Bangkok is so big, we’ve split it up into areas, select one of the below for detailed accommodation and food listings in that area. Sights and general overviews for Bangkok as a whole can be found via the icons above. Don’t know where to start? Read an overview of Bangkok’s different areas.
For many travellers, Bangkok, or Krungthep to most Thais (Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok, popnopharat ratchathani burirom ubonratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit to those who like to refer to places by their full name), is anything but charming on first impressions. But peel back its multitude of layers, and you may well grow to enjoy this fascinating city.
Yes, it’s dirty and the traffic remains appalling despite a large-scale mass transit system that keeps expanding every year. Glistening skyscrapers perpetually darken wooden slums and squats, while new Mercedes dodge food carts being pushed along the slow lane. Bangkok is a city of have and have-nots and the contrast can be alarming.
But the City of Angels harbours enough sights and experiences to keep travellers occupied for months -- some end up staying indefinitely. One of the best ways to grasp its splendor is to simply wander through the colourful streets, where the pedestrian takes second place to the thousands of taxis, buses, motorbikes, tuk tuks, pushcarts, bicycles and private cars.
Many find it exhilarating, for rare are the quiet moments and rarer still are the moments when you fail to feel utterly alive. Prepare to dive into aromatic aromas drifting from food stalls interspersed with wafts of stinking canals and belching car exhausts. All of this comes with heat that rarely drops below 30 degrees Celsius when the sun is up, usually coupled with humidity that makes it feel twice as hot.
Since 2014 the local administration has attempted to "clean up the footpaths" at the expense of working-class neighbourhoods and street markets. While many locals and travellers rightfully decry these controversial top-down decisions, Bangkok is far from having lost its soul. An intriguing art scene gets better every year, buzzing markets remain plentiful and the food scene -- from fine-dining down to humble street kitchens -- is absolutely one of the finest of any city on the planet.
Prior to the late 18th century Bangkok was a small village that merchants may have stopped at on the way to Ayutthaya, the old Siamese capital destroyed by Burmese forces in 1767. King Rama I of the Chakri dynasty, a lineage that has survived through 10 kings up to the present, established the Grand Palace in 1782. King Rama V’s late 19th-century facelift left the old quarter filled with stately European-style buildings that still stand among Thai temples and Chinese shrines. Many of Bangkok’s roughly 10 million residents now dwell in bland concrete rowhouses built in the second half of the 20th century, or an increasing number of condominiums that help to create a seemingly never-ending skyline.
Political unrest and violence flared up in 2006, ’08, ’10, ’13 and ’14, leaving dozens dead and the city reeling at times. Stability has more or less been maintained since the military took over in yet another coup in May ’14, but the fundamental issues that triggered the violence, involving a complex stand-off among Thailand’s elites, have yet to be resolved and are likely to one day flare again. All is calm for now, however, and you should book your holiday with some confidence, while always keeping an eye on the news.
Bangkok has an excellent range of hotels, guesthouses and hostels, though the city has gradually become more expensive over the years. The Chao Phraya’s banks host big-name, large-scale hotels like the Mandarin Oriental and The Peninsula, as well as many other five-star luxury spots, while the backpacker quarter of Khao San Road overflows with budget guesthouses and hostels.
Bangkok’s shopping is renowned. While the malls here become ever more salubrious and high-end (you will feel downright grotty in some no matter how you dress up), markets remain places to snag bargains, either various knock-off items or original local designer goods that can be incredibly creative. Beckoning travellers to stray from the city center and check out the more rural outskirts, a dozen riverside or floating markets are perpetual highlights.
And when you’re totally exhausted, in Bangkok you’re in good hands -- quite possibly, the world’s best. Whether you drop into a shopfront foot massage place for an hour-long session of bliss or you go upmarket and book yourself into a spa for the works -- think manicure, pedicure, body scrub, facial, four-hand massage -- you’ll get value for money and service that has a global reputation.
So do give Bangkok a chance. Start peeling back the layers, going beyond the the chaotic main roads and tourist hubs, and you may find that the Big Mango is much sweeter than she first appears.
About our coverage of Bangkok
The Thai capital is a massive, sprawling mega-city that’s sometimes referred to as a “city of a thousand villages.” While our coverage hasn’t been broken down quite to that extent, we have divided the city into nine key areas to make it easier to navigate. The atmosphere can be drastically different depending on what part of Bangkok you’re in, so it’s worth researching several areas to find what best suits your tastes.
Culturally speaking, the heart of Bangkok is Ko Rattanakosin. Set astride the Chao Phraya River, it features major attractions like the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, as well as some interesting heritage neighbourhoods like Phraeng Phuthon Square. Until a new subway line opens (supposedly by 2020), public transport comes only by way of public riverboats and canal boats. The area has a great selection of B&Bs and small hotels but lacks large luxury hotels and dirt-cheap guesthouses.
Due north of Rattanakosin and within walking distance of the Grand Palace, Khao San Road is the heart of Thailand’s backpacker scene. Our coverage for here includes Khao San Road itself, plus a fairly large surrounding area stretching south to Ratchadamnoen Avenue, west to the Chao Phraya River, east to Democracy Monument and north into the leafy Dusit neighbourhood. Staying in the immediate vicinity of Khao San Road is not for everyone, but keep in mind that these surrounding areas are stacked with great-value accommodation and often have a far more laid-back atmosphere.
To clarify other labels that you might encounter, Banglamphu encompasses much of what we cover under Khao San Road, while Phra Nakorn district encompasses both Ko Rattanakosin and the Khao San Road vicinity. This whole area is often referred to as the “Old Town” or “Historic District.”
Heading east for a few kilometres to Siam Square can feel like being transported to a completely different city when compared to the Old Town. Studded with trendy boutiques and ultra-modern malls, this is Bangkok’s is shopping district. Along with Siam Square itself, which is a fairly small cluster of shops and restaurants just north of Chulalongkorn University, our Siam Square coverage includes the budget shopping area of Pratunam to the north, and the luxury-shopping district of Ratchaprasong to the east. Anchored by the Siam (Central) BTS station, Siam Square sits at the geographic heart of Bangkok and is well served by public transport. Accommodation tends to be on the pricey side.
Hop on the skytrain northwards from Siam Square and you’ll hit Victory Monument, a name used for an actual war monument, a nearby BTS station and the surrounding area. In addition to being a major hub of local buses and long-distance minibuses, this not-so-touristy neighbourhood boasts a plethora of eating and drinking options. Our Victory Monument coverage also delves into other colourful North Bangkok areas, including Ari, Saphan Kwai, Chatuchak, Din Daeng and Ratchada.
Shooting southeast from the Siam Square vicinity, Sukhumvit is another modern area that many expats call home. Along Sukhumvit Road and its many sois (side lanes) you’ll find loads of international restaurants, with a Middle Eastern enclave around Soi 3 and substantial Japanese and Korean communities anchored further east in the upscale Phrom Phong, Thong Lor and Ekkamai areas. Strips of seedy bars are located on Soi 6 (near Nana BTS station) and Soi Cowboy (near Asok BTS station), but these are easily avoided. Sukhumvit hosts some very good hostels and stacks of midrange hotels, all serviced by the Sukhumvit skytrain line.
Head downriver from Ko Rattanakosin or west from Siam Square and you’ll bump into Chinatown -- one of Bangkok’s most fascinating areas. Centred on Yaowarat Road and famed for street food, this always-bustling area includes a tangle of narrow alleyways that meander from one cramped street market to the next. Our Chinatown coverage includes nearby Hualamphong, where you’ll find Bangkok’s central rail station and a MRT subway station of the same name. Not many travellers stay in Chinatown, though we can’t figure out why, as it hosts some excellent boutique accommodation and a few good hostels.
To the south of Chinatown and Siam Square stretches the Silom area, offering a good balance of the modern and historic. Our coverage for here includes Silom Road itself, running west from Lumpini Park and passing the Patpong red-light district on its way to the old European quarter along the riverfront. Also known as Bangrak (“Village of Love”), the area hosts a compelling contrast of glossy skyscrapers and crumbling old shophouses. A stone’s throw further south, Bangkok’s business district is centred on Sathorn Road, which is also included in our Silom coverage. Boasting a wide range of accommodation for all budgets, the whole Silom/Sathorn area is served by public riverboats, the Silom skytrain line and an interchange to the MRT subway.
West of the Chao Phraya is Thonburi, a large area that includes some of Bangkok’s oldest neighbourhoods and an extensive network of khlongs (canals). Once an independent province and for a short time serving as the royal capital in the late 1700s, Thonburi draws few tourists but is worth checking out if you want to see a more local shade of Bangkok. Our Thonburi coverage includes everything from Wang Lang Market in the north, south past Wat Arun to Wongwian Yai and Krung Thonburi BTS stations, and west to the Khlong Bang Luang artist village.
South of Thonburi and an easy ferry hop and taxi ride from upper Sukhumvit, the Phra Phradaeng district covers an unlikely agricultural preservation area known as Bang Kachao. Also dubbed “Bangkok’s green lung,” it spans a large oxbow in the Chao Phraya that’s filled in by low-key villages and fruit orchards. Many come on a day trip to cycle along the raised bike lanes and graze the food stalls at Bang Nam Pheung floating market, but you will find a few homestays and resorts should you need an extended break from Bangkok’s more chaotic areas.
One last note: while the Chao Phraya Riverfront is sometimes inaccurately described as one cohesive area, the river runs through the length of Bangkok from north to south and there is no single "riverfront" area to speak of. Riverside accommodation is included in our coverage of Khao San Road, Ko Rattanakosin, Chinatown, Silom, Thonburi and Phra Phradaeng.