Thailand’s capital is a big, overwhelming city swarming with visitors. There’s a well-worn tourist trail of temples, markets and bars (oh, so many bars) in Bangkok. The city is a dizzying, steamy metropolis of contrasts – its ornate holy temples, its infamous red-light district, its world-class street food. In two words, Bangkok is sensory overload. We’ve cleared through the exhaust fumes and oared through the canals to find the experiences you don’t need to have in Bangkok – and what to do instead.
Don’t limit yourself to Bangkok’s city canals. The khlongs (canals) have a long and winding history – they’re how Bangkok got the nickname “the Venice of the East” during the 19th century. However, they’re often polluted and hard to navigate and some traditional floating markets exist largely for tourists.
Instead, for a taste of a quieter, more peaceful waterside life, head to Bangkok’s northern tip. Here, the island of Koh Kret is a rural idyll with lush rice paddies, traditional homes on wooden stilts and ancient temples.
Don’t go to the Chatuchak weekend market if you’re crowd-phobic. We’re talking more than 9000 stalls, 200,000 people and about 14 hectares of market here. You can find everything including electrical goods, pharmaceuticals, souvenirs, clothing and trinkets. Temperatures rise quickly and haggling is necessary.
The ever-crowded Chatuchak Weekend Market
Instead, try Old Siam Plaza. This market is a little off the tourist radar and shoppers are mostly locals. Housed in an Art Deco building, the market is spread across several atriums, one of which is dedicated to food, in particular traditional snacks and Thai sweets such as crispy pancakes stuffed with meringue and shredded coconut and steamed sago balls. There are also stalls selling clothing, handicrafts and jewellery. Head upstairs to stores selling beautiful Thai silk and traditional special-occasion dresses.
Vintage lovers should head to the Talat Rot Fai, or Train Market, is an open-air night bazaar selling excellent vintage and antique furniture and clothes alongside kitsch to a soundtrack of live music. There are plenty of food stalls, bars and people-watching to keep you occupied when you’ve had your fill of bargain hunting.
Maeklong Railway Market, otherwise known as the Umbrella market
Don’t spend too long on Khao San Road. After you’ve witnessed your fair share of drunken backpackers and themed pubs, it’s time to move on.
Khao San Road
Instead, don your party pants for the bars and clubs of the upmarket Thong Lor scene – Thong Lor Road and the adjacent Ekkamai Road are home to wine bars, great restaurants and pubs. And if you do want to see Khao San Road but don’t fancy encountering aforementioned backpackers, take a wander down there early in the morning when they’ll be sleeping it all off.
SEE ALSO: Read This Before You Leave For Bangkok
Don’t pay for a tour to Damnoen Saduak floating market. Many hotels offer tours of the popular market, about 100 kilometres from Bangkok, where visitors can witness vendors selling produce from small boats and visit traditional stilted houses. However, it’s largely a performance for tourists (with souvenirs and food priced accordingly). It’s also necessary to leave Bangkok extremely early in the morning to avoid traffic.
Damnoen Saduak floating market
Instead, try Taling Chan. It’s only about 12 kilometres from town and visitors can rent a longtail boat to explore the market and tributaries off the canal. Vendors sell a fascinating array of local fruits and vegetables (now is the time to try durian) and there are lots of stalls selling snacks such as grilled prawns, pad thai noodles and som tum (green papaya salad).
Don’t go to Sirocco and Sky Bar for the best rooftop view in Bangkok. The bar, at the top of the salubrious Lebua hotel, does indeed proffer vertiginous views of the bright city lights with a jazz soundtrack and great signature cocktails. However, thanks to a role in The Hangover Part II – you can even order a Hangovertini – there are queues, little room to move and the price of drinks will significantly dent your holiday budget.
Instead, watch the sun dip below the skyline with a Siam Sangria (Gordon’s Gin, Triple sec, Chang beer and tropical fruit) in hand at the Zoom bar on the 40st floor of the Anantara Sathorn Hotel in the Sathorn area. The bar occupies the entire floor, meaning 360-degree views are available from every seat in the house. The Speakeasy at Hotel Muse offers a different experience and different view altogether, with a 1920s Prohibition theme and a view from the 24th and 25th floors of the hotel in Lumphini.
Don’t fight hordes of tourists to get your selfie with the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho (aka The Temple of the Reclining Buddha). It’s the busiest tourist attraction in Bangkok, with the possible exception of the Royal Palace, and is full of visitors intent on capturing the perfect photo with the prostrate Buddha.
The Reclining Buddha must be one of the most selfie-d monuments in the world
Instead, visit one of the other remarkable temples in the city – Bangkok is positively teeming with them. Wat Traimit in Chinatown is home to the largest golden Buddha in the world, while Wat Ratchanatdaram is a stunning Buddhist temple with a striking bronze-tiled roof; its 37 black metal spires are said to represent the 37 virtues required to reach enlightenment.
Don’t go to Patpong if you’re not keen on witnessing the sordid side of Thailand’s capital. Catering almost exclusively to tourists, the red-light district is everything you’ve heard it is.
Instead, for neon lights and all the delicious street food you can handle, head to Chinatown.
Don’t be blinded by the most popular sights. Bangkok is larger than life and its big attractions – such as Wat Pho, the Grand Palace and those enormous malls – are on a well-worn tourist trail.
Instead, make sure you investigate some of Bangkok’s smaller museums and attractions. The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, housed in an 1870 building in the grounds of the Grand Palace, has a fascinating collection of fabrics and outfits belonging to Queen Sirikit. Jim Thompson House, the former home of an American spy and silk merchant who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in Malaysia in 1967, is a must-see. And Suan Pakkad Palace, a compound of traditional Thai wooden houses, is now a museum housing ancient Thai artifacts and artworks. The oldest structure on the site, at more than 450 years old, was once home to Prince Chumbhotpong Paripatra and his wife – the Lacquer Pavilion.
Jim Thompson House
Don’t get taxis when you can get public transport.
Instead of risking a taxi – many are unmetered; some downright unscrupulous – and the accompanying traffic, try the Skytrain. It’s fast, it’s orderly and it’s well connected.