The Temples and Street Food of Thailand’s Capital Are Calling
Get there before the crowds come back.
Bangkok gets called a lot of things, but boring definitely isn’t one. It’s a deluge of honking motorbikes, burning coals from a satay-scattered grill, tuk-tuk drivers beckoning you in, and the never-ending stream of sweat cascading down your forehead. This is a typical day in Bangkok, and, yes, it’s worth the famously long flight.
Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, aka Bangkok, has been Thailand’s capital since 1782. An eclectic mix of backpackers, working expats, retirees, and friendly locals, today, it’s one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities. It runs the gamut of dining on plastic stools, white linen tablecloths, and swanky rooftop bars (yup, even the dress code and $20 cocktail kind).
But the heart of Bangkok is still the Chao Phraya River. It snakes its way through the city like the prehistoric monitor lizards that paddle its murky waters. On either side are some of the city’s glitzy shopping centers and best hotels, from the brand new Capella to the iconic Mandarin Oriental (which was a hotel back when Thailand was called Siam).
In the years before the pandemic, Thailand was one of the most popular destinations for travelers. In 2019, Bangkok greeted almost 26 million tourists with a warm “Sawadeeka!” and a pint of Singha. Now that the country is fully open to foreign travelers again, you can see the sights without the photo-bombing selfie sticks and claustrophobia-inducing crowds. Here’s what to do in Bangkok.
Slurp up some street food
See a long line? A sea of knees crowding around plastic stools? Eat there, trust us. Bangkok is one of the best street food capitals, no question, and the seemingly endless options are overwhelming.
If you only have time for one (though do not make this mistake–make time for many), head to the queen of Bangkok street food, Jay Fai. You’ll wait in line for over an hour with a lot of other tourists and pay way more money than any other street food, but hear me out—it’s worth it. Her signature crab omelet is packed with giant chunks of crab and the slightly smoky, perfectly fried flavor only a piping hot wok and skilled hand can deliver.
Skip the pad thai at the super-famous Thipsamai next door. They’ve massively expanded their street stall into a full-blown restaurant, and sadly, the quality isn’t there anymore. Instead, go with a green curry that may as well have been stirred by gods themselves. Down a small alleyway in Chinatown, you’ll see a sign for Jek Pui Rice Curry. Arrive around 4 or 5 pm to secure a bowl (they run out fast).
If you need a massive chili hit, Phed Mark is the spot. Started by a group of friends arguing over the city’s best pad kra prao, they decided to make their own with all the elements they love. Near the Ekkamai BTS Station, this humble counter serves beef and pork pad kra prao to suit your spice threshold (don’t be a hero, go for medium).
Head on down to Chinatown
This is where the cool kids hang out. On Soi Nana, there are seven tiny, hidden bars, most notably, gin-focused Teens of Thailand, creating some of the city's most unique cocktails and Instagrammable restaurants (Wallflowers is pretty dreamy). And on the outskirts of Chinatown, the gang at the back-alley, high-society spot Charmgang makes some of the city's tastiest curries.
The neighborhood is a convenient, centrally-located spot to stay the night as well. Like many things in Thailand, The Mustang Blu hotel was made for “the gram.” Its downstairs cafe is often way too packed with people taking photos of their piled-high cakes, but the upstairs is full of retro, reclaimed rooms. Also, back on Soi Nana, above the popular Chinese comfort-food restaurant Ba Hao, are some stylish Airbnbs for rent. If you love the nightlife, it’s one of the best spots in the city to base yourself.
Board a boat
Hopping on a riverboat is one of the best ways to see Bangkok. Departing as the sun sets and the temple lights twinkle on, Manohra Cruises is one of the fancier options and the best bang for your buck (unless you want one of those enormous, EDM-blaring boats for the masses). Get wined and dined with fantastic Thai dishes while Wat Arun passes by.
If cruises are your thing, the Loy Pela is an extraordinary experience. This former rice barge was converted into a four-bedroom riverboat with marble bathrooms and fully-inclusive service (yup, alcohol too). There are three overnight journeys to choose from, where you can visit famed landmarks with a private tour guide all along the river.
Sip some brews and booze
Thailand’s craft beer scene has gone way beyond Singha. Take a car up to Koh Kret Island for local brews from Chitbeer. If you’re not up for the hike, try Hair Of The Dog or MASH.
If cocktails are more your vibe, Bangkok has four bars on Asia’s 50 Best Bars List. A fun night and rough morning are pretty much guaranteed at tiki-style Tropic City and elegant Vesper Bar. For a more laid-back evening, try BKK Social Club, ranked the best bar in Bangkok, or Bamboo Bar, serving up smooth martinis and even smoother jazz.
Wander the temples
There are tens of thousands of temples in Thailand, and in Bangkok, they’re often the most peaceful places to spend a late afternoon.
Remember to cover your shoulders and knees and remove your shoes before entering any of these Buddhist sights. While there are too many to choose from, prioritize Wat Arun, Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew, aka the Temple of The Emerald Buddha.
Where to stay in Bangkok
Bangkok’s hotel scene is having a moment. In the last few years, major names like The Four Seasons and Kimpton have risen out of this concrete jungle. But none more anticipated than Capella Bangkok. The only riverfront hotel with villas and individual plunge pools, it doesn’t feel like a major city hotel; in fact, it’s crazy peaceful. Marble-clad everything, natural tones, and a splurge-worthy spa make it hard to beat.
Down the river is the oldest hotel in Thailand. What was once The Oriental was bought by Mandarin Oriental and saw an impeccably done renovation in 2019, just before the pandemic. It’s sleek and chic, with thoughtful Thai touches throughout. The best part? You can’t beat the service at the Mandarin Oriental. Don’t ask me how, but the servers know your coffee order before you even ask.