Like Rome of old, all travel roads lead eventually to Bangkok. The steamy metropolis known in Thai as Krug Thep, the “city of angels,” is Southeast Asia’s true crown and great attractor, boasting more sights than Singapore, more drama than KL, more fun than Jakarta, and better food than just about anywhere on Earth. Take a deep breath and dive in for an awesome 36 hours in one of the world’s boldest, sexiest, and most spectacular traveller centers.
Friday, 6.00pm: Arrive.
Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) lies 30km east of the city, but is linked to the metro and skytrain systems by the superb high-speed Airport Rail Link. Grab a ticket on the basement level and zip out to Bangkok’s central Silom neighborhood and the Sunflower Place Hotel hidden on a back lane there. Some of the rooms might be showing a bit of wear, but you won’t find a better value in Bangkok than these large midrange-standard offerings.
7.30pm: Gird Yourself, and Eat.
The main drag of Silom Road is a smorgasborg, but try to restrain yourself on your way to Hai, an unpretentious and reliably packed open-air eatery serving the fiery Isan cuisine of Thailand’s northeast. A grilled chicken laab (meat salad) goes perfectly with some spicy green papaya salad and a bamboo tube of sticky rice, best washed down with an ice-cold Singha beer. Remember: this is the tropics, and you must stay hydrated!
8.30pm: Park Life.
If your belly isn’t too full, head back up to Silom Road and through the Si Lom Metro station to Lumphini Park, stopping en route if necessary for sliced mango with condensed milk. Lumphini, at 142 acres, is one of Bangkok’s largest and loveliest green spaces, and easily its most famous. As you stroll, you’re likely to run across one of the giant dance aerobics classes that assemble here each evening to work out — in some cases a hundred or more people all busting a move to pumping techno. Join in if you want, but risk being upstaged by a 70-year-old Thai woman.
Saturday, 9.00am: Rollin’ Down the River.
A quick Thai iced coffee and some fresh sliced mango from a street vendor should do for breakfast on the way down to the boat pier at the Saphan Taksin BTS station, just a couple stops south. The Chao Phraya tourist riverboat might not win any awards for glamour, but makes an excellent taxi up to the central Tha Tien pier, where you can disembark for a visit to Bangkok’s two most memorable temples.
10.00am: Enroll at Temple University.
While the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha are often considered Bangkok’s “must” temple-viewing experience, their popularity also means what you’ll be viewing is mostly a jumble of other people’s heads, elbows, and DSLRs. Instead, check out the equally rewarding temple complex of Wat Pho — a giant and highly photogenic spot nearby, housing one of the world’s largest reclining Buddha images. Pop across the river on the 3-baht ferry to the colossal Khmer-style spires of Wat Arun, the “temple of the dawn,” possibly Bangkok’s most memorable, with fantastic tile-work and awesome views over the river from the steep climb up the central spire.
12.30pm: Cool Off.
It may sometimes seem that Bangkok has been swallowed by shopping malls, but after an entire morning in the heat, you begin to understand why. Hop into an air-conditioned cab (not a tuk-tuk!) from Wat Pho, over to the luxury Siam Paragon shopping mall in the city center (remind your driver that the cab possesses a functioning meter). The AC here is a slice of heaven, and the excellent gourmet food court in the basement is the perfect place to people-watch while grazing on top-notch Thai noodles, Vietnamese rice-paper rolls, and French pastries. If a basement food court sounds bodge, prepare to be impressed.
The skytrain at Siam will whisk you up to the fabulous Chatuchak Weekend Market, accessed from the aptly-named Mo Chit station. While the bureau of ambiguous statistics is undecided as to if Chatuchak really is Southeast Asia’s largest market, it is certain that Chatuchak is HUGE, and the perfect place to pick up souvenirs, clothing, shoes, and shockingly tasty fresh-squeezed passionfruit juice. Try to keep the punning to a minimum as you shop.
Back down in Silom (and ideally showered off after the heat of the day!), stop in for a one-hour traditional Thai massage at Ruen-Nuad, down Convent Road. The massage is roughly on par with any of the city’s hundreds of other massage studios, but the location in a lovely old wooden house and generally more polished ambiance make it worth the small premium you’ll pay for the privilege.
6.30pm: Get High.
It’s a short walk to Vertigo, the swish 61st-floor open-air cocktail bar on the roof of the Banyan Tree Hotel. Be sure to wear sleeves and closed shoes, and prepare to be amazed by the city’s most breathtaking sunset experience. Cocktails (delicious, but plus tax and service, ouch) are pricey, but you won’t find a more stunning view in Southeast Asia.
7.30pm: Tete a Tee.
La Table de Tee, a short walk away, is one of Bangkok’s most exciting new restaurants, blending Thai and French cooking techniques in a six-course tasting menu that changes weekly. Piquant, sweet, sour, velvety and spicy are all incorporated here into what may be the city’s most memorable fine dining experience. It’s a tiny place, and can be hard to locate, so call well ahead for reservations and directions.
10.00pm: Once more into the breach.
Swollen? Sated? Tuckered out? Head back to the hotel and cool your heels. If you’re ready for a final blast instead, grab a taxi and head up to Khao San Road, the mother of all backpacker ghettos. It’s crass, hokey, and filled with all the world’s gap-year kids, but good fun nonetheless. Grab a beer and a curbside seat, and laissez les bons temps rouler!
Having passed thru the city once, twice, three, four and now five times, Bangkok has gone from a tourist “given” to one of travel writer Matthew Crompton’s favorite big cities on the map. Having written about travel for outlets in the US, UK, Asia and Australia, Matthew finds Bangkok (like New York or London) to be simply its own world, and one he’s overjoyed to return to each time a trip, or story, takes him to Southeast Asia. Matthew is based in Sydney, Australia and gets over to Asia as often as possible these days. You can read about his adventures on www.goingaroundplaces.