Oh, Bangkok. You're an interesting one. At first glimpse, this is just another giant Asian city with a seemingly lack of balance between green space and buildings (the latter being dominant), but once you lift up the hood, you'll find more life and character than just about any place I've ever been. However, it takes longer here to find that than in other cities, making this a sometimes disliked destination amongst travelers. To be honest, I get that. It's a hard place to really get to the soul of in just a few days, and I feel I have to be responsible with warning you about that. If you're spending just a few days here, you'll enjoy it, but you likely won't fall in love. If you're spending several months here, you'll never get bored.
I think Bangkok also deserves the title of "The City That Never Sleeps." With a metro population of almost 15 million, the city is constantly buzzing with some slam-dunk fantastic restaurants, fun bars and nightlife, and an international crowd exchanging moments and ideas. The energy is palpable and fun, as you imagine all of the lives of the people swarming around you while sitting in traffic, squeezing through temples, or overlooking the crowds from a rooftop bar.
Before you go
I can't let you go to Bangkok without surfacing the terrible reality that this city is one of the main international hubs for sex tourism, with perpetrators often being Western men. This won't affect your experience there at all, which is almost more haunting. I do think to go to Bangkok and not recognize what is going on behind closed doors around you is an extreme disrespect to the incredibly strong women who are being hurt and exploited each day. Thankfully, the new Thai Tourism Minister is a woman (!), and she is making strides to eliminate sex tourism. However, we still have a lot of work to do.
where to stay
I stayed in an expat, relatively hipster area of the city called Ekkamai. If I were to live here, this is most likely the area where I'd live. However, it's far from most of the main attractions, so I wouldn't necessarily recommend it if you're only staying a few nights, as you'll spend a lot of time commuting to the city center. I would try to find something with a rooftop by the riverfront for some great views and good walkability. Here are two options or try to find places on nearby:
lebua at State Tower- This is the hotel where the Hangover 2 was shot and has become somewhat of a new landmark in Bangkok. It's pretty pricey, but you can find some deals, which bring the price down a lot. I saw some rooms starting in the $110s, which, while expensive for Southeast Asia, is quite the steal for what you're getting.
Riva Arun- This is where I would stay next time I go to Bangkok. If you've read my other guides, you'll know that I like smaller hotels with only a few rooms and fun interiors. This one only has 25 rooms, beautiful details, and great views of the river and temples. It's in a perfect location within walking distance of most of the main highlights and can set you up with some tours of a Thai dance show or a river market.
what to do
There's an endless number of things to do in Bangkok, but if it's your first time, there are a few things you cannot miss. Most of these are temples, and they're all so different from one another, you really should go to all of them. Don't think you can go to one and get a good feel of what they're all like because that's simply not the case. P.S. "Wat" means "temple."
Wat Pho + Reclining Buddha- This is a gorgeous collection of various temples and buildings that is truly gorgeous. Most of the temples are white with red and gold roofs, and the main attraction is the massive reclining Buddha, which is housed in one of the temples and laying on its side. It's pretty fun, but you can walk through that pretty quickly, and I'd spend more time in the less tourist-packed spots on the grounds that are really stunning with lots of details. In total, I spent about 45 minutes at this one.
Wat Arun- I almost skipped this because it's on the other side of the water, but that would've been a huge mistake. This one is so fun!! There are interesting trees with ball hedge-looking things on them and bright colored statues of different gods. It feels like you're in a Dr. Seuss book or something. This one isn't too big though, so you can do the whole thing in about 30-40 minutes. You'll see lots of signs to get to the ferry that will take you across the river. It is about a 30 second ride, so don't worry about any kind of motion sickness. On the way back, I wasn't paying attention and hadn't even realized we crossed yet! Bring coins to pay for the ride.
Grand Palace- Oh boy do I have a love/hate relationship with this place. This complex of temples and the royal family's former residence houses the most beautiful buildings I've ever seen. At the same time, I also don't think I've seen as many tourist per square foot at a place ever before. I still absolutely don't think you can miss this. The details on the buildings could keep you there for hours, but the obnoxious tourists who push everyone away to get the perfect Instagram photo with no one else in it will get your blood boiling and make you move quickly. I'm not even joking when I tell you that my friend had a group of tourists SIT on her while she was on a bench because she was in the way of the perfect photo they wanted to get. Expect to spend at least an hour and a half here, but if you happen to come at an off time when there are fewer tourists, you could easily spend 3 hours reading all about the history of the complex and exploring the ins and outs of the buildings. Note: they will not except a shawl as a cover up. You must be wearing a shirt that covers your shoulders and something that covers your knees or you will not be let in.
Amphawa Floating Market- I wish I'd had time to go here. Set outside of the city, it definitely will take some time to get here, but I've heard it's really something special. Full of vendors selling things in boats along the water, you can find Thai food, juice, fruit, seafood, and souvenirs. I'd say getting here by Uber is the easiest option. Once there, you can get around by taking a boat cruise along the Mae Hong for about an hour or rent a bike. Note that this is only open from 3-10 PM Friday - Sunday, so plan accordingly. It will take you awhile to get here from Bangkok, so expect this to take an entire afternoon or evening.
Thai massage- You've got to try this! There are a million places to have one done, but you'll be able to tell from the outside whether it's sketchy or not. Go ahead and spend a little more (we're still talking <$10!) and get one done at a place that looks a little nicer. Expect to be laid down on a mattress with a bunch of other people around having the same treatment. The masseuses might even be talking to each other. It's not a relaxing massage, as they pull you into yoga-type positions, but it really does loosen up your muscles and is just an experience you've gotta have!
where to eat
Bangkok is a culinary capitol of the world, and you won't be disappointed! There are so many places to go that are outstanding, and it's really hard to go wrong. I didn't have a meal I didn't enjoy.
Sky Bar- This place has become veryyy popular and pretty touristy because it was featured in the Hangover 2. Who knew that movie was that popular?! But this fancy bar is set on a beautiful rooftop on the lebua hotel (listed above) with an overwhelming view of Bangkok. Come here to get one drink or even just to see the views and leave. It's way too overpriced, so I'd leave after that, but it could be a fun place to start your night. Get here early to avoid any crowds.
Tom Yum Kung- Located on Khao San Road, this place has delicious Thai food but the vibe is the best part. If you're going to eat street food at the night market, you could come here for a drink beforehand.
Thipsamai- This place is known to have the best pad thai in Bangkok, which therefore pretty much equates to the best pad thai in the world. My personal thought? Great pad thai, but I didn't think it was the best I'd ever had, but I know that I'm definitely the exception here. You'll have to wait for a bit to get a table, but you'll have the best time watching them make the pad thai in giant woks out on the street. These guys are masters of their craft! You'll have two options- plain noodles or wrapped in an egg. I say order the one wrapped in an egg, called "Pad Thai Haw Kai Goong Sot."
Som Tum Nua- Famous for their papaya salad, come here to enjoy lots of great Thai dishes. It's located in the trendy Siam Square, where you can take care of all of your shopping needs.
Night Markets - I'm including these two in this section because honestly, the main thing you'll be doing is eating!:
Khao San Road Night Market- The backpacker's area, you'll find lots of hostels around here full of foreigners stopping in Bangkok on their treks through Southeast Asia. At night, this road turns into a market full of tons of cheap, outstanding street food and music and lined with bars where you can enjoy a beer or cocktail. There's so much energy here but know that it's mostly full of foreigners, so just accept it for what it is and don't think you're having some local experience.
Asiatique- This market is especially popular right now, and you'll find a good mix of foreigners and locals. With a great spot right on the river, there are tons of spots to eat with some great views and a lit-up ferris wheel that's made its way into lots of those famous Bangkok shots you see on Instagram.
Additionally, I took a night food tour. They take you around in a tuk-tuk to 5 different spots throughout the night where you try a huge variety of different foods and visit the flower market late at night. It's definitely expensive - probably too expensive - but it's a great way to try lots of different foods and learn more about what you're short on time.