Bangkok Too Overwhelming? Get Off the Main Streets to Discover Its Charm
Bangkok can feel frenetic and overwhelming (and also underwhelming) to newcomers who imagined Thailand to be all gorgeous temples and beaches. But don’t give up on it just yet — once you get off the main streets, chances are you’ll enjoy this Land of Smiles.
On the Postcard Academy podcast, my guest, travel writer Nardia Plumridge, shares Bangkok’s best with us. We talk about everything from Buddhism and meditation to the best street food and rooftop bars. I also share the story of when my sister and I were trucked off to a Thai jail, and why we’d go back to the country despite that very surreal and scary experience. You’ll have to listen to the podcast for that story and my entire conversation with Nardia (subscribe here for free).
Fun facts about Bangkok
Bangkok has only officially been a city for 237 years, so the Grand Palace and other temples you see are younger than some of the historic buildings you’ll find in the U.S. The royal family lives there and the people love them.
What to do in Bangkok: must-sees and hidden gems
Visit the temples. Grand Palace and Wat Po are the city’s two main sites and what you’ll see on the postcards. Learn more about the Thai royal family at the Grand Palace and see the reclining Buddha at Wat Po. Be careful of scam artists telling you these places are closed, but that they’ll give you another tour at a special price...
Meditate. Wat Mahathat is the oldest Buddhist university in the world and offers daily guided meditation in English. Conveniently located next to the Grand Palace. “There's some really beautiful temples there. It's part of university; it's not part of the tourist trail.”
Enjoy high tea. For a refined afternoon, head to the Author’s Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok’s oldest hotel.
Cruise down the Chao Phraya river. For less than a dollar, you can hop on one of the regular boats (not one for tourists) to take in the city. They go by color, so make sure you get on the orange one at Sathorn Pier. “You just sit on this boat and you can watch the world go by. It's a really fun way to see the city and see some temples and even see the Grand Palace from the river.”
Hang out in Lumpini Park. “Hire boats to paddle the lakes and feel like you’re in Central Park, New York.”
Be a culture vulture. “I love all of the galleries and there's a lot of contemporary spaces that have opened. One of my favorites is a place called BACC, which is the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. It reminds me a bit of the Guggenheim in New York...Then around the corner on a little side street is a quite a cool little space that's called Yelo, where they often have live music, a little restaurant, a gallery on the mezzanine floor...so that's a great place to check out and it's open in the evenings.” Also check out the Bangkok National Museum, which is near the Grand Palace and offers tours in English.
Where to eat in Bangkok
“The street food is incredible,” Nardia says. “It's really cheap. I did an incredible tour in 2017 with the Bangkok Food Tours Company and what I loved about them is we really went off-the-beaten-track places. The guide was wonderful and she took us to a local food market and no other westerners were there.”
Bangkok, according to Nardia, is a mashup of old and new, shiny and dirty. So while there’s plenty of street food at budget prices, you can also find upscale places to splash some cash (though much less cash than in other major cities).
“The city has become quite contemporary in more recent times,” Nardia says. “It's hard to really find what I would call ‘Old Town Bangkok.’ But the best place to explore I would say it would be Chinatown, which has some incredible food if you're a foodie and there's some great dim sum places, which I love. There's a place called Hua Seng Hong, which is my favorite little restaurant on the main drag there.”
Do they tip in Bangkok?
Tips are usually included in your bill, but if you feel like giving something extra for above and beyond service, go ahead.
Where to shop in Bangkok
Chatuchak Market. Looking for a souvenir? You’ll find green curry paste, tiger balm, and just about everything else at this massive weekend market with more than 15,000 stalls.
Jim Thompson. If you’re looking for some silky luxury, this is Thailand’s most famous brand. Jim Thompson was an American expat credited with revitalizing Thailand’s dying silk industry, and pulling thousands of working women out of poverty. He mysteriously disappeared in 1967, but you can learn more about him by touring his house.
Warehouse 30. Head here for a mix of food, shopping, and art.
Panpuri. If you don’t have time for their wellness spa, you can still treat yourself o some lush, organic beauty products.
Amulet market. Near the Royal Palace, here you’ll find “small pieces of jewelry thought to give protection against evil, danger, or disease.”
Best way to get around Bangkok
“I've definitely taken a tuk tuk in the past and I think they are a really fun thing to do even just once in your life for the giggle,” Nardia says, “They will always try to overcharge you. So just be careful, and my advice is always get a quote first.”
Where to stay in Bangkok
“Bangkok is like London, there are many ‘centers.’ I live in Silom area, but you can also be north of Lumpini Park (near CentralWorld mall is ideal). I love the Luxx XL for a decent mid-range room. Otherwise there are hotels lining the river. My fave is Siam. Gorgeous – and pricey. For something unusual, sleep within the forest-like surrounds at Bangkok Treehouse.”
Where to go after Bangkok
The beach. If you want to relax, avoid the tourist packed islands like Samui, Pha-ngan, Tao, Phuket, Phi Phi. Instead try Lipe, Yao Yai, Lanta.
The mountains. Head north to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai for more temples and trekking. Avoid elephant-related activities unless you know the animals are well cared for.
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 8 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.