Here’s everything you should do for your first time in Bangkok

Bangkok is exciting. Sure, you’ve heard that one before, but it should be repeated at all times. It’s one of travel’s most reliable facts.

Bangkok is this irrepressible beast of a city, as diverse as it is chaotic. You’ll never run of things to see and do here, which makes planning a trip a bit overwhelming. That’s where this guide will come in handy. Here, I’ve listed some of the my favourite parts about this kinetic city, trying to capture both the stalwarts that have been standing for decades, and the new developments caught up in Bangkok’s perpetual motion.

But most importantly…

Eat all the Street Food. All.

Moo Ping | Photo by @chrisdsingh.

It’d be foolish to come all the way to Bangkok and not take advantage of the city’s storied street food culture. Michelin crab omelettes and juicy pork skewers are just the beginning to this quintessential culinary adventure, which is often so vast it’s hard to know where to start.

A good idea would be to do some research before you actually land in the Thai capital. There’s also a lot of food tours out there to help take choice anxiety out of the equation. For starters, you can read our guide to Bangkok’s street food HERE.

Immerse Yourself in Jim Thompson House & Restaurant

Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

American businessman and architect Jim Thompson rose to prominence in the mid 20th century from selling fine Thai silks, netting himself a sizable fortune when he co-founded the Thai Silk Company in 1948.

In 1967, he disappeared around the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, but his legacy is well preserved in this eponymous house. The property belonged to Thompson and is notable for its striking architecture and highly curated Asian art collection, amongst other personal belongings.

The grounds themselves are gorgeous and peaceful enough to make this one of the top attractions in the area, with guided tours between 9am and 6pm. Try and go later in the day, and then back it up with dinner at the big-ticket on-site restaurant – a dining institution in Bangkok.

Although as a brand Jim Thompson has several eateries dotted around the city now, ranging from the intricate silk-inspired Bombyx to fine-dining Spirit Jim Thompson, it’s this one that’s endeared itself to the Bangkok’s discerning gourmands for decades.

Expect traditional Thai made with high-quality ingredients, with stand-out dishes including the Pla Heang Tang Mo (watermelon with sweet dried fish and shallot), Yam Pla Duke Foo (shredded deep-fried catfish with spicy green mango salad), and Phad Thai Tom Yam (the usual pad thai but with the unique curve ball of using tom yam paste and tiger prawns).

Relax Over Cocktails at Vesper

Vesper is one of BKK’s most understated cocktail bars.

A trendy cocktail bar just a stone’s throw from one of the Bangkok’s liveliest party districts, Vesper is a sophisticated spot for classic art and complex cocktails. Before or after you go out in Silom, make sure to pop by here to sample a few of these consistently excellent concoctions. Each is made according to a complex recipe that was inspired by a timeless art piece.

The concept may seem pretentious, but the team behind this have done a fantastic job making this a warm and very casual atmosphere. No wonder the name is frequently spotted on lists of Asia’s best bars.

Party Through Khao San Road

The sensory overload of notorious party street Khao San Road isn’t for everyone. Those who prefer cocktails over nightclubs may want to avoid this place all together. It’s backpacker central for a reason, but there’s something about the spectacle of it all that’s hard to look past.

Parties spill out from nightclubs and take over the street, satellite DJ booths are set up to lure people into seedy bars, and fried scorpions (or tarantulas) count as culinary dares when tourists have had a bit too much to drink.

It’s rowdy. It’s kind of dirty. But if you want a night you won’t remember, Khao San Road is the single-street version of Bali’s Kuta or Sydney’s Penrith Panthers Leagues Club that you can’t resist.

Slurp on SabX2 Wanton Noodles

One of the best hawker dishes in Singapore is Wanton Mee, and although Bangkok might be a bit too far from the Lion City, that doesn’t mean you can’t find the famous bowl of noodles here.

SabX2 Wanton Noodles is the best known spot for a hearty, cheap and delicious bowl of this stuff, which is loaded with pork lard, springy noodles, roasted pork and several dumplings. Mix it all up and inhale, then order another. It’s not healthy by any means, but it is one of the best cheap eats you can possibly find near the uncontrolled buzz of Pratunam Market.

Eat Divine Sushi at YTSB

Some of the best sushi around | Photo by @chrisdsingh

There are many reputable sushi bars in Bangkok, but YTSB stands out as one of the most popular. The calm, colourful and tranquil atmosphere definitely has a lot to do with it.

As one of the restaurant’s part of VIE Hotel, YTSB is a soulful take on a fine-dining sushi experience, with patience a virtue and technique showcased in every sear, chop and slice. Go for whatever omakase they are featuring at the moment, and just sit back and let the studious chefs ascend you to foodie heaven for a few hours. It’s one of the best sushi experience I’ve had outside of Japan.

Discover The Never Ending Summer

While historic Khlong San has remained fairly quiet despite all the surrounding development, there are pockets of this charming neighbourhood that host some of Bangkok’s trendiest haunts. The Jam Factory, a tiny complex of boutiques hidden behind a more traditional market is here you’ll find this relatively hidden gem.

The Never Ending Summer is a constant favourite for locals and in-the-know tourists who can be found chatting away in the bright industrial space, given plenty of personality with aged red brick walls and abundant plantlife.

It’s one of my personal favourites in Bangkok, and I have little doubt it will be yours to once you sit down and really dig into the menu of modernised Thai. Get the Pla Yang with turmeric paste and crispy fried garlic if you want a show-stopper, and pair that up with any of the several Thai-inspired cocktails they’re offering, which includes a Tom Yum concoction that may just blow your mind.

Eat and Shop Your Way Through Icon Siam

Sook Siam
Sook Siam is Icon Siam’s high-concept marketplace | Photo by @chrisdsingh.

At around 500 shops and 100 restaurants, the relatively fresh Icon Siam has already begun racking up design awards around the world. That’s saying a lot for a city that seems obsessed with large-scale retail hubs that densely pack in brands from around the world.

Icon Siam takes a more curated approach, with plenty of world-class luxury brands as well as accessible fashion retailers like H&M. But it’s the food that’s the real reason to head along, with the bottom level carved out as the conceptual “Sook Siam” food precinct.

Modelled on the famous floating markets of Thailand, this enormous space of food and market stalls is one of the only places in Bangkok where you’ll see almost every region of Thailand represented. It’s a true taste of one of the most famous food destinations in the world, and is always a good starting point for those who want to get a taste of just how diverse Thai street food is.

If you’re staying at the Shangri-La, the nearby Sathorn ferry terminal has a free boat that leaves for Iconsiam regularly. The mall is also easily accessible by boat from the iconic Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn).

Visit Wat Arun

Temple of Dawn
The famous Temple of Dawn | Photo by @chrisdsingh.

Wat Arun, or “Temple of Dawn”, is the best known of Bangkok’s many landmarks. This towering, vibrant Buddhist temple is located on the western shores of the Chao Phraya. The best way to arrive is by long-tail boat from the other side. Majestic on approach, four-corned pagoda reach almost 70 metres tall and shine bright with an intricate central prang encrusted with shiny porcelain and seashells.

Remember to observe best practice when visiting Buddhist temples and keep shoulders and knees covered if you’re a woman. Sarongs are available for rent at the entrance.

Visit Wat Pho

Wat Pho
Wat Pho draws visitors year-round | Photo by @chrisdsingh.

Another spectacular temple to see in Bangkok is Wat Pho, commonly referred to as the “Temple of the Reclining Buddha”. Here you’ll find one of the largest Buddha statues in the country at 15m high and 46m long, postured as a sleeping lion readying entry to parinirvana.

The entire temple complex is a stunning piece of Thai history, as it’s the oldest in the entire city. You’ll even find a Bodhi tree in a small garden next to the Reclining Buddha, a direct descendant of the same tree in India under which the Buddha reached enlightenment.

Take your time to explore the entire 20 acre complex as there’s plenty to see, and after you might want to head to the nearby Grand Palace to explore another slice of Thai history.

Explore theCOMMONS

Hop on over to the achingly hip neighbourhood of Thonglor and head straight to theCOMMONS. This interesting eco-friendly mall is a hipster-friendly spread of artisan cafes, independent retailers and a dedicated food hall with some of the city’s best concepts.

Masterful design has split the open-air mall into four spaces, with Market and Village being the main ones, while Play Yard and Top Yard take the concept a step further with wellness, cooking classes and a bar. Boutique coffee shop Roast can also be found here, being the biggest resident and founders of theCOMMONS.

Eat with Locals at Soul Food Mahanakorn

Look for this sign, and you’ve found Soul Food | Photo by @chrisdsingh.

Remain in Thonglor when night rolls around because you’ll want to grab some dinner at one of the area’s hottest restaurants, Soul Food Mahanakorn. As one of Bangkok’s most beloved, it’s a seat of high-quality regional Thai street food that’s affordable, fun and perfectly proportioned for large groups.

There’s almost too much to try in just one sitting here, but the first-timer should definitely go for highlights like the smokey eggplant salad with soft-cooked duck eggs, mint, coriander and bacon; the crab and lemongrass curry; the incredible pork belly curry with slowly braised ginger and garlic; and perennial favourite khao soi gai.

Party at Sing Sing Theatre

A nightclub and bar lifted straight from an Asian fantasy film. This place is dark, moody, and heavy on the retro-futuristic design worked by the legendary Ashley Sutton. Sing Sing Theatre is without a doubt one of the most unique nightclubs you’ll find in Asia, heavy on theatrics and highly curated when it comes to party-starting DJs.

After you’ve exhausted the lavish rooftop bars of Bangkok, hide away in here and give yourself over to the thick of Bangkok’s incomparable nightlife.

Dine at Michelin Starred Paste

Paste
Paste is one of the best fine-dining experiences in the city | Photo by @chrisdsingh.

If you’re heading to Bangkok to tick off a bunch of bucket list dining experiences at once, then you’ve probably already made a reservation at the usuals like Nahm and Le Normandie. Bee Satongun’s Paste should also be on that list.

Located on the top floor of luxury mall Gaysorn Village, this deserving Michelin starred restaurant showcases a visionary culinary talent at the top of her game (she was crowned Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2018), elevating traditional Thai recipes ever so slightly, with an exploratory approach that nods to various regions throughout the country.

Do not miss the silky massaman lamb curry with young durian, or the dish of watermelon with ground salmon, fried shallot and toasted galangal powder. You’ll be surprised at the complexity of these dishes, which are best taken as part of a set menu with paired wines.

For more on Paste you can check out a feature I did on the restaurant HERE.

Stay…

For Location: Amari Watergate Bangkok

Bangkok

Given Bangkok is such a big city, with many distinctive neighbourhoods, it’s best to choose your accommodation with a bit of strategy in mind. The stalwart Amari Watergate Bangkok is best for those who want luxurious accommodations to come back to after day of shopping. The property is directly opposite the huge Platinum Mall, directly next to Pratunam Market, and only a 10 minute walk from Central World. That’s three incredibly dense and popular shopping destinations immediately accessible.

The proximity to Pratunam also means you’re walking distance from aforementioned SabX2 Wanton Noodles, so a bowl of outstanding noodles and pork lad is only a few minutes walk away each day.

Location isn’t the only reason to stay here though. With impeccable service, the huge Amaya Food Gallery hosts a ridiculously comprehensive breakfast buffet. Make sure you’ve got access to the Executive Lounge if you want striking views that really take in the urban sprawl.

For Design: Sofitel So

Sofitel So
Sofitel So is a designer hotel with attitude | Photo by @chrisdsingh.

Fun, a bit flirty, and completely unique in its aesthetic, Sofitel So is a flagship for the luxury French brand’s trendy offshoot and a perfect example of what the “So” brand has brought to the lodging industry. Almost directly opposite leafy Lumpini Park, the property plays a strong hand in design-forward everything, with guest rooms split by category based on the elements of Chinese culture (water, wood, earth, metal and fire), shaped by French celebrity designer Christian Lacroix and several Thai artists.

Two restaurants and three bars certainly help, but it’s the guest rooms and the outrageously stylish pool and lifestyle area – the choice for regular local-run pool parties – that will win you over.

READ: Sofitel SO Review.

For Luxury: Shangri-La

Shangri-La
Shangri-La’s design rests heavy on tradition | Photo by @chrisdsingh.

Stylish and sophisticated, the Bangkok iteration of the famous Shangri-La brand is appropriately grand and feels especially private tucked away in the backstreets of bustling Bang Rak.

Many coffee shops, bars and boutiques surround this property, but it’s got its own self-contained hospitality scene with an excellent traditional Thai option in Salathip, and surprisingly its very own dinner cruise ship, with nightly sails down the Chao Praya. There’s a total of six restaurants here, so you could never leave and still get a fairly comprehensive grasp of Bangkok’s diverse dining scene.

Convenience is also a major strong point for this location, with only a few minutes walk to Saphan Taksin BTS and the nearby Sathorn ferry terminal which makes Wat Arun, Iconsiam and a whole host of other attractions on the other side of the river easily accessible.

READ: Shangri-La Bangkok Review.

For more information on what to do in Bangkok head to tourismthailand.org.

The writer travelled to Bangkok on several occasions as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and ONYX Hospitality Group.

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy Editor of the AU review and a freelance travel writer. You can reach him on Instagram by following @chrisdsingh.

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