Bangkok (Klong Toey),
Bangkok, also known as the City of Angels and Venice of the East, will hit you like a ton of bricks. It's hot, polluted, and chaotic, and it thrills with energy; there's such a vast array of sightseeing, shopping, and eating possibilities that you'll have little time to rest. When you do find a moment, pamper yourself with spa treatments, skyline-view bars, luxurious hotels, and excellent restaurants. The city is a mesmerizing blend of old and new, East and West, and dizzying contradictions. Temples and red-light districts, languid canals and permanent gridlock, streetside vendors and chic upscale eateries, all make their home together, all at the same time. Bangkok rarely fails to make an impression, and yes, you might need to go spend a few days on the beach to recover from it all. Although Bangkok is not known for jaw-dropping tourist attractions, it does have an endless supply of worthwhile pilgrimages. The Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, and the Emerald Buddha are tops on every visitor's itinerary, and lesser-known temples, such as Wat Benjamabophit, the golden stupa of Wat Sakhet, and Wat Suthat, are all worthy of a stop. Besides temples, there are plenty of other interesting niches and touring possibilities to fit just about every interest. Take in a venom extraction and python feeding show at the Queen Saowapha Snake Farm, or go to the nearby Jim Thompson House to learn all about the famed Thai silk industry. If architecture is your forte, there is the Suan Pakkard Palace with its antique teak house collection, and the even more astounding Vimanmek Palace, which contains the world's largest golden teak building. Bangkok's Chinatown merits at least a day on every travel itinerary—be sure to check out the sprawling labyrinthine Flower and Thieves markets. Thai food is unrivaled for spice, taste, and variation. From multicourse meals to small street vendors, the one constant here is fresh and delicious at every level. You can have superlative roast duck or wonton noodles on a street corner for lunch and then be dining on world-class chef creations in the Oriental or Shangri-La hotels for supper. It doesn't have to be all spicy Thai either, as Bangkok is home to excellent French, Italian, and other world cuisines, and you need a few years just to make a dent in all the options that are available. The Old City is a major destination for travelers, as it's home to opulent temples like Wat Po and Wat Phra Kaew. Across the river is Thonburi, a mostly residential neighborhood, where you can find Wat Arun. At the northern tip of the Old City is Banglamphu, one of Bangkok's older residential neighborhoods. It's best known now for Khao San Road, a backpacker hangout, though the neighborhood has much more to offer, especially when it comes to street food. North of Banglamphu is Dusit, the royal district since the days of Rama V. East of the Old City is Chinatown, a labyrinth of streets with restaurants, shops, and warehouses. Farther down the Chao Phraya River is bustling Silom Road, one of the city's major commercial districts. Patpong, the city's most famous of several red-light districts, is also here. Bang Rak is home to some of the city's leading hotels: the Mandarin Oriental, the Peninsula, the Royal Orchid Sheraton, and the Shangri-La. To the north of Rama IV Road is Bangkok's largest green area, Lumphini Park. Continue north and you reach Sukhumvit Road, once a residential area. More recently, Thong Lor, farther east along Sukhumvit, has become the "in" neighborhood for those want to see and be seen. The Nana and Asok areas of Sukhumvit are now home to the even busier red-light entertainment districts (Nana and Soi Cowboy) than Patpong.
Thais are passionate about food, and love discovering out-of-the-way shops that prepare unexpectedly tasty dishes. Nowhere is this truer—or more feasible—than in Bangkok. The city's residents always seem to be eating, so the tastes and smells of Thailand's cuisine surround you day and night. That said, Bangkok's restaurant scene is also a minefield, largely because the relationship between price and quality at times seems almost inverse. For every hole-in-the-wall gem serving the best sticky rice, larb (meat salad), and som tam (the hot-and-sour green-papaya salad that is the ultimate Thai staple) you've ever had, there's an overpriced hotel restaurant serving touristy, toned-down fare. In general, the best Thai food in the city is generally at the most bare-bones, even run-down restaurants, not at famous, upscale places.
If you want a break from Thai food, plenty of other world cuisines are well represented. Best among them is Chinese, although there's decent Japanese and Korean food as well. The city's ubiquitous noodle shops have their roots in China, as do roast-meat purveyors, whose historical inspiration was Cantonese. Western fare tends to suffer from the distance, although in the past few years, there has been an incredible increase in the number of upscale and trendy western eateries, some of them quite excellent.
As with anything in Bangkok, travel time is a major consideration when choosing a restaurant. If you're short on time or patience, choose a place that's an easy walk from a Skytrain or subway station. Note that the easiest way to reach a riverside eatery is often an express boat on the Chaoe Phraya River.
Bangkok offers a staggering range of lodging choices, and even some of the best rooms are affordable to travelers on a budget. The city has nearly 500 hotels and guesthouses, and the number is growing. In fact, competition has brought the prices down at many of the city's hotels; unfortunately, the service has suffered at some as a result of cutting corners to lower prices. Still, you'll feel more pampered here than in many other cities.
For first-class lodging, few cities in the world rival Bangkok. In recent years the Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula, Four Seasons, and a handful of others have been repeatedly rated among the best in the world, with new players like the Sofitel So and St. Regis getting major accolades. If there were a similar comparison of the world's boutique hotels, Bangkok's selection would be near the top, too. These high-end hotels are surprisingly affordable, with rates comparable to standard hotels in New York or London. Business hotels also have fine service, excellent restaurants, and amenities like health clubs and spas.
Wherever you stay, remember that prices fluctuate enormously, and that huge discounts are the order of the day. Internet discounts are also widely available, and booking online can often save you up to several thousand baht. Always ask for a better price, even when you are checking in. Deals may be more difficult to come by during the high season from November through February, but during low season they're plentiful.
Hotels are concentrated in four areas: in Silom and Bang Rak (home to many of riverfront hotels); around Siam Square and along Phetchaburi Road in Pathumwan; along Sukhumvit Road, which has the greatest number of hotels and an abundance of restaurants and nightlife; and in the Chinatown and the Old City neighborhoods, which have a smaller number of properties, most of which are affordable. Backpackers often head to Khao San Road, also home to some newer, more upmarket guesthouses.
The city that was once notorious for its raunchy sex trade is now entertaining a burgeoning class of professionals hungry for thumping discos, trendy cocktail lounges, and swanky rooftop bars. There are also stricter rules that limit the sale of alcohol and most closing times now hover around 2 am (although nighthawks can probably find a club or two open until 5 or 6 am).
There are a few notable nightlife spots: the area off Sukhumvit Soi 55 (also called Soi Thonglor) is full of bars and nightclubs; Soi Sarasin, across from Lumphini Park, has lots of friendly pubs and cafés frequented by yuppie Thais and expats; and Narathiwat Road, which starts at Surawong, intersects Silom, then runs all the way to Rama III has trendy new bars and restaurants opening every month.
If you want to take a walk on the wild side, Bangkok still has three thriving red light districts: Patpong, Nana Plaza, and Soi Cowboy. Patpong is the largest, most touristy, and includes three streets that run between Surawong and Silom roads. Nana Plaza, at Soi 4, is packed with three floors of hostess bars and is considered the most hard-core in terms sex shows and shock value. Soi Cowboy, off Sukhumvit Road at Soi 21, is a less raunchy and an easier-going version of Patpong, though it's still a red light district and so be prepared.
Even though it may not seem like it, live sex shows are officially banned and prostitution is illegal. The government doesn't always turn a blind eye, so exercise caution and common sense.
Each year more and more tourists are drawn to the Thai capital for its relatively cheap silk, gems, and tailor-made clothes. But there are a slew of other goods worth discovering: quality silverware, fine porcelain, and handmade leather goods—all at prices that put western shops to shame. The already low prices can often be haggled down even further (haggling is mainly reserved for markets, but shopkeepers will let you know if they're willing to discount, especially if you started walking away).
Don't be fooled by a tuk-tuk driver offering to take you to a shop. Shop owners pay drivers a commission to lure in unsuspecting tourists. Avoid getting scammed on big-ticket items like jewelry by patronizing only reputable dealers.
The city's most popular shopping areas are along Silom Road and Surawong Road, where you can find quality silk; Sukhumvit Road, which is rich in leather goods; Yaowarat Road in Chinatown, where gold trinkets abound; and along Oriental Lane and Charoen Krung (New Road), where there are many antiques shops. The shops around Siam Square and at the World Trade Center attract both Thais and foreigners. Peninsula Plaza, across from the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok in the embassy district, has upscale shops. If you're knowledgeable about fabric, you can find bargains at the textile merchants who compete along Pahuraht Road in Chinatown and Pratunam Road off Phetchaburi Road. You can even take the raw material to a tailor and have something made.
A contemporary arts scene is relatively new to Thailand, but the last decade has seen great changes in the fine arts: artists are branching out into all kinds of media, and modern sculpture and artwork can be increasingly found in office buildings, parks, and public spaces.
Bangkok also offers an eclectic range of theater and dance performances, such as traditional khon, and masterful puppet shows. Music options range from piano concertos and symphonies to rock concerts and blues-and-jazz festivals.