16 December 2023

Four Days in Bangkok: Golden Temples, Exquisite Eats and Retail Therapy

During my two-week stay in Thailand I spent four full days in the capital, Bangkok: three at the start of my trip and one Friday night and Saturday at the end. Bangkok is a large, sprawling city with so many things to do and places to eat, drink and shop. This trip was an introduction to the city for me rather than a completion but I covered a lot of ground, visited the main sightseeing spots on my list, ate many delicious meals from 50 THB (£1.10) street food dishes to rather more than 50 THB tasting menus, shopped, wandered and visited nine speciality coffee shops

Bangkok is a city of contrasts. It can be hot, busy and fast-paced and it's not for everyone. But I found myself falling for its hectic charms and I'm sure it won't be my last visit. Read on for a flavour of how I spent my time and what I enjoyed most. This is a *long* post with a lot of detailed recommendations of things to do, see and eat in Bangkok, so grab a mango smoothie and dive right in!


THINGS TO DO

Wat hopping

One of the first Thai words you'll learn is wat, which means 'temple'. Over 90% of the Thai population is Buddhist and there are over 40,000 temples in the country, many in Bangkok. I visited a few of the most famous ones on my first two days in the city.

After leaving my bags at my Old Town hotel, I walked straight to the Grand Palace, which is indeed very grand. At all temples, you should cover your shoulders, upper arms and legs at least down to the knee — sometimes wearing a sarong and/or scarf is sufficient but the Grand Palace is one of the stricter temples so I wore my travelling trousers and a t-shirt. I arrived at 9 am and it was already extremely busy with lots of big groups. It costs 500 THB (£11.15) to get in — the most expensive wat I visited.

Despite all of this, the complex is spectacular. Constructed in 1782, it has been the residence of the Kings of Siam and then Thailand ever since. Still tired from my long flight and getting used to the sweltering heat, I was dazzled by the golden buildings and ornate d├ęcor. Don't miss the 178 colourful Ramakien murals or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha — it's the building with the biggest queue to enter; you can't take photos inside but it's very impressive. I almost wish I'd saved the Grand Palace until the end of my stay to better appreciate just how stunning it is — and to reassure myself that most of the other temples weren't quite so busy.

From the Grand Palace, it's a short walk to Wat Pho, one of Bangkok's oldest temples, completed in the late 16th century. The sprawling temple complex is beautiful to explore — the huge and hard-to-photograph Reclining Buddha statue is a sight to behold!

The final temple I visited on my first day was Wat Saket, which was conveniently close to my hotel. After I'd finally checked in, showered and changed, I headed back out and climbed the helter-skelter-like red steps to reach the summit of the Golden Mount, where there is indeed a golden chedi (monument) on top. The summit also offers a panoramic 360 view of Bangkok. I went for golden hour and sunset but although the hazy day meant a mediocre sunset, the view of the city was still incredible — and helped me get my bearings.


I saved Wat Arun for the following afternoon. It's located on the other side of the Chao Phraya River and you can get there via a very short boat ride or a pedestrian bridge depending on when you're starting from. I took a boat from Sathorn pier, put on my sarong and then headed into the temple. The temple was built in the 17th century and its huge central prang (spire) can be seen from across the city. You can climb partway up to get a better view.

I was in Bangkok during Loy Krathong — known as the floating vessel festival — and there were various events taking place inside the temple, as well as vendors selling colourful, floating krathongs (offerings) to launch into the river at sundown. 

I took a ferry back across the river where I had planned to watch the sunset over Wat Arun from a rooftop bar. Instead I sat on the waterfront where people were starting to gather, some of whom with Loy Krathong launches. Once again, the sunset wasn't the best but it was still lovely to watch the lights come on at Wat Arun and across the city as the sun went down. Afterwards, I visited a few Loy Krathong viewing points, including at nearby Saranrom Park, where there were cool light installations. If you're in Thailand during Loy Krathong, it's supposed to be even more special in Chiang Mai, which has an amazing lantern festival.


Art and design

I didn't know much about Jim Thompson — architect, designer and famous Delawarean — before my trip but I learned more during my visit to the Jim Thompson House Museum. Thompson commissioned the traditional-style teak buildings as his home in Bangkok, where his silk business was based. You can only visit by joining a 45-minute guided tour (200 THB, or £4.50), which covers some of his background — and mysterious disappearance while on a trek in the Malaysian Cameron Highlands in 1967. There is, of course, a shop at the end and your ticket also grants access to the small art centre down the block, which has a nice rooftop viewing area.


A short walk away is the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre. I went for the coffee shop (Gallery Drip) but stayed for the art, food and independent shops. There were some interesting photography exhibitions in the spiralling upper floors including a fascinating one about women's empowerment around the world. I had an excellent lunch (crispy pork belly with rice) at Krob Kun and bought a few items at the Coco Sui boutique (the sales assistant was disappointed I didn't buy one of the famous 'surfing tiger' bags, which are apparently very popular).


Parks and relaxation

I was visiting during the Bangkok winter so it was 'only' 29 to 33C during my stay, but even that level of heat and humidity meant I was in need of a bit of respite and nature time. After exploring coffee shops in Sukhumvit, I strolled over to Benchakitti Park. I didn't see any kitties on benches but I did see a few herons hiding among the reeds. The park has a cool forest section with elevated walkways that offer a great view. The nearby Lumphini Park is also a good place for a wander and some shade. Watch out for the huge monitor lizards swimming in the lake!

You can't leave Thailand without having at least one massage. I planned to treat myself to one while in Ko Lanta, but the prices at my resort were extremely high so I waited until I got back to Bangkok. After some research, I booked an aromatherapy oil massage at Makkha Health & Spa, whose original Chiang Mai branch was on my list of spas to try. The one-hour massage cost about 1,400 THB (£31) and was incredibly relaxing, especially after a hot day in the city and ahead of a long journey back to the UK. The spa was a beautiful, calming place and you get mango sticky rice with your post-massage tea — an indulgent treat. I would definitely recommend doing this before or after a long flight.


Retail therapy

I didn't plan to do much shopping in Bangkok, but when in Rome... As well as the aforementioned Coco Sui, I was excited to visit Muji in EmQuartier — the range is so much bigger in Asian Muji branches than back home! Even if you're not a shopaholic, the huge, modern malls are worth a visit to see their impressive design (there are usually Disneyland-like water features) or to check out the food courts. I lost my Apple Watch charging cable on the plane and one of my first missions in Bangkok was to get a new one. I found one at the Apple Store at ICONSIAM before realising I could have got a much cheaper version at one of Bangkok's many markets. The river views from the roof of ICONSIAM are nice, though.

As for the markets, I didn't make it to Chatuchak Market, the large weekend market north of the city centre, having already been over-marketed in Chiang Mai. I did stop by Patpong Night Market, which wasn't very impressive — not that big and the same products you see at most other markets — although I did get a very cheap (20 THB, or £0.45) cover for my new AirPods. I also walked through Pak Khlong Talat, the colourful flower market; it's best to go late at night or early in the morning.


FOOD & DRINK

The food was one of the main reasons I wanted to come to Thailand. Two of my favourite London restaurants are Kin + Deum in Bermondsey and Kiln in Soho and I couldn't wait to try even more deliciousness and spice. On the spice note, you may be asked how spicy you want a dish — 'medium' often means Thai medium, so be warned if you have a sensitive palate! Street food dishes are often only 20 to 40 THB (under £1) so if you see something that looks or smells good and don't know what it is, I recommend just ordering it anyway! I tasted some excellent dishes this way.

I was excited to take part in a Secret Food Tours foodie walking tour in Chinatown. I try to take food tours early in a trip but decided not to risk my first night (Sunday) after the flights, and on Monday a lot of places are closed in Chinatown — a recent imposition to allow street cleaning. So, I took the tour on my last night of my first stay in Bangkok. I paid about £40 for the tour, which lasted almost four hours. Jan was an excellent guide and gave us lots of information about Thai cooking, culture and the Chinatown neighbourhood more generally. We visited a local temple, learned how to prepare lotus flowers and drew a fortune — mine, number 3, was a very good one, but others in our group didn't get so lucky.

As for the food, we tried ten different dishes, starting with khao pad krapow gai (chicken with chilli, basil and rice) at a streetside stall, then sampling shrimp dumplings and pork steamed buns (amazing!) at a Chinatown eatery. Other favourites were the som tam (spicy papaya salad), chicken satay, duck noodle soup and pa tong ko (Chinese doughnuts with pandan custard — so good!). I was absolutely stuffed by the end of the tour but ate some delicious dishes, learned a great deal and had a lot of fun.

Although generally not regarded as authentic Thai food, pad Thai is one of my favourite comfort foods. I ordered it several times during my trip and the best one — just pipping the one I made in a cooking class in Chiang Mai ;) —was at Thipsamai, regarded by many as the best pad Thai in Bangkok. Luckily, the original branch was only a couple of minutes' walk from my Old Town hotel (as well as Wat Saket) and I ate there twice. There is often a queue but it moves fast and is well organised. As you get nearer to the front, you'll get to look at the menu to choose what you want to order (the choice being, 'how would you like your pad Thai?'); the host will then write it down for you. 

When you get inside, you hand over your order sheet and will be taken to your table. They were showing pad Thai cooking demos on the TV screens and had little cards instructing you how best to mix and eat your dish, so it really was like a shrine to the pad Thai! First time, I upgraded to the 'royal' version with big-boy river prawns. This was still only 200 THB (£4.50) and the prawns were delicious, if a little tricky to eat with chopsticks. When I went back, I got the regular version with dried shrimp and egg (90 THB or £2), which, honestly, I enjoyed just as much. The sweet, sour, salty and spicy flavours combined perfectly; I was definitely in pad Thai heaven!

A few doors down from Thipsamai is Jay Fai, one of only a handful of Michelin-starred street food stalls in the world. As the queues can be epic, I was glad to be staying just down the block, but unfortunately, it closes on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, which was when I was staying in the neighbourhood. I went back at the end of my trip, arriving at 8:30 am (30 minutes before opening) and prepared to wait four hours or more. I was allocated number 53 in the queue and the first 11 groups were seated at 9:15 am. 

As the goggle-wearing septuagenarian chef Jay Fai cooks every dish herself, the queue progress was incredibly slow. By 11:15, the 11th group was only just leaving. It didn't help that although there aren't reservations for most people, big groups of 'VIPs' would jump out of taxis and straight into open tables. Meanwhile, one thoughtless couple ordered seven main course dishes. They only ate about 10% of the food; the rest was thrown in the trash. What a waste of food and of the chef's time!

By noon, I was going to cut my losses but the couple I was queueing with (number 33, having arrived around 8:10) said that they might give me one of their seats. One of them didn't like shellfish (the crab omelette is the signature dish) and they also had a fine-dining booking for 1 pm. In the end, they both stayed with Jay and their number came up just after 1 pm. They asked if I could join them (most tables are for four but only one group is seated per table) but the answer was no. It would have taken at least another hour for the food to arrive, anyway, and I had a massage booked in Sukhumvit, so I had to give up. At least I was able to buy some of Jay's new instant noodles in the 7-Eleven across the street. According to a local, the queue was much worse than normal that day, but to get a slot in the opening round, you have to show up at 6 am or 7 am. Good luck!

The final casual eatery I have to mention is Polo Fried Chicken, a street-food stall turned restaurant near Lumphini Park. Their fried chicken was one of the most delicious things I ate all holiday. All year, in fact! I didn't realise at first that it was encrusted in crispy garlic. It took over a day before I could open my mouth without fear, but it was 100% worth it!

On my last night, I treated myself to a special dinner at Silom fine-dining restaurant Saawaan. Each course of the tasting menu focuses on a different cooking technique, from 'fermented' (like the sauce that came with the mega prawn seen below) and 'curry' (the pork jowl with pineapple, masala and sticky rice was, to quote an overused phrase, 'same same, but different' to other incarnations of similar dishes). The life-preserver-style dessert was also one of the tastiest and most beautifully presented sweet treats I've had in a long time. 

The service was exquisite — I always think that how restaurants treat solo diners is a good indication of their service in general — and flavour combinations, presentation and storytelling were all top-notch. It was an extra-nice way to sweeten the below of the final day of an amazing holiday.

I had two memorable cocktail experiences. After watching the Wat Arun sunset from the dock rather than a rooftop bar, I stumbled upon Nusara, near the riverside. The fully booked restaurant had been on my list but I got a seat at the insanely beautiful, Barbie-pink bar. The cocktail I ordered — a twist on the Clover Club with snake fruit and plum dust instead of raspberries — was superbly mixed and the bar was great for people-watching.

The Moon Bar is an open-air, vertigo-inducing bar on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree hotel, where I stayed for the last night of my trip. I planned to go to the Moon Bar for sunset but my flight was cancelled and I didn't get to the hotel until almost 9 pm. It was very busy but I didn't have to wait long to get a seat. The panoramic views over Bangkok were sensational and the venue itself, with its light shows and central, circular bar, was also quite something. 

Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of influencer types taking endless selfies and videos — I suspect there was even more of that at sunset! Still, I can't blame people for wanting to take photos in such a cool spot. I took a few myself, including of my well-mixed blue and purple Lost Paradise cocktail. The flavours in my Karbi Mule (Krabi Mule, perhaps?) were even better. Cocktails start from 500 THB (£11.20) — you are definitely paying for the exceptional view, but the drinks were really good and you do get good bar snacks. Besides, entry to the 74th floor of the Mahanakhon Skywalk alone costs over 1,000 THB!



WHERE TO STAY

During my first three days in Bangkok, I stayed at Villa de Pranakorn in the Old Town, an area I chose for its proximity to the Grand Palace and Wat Saket and to public transport. Although there was building work going on in the street, I found this a much more pleasant location to stay in than Silom, with its high-rise buildings and big, busy roads. Villa de Pranakorn was fantastic. The staff were lovely and helpful and I had a large room, which even came with a V60 (they must have known I was coming!), as well as a living room area and a view over the delightful courtyard pool. My room was quiet, comfortable and a great place to unwind after a busy day of Bangkok sightseeing. Being able to take a dip in the pool was really nice too. I paid about £90 per night for a deluxe suite, booked — like most of my accommodation — several months in advance.


For my last night in Bangkok at the end of my trip, I booked the Banyan Tree Bangkok near Lumphini Park. Originally, I was supposed to arrive from Krabi around 3 pm, which would give me plenty of time to enjoy the outdoor pool and the hotel's other facilities, but my flight was cancelled and I ended up not arriving until almost 9 pm. I was pleased, however, to find I'd been upgraded and my room on the 55th floor had amazing views over Lumphini Park and the Bangkok skyline (pictured below). 


I headed straight up to the Moon Bar — more about this in the Food & Drink section above. As for the pool, I woke early on my last morning so I was able to go for a sunrise swim. I had the pool to myself and the views were great even if it was *only* on the 21st floor. Banyan Tree has an award-winning spa, but the treatments were a little out of my budget. The service at the hotel was excellent, the room quiet, comfortable and very well appointed, and I really enjoyed my stay, even if, as I mentioned above, I preferred the Old Town as a neighbourhood to stay in. I paid about £110 for my room.


GETTING THERE & AROUND 

Bangkok is a big city, so even if you like walking, you'll probably need to rely on various forms of transport. To and from Suvarnabhumi Airport, I used the GrabCar app. The journey took 35 to 45 minutes, depending on the time of day, and cost about 400 to 500 THB (£9 to £10), plus 70 THB extra if you opt for the toll route, which saves about 15 minutes. Although I was usually able to get a Grab within a few minutes, when I arrived from Krabi late on Friday evening it took almost 20 minutes to secure a driver. You can also hail taxis or tuk tuks to get around town but I hate negotiating prices and prefer the convenience of knowing the journey cost in advance and paying by card with Grab.

You can also use the Bangkok Airport Rail Link (45 THB, 30 minutes) but depending on where you are staying, you will probably also need to connect to an MRT or Sky Train (BTS), which requires purchasing a separate ticket. As I was usually travelling late at night or very early in the morning and neither of my hotels was very close to the MRT or BTS, I just opted for Grab but the train route is much cheaper and also unaffected by the whims of the infamous Bangkok traffic.

I loved taking the BTS, known as the Sky Train, the elevated rail system that runs through Bangkok, adding a brutalist 1980s vision of the future to cityscape. Unfortunately, the routes weren't that useful for me so I only got to use it a couple of times. You need to pay in cash and swipe the reusable plastic card you get on entering the station and then insert into the slot in the machine at the end of your journey. Climbing the stairs up into BTS stations can also be useful way to cross some of Bangkok's biggest, busiest roads!

I used the MRT Blue Line most often to get around the city. You can use a contactless credit card on the MRT or pay cash to get a token, which you need to tap on the reader when entering the station and insert in the slot when leaving. You'll need to know which station you're travelling to because the price varies depending on your journey (it can be from 17 to 43 THB).

Finally, there are various ferries and boats you can take to travel up and down the Chao Phraya river or the canals. You'll need to pay cash — I paid about 15 THB to 40 THB, depending on the route;` it's always worth keeping lots of coins or small-denomination notes. Google Maps now includes costs in suggested routes, which is super-helpful. One of the canal boats I took to Jim Thompson house was going rather faster than the boats on the Regent's Canal in London — the waters were very choppy and I'm glad I wasn't standing up! It certainly beat a one-hour walk, though, or a convoluted journey by MRT and bus.


NEED TO KNOW

If you're looking for Bangkok packing tips, check out my recommendations of tried-and-tested products for travel.

  • Electricity. Thailand uses multiple plug socket types. All the hotels I stayed in had sockets that could be used with either Type A (USA) or Type C (European) plugs, at least but it's worth bringing a universal adapter.
  • Language. The language of Thailand is, of course, Thai. Thai has its own script but street signs  usually include an English translation or transliteration. Many people, especially those working in hospitality or tourism, speak some English. As always, if you can learn a few key phrases, it will go down well. Most crucially, kob kuhn ka [kobb kune kaah] means 'thank you', sawasdee ka [the second 's' seems silent: sah-wah-dee kaah] means 'hello' and aroi [arroy] means 'delicious'.
  • Money. The Thai currency is the baht (THB) and at the time of writing, the exchange rate is about 44 THB to the British pound or about 35 THB to the US dollar. Cash is king throughout Thailand and although I used my credit card about 60% of the time in Bangkok, cash was essential for most public transport, street food and smaller shops and eateries. There is a 220 THB (£5) charge for each ATM withdrawal. It can be hard to know how many of the more expensive purchases (excursions, spa treatments, etc) you'll make, but it's best to err on the side of caution and either get your baht before you travel or withdraw larger amounts at a time.
  • Weather. Winter (November to February) is the best time to visit Bangkok — it's a little cooler and less rainy and humid. The temperature still ranged from about 29 to 33C while I was there, so it wasn't exactly chilly... It's also the most popular time for tourists so it can get very busy and hotel prices tend to be higher. March to June is summer and it gets really hot and sticky, while July to October is the monsoon season. 
  • Wifi/mobile data. I bought a 15-day unlimited data, calls and texts eSIM package through Airalo. This cost $19.95 (about £15.80) and although you can get cheaper physical sims in Thailand, the convenience of being able to set this up before my trip and hit the ground running when I landed in Bangkok was well worth it. I was connected to the dtac network and coverage was great throughout Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the islands. Gone were the days of constantly hunting for the next free wifi network (free wifi was widely available, of course, in cafes, eateries, malls, hotels and many other places). Want to give Airalo a try for your next trip? Sign up using my referral code — REBECC3024 — and we both get $3 credit.

Read my other Thailand guides: Bangkok speciality coffee guide, Chiang Mai coffee guide, Chiang Mai city guide, Ko Lanta travel guide and two-week Thailand itinerary.

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