Bangkok – it’s a city that needs no introduction. Regarded as the pinnacle destination for any backpacker’s itinerary and a favoured spot amongst faithful Buddhists and ex-pats alike, Bangkok illustrates the splendid harmony between the country’s undeniable spirituality and complete mind-bending chaos!
Never has there been a city with such polar extremes, and that’s the beauty of it! Among these streets, devout Buddhist monks walk alongside skimpily dressed prostitutes and ladyboys. Luxury 5-star hotels stand across the road from roach-infested hostels. It’s a city of total unpredictability! Though one thing is for sure, this Bangkok deserves a place on your travel itinerary!
So in that case, let me show you the perfect itinerary for exploring the madness which is Bangkok!
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Table of Contents
Don’t Forget About Day Trips!
The perimeter of Bangkok has some jaw-dropping day trips that you must add to your itinerary. Those include visiting the ancient city of Ayutthaya and the infamous bridge over the River Khwae (that’s actually the correct spelling).
For this itinerary though, I’m just going to focus on the city of Bangkok itself and the best highlights you can find there. That being said, make sure you add an extra day or two so you can explore outside the city too!
For your first day, let’s delve right into the heart of the city and visit some of Bangkok’s biggest highlights! Even better, the most visited attractions in the city are all within a stone’s throw away from each other!
The Grand Palace
For 150 years, the opulent structures of the Grand Palace have been a symbol of Bangkok and the Thai royal family. After serving as the residence of the Thai King and the governmental headquarters, today the palaces host regular important ceremonies and visiting heads of state.
Within the grounds are over 100 separate Ratanakosin (old-Bangkok style) buildings representing 200 years of royal history. The farther reaches of the complex include another of Bangkok’s greatest sites – Wat Phra Kaew (we’ll get to that later).
Sadly, only a few areas are open to visitors. These include the palace grounds and four buildings such as the Borombhiman Hall; where King Rama VI once lived, Amarindra Hall; occasionally used for coronations, and Chakri Mahaprasat; nicknamed “Westerner wearing a Thai hat” due to its strange mix of architectural styles.
Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha)
Thailand and its capital certainly aren’t short of some jaw-dropping temples, though this is by far the most significant! Wat Phra Kaew is not only the spiritual core of Thai Buddhism but also the monarchy!
Built in 1782, the first year of Bangkok’s rule, the temple has always been the city’s biggest attraction and a pilgrimage site for devout Buddhists. In true Thai style, the temple is lavishly decorated with enormous golden chedi and monstrous guardians, the yaksha, which were taken from the tale Ramakian (the Thai version of the Indian tale Ramayana).
The temple also houses the country’s holiest image, the Emerald Buddha. Despite its small size, the 14th-century jade statue is highly revered. Standing in the middle of the regal central bohi (ordination hall), the 66cm tall statue is ceremoniously draped in different monastic robes by the king himself with each changing season.
Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha)
Standing right next to the Grand Palace, Wat Pho is one of the largest temple complexes in the capital! It was actually Thailand’s first “university“, and has long been considered a place of healing with its early influences on pharmacy. Even today, the temple is home to the national headquarters of traditional Thai medicine, and even offers traditional Thai massages!
Though that’s not what attracts tourists in their millions through the gates. The true icon is the enormous 45-meter-long Buddha statue laying in one of the halls. From the bright golden hue to the extravagant gem-studded feet (each stone representing the alms that lead the Buddha to nirvana), it’s quite a sight to behold!
Behind the statue stands 108 bowls, each representing different alms. Visitors can perform their own ritual by drop coins in each bowl as they walk along.
Chao Phraya River
Referred to some as the “Venice of the East“, the Chai Phraya River is the lifeblood of this region with its branching canals penetrating deep into the city. From floating markets to riverside temples, the unofficial highway of Bangkok is as significant as any site in the city.
As such, it’s also a right of passage for visitors to get onto the waters! While some prefer marvelling at the riverside monuments and temples during the day, others prefer the beauty of the city lights glistening off the water during the evening. Either way, it’s a fascinating look at what makes this city so great!
Also known as “The Temple of Dawn”, Wat Arun has one of the most intriguing histories of any temple in the city.
Following a fierce battle between the ancient kingdoms of Siam and Burma, the Ayutthaya (Siamese) Kingdom finally fell. Once King Taksin returned from battle, he came across the ruins of an old Buddhist Temple as the sun was setting. The King vowed to build a temple at the site to house the Emerald Buddha (the one now found at Wat Phra Kaew). He renamed the temple after Arun – the Indian god of dawn – in honour of founding a new kingdom.
The stunning white prang commands the view across the Chao Phraya River. The structure is designed with a unique mosaic of broken Chinese porcelain that was salvaged from a British shipwreck, which ensures that the complex always glistens in the sun.
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Bangkok National Museum
In a country of such vibrant and ever-changing history, there are plenty of relics to marvel at. As a result, the Bangkok National Museum has gathered the largest collection of artefacts and Thai art in the country.
The museum was first opened by King Rama V in a humble effort to show off all the gifts that his father had given to him. From Chinese weapons and precious stones to clothing and textiles, it gives a deeper insight into the long and complicated history of this nation.
New York has Broadway, London has Oxford Street, Bangkok has Khaosan. Featured in the likes of The Beach and Hangover II, the street has transcended its simple Thai roots. A gathering of street vendors, Buddhist monks, tattoo parlours, laughing gas, ladyboys, and pad thai provides a sensory overload galore. Once the lights dim, the streets transform with a haze of neon lights and pulsating booze-fuelled energy.
This street is where all the good, bad and ugly of the travelling cultures collide in a cacophony of insanity. For many people, the street signifies everything wrong with the backpacking culture. Some see it as the defining example of how a beautifully spiritual place has been ravaged by the toxic influence of tourists. But one thing is for certain, this is wholeheartedly Bangkok.
The second day of your Bangkok itinerary will continue on a cultural theme. You’ll spend the day passing by some more fascinating temples while also discovering some other cultural phenomena.
A site you may be familiar with if you look at the back of a 5 bhat coin, Wat Benchamabophit is yet another one of Bangkok’s most striking temples. Also known as “the marble temple”, the first-class Royal temple was built at the end of the 19th century by the order of the king.
Inside the ordination hall, you will find the temple’s main image, the Phra Buddha Chinnarat. The image is actually a copy of the original 7th-century statue located in Phitsanulok province. This is also the final resting place of King Rama V, whose ashes are buried under the bronze statue.
Wat Saket (the Temple of the Golden Mount)
Yet another temple worth a spot on your itinerary, the Golden Mount can be seen as the talisman of Bangkok. The 80-meters tall golden chedi standing upon a man-made hill provides some of the most jaw-dropping views the city has to offer.
The site once acted as the capital’s crematorium for those too poor to afford a funeral. Evidence of that time can still be found in the form of an eerie cemetery buried in an unkempt shrubbery at the base of the mount.
The shrine comes to life each November as it hosts a week-long Buddha relic-worshipping ceremony. During this time, the enormous stupa is covered in a bright-red cloth and a candlelit procession makes its way around the Golden Mount.
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One of the more peculiar sites on this list is a 27-meter-high giant swing standing in the middle of the street! Though don’t be mistaken, this is far from a child’s plaything!
This 18th-century structure was once used as part of a Brahmin ceremony that re-enacted a famous Hindu tale. Teams of three took turns to swing 25 meters or more off the ground “up to Heaven“, where they would attempt to use their teeth to grab a bag of silver coins that was tied to a large pole. The stability of the swing and the swingers themselves represented the unshakeable will of Shiva.
Sadly, King Rama VII banned the contest in 1932, following a number of fatal accidents.
Yet another temple worth visiting, Wat Suthat holds the title of the oldest and possibly most beautiful in the city!
The grounds of the temple hold treats such as the gorgeous Jataka murals and the 8m-tall Phra Si Sakayamuni, Thailand’s largest surviving bronze statue from the former capital of Sukhothai.
This temple is also another royal resting place, as the ashes of King Rama VIII (1935–46) are held in the base of the bronze image. The temple is also closely associated with Brahman (Hindu) priests who regularly perform ceremonies at the site.
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China has a far-reaching influence around the world, and their ancestors can be found in every major city across the globe. Due to Thailand’s close proximity to its Asian neighbours, Bangkok’s Chinatown is one of the more authentic and bustling you can find!
With streets full of vendors, restaurants and traditional Chinese stores, it’s a sensory-titillating experience of this wonderful culture.
Wat Traimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha)
Yet another temple with a claim to fame, Wat Traimit’s star attraction, the 3m-tall, 5.5-tonne, solid-gold Buddha image, is the largest of its kind! It was discovered about 65 years ago beneath a plaster exterior after the figure was damaged while being moved. Many believe that the covering was to protect it from the invading Burmese, but nobody really knows.
The 2nd floor is also home to the Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Center, a small museum with exhibits on the history of Bangkok’s Chinatown and its residents.
Watch Muay Thai
There are many iconic elements of Thai culture. One of the most fascinating is the combat sport known as Muay Thai. This centuries-old fighting technique has been implemented by ancient warriors to modern-day MMA fighters alike. So, in that case, there’s no better place to experience the exhilarating art form than in its homeland!
There are a bunch of places where you can enjoy a fight every day of the week. From high-production events to a stack of plastic chairs and one too many beers, there’s plenty of opportunity to enjoy some sanctioned violence.
Some of the most noteworthy venues include Rajadamnern Stadium, Lumpinee Stadium, Channel 7 Stadium and Rangsit Stadium to name a few. You’ll be able to book tickets at your hotel and be taken to the stadiums directly. Also, some stadium shows are completely free!
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Now that you’ve been properly introduced to Bangkok, it’s time for your itinerary to turn a little more extreme. I’m not gonna lie, things are gonna get pretty crazy…buckle up…
Yet another iconic aspect of Thai culture that many of us are familiar with is the art of the massage! From luxury spa resorts to backroom rub-and-tugs, there’s a plethora of places throughout the city where you can achieve total relaxation.
People will constantly try to entice you into their place as you walk along the streets. You’d be doing yourself (and your body) a disservice by not getting one! And with prices starting at 250 baht, who could resist?
Now that you’ve achieved a state of tranquillity fit for Buddha himself, there’s no better place to continue the moment of peace than by visiting Lumphini Park.
Named after the Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal, the park was originally a royal reserve before King Rama VI opened it to the public. These days, the park provides a much-needed peaceful oasis away from the unrelenting chaos of the city.
Jim Thompson House Museum
Who knew that one of Bangkok’s best highlights would be dedicated to an American? Jim Thompson was a former member of the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA) during WWII before retiring to a life of luxury in Thailand. He quickly gained a name in the Thai silk industry and was also awarded the Order of the White Elephant, given to foreigners who have made significant contributions to Thailand.
His illustrious story ends in suspicion as he mysteriously vanished while walking along the Cameron Highlands of western Malaysia in 1967. Many believe that the CIA played a part, as Thompson took an anti-American stance later in life.
Regardless, one thing that is certain is the beauty of the house he created. Being an avid collector of various derelict parts of Thai homes, he reassembled them to create his own wonderous paradise. Today, the house has been turned into a museum which gives an insight into his life and the history of the Thai silk industry.
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Yet another relic of the Brahman culture, Erawan Shrine is one of the more modern sites on offer in the city. The site was built in the 1950s by a group of superstitious construction workers, as they believed the land spirits were unhappy and were creating problems during their construction! Either way, it seemed to do the trick!
The shrine itself is of a golden four-faced Brahma god. People regularly flock to the site to lay floral garlands in the hope their wishes will come true.
Nana Plaza (Soi 4)
Now it’s time to bring an end to your peaceful tranquillity with a crashing crescendo! Let me preface this by saying, this will not be everyone’s cup of tea…but for others, it’s the ultimate in booze-crazed sexual debauchery!
The region in and around Nana Plaza is considered party central, or as some believe, it’s the largest sex complex in the world! Forget the Red Light District of Amsterdam, this is a true perverted paradise!
Scores of go-go bars packed with eager Thai ladies looking to share a drink (at your expense of course) or even spend the night with you (if you can afford it). Even if you have no ambition to get your hands dirty, it’s a fascinating place to observe the darker side of life.
From one debaucherous street to the next, many people consider this to be Bangkok’s true Red-Light District. Much like the streets of Amsterdam, rather than hiding these sordid activities in the shadows, they are celebrated and put on display for the world to see.
Named after the American airman T.G ‘Cowboy’ Edwards (what could he have done to earn that reputation?!), the streets are lined with go-go bars and clubs all bathed in that iconic crimson-sexual light. It’s also one of the best places to watch the notorious ping-pong show, if you dare…
The streets play host to a harem of half-naked women standing around, fishing for customers and encouraging passing males to buy them a drink. For many, it’s one of the best highlights on their Bangkok itinerary, while for those with a moral compass, it’s the epitome of human shame.
Now that you’ve been truly scarred for life by the previous night’s sordid activities, it’s time to escape the trauma of Bangkok and bring this itinerary to an end!
I know at the start of this article I said I wouldn’t include day trips, but there is one exception! Believe me, it’s worth breaking a few rules for!
Floating Market (Damnoen Saduak)
Yet another image synonymous with South-East Asia, floating markets are an integral part of local Thai lives. They’re considered one of the must-sees on any Bangkok itinerary! Of the few on offer, the best of the lot is Damnoen Saduak.
Thailand’s most popular floating market is filled with eager vendors who enthusiastically pull in passing boats for a closer look at their merch. You can buy everything from fresh foods to souvenirs. It’s also a great opportunity to interact with locals and observe daily life along the river.
After your time on the boat is complete, you’re free to peruse the other vendors that line the riverbank. Just keep in mind that many of these markets can be pretty touristy.
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Chatuchak Weekend Market
Chatuchak Weekend Market, otherwise known as ‘Jatujak‘ or ‘JJ Market, is the largest in the world with over 15,000 stalls! Shoppers can find everything from jewellery and religious icons to pet supplies and delicious street food. If there’s one place worth shopping on your Bangkok itinerary, it’s this one!
It can be daunting to navigate the market, but thankfully it’s divided into sections based on what they sell. There are a few vendors open on weekday mornings, and there are vegetable, plant and flower markets open on the market’s southern side each day.
Have a Drink on a Rooftop Bar
After a long day (and a long trip for that matter) there’s no better way to top the occasion than with a drink at one of Bangkok’s many rooftop bars. These incredible spots provide a sweeping panoramic view of the city and the chaos laying within its streets!
Of the many to choose from, some of the best include The Roof, with a splendid view of Wat Arun, the Vertigo and Moon bar located on the top of the Banyan Tree Hotel or the Lebua Rooftop bar, which you may recognise from Hangover II!
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