With its haphazard sprawl, steamy climate, and traffic-choked streets, Bangkok can overwhelm visitors at first, but scratch the surface and you’ll find warm hospitality, gilded temples, festivals, markets galore, and a vibrant arts scene, all easy on your budget.
With its giant red swing out front, Wat Suthat is hard to miss. The temple was founded by King Rama I in the 18th century to house the 13th-century bronze Phra Sri Sakyamuni Buddha. Adorning the chapel walls are frescoes depicting Buddha’s last 24 incarnations. But it’s the 69-foot swing frame that grabs most visitors’ attention. After it was built in 1784, the structure was used in an annual Brahmin ceremony in which young men would attempt to swing high enough to fetch a sack of coins tied to an 82-foot pole. The practice was banned in the 1930s, and the spirits of those who fell to their deaths are said to haunt the area. Temple admission is 20 Thai baht (62 cents).
While not free, the negligible admission (a hundred baht) to Wat Pho is well worth it. The vast temple complex is famous for its golden reclining Buddha, nearly 50 feet tall and stretching some 150 feet long. Dropping a few coins into one of the 108 bowls along the corridor near the statue is believed to bring good fortune (and help the monks maintain the temple). As you wander around the compound, don’t miss the nearly 400 gilded Buddhas sitting in lotus position and scattered among four chapels. Splurge on a foot rub at the temple’s traditional Thai massage school (280 baht for 30 minutes). Just remember to book a spot when you first arrive at the complex to avoid a wait.
Get a taste of the monastic life at Wat Mahathat, which offers free daily meditation classes at 7 a.m., 1 p.m., and 6 p.m. Those looking for more immediate insight can have their fortunes told inside the temple. In the market for a lucky charm? Go on Sunday to browse the city’s largest amulet market next door.
Peruse the fleet of ornate wooden vessels still used in royal processions on the Chao Phraya River at the Royal Barges National Museum. See the king’s personal barge, the Suphannahong; built in 1911, it’s tricked out with intricate carvings and requires a rowing crew of 50 men. Admission is a hundred baht.
The new Bangkok Art and Culture Centre offers arts programming like films, live music performances, storytelling for kids, and exhibitions. Past shows include the "Art of Architecture" and “Proximity: Thai Contemporary Art in Poland.”
Built more than 200 years ago, the two-storey teak house known as Baan Silapin (Artist’s House) along a canal in the Khlong Bang Luang village has been restored and transformed into performance space. Stop by for coffee, informal art exhibitions, hands-on activities like painting your own mask, and a traditional Thai puppet show every day (except for Wednesdays) at 2 p.m. Free, but donations are welcome.
Come April 13, Thais celebrate Songkran to welcome the New Year. The festivities range from pouring water over Buddha statues to ask for blessings to full-on water gun and hose fights (often fueled by plenty of Singha beer), ostensibly to wash off last year’s misfortunes. The rowdiness rages for two days all over Thailand; in Bangkok, the hotspots are Silom for wild parties and Sanam Luang for sacred rites.
Bangkokians head to Lumpini Park for tai chi, jogging, a leisurely paddle on the lake, or just soaking up some fresh air in the shadow of the city skyline. There are jungle gyms, see-saws, and swings for tots, as well as basketball courts, outdoor aerobics, and even ballroom dancing under a pavilion. Keep your eyes peeled for water monitor lizards. Weekends bring a farmers market and free Sunday afternoon jazz or classical concerts.
The Neilson Hays Library offers storytelling for children ages three to seven each Saturday at 10:30 a.m., followed by a craft activity. Check the library’s website for special events throughout the year, including arts festivals and craft workshops. A donation of 50 baht is encouraged for nonmembers.
Climb the 300 steps to the iconic Golden Mount, the crowning glory of Wat Saket, for a panoramic view of the city. Kids love to ring the series of bells midway up the stairs. Suggested temple donation: 20 baht.
Food and Drink
With stall after stall of colorful and exotic produce, Or Tor Kor is a must-stop for shutterbugs. The market is also known for its northern cuisine, like grilled chicken (about 162 baht per bird).
Built in 1899 as a wet market—a place where vendors sell meat, fish, and produce—Nang Leong Market today has become more of a food court for lunch (open Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Most dishes will set you back less than 65 baht. Try the guayteow phet (duck noodles) and kanom (sweets made with sticky rice and coconut).
Rooftop bars are all the rage in Bangkok, but many charge dearly for a drink. An exception is Phranakorn, where an artsy crowd gathers nightly for a gallery of rotating exhibitions, a view of the lit-up Golden Mount, and cheap brew.
Even if you’re not in the market for antique wood carvings, hill-tribe costumes, rare books, or designs by local upstart designers (and more, much more), a visit to Chatuchak Weekend Market is de rigueur for a glimpse into Thai culture. Hint: pick up a Nancy Chandler map to navigate your way around the 15,000 vendors spread over 27 acres.
The wholesale Pak Khlong Market near Chinatown is open 24 hours a day, but the real action starts around midnight, when fresh flowers from local jasmine to Dutch tulips start to arrive and the haggling begins.
A short water taxi ride from the heart of bustling Bangkok lies Bang Kra Jao, a sliver of jungle peninsula in the Chao Phraya. Known mostly to outdoorsy types, this secret Eden brimming with flora and fauna is a patchwork of farms dotted with stilt houses and crisscrossed by canals. Stroll or bike its network of paths and imagine the Bangkok of yore.