Bangkok’s rapid modernisation is impressive, but it’s also rather overwhelming for the first-time visitor. Staying in the right neighbourhood for you can turn your trip from good to great. Here’s some advice to help you make your choice.
There has never been a better time to visit Bangkok. With a population of over ten million people (and over 15 million in the greater metropolitan area) getting your bearings in such a large, unfamiliar place can take some time. The bustling city has been modernising rapidly for the last decade. Now, getting around is much easier, while some of the finest sights in Southeast Asia remain as brilliant as they ever were.
But depending on what time of the year you visit, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed quite quickly in Bangkok. The city still has many of the drawbacks of being in a tropical climate zone: heat, grime, noise and pollution make themselves readily felt. For that reason, many people seek out the familiar, looking to stay in an area that is geared towards tourism. You’re no doubt aware that Thailand has a reputation for attracting a minority of seedier tourists from the West, and they tend to hang out in these more obvious tourist zones.
Getting your bearings quickly though, you’ll realise that some of the city’s best sights and most authentic neighbourhoods are only a few stops away, such as Chinatown, Pathumwan and Dusit. We’ll look at those areas below, along with the more popular parts of Bangkok. For the more intrepid traveller, especially those looking to escape the big city trappings without leaving the urban orbit, consider doing some research separately into Bang Kachao (known as the lung of Bangkok) in a bend of the Chao Phraya, and Ko Kret, a carless island north of the city.
Getting Around: Bangkok might seem pretty daunting at first, with its endless sprawl of concrete, clogged roads, and web of canals. There are three main ways to make easy sense of it all though: the Chao Phraya River, the Metro (MRT) and the Skytrain (BTS). The latter two combine to form a network that is expanding rapidly to link up ever more of the city, including Suvarnabhumi Airport.
The Chao Phraya River Express orange line runs regularly up and down the river for roughly $0.50 one way. Staying near a station or ferry terminal on either of these lifelines will make everything easier. This way, you can avoid the hassle of buses and taxis in Bangkok. The roads, particularly closer to the centre, are often a morass of stationary, fuming vehicles. A motorcycle taxi will slalom you in and out of this gridlock, but that’s not for the faint of heart (always request a helmet).
Here is a selection of the best neighbourhoods to visit in Bangkok, what each one has to offer to the curious traveller, and the best hotels within each.
Rattanakosin Island for World Class Sights
Rattanakosin is the perfect place for anybody wishing to explore Bangkok’s main sights on foot. Walk in any direction and you will soon encounter gilded stupas, vibrant markets, vast museums and plenty of unique architecture. And this is taking place right alongside the Chao Phraya River, where all manner of boats ply the coffee-coloured water. The MRT Blue Line runs through the south of Rattanakosin, where you’ll find Museum Siam and the magnificent Wat Pho. Nearby is the sprawling complex of the Grand Palace.
To the north end of Rattanakosin Island is one of Bangkok’s most infamous streets, particularly with the backpacker crowd: Khaosan Road. Most seasoned travellers tend to go there merely to witness the slightly salacious tourist den for themselves, choosing to stay somewhere a little more salubrious. Nevertheless, you can’t argue with the plethora of good budget accommodation options in the surrounding streets, plus some quality street food.
Given its obvious allure to travellers, there are hotels and hostels to suit all budgets on Rattanakosin Island. Chakrabongse Villas (396/1 Tatien, Maharaj Road) overlook the Chao Phraya and are located minutes from Wat Pho. The elegant rooms are impeccably furnished and many have four-poster beds. A stylish mid-range hotel, the Siri Heritage Bangkok (10 Siri Ammat Alley), is situated between the Grand Palace and Khaosan Rd. and has a pool. Anyone looking for the full Khaosan party experience should check out Nappark Hostel (5 Tani, Talat Yot, Phra Nakhon), but bring ear plugs for the 22-person dorms.
Dusit for Regal and Political Intrigue
If you’re looking for something a little less crowded and polluted, Dusit, the area immediately north of Rattanakosin, is a rare island of leafy calm in the city centre. That is because the Royal Residence at Chitralada is here. The area has been undergoing an extensive and controversial remodelling and landscaping under the new monarch, King Vajiralongkorn and is expected to be one to watch in the coming years. It involved the relocation of an entire zoo, which formerly occupied much of the site.
Wat Benchamabophit is a marble Buddhist temple built out of Italian marble. It is located to the south of the palace complex, and is one of the prettiest in Bangkok. The temple attracts fewer visitors than other major temples in the city centre, but it is quite unlike any other in Thailand, even containing stained glass windows depicting praying angels. The main Buddha contains King Rama V’s ashes.
The best hotels in Dusit are located near the River. Perhaps the finest hotel in all of Thailand, The Siam (2 Thanon Khao, Vachirapayabal) blends Thai heritage with Art Deco. This ultimate bastion of luxury is priced to match the exclusivity, with suites or a pool villa with its own private pool and butler. The SSIP Boutique Dhevej (42 Phitsanulok Rd) might not look much from the street, but the interior feels like a crisp, minimalist colonial mansion, with comfy beds and wood finishing. Meanwhile, Kaloang Home (2 Si Ayutthaya Rd, Wachira Phayaban) is a rustic, colourful, plant-filled space overlooking the river.
Samphanthawong (Chinatown) for the Sensory Experience
Bangkok’s Chinatown is among the largest in the world. Better yet, this is the place that many people who come back to Bangkok for a second or third time will often stay because: it has proximity to the main sights in Rattanakosin, it has plenty of great sights of its own, such as Wat Traimit, it’s connected to the metro, which can take you to Lumphini Park or the Pathumwan neighbourhood, and it’s a few stops on the river from the best part of Silom Rd.
Wat Traimit is the Temple of the Golden Buddha. Unsurprisingly, it contains a Buddha statue, made of gold (the world’s largest). From there, head west along Yaowarat Rd and you’ll plunge into the heart of Chinatown. From here, a maze of alleys and size streets forms a warren of homes, markets, temples and restaurants. The smells of incense from shrines, and of Thai and Chinese cuisine waft up from the food markets. The atmosphere here is excellent and the streets are largely free from traffic, save for the occasional motorbike.
What’s more, Samphanthawong is a great place to find a good value hotel or hostel, because it’s not considered the main tourist zone. For example, The Grand Hotel China (215 Yaowarat Rd) is an impressive, tall building with impeccable views of the city from its revolving restaurant. Rooms are cosy and there’s a swimming pool. ASAI Bangkok (531 Charoen Krung Rd, Khwaeng Pom Prap) has sleek Modernist interiors and is a minute from the metro station. Tian Tian Hostel (31 Phat Sai) is a clean hostel located right in the thick of Chinatown. It has neat dorm rooms, private rooms and a terrace for guests.
Pathumwan for Shopping in Mighty Malls
You’d need the stamina of a herd of wildebeest to not drop after shopping for a day in Pathumwan. That’s because the malls are vast and there are plenty of them. Arranged mostly around Rama I Rd. between the National Stadium and Phloen Chit stations are dozens of malls. Siam Paragon and Central World are among the largest.
But it’s not all commerce. Juxtaposed with the modern, air-conditioned behemoths of fashion and capitalism there are shrines and Buddhist temples. The most striking is Erawan Shrine, where anyone from students to besuited business people make votive offerings to their deities of choice, surrounded by multi-storey concrete conduits of the BTS Skytrain and the busy roads. South of here are little green pockets of escapism, with the Royal Bangkok Sports Club and Lumphini Park, where you can take a pedal boat shaped like a goose onto the pretty lake.
There is a high concentration of four- and five-star hotels in Pathumwan. The Grand Hyatt Erawan (494 Ratchadamri Rd) is everything you’d expect from a top brand, with a pool and spa, located moments from Erawan Shrine. Sindhorn Midtown Hotel (68 Langsuan Rd) takes the inner-city swimming pool to a new level, literally. Its rooftop infinity pool is reason enough to book. Its location between the malls and Lumphini Park is another. LiT Bangkok (36/1 Kasem San 1 Alley, Khwaeng Wang Mai) is a quirky, smaller hotel with lush greenery filling common areas and a modern design that’s a bit daring without being garish.
Bang Rak for the Hedonism
Also known as Silom, because most of what draws people to the area can be found around Silom Road, Bang Rak is a major commercial and business zone in Bangkok. Silom Road runs southwest from Lumphini Park to the Chao Phraya River, with the river end being decidedly more genteel and sophisticated, while nearer to Lumphini, although you’ll find plenty of good bars and nightlife, you’ll also find the seedier Bangkok.
The BTS Silom Line runs down Silom Rd and nearby N Sathon Rd. Nearer the river, you’ll find some of the most popular bars in Thailand, including the pricey Sky Bar, atop the State Tower skyscraper and very much about the experience as much as anything. Maggie Choo’s is a suave jazz club, while Jack’s Bar is a no-frills shack on the river, perfect for a cheep bottle of cold Chang as the world slips by.
There are many major hotel chains in Bang Rak due to the business tourism drawn to the area. The Mandarin Oriental (48 Oriental Ave, Khwaeng Bang Rak) is Bangkok’s other major contender for top hotel in Southeast Asia. It’s a study of teak and silk, spas and Michelin stars. The decor is unique, with little inspirations of nature subtly woven in. The Shangri-La Bangkok (89 Wat Suan Phlu Alley) is another top hotel, with two pools and rooms overlooking the river. The pricing here is competitive. For those watching their expenses, Snoozzze Hostel (28 1 Thanon Charoen Wiang) is clean, well laid-out and has some of the best priced private rooms in central Bangkok.