The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Southeast Asia: Sandy Ferguson of Asia Desk.
Sandy was raised in Asia, attended high school in Bangkok, and in 1976 was one of the first guides to accompany travelers to the newly opened People’s Republic of China. He later returned to Thailand to open a tour company, establishing offices not only in Bangkok but in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia too. Now based in Atlanta, Sandy and his team craft tailor-made itineraries that cater to individual tastes and interests and make the most of your precious time. He knows what works best for travelers, and, just as important, what doesn’t. Asia Desk has a vast network of contacts in the hotel industry, translating into special treatment for his clients, and maintains complete control of every detail of a trip, right down to handpicking every guide—all dynamic locals whom Sandy considers family (some of them really are!). They are expert in—and passionate about—their destinations and turn what would otherwise be a great trip into the trip of a lifetime. Sandy was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok is without a doubt one of the finest and most storied hotels in Asia. It’s also the best value you’ll find at the luxury end of the spectrum. The staterooms facing the river are our favorites, though there are only eight of those in the River Wing. The superior River Wing rooms are also recommendable.
Restaurant the locals love
Tamnak Isan. To get the best northeastern-style Thai/Lao food in a neighborhood setting, you have to hike out (or take the Skytrain) to Tamnak Isan in the Sukhumvit Road (Soi 63 or Ekiami) area. We recommend larb, a minced-meat dish with chopped veggies eaten with sticky rice. Only fresh ingredients from that morning’s market are used, and each dish can be tailored to your heat range.
Street satay, or grilled skewers of curried meat purchased from street vendors. Whether you choose pork (moo) or chicken (gai), grilled street foods are almost always safe to eat, so knock yourself out! The best vendors are in the Victory Monument area and Phahonyothin Road (Soi 1), which is a five-minute walk north of the monument. Take the Skytrain to Victory Monument station and walk out Exit 3 or 4. The vendors start closing up shop after 8 p.m.
Meal worth the splurge
Nahm Restaurant. Located inside the Metropolitan hotel, Nahm is probably the best Thai food you can find in Bangkok (the grilled beef salad—an appetizer—is my favorite thing on the menu). You’ll definitely need to make reservations here.
Prime picnic spot
Lumpini Park. Encompassing 142 acres, Bangkok’s oldest public park was created in the 1920s by King Rama VI on royal property; a statue of the king stands at its southwestern entrance. Lumpini Park was actually named after Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha in Nepal, and at the time of its creation stood on the outskirts of Bangkok. Today it lies in the heart of the main business district but still retains plenty of quiet spots for a midday picnic.
What to See and Do
Rattanakosin Island. Bangkok’s old royal district is set on what was once an island bounded by the Chao Phraya River to the west and two connecting khlongs (canals) to the east. The entire area can be covered on foot in a day and has no high-rise buildings or shopping malls. This is without a doubt Bangkok’s most interesting and exotic quarter and the site of, among other things, Wat Mahathat, the headquarters of Thailand’s largest monastic order; the Grand Palace, which includes Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Pho, Bangkok’s oldest and largest wat, famous for its 50-yard-long Reclining Buddha. Wat Saket, in the heart of Rattanakosin Island, is a low hill crowned with a gleaming gold chedi, or stupa, dating from the Ayutthaya period (1350–1767 A.D.). In the morning light, it’s a photographer’s dream.
Patpong Night Market. Let’s just say that after more than 30 years as Bangkok’s most popular nightlife district, its appeal has fallen hard. Lots of pushy touts, aggressive vendors, and a host of seedy venues are just waiting to rip you off.
Asiatique The Riverfront. Located in the historic warehouses of the East Asiatic Company, one of Thailand’s oldest trading concerns, Asiatique has successfully combined two of the most popular shopping experiences in the city: a night bazaar and a mall with over 1,500 boutiques and 40 restaurants. It’s open from 5 p.m. daily, allowing you to spend a whole evening here dining and browsing the shops. If that isn’t enough entertainment for you, there’s also Calypso, the “ladyboy” cabaret, where female impersonators put on a major show filled with big dance numbers and elaborate costumes. The tickets, which cost $30, include a drink.
The spa at the Mandarin Oriental is the best, but if you are not a guest of the hotel I suggest the Phothalai Spa (off Praditmanuthum Road in the Bangkapi area, about a 30-minute cab ride from most hotels). It’s a full “leisure complex” and a favorite of locals. Massage treatments start at $58 for an hour and a half. I suggest following one of those with a foot massage for $24, then brunch in one of the many restaurants. (Remember that traditional Thai massage can be painful and leave you feeling sore.)
The Pak Klong Talat morning market, where vendors sell flowers of every hue for as far as the eye can see. Be sure to pick up one of the sweet-smelling chains of “love flowers,” which you can see being hand-strung here. Costing almost nothing, these delicate flowers remain fragrant the entire day and make great posts on Instagram.
Casual clothing, such as colorful and light elephant pants for women and stylish denim-colored “farmer’s shirts” for men, is sold everywhere. I recommend the native organic cotton for garments that will last a lifetime.
Mid-November through January for the lowest temperatures and least humidity. Like any world capital, Bangkok is a year-round destination, but its weather can be challenging: Be prepared for steamy days with the mercury hovering in the 90s from March through June, and for rain every day after that until November. Most times it’s just an afternoon shower, but from late August through September downpours can be heavy and cause sporadic flooding (which the Thai authorities are prepared for).
March and April are sweltering, with no rain to bring relief. You should also think twice about visiting during Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year’s festival, which takes place the second week of April. During Songkran, people from rural areas return to their villages, leaving Bangkok largely empty. (The festival is best experienced upcountry or in a beach resort.) Songkran is known as the “Water Festival,” and people believe that water will wash away sins and bad luck at this time. So, at least in Bangkok, don’t be surprised if a total stranger throws water on you, soaking you to the bone while you’re on your way to the Grand Palace! Remember—the only acceptable reaction to a cold drenching is a grateful smile. After all, someone just washed all your sins away!
Visiting Bangkok first. This sprawling metropolis of some 18 million people can be overwhelming, so I don’t recommend it for your first encounter with Thailand. It’s much more enjoyable to recover from jet lag someplace relaxing and traditionally Thai, such as Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, or Sukhothai. By traveling upcountry (or to the beach) first, you’ll experience traditional Thai culture, have time to acclimate to the time zone, and appreciate Bangkok much more when you visit it at the end of your trip.
There are plenty of places that sell gemstones in Bangkok, but don’t buy expensive jewelry unless you really know what you’re doing. Otherwise, you might get home and find that your gem isn’t worth quite what you paid for it.
Yes, you can have a suit made overnight for about $100, but know beforehand that it’s impossible to have a quality suit made overnight. Bangkok is full of fine tailors that offer great value. Ask your hotel for a recommendation and be prepared to pay for quality and to go back for a fitting or two.
Avoid taxi drivers who refuse to use the meter in their cabs at night. Chances are they’re going to overcharge you.
Tipping in restaurants is not necessary, since a 10 percent service fee is usually included. It’s very European in that respect. But an additional couple of bucks for services is always welcomed and shared by those who serve. In a taxi, round up to the nearest 100 Thai baht. If you have a guide for the day, the standard is 300 to 500 baht per person per day; drivers get half that, but tipping is always at your discretion.
Beware the “freelance taxis” at all airports; instead, take a car service (there are stands in every arrival hall) or a metered taxi from the queue. Never get into an unmarked vehicle, no matter how good the driver’s English may be, as you will likely be cheated.
We strongly suggest treating yourself to VIP services at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, especially when arriving late on an international flight. You’ll be met at the gate by a representative who will take you through a private and expedited Thai immigration process. Bangkok is a major air-transportation hub, and there’s nothing more trying after a long journey than standing in more lines! After getting stamped into Thailand, the representative will accompany you to the baggage claim, through Thai customs, and on to whoever awaits you. It costs between $120 and $200 for two people and is worth every cent.
Most international airline schedules have you arriving in Bangkok very late at night; flights back to the United States typically depart in the morning. This means you will have to take a “forced overnight” on both ends of your international air schedule in Bangkok. We suggest spending your first night in Thailand within the new airport complex at the Novotel Suvarnabhumi. Normally, because of the time difference (you are about 12 hours ahead of yourself when you land), you will find yourself sleeping only a few hours and awakening quite early the following morning, ready to fly to your first destination.
A shower-proof shell-type windbreaker for cool evenings and the short but intense downpours. Also bring plenty of light cotton shirts, skirts, and trousers and hearty cotton handkerchiefs to wipe the sweat from your brow!