Can you see Bangkok in 48 Hours? Might not seem like a long time, but it’s enough to see some of the top highlights of the city, enjoy some of its fabled food, and even chill out over happy hour cocktails enjoying fantastic views of the town. Here’s a plan to help beat the traffic, heat, and chaos of one of Asia’s largest metropolises:
Check in to your hotel, hopefully one that is right on the Chao Phraya River, famed for its history, as well as abundant in luxury pampering. If you can afford the splurge, The Mandarin Oriental is the Grand Dame of Bangkok, and one of the top stays in all Asia. The neighbouring Shangri La is no slouch either, as is the Peninsula, right across the river. After freshening up a bit, going for a swim in the massive hotel pool or enjoying their pampering spa treatments, head out for a dinner cruise on the river. The Chao Phraya Princess cruises are well known, with triple deck luxury liners heading up river for drinks, buffet dinners, dancing, and great views up and down the ancient Bangkok lifeline. A bit more pricey but well worth it are the Manohra or Loy Nava dinner cruises, which use converted traditional rice barges, and are far more atmospheric, with far fewer guests.
Get up early and make your way over to Old Bangkok, which is home to many of the historic palaces and government buildings, with lots of old colonial architectural gems. The big draw here is the Grand Palace, home to the The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, known in Thai as Wat Phra Kaew. This is Thailand’s most venerated place, as much a religious holy site as it is a tourist attraction. You’ll need to not wear singlets, shorts, skirts, sandals, or any revealing clothing in order to get in. The lines are long here, so best to come early to beat the package tour bus crowds. After checking out all the various chedis, stupas, and ornate gold statues and carvings, make your way up the road to Wat Pho, which is where the massive 150 foot long giant reclining Buddha is locate, covered completely in ornate gold leaf. Wat Pho is also the site of Bangkok’s oldest traditional massage school, and you can get a massage here at the school for a pittance.
Another noteworthy attraction in this area is the Museum of Siam, also known as the Discovery Museum, which traces Thai history from past to present, and is highly interactive, with plenty of video and digital technology and a hands on approach, making it well suited for young children. The displays are well laid out, and everything is translated or subtitled into English, so foreign visitors can get just as much out of the exhibits as Thais,
After all this sightseeing, you’ll be famished, so walk up from the Grand Palace over to the small square known as Phraeng Phutorn, something more resemblant of an Italian Piazza than a Bangkok neighborhood. Beautiful European neo-classical style row shophouses sit around a health center and small park here, built by King Rama V and rented out and rented out to locals in the early 1900’s, and little has changed since then. Its an atmospheric and photogenic place, with an old antique car garage, tables spilling out onto the street, and a collection of outstanding long running restaurants and shops, such as Nuttaporn, a homemade ice cream shop that has been around for over 70 years, a pig’s brain restaurant, egg noodles with crab stall (both of which are legendary) as well as the small eatery Chote Chitr, where royal Thai cuisine is served in a hole in the wall joint made famous by New York Times food critic Bob Halliday. There’s plenty of food to choose from here.
After dinner, grab a cab and head out to catch a transvestite cabaret show. No, this is not the naughty side of Bangkok like infamous Patpong Road, complete with go go bars and all sorts of debauchery. Actually transvestite cabarets here are family friendly, with large dance troupes of highly professional performers putting on Las Vegas worthy routines. They do comedy, Broadway musical numbers, and don elaborate costumes. The Calypso Cabaret at the Asiatique Riverfront Night Market is one of the better ones, plus it gives you time to also enjoy the ferris wheel, bars, and shopping that are all part of the glitzy night market, and if you are still hungry, there are plenty of places to eat here as well.
No visit to Bangkok is complete without going to Chinatown. Hop on the MRT subway and take the train over to Hua Lamphong, which is also home to Bangkok’s main railway station, housed in a beautiful old colonial building, and a hubub of activity throughout the day and night. From here, it is a short stroll over to Wat Traimit, which is over 700 years old and has a five ton Buddha image, the largest in the world. There is also a museum here, accessed with a separate admission, that showcases the history of the Chinese and Thai Chinese community in Thailand, and is very well laid out and a great way to trace the roots of Bangkok’s Chinatown.
From Wat Traimit, walk down to the colorful Chinatown Arch, and head onto Yaowarat Road, the main drag that runs all the way through the heart of Chinatown. There are lots of neon lights and Chinese signs here, with fancy shark fin and bird’s nest restaurants lining the sidewalks, along with gold shops and plenty of street vendors selling roast chestnuts and imported fruit from China. The intersection of Yaowarat and Phadungdao roads is home to two outdoor seafood restaurants, T & K and Lek & Rut, both of which are crazy popular and worth coming out here at night for. It’s worth checking out doing a food tour here as well, as there are so many hidden alleys and famed single dish vendors that set up shop throughout Chinatown. Another highlight just around the corner here is Eiah Sae, which is perhaps the oldest coffee shop in Bangkok. Over 60 years old, Eiah Sae has been churning out the owner’s great grandparents coffee recipe to an endless array of chain smoking regulars, and its a very photogenic and classic old Bangkok spot, perfect for a coffee or tea break.
A block up, you’ll find Wat Mangkon Kalawat, Chinatown’s most atmospheric temple, full of incense smoke and worshippers waving joss sticks, especially during holiday times. If you come here during Chinese New Year or the Vegetarian Festival, make sure to catch the impromptu Chinese Opera performances that go on out back, a real trip down Bangkok’s memory lane, and a traditional art that is slowly fading. From here, you can walk back to Yaowarat down Trok Itsaranuphap, a single file wet market full of produce, spices, and traditional shops, and then continue to Samphaeng Lane, which is a crowded and narrow market alley full of textiles, sewing machines, souvenirs, and food.
After this market ends, you come out at Chakrawat Road, which crosses a canal and puts you onto Chakraphet Road. Chinatown officially ends here, and gets replaced by Bangkok’s Little India, home to sari shops, cheap eateries, and plenty of ambiance. Little India soon peters out and you’re back out at the Chao Phraya River, where you can find Bangkok’s famous flower market, Pak Klong Talat. Unfortunately, this market is slated for removal, which is a shame as it is one of Bangkok’s best attractions, although there is a new artsy market development here called Yodpiman the Riverwalk, home to restaurants and shops. From here, you can take a ferry back to the Saphan Taksin pier to access the skytrain, or if you’ve got more energy, take a cross river ferry to get check out the old Portuguese Santa Cruz church, and just a bit further north, the famed Wat Arun, Temple of Dawn, one of Bangkok’s icons.
A full day here will have you pretty knocked out, but you’ve got one more thing left to do before you can leave. Head to either the Moon Bar on the roof of the Banyan Tree Hotel or the Sky Bar in the Lebua State Tower for a cocktail at sunset. The views from up here are just dazzling, with the whole city and river spread out below you in a 360 degree panorama. Both of these venues have very expensive restaurants, which don’t get the greatest reviews, but coming up for a drink is well worth it. The Moon Bar gives better full panoramas, has no glass between you and the world, is photographer friendly, and looks out at the golden dome of the Lebua into the sunset. The Sky Bar has a glass partition, is not as photo friendly, and doesn’t have a full panorama, but it does look straight down the entire Chao Phraya, and is the site of the Hangovertini, the famed drink created when they filmed the sequel to the Hangover here.
If you’ve any time leftover, head over to either Siam Paragon or the EmQuartier, Bangkok’s glitziest world class shopping malls, for eating, drinking, shopping, catching a movie, or just about anything else, get a few souvenirs, and head for home. You’ll be so exhausted you’ll be needing another vacation from Bangkok in 48 hours!