11 December 2018 – Can't decide which things to do in Bangkok in three days? Overwhelmed with choice?
Using the Chao Phraya River as your map will cover most of the things you want to see in Bangkok - with the third day left for those attractions that are further away.
I suggest plying the shores of the Chao Phraya on a Bangkok river boat because once you've seen all the attractions along the river, you will have seen much of what Bangkok has to offer, at least for a first-timer.
The boats sound complicated but you'll quickly get the hang of them.
First thing to know is where to take boat... Ride the BTS Skytrain to the station called Saphan Taksin on the Silom Line. Get off and follow the crowds' general direction towards the river. It might seem a bit confusing at first so hang back and look around.
To your far left you'll find the free boats to Iconsiam (more on this below) mall during the day and Asiatique mall in the evening. Next to that, also to your left, are the tourist express boats, also known as Blue Flag boats. They're a bit like the hop-on hop-off buses, only on the water. They zigzag across the nearest piers, stopping at those with major tourist attractions. If this is your first boat ride, this boat is the easiest and will help you get your bearings.
Next to the blue flag boats are the orange flag ones (yes, you can tell by the flag colors), which are more like local ferries and far cheaper but also far more crowded. If you know your way around the river, go for it!
If you happen to be staying at one of the Bangkok hotels on the river, check if they have a free shuttle - many of them do.
You could also take a longboat, but only if you're keen to explore the khlongs, or canals, that lead off from the main river. They're quite expensive but can be a good deal if there's a small group of you. Not recommended for the solo traveler, however.
So go up the river on your first day, stop where you want, and come back the second to see what you didn't have time to see...
Few things exemplify modern Bangkok more than the giant shopping mall - and none is larger than Iconsiam, now Thailand's largest. And if I've started this list with a mall, it's not because I advocate shopping (even if this mall does have Thailand's first ever Apple store) but because it's the first stop as you head North on the Chao Phraya River, just across from the main Sathorn Pier (located at the Saphan Taksin BTS station, by the way). Bonus: Iconsiam has a free ferry that runs every few minutes to and from the central pier.
If you're cultured out and in need of a break from the heat or from religious buildings, welcome to the blast of air conditioning, mountains of food of every possible kind, a Japanese department store and much more. And if you happen to be a sushi enthusiast, head through the food court and into Takahashi department store. Walk to the back where they sell fish - and you'll find amazing sushi at even more amazing prices.
One of the oldest and most interesting neighborhoods along the river is Chinatown, where food is king. Get off at Ratchawongse (stop N5) and head for Yaowarat Road, Chinatown's main street. Wander around for an hour on your own, sampling food or shopping for gold, or, as suggested by Claudia of My Adventures Across The World, take advantage of one of the many food walking tours in this part of town. It's a great way to discover what the city has to offer and to get a better understanding of the local way of life, and of Thai history and culture.
Food tours typically go to Chinatown, visiting the Flower Market, which is open 24/7, a few small temples, and finally stopping off at street food stalls to try a few local specialties, including egg and glass noodles with shrimps, chicken and eggs, seafood dishes such as grilled squid and scallops, and Thai-style dumplings. If you're headed to the Flower Market on your own, catch the boat upriver - it's the next stop up from Chinatown.
Of all the Bangkok temples, Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) is perhaps the most iconic and is best approached from the water. The Wat is known for its magnificent bright white þrahng (Khmer-style tower), decorated with intricate mosaics and statues that start at the base and go all the way to the top. Even for someone with temple fatigue, Wat Arun is breathtaking.
As is the case when visiting temples in Thailand, cover your knees and shoulders. Cat from Walk My World says to go early in the morning, at dawn if you can, to avoid the crowds (another good time to visit is in the evening, at sunset, with reflections dancing on the water). People do climb partway up, but the stairs are quite steep so if you have vertigo, beware.
Just across the river from Wat Arun (and next to the Grand Palace) sits Wat Pho, one of the most important temples in Bangkok. Founded about 250 years ago, it is more than a simple building - it is a whole complex of structures that represent some of the best of Thai religious art. The highlight of Wat Pho is the gold-plated reclining Buddha, at 43 metres long one of the largest in the world. There are 108 metal bowls around the statue where people drop 108 coins. My friend Michael from Time Travel Turtle says to make sure to take note of the soles of the feet, inlaid with mother-of-pearl.There are also some magnificent stupas that are decorated with colourful tile designs. And even the rooftops of the main buildings are delightfully colourful and detailed.
The art of massage therapy in Thailand dates back 2,500 years and the oldest Thai massage school happens to be located within Wat Pho's walls. Not only does the school teach the art of Thai massage, but it also offers massages to the general public, probably a welcome thought after all that walking.
Traditional Thai massage is quite different from other massages you may have experienced. You'll be fully clothed during the massage, and no oils are applied to the skin. The massage therapist applies a great deal of pressure (trust me, this can hurt!) and uses compression and stretching techniques. Sabrina of Moon & Honey Travel tells us that the massage takes place on a floor mat in a large pavilion next to other recipients but that this sounds weirder than it actually is. Just make sure you're there at least 90 minutes before closing time.
And a word of warning: Several websites that use “Wat Pho” in their business and domain name, but have no affiliation with the real school. Make sure to double check the official Wat Pho website for their massage school locations.
Right next to Wat Pho is the Grand Palace, built in 1782 and home to the Thai King and his government for 150 years. Now open to the public, it is a complex of ornate temples, throne halls and government residences, many covered in gold or painted in bright colours. Although this popular attraction can become very busy, it is well worth a visit for a fascinating insight into Thai culture and creativity.
Tha Chang (N9) ferry stop is about a five-minute walk from the entrance of the Grand Palace. Travel Blogger Emily Luxton warns us there is a very strict dress code at the palace. No vest tops, short skirts, or see-through clothing. A booth at the entrance will lend you appropriate clothes (a deposit is required), but they tend to be quite thick and heavy. It’s better to dress in long, light clothing of your own if you can.
Located close to the Royal Palace, between the Chao Phraya River and Maharat Road is the Amulet Market, or Phra Chan Market. this hundred-year-old market specializes in Buddhist and Hindu amulets, little statues, and unusual trinkets. Despite its central location, the Amulet Market does not see many tourists so it is a good chance to enjoy a little bit of local life.
According to Elisa from World in Paris, you'll find amulets against evil spirits, for levitation or even to ward off bullets. Amulets are popular in Thailand, especially those that bring good luck and money. You'll see these amulets everywhere - around people's necks or hanging on rear-view mirrors or in houses. They can be extremely cheap or utterly expensive, depending on how rare it is and on the vendor's storytelling abilities. Of course, this is a good place to practice your haggling skills.
The blue express tourist boat ends at Phra Arthit, jumping off point for Khao San Road. If your first trip to Bangkok was as a backpacker, there's a good chance you may have been here. I visited more out of nostalgia and in the morning, things are calm. This place begins hopping when the lights come on, the market stalls come out and the beer begins to flow. When I first visited Bangkok as a starry-eyed student in the 70s, this street seemed exotic and seedy and exciting, part of a world of hippies who had journeyed across Asia and this was their promised land.
Visit the National Gallery while you're in the neighborhood. And if it happens to be breakfast time, stop off at Jaywalk for some absolutely amazing pancakes and espresso. When you get off the ferry you'll walk through a narrow indoor market passage. Turn right and cross the street - Jaywalk isn't far (and may well get its name from the fact that you have to cross in the middle of the street!)
The tourist boat doesn't go this far but you can easily take an orange flag ferry to Payap Pier (N18) and see something few tourists get to: the Museum of Floral Culture, one of Bangkok’s newest, and more serene, museums (you'll find it at 315 Samsen Road Soi 28). Katie of The Accidental Australian suggests a stroll through the peaceful zen garden after your museum visit, and perhaps a taste of delectable Thai sweets at the on-site cafe. Throughout the museum, elaborate floral arrangements and displays are combined with historic exhibits, and the museum is a delight to the senses.
If you still want to see more of the river, you could head all the way north on the green flag boat, which goes to the last pier, N33. But there's plenty to see before and with only two days at your disposal, I'd suggest an overview with the blue flag express boats on Day 1 and a more in-depth exploration on the orange flag boat for Day 2.
You could also go the other way - South. The main destination south of Sathorn Pier is Asiatique, which has a free shuttle in the late afternoon and evening. I haven't been but I'm told it's both fun and a bit touristy: what do you expect, with 1500 boutiques and 40 restaurants?
After two days visiting attractions along the Chao Phraya, you'll have one day left for everything you haven't seen. Here are a few suggestions of quirky or fun things to do in Bangkok that are NOT on the river...
When you think of Bangkok, you invariably think of beautiful temples and buzzing nightlife, which is why finding Jim Thompson’s house in the middle of the busy city feels like such a respite.
If you’ve ever admired the silk shops at Suvarnabhumi Airport and elsewhere in Thailand, you can thank Jim Thompson. The American expat is credited with single-handedly reviitalizing Thailand's then-moribund silk industry. An architect, he loved Thai art and culture and his house was built to show off his many Thai artworks.
One day in 1967, he disappeared while on holiday in Malaysia, sparking Southeast Asia's largest manhunt. The mystery remains unsolved.
There are guided 40-minute tours that give more information and silk is woven using traditional methods in the open courtyard. Priyanko from Constant Traveller says it’s a great place to learn about Thai silk and purchase them at non-airport prices (read exorbitant). More than anything, Thompson’s house is a welcome retreat from the chaos that is otherwise commonplace throughout Bangkok. You can reach it easily from BTS station National Stadium (exit 1).
If you happen to be in Bangkok on a weekend, make the effort to get yourself up to Chatuchak Market. Beware of getting there though - there's a station called Chatuchak - don't get off there. Go to Kamphaeng Phet instead. Follow everyone else and you'll see the stalls. With its 8000 stands, expect to get lost - but it's fun.
I didn't visit the pet section but I've been told to stay away - animals in captivity, of all sorts. Enough said.
And now for something completely different, a couple of hours at the Art of Paradise or 3D museum, as it is known locally, will fill you with fun and wonder - at least it did Nisha and Vasu!
Located at Esplanade Shopping Mall on Ratchada Road, the museum has several large rooms, each with irresistible artwork. Watch others trying to pose on a surfboard or inside a bottle - if you can twist your eyes and your mind to comprehend fictional waterfalls, waves, and an abyss at your feet. Markers with arrows line the floor to provide visitors with the best angle, and if you look in a few hidden corners, you’ll find photos taken by previous visitors that will help you understand which pose works best with each scene. The Esplanade Mall is located on the outskirts of Bangkok - just get off the MRT at Thailand Cultural Center.
At the end of the day, when evening comes and the sun goes down, the views across Bangkok can be amazing - and a sky bar in Bangkok is the perfect spot to watch it all.
Don't let the word “bar” fool you - you are welcome to visit any of the sky bars in Bangkok and grab a coffee or a non-alcoholic beverage. Get to your sky bar of choice at least 45 minutes before sunset. Any later and it gets crowded, making it harder to find a good seat.
Nina of Where in the World is Nina recommends two bars, Vertigo and The Lebua (the sky bar where Hangover II was filmed). There are plenty of others
Do note that dress codes are required for most sky bars in Bangkok and your tank top and flip flops won’t fly here!