Your affordable guide in Thailand’s bustling and dynamic city
Thailand’s capital city is a manic metropolis, with a dizzying array of historic landmarks, funky neighborhoods and glittering high-rise buildings. Prices continue to climb, but it’s still possible to get a lot of bang for your baht — if you know where to look. One of the best and most delicious ways to economize is to take advantage of the city’s vast army of excellent street food vendors. So, are you ready for your whirlwind tour?
Day 1: Temple run
If you’re on a budget, then you’ll most likely be staying in Bangkok’s Old Town — and probably within a 1km radius of the backpacker mecca that’s Khao San Road (KSR). Using this district as a default start and end point, it’s easy to explore the more historic parts of the city, especially those along the Chao Phraya River.
Start your day early with some grab-and-go grub from any of the city’s numerous street vendors. Munch on a few moo ping — BBQ pork on skewers — and some sticky rice (US$2.20 max) as you make your way to Phra Athit Pier. Get a ticket for the orange flag Chao Phraya Express Boat (US$0.45) heading to Wat Arun, a beautiful temple that recently underwent a massive restoration (admission US$1.55). Afterwards, take the ferry (US$0.15) across the river to Wat Pho to see the famous reclining Buddha. Admission is now US$6.25, but it’s still a must-see attraction — and much less expensive than the Grand Palace.
Grab a street food lunch from one of the many vendors along nearby Maharat Road (US$2.50 tops), and then visit Blue Whale Maharaj, a quirky coffee house where virtually everything is blue, including the butterfly pea latte (US$2.80). Follow this with a relaxing half-hour Thai massage from the expertly trained staff at the nearby Watpo Thai Traditional Massage School (US$10).
Continue walking down Maharat and you’ll cross the ornate white bridge that leads to Bangkok’s massive Flower Market. Roam these vast warehouses full of colorful blossoms, eventually making your way to Yodpiman Pier. Take the orange flag boat (US$0.45) to Si Phraya Pier, and then spend the afternoon weaving your way through the surrounding maze of streets. Highlights that offer free entry include artisan hub Warehouse 30, the Bangkokian Museum and Galerie Adler. End your wanderings around Haroon Mosque, in a historic Muslim residential district with incredibly narrow side streets and plenty of street food, like beef noodle soup (US$1.25).
The orange flag riverboats stop running by 7pm, so take one from the Oriental Pier back to Phra Athit Pier (US$0.45) at around 6pm and be treated to a sunset cruise past Bangkok’s most famous monuments. Disembark at Phra Athit Pier and head to Chakkraphatdi Phong Road (US$1.55 for a motorcycle ride each way) for dinner at Lao Dtom Lao, an eatery serving up great Laotian cuisine. Try the rice noodles with duck curry and spicy mushroom and basil soup. Add on a cold Beer Lao (US$12.50).
Finish the night back on KSR at the new Khaosan Comedy Club in Khaosan Park Resort. Nightly stand-up shows start at 9pm (US$6.25, includes a drink). Finally, take a night stroll on KSR, which is free entertainment at its finest — grabbing a beer from 7-Eleven (US$1.20) lowers the drink tab too.
Day 2: Goin’ downtown
Start with breakfast of kai kra ta (a meal of fried eggs and pork), a baguette sandwich and a Thai-style sweet coffee plus tea (US$4.25 total) at Kope Hya Tai Kee at 526 Phra Sumen Road. This super-retro, old-school eatery has barely changed since opening in 1952. From here it’s walking distance to Wat Saket, or the Golden Mount Temple (admission is US$1.55). There are over 300 steps to climb to reach the top, but the extraordinary views from the summit are worth it, to show just how massive Bangkok is.
Next up is a trip on the canal boat leaving from nearby Phanfa Leelard Pier, but before boarding, visit the street food vendors around Phanfa Lilat Bridge for a quick bite (US$1.90 max). Take the boat to the Saphan Hua Chang stop (US$0.30) and head to the Jim Thompson House museum. You’ll have to walk back along the canal, but it’s a very short stroll. This excellent museum and art complex is the former home of the Thai silk merchant Jim Thompson. Admission is US$6.25, but it’s half that for those under 22.
Close at hand is the next stop, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), which is free to enter. Inside this futuristic-looking building are multiple floors of rotating art on display, as well as restaurants, arty shops and a library in the basement. As a post- or pre-art pick-me-up, try a Thai-grown, single-origin brewed coffee (US$2.20) at Gallery Drip, located on the building’s ground floor.
Come dinnertime, board the BTS Skytrain at National Stadium station and travel five stops (US$1.05) to Asok station, which leads right into Terminal 21 mall. Even if you dislike malls, this one is pretty interesting, with mainly independent designer boutiques and each of its nine floors made to resemble a different world locale. More importantly, there’s a slick cafeteria-style food court on the top level, with a huge variety of vendors, where US$3.15 easily buys a great Thai meal and a drink.
Walk off dinner with a trip to nearby Sukhumvit Soi 11, a lively mix of bars, clubs and pubs. Go all the way up until the street forks, take a left and catch some great live music at Apoteka, as well as happy hour — two pints of draft for US$7.85 — ’til 8pm daily. Afterwards, splurge on a fancy cocktail at one of the street’s other bars (budget US$9.40), and then to quell those late-night munchies, visit Soi 11’s newly opened Soho Pizza for a real NYC-style slice of gooey pepperoni pizza (US$4.70).
Walk back to Sukhumvit Road and catch the rickety but dirt-cheap all-night number 2 bus (US$0.25) going back to the Old Town. If you prefer a taxi, insist on a metered fare and not a flat rate, or just use the Grab app (approximate fare US$5.65).
Day 3: Hip hops
Saunter down Soi Rambuttri and start the day with a fresh tropical fruit smoothie (US$1.90), as you explore these Old Town streets, ultimately making your way to Phra Sumen Fort and the riverside Santichaiprakarn Park. At 10am, head to Karim Roti Mataba, opposite the fort. At this six-decade-old halal Indian-Thai eatery, you can get a mataba gai, a fried pastry filled with chicken, an egg and cheese roti, and lemongrass juice for just US$4.55.
After eating, walk to Phra Athit Pier and take the orange flag boat to Wang Lang Market at Prannok Pier (US$0.45). Consisting of narrow alleys bursting with stalls selling clothing, knick-knacks and lots of cheap food, Wang Lang is a sprawling shopping funhouse that’s perfect for wandering. Perhaps pick up a pair of souvenir elephant pants (US$3.15), then grab a light lunch of pork dumpling noodle soup and iced chrysanthemum tea (US$1.80) at Sai Mai restaurant. Top your visit off with a decadent slice of scrumptious coconut cake (US$3.75) at Sawong organic café, where the interior is decorated with vintage toys and cool retro Thai packaging.
For the next destination, double back past Prannok Pier and walk to the nearby Thonburi Railway Station Pier. Here, get a single ticket (US$1.90) for the Hop On Hop Off (HOHO) tourist boat heading to Lhong 1919, a beautiful 19th-century Chinese mansion estate that has been fully restored and opened to the public as a free attraction. While exploring, drop by the atmospheric Nai Harng restaurant and savor an old-fashioned Thai-style iced coffee (US$3).
A second HOHO single ticket gets you to Iconsiam, Bangkok’s newest luxury mega mall. The retail options here are decidedly upscale, but there are also interesting art installations, the Sook Siam Thai heritage food court on the ground floor (snack budget US$2.20) and plenty of blissful air conditioning. The best thing is the new 400m-long outdoor fountain, which presents a multimedia dancing water spectacle three times every evening. Catch the 6.30pm fountain show, then take the free river shuttle to Saphan Taksin Pier. From here it’s a short walk to Palate restaurant on Charoen Krung Road, a rooftop bar and restaurant where a meal of som tum (spicy
papaya salad), stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts, steamed rice and a pair of happy hour draft beers will only set you back US$15.05.
End the night with a riverside view and a cold beer (US$3.75 per big bottle) at Jack’s Bar, a much-loved, cheap and cheerful ramshackle joint tucked away at the end of Charoen Krung Soi 42/1. Finally, when it’s time to go home, get a taxi or a Grab (approximately US$5). You’ve earned it!
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Old town accommodations
Save: Newly opened and consistently well-reviewed online, Mam’s House offers tidy private rooms (with air conditioning and bathroom). Located on Samsen Road, it’s just a stone’s throw from KSR, but is in a much quieter area.
Spend: Facing out onto Chakrabongse Road and sandwiched between KSR and Soi Rambuttri, Baan Chart is a chic urban retreat with Indochine décor and a small rooftop pool.
Splurge: A gorgeous swimming pool and deluxe rooms with panoramic river views are what you’ll be paying for at the luxurious Riva Surya Bangkok on Phra Athit Road.
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Yaowarat Street Food Tour: Bangkok Food Tours has dozens of fun and interesting customized culinary excursions to choose from, allowing you to eat while you explore and make new friends along the way. The company’s three-hour tour of Bangkok’s Chinatown (US$45.40) is one of their most affordable, and most guests are stuffed by the time they get to the last of its many courses. You can fit this into your itinerary on day one. bangkokfoodtours.com
Medinii: The nightly meal deal at Medinii Italian restaurant, on the 35th floor of the snazzy Continent Hotel (BTS Asok station), is hard to beat. For US$31.30 per person (before taxes), enjoy two hours of unlimited pizza and pasta, one main course, one dessert and unlimited select beer, wine, cocktails and soft drinks. There are two seatings daily — 6pm to 8pm and 8pm to 10pm — which fit in with the itinerary on day two. thecontinentdining.com
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Bangkok’s low-cost transport options include the BTS Skytrain, MRT subway, Airport Rail Link, metered taxis, three-wheeled tuk-tuks, motorcycle taxis and boats. Numbered city buses are also inexpensive and go everywhere, but heavy daytime traffic can grind them to a halt. However, buses are definitely the cheapest way to get to Khaosan Road from either of Bangkok’s international airports — the A4 from Don Mueang (US$1.55) and the new S1 from Suvarnabhumi (US$1.90). For walking, offline GPS apps like Maps.me do a good job of navigating, but with a SIM card, Google Maps is best, especially for clarifying bus routes. And using the Grab app means there’s no language barrier or haggling.
Cebu Pacific flies to Bangkok from Manila. cebupacificair.com
This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Smile magazine.