Contrast is the secret spice that livens up the Thai kingdom’s pulsating capital, where a sensory overload of delights will keep you riveted for days
Bangkok has always been a study in dizzying contrasts, a place where shimmering skyscrapers rise above the gold-tipped spires of ancient temples, sparkling megamalls cohabit with sprawling old-school markets and modern cafés sidle up against street-food stalls. It’s these contrasts, and Bangkok’s head-spinning diversity, that give the city its irrepressible charm. The city’s denizens know how to make the most of such disparities to come up with innovative concepts, be it world-class restaurants or first-rate attractions. This fast-paced progression within a laid-back culture, coupled with the Thais’ relentless pursuit of fun, is what makes Bangkok such an intriguing place.
“Bangkok is fast becoming a world-class destination for food, offering choices that reflect global lifestyle trends such as health cafés and brunch eateries,” says Stella Ungphongphan, wellness and natural living expert, and ambassador for food and beverage app iPick. Organic café Brekkie (6/9 Soi Promsri Sukhumvit 39; +66 83 656 6141; brekkiebangkok.com) gives wholesome fare a stylish upgrade, with beautifully presented plates packed full of energy-pumping superfood. Start your day with the Fried Quinoa Holy Basil with Pork Shoulder Steak, which gives a nutritious twist to the classic pad kra pao (basil stir-fry).
Hop aboard the BTS SkyTrain to Bangkok’s central commercial district for a bit of cultural indulgence. Alight at the National Stadium station and choose between two of the city’s most fascinating museums. History buffs can meander down to the Jim Thompson House (6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Rd; +66 2 216 7368; jimthompsonhouse.com), built by the eponymous American silk entrepreneur using various parts of old teak Thai homes, before he mysteriously disappeared. Art lovers can ogle contemporary artwork and shop for knick-knacks inspired by local art at the multi-level Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) (939 Rama 1 Rd; +66 2 214 6630; en.bacc.or.th).
Get a brief introduction to Bangkok’s endless shopping possibilities at Siam Square (Rama 1 Rd), a dense labyrinth of local shops, luxury boutiques and market stalls. In contrast, the newly renovated, gallery-like Siam Discovery (989 Rama 1 Rd; +662 658 1000; siamdiscovery.co.th) is a well-curated space displaying internationally renowned high-end brands alongside niche labels and independent merchants. Siam Square One (448 Rama 1 Rd; +66 2 255 9995; siamsquareone.com) is a temple to everything trendy, focusing on edgy, affordable fashion. Across the street is Siam Paragon (991 Rama 1 Rd, Pathumwan, +66 2 610 8000; siamparagon.co.th), home to a host of posh designer brands, as well as a massive food court with a wealth of international cuisine. Grab lunch here.
Also read: The best places for shopping in Bangkok
You’ll love Thai food even more when you learn how to cook it, and the Silom Thai Cooking School (68 Silom Soi 13; +66 84 726 5669; bangkokthaicooking.com) is the perfect place to deepen your relationship with Thai cuisine. Each class is about four hours long and includes a market run for ingredients, plus a crash course in cooking five to six classic Thai dishes, including tom yum, pad Thai, green curry and a coconut-based dessert. Of course, you get to eat everything you’ve prepared.
From Silom, it’s a short taxi ride to the Saphan Taksin Pier, where you can take the free shuttle boat to Asiatique The Riverfront (2194 Charoenkrung Rd; +66 2 108 4488; facebook.com/Asiatique.Thailand), a sprawling night bazaar right next to the Chao Phraya River. Tourists and trendy cosmopolitan types roam the open-air mall’s four shopping and dining zones, loading up on souvenirs, locally produced merchandise and affordable accessories, and sampling a bevy of snacks and sweets from tiny food stalls. On the entertainment side of things, theaters on Asiatique grounds host evening shows featuring the famed Calypso cabaret and Muay Thai Live.
Fuel up for the day at Roast (335 Thonglor Soi 17 (Sukhumvit 55); +66 2 185 2865; roastbkk.com), a comfort-food sanctuary located at hip community mall The Commons, in the chic neighborhood of Thonglor. The menu lists sumptuous breakfast plates alongside gourmet mains and sublime cups of coffee. Favorites include crab cakes with eggs Benedict, fresh corned beef hash, strawberry waffles topped with luscious mounds of whipped cream and possibly the best flat white in Bangkok.
From Thonglor, get onto the BTS SkyTrain and take an elevated trip across the city to the Mo Chit station, which brings you to the doorstep of Or Tor Kor (Th Kamphaengphet 1) (pronounced “aw taw kaw”), Bangkok’s finest produce market. This clean and well-lit space is a showcase of tropical abundance, peddling gargantuan fruits and first-rate fish and meats. The market is also a great place to sample home-style Thai food and sweets. Towards the back, you’ll find a small food court selling thick and piquant curries, rice noodles dunked in greasy broth and topped with roasted duck breast, and every coconut and palm fruit iteration possible.
Just across the street from Or Tor Kor is the famed Chatuchak Weekend Market (587/10 Kamphaeng Phet 2 Rd; chatuchak.org). This massive market boasts nearly 18,000 booths selling goods from every part of Thailand. Almost everything can be purchased here, from pretty frocks and hip accessories to cheap ceramic ware and antique wooden furniture. Refresh yourself with peanut-speckled coconut ice cream, sugary fruit juices and some of the city’s best tub tim krob (rice flour-wrapped water chestnuts in sweetened coconut milk). You can also park yourself for an hour at Viva 8 (Section 8, JJ Market; +63 2 618 7425; facebook.com/Viva8JJ), a small, informal joint serving up classic cocktails, freshly cooked paella and upbeat techno tunes.
As the sun sets, cross the adjacent park to the JJ Green Night Market (1 Kamphaeng Phet 3 Rd), one of the city’s coolest vintage flea markets. Local merchants hawk pre-loved products from makeshift stalls or the back of an old Kombi van, and you can shop for second-hand clothes, vinyl records, old car models, retro cameras, vintage watches and the like. The stalls are surrounded by small bars plying happy-hour cocktails and bite-sized chow.
Make your way back to Thonglor. Head for Supanniga Eating Room (160/11 Soi Sukhumvit 55 (Thonglor); +66 2 714 7508; supannigaeatingroom.com), a quaint three-story eatery that serves modernized versions of hard-to-find, old-school fare. “The food is so comforting but, at the same time, it’s got a twist to it,” says Supanniga regular Prair Chantrasook. “I love how traditional Thai dishes like chuchee tofu, stir-fried cabbage and grilled shrimp can be turned into something more interesting with a few Western tweaks.”
Go on a bar crawl across the lively Thonglor strip. Sip innovative daiquiris while lodged underneath a creaky staircase or between shelves crammed with “fairy dust”-filled jars at The Iron Fairies (402 Soi Thonglor, Sukhumvit 55 Rd; +66 2 714 8875; facebook.com/ironfairiesbkk). Down liquid nitrogen-injected frozen cocktails or herb-infused vodka shots at steampunk-inspired Bon Bon (Seenspace, 251/1 Thonglor 13; +66 2 185 2378; facebook.com/BonBonBarAsia). At U.N.C.L.E. (72 Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thonglor); avunculus.com), knock back aged spirits and home-made infusions, not to mention some of the area’s most affordable concoctions.
Midnight should find you swaying your hips and pumping your fists at Beam (72 Courtyard, 72 Sukhumvit 55 Thonglor; +66 2 392 7750; beamclub.com), Thonglor’s latest luxury nightclub. It features varying music genres on two levels — you’ll find chilled electro beats and groovy hip hop on the ground floor, while pulsating deep house sets the mood upstairs. The music is complemented by mind-boggling laser shows, as well as an impressive cocktail list.
Bangkok is fast becoming a farmers’ market powerhouse, thanks in part to K Village (95 Sukhumvit 26; +66 2 258 9919; kvillagebangkok.com), which pioneered the Weekend Farmers’ Market in the city. “K Village connects artisan producers and local farmers directly to consumers, providing an entirely different foodie experience,” says Stella. Some of these artisanal goods include freshly baked breads, bottled kombucha, and cold-pressed juices.
Traffic-free Sunday is the perfect time to trek over to Chinatown (Yaowarat Rd). Start off your adventure at Sampeng Lane (Soi Wanit 1), a chaotic enclave of shops hawking everything from hair accessories to stationery, fabric and household wares.
A late lunch by the river is just the ticket after a morning spent jostling through crowded alleys and cramped stalls. Retro-inspired restaurant Err (394/35 Maharaja Rd; +66 2 622 2291; errbkk.com) serves stylized versions of authentic Thai street food in a repurposed shophouse by the Chao Phraya River. Try the sai kook Isaan (pork sausage cured and cooked in the north-eastern style), and the mamuang prieaw (sour green mangoes steeped in fish sauce).
Wat Pho (2 Sanamchai Rd, Grand Palace Subdistrict; +66 2 225 9595; watpho.com) is one of Bangkok’s main attractions, but the crowd of tourists it attracts is quite manageable. The ethereal compound houses the Reclining Buddha, a gold-plated, 46m-long statue with a benevolent smile on its face and mother-of-pearl inlays on the soles of its feet. The extensive complex is also home to more Buddha images than any other temple in Bangkok.
Wat Pho is also considered the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. Seek out the Watpo Thai Traditional Massage School (392/33-34 Maharajah Rd; +66 2 622 3533; watpomassage.com) right on the temple grounds. If there’s a queue for treatments within the temple (as there often is), walk a few meters outside the complex to Maharaj Road, where the school also has additional rooms and a training facility.
Head over to Yaowarat Road, where discerning gourmets congregate after sunset to explore the area’s famous sidewalk cuisine. Here you’ll find noodle soup carts, grillers of pork skewers and cooks frying rice in blazing-hot woks. The epicenter of the food scene is at the corner of Phadung Dao (Soi Texas), where two restaurants, Lek and Rut (Yaowarat Rd cor Phadung Dao (Soi Texas); +66 2 224 8587) and T&K (49-51 Phadung Dao (Soi Texas); Yaowarat Rd, +66 2 223 4519), battle it out for seafood supremacy. Lek and Rut serves up what is said to be the best tom yum goong in Bangkok, while T&K is reputed for offering the city’s best black pepper crab.
Make your way back to city central and wind down with a few infused cocktails at CHAR (25/F and 26/F, Hotel Indigo Bangkok Wireless Road, 81 Wireless Rd; +66 2 207 4999; charbangkok.com), the newest addition to a parade of rooftop bars dotting the city. Bangkok is truly an assault to the senses, an overload of sights, smells, sounds and tastes. And sometimes, you have no choice but to succumb.
Download the full transcript of the above video here.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Smile magazine.