Nine ways to experience the best of Bangkok

With a tantalising street food scene, unique festivals overflowing with spirit and life, golden temples, bustling streets and panoramic sky bars: Bangkok is certainly a city of wonder, whose landscape offers a compelling dose of culture during the day and whose streets come alive with a riot of neon colours at night. Whether you’re seeking relaxing experiences, must-see sights or a chance to live like a local, we run through the best ways to get a true taste of this city.

Damnoen Saduak floating market near Bangkok. Image: iStock

Damnoen Saduak floating market near Bangkok. Image: iStock

Explore unique markets

A flurry of colour, fun and frenzy, Bangkok’s street markets offer an unrivalled and fascinating – albeit overwhelming – experience for even the most seasoned shopper. Kitsch accessories or knick-knacks, hand-woven textiles or traditional straw hats, antique collectibles or aromatic orchids – whatever you could possibly be looking for, you’ll find tucked beneath their endless lines of colourful tarpaulins. The impressive Pak Khlong Talat flower market brings a chaotic yet fragrant buzz from dusk till dawn, while the enormous Chatuchak Market sets the scene with more than 15,000 stalls together on weekends, selling everything from street food to artisan goods and vintage clothes. Of course, no Bangkok tour is quite complete without a trip to the floating markets – these intoxicating havens just outside of the city paint a pretty picture, as hat-bearing vendors stir waters with boats filled with fruit, vegetables and all manner of sweet treats.

Wat Ratchanaddaram. Image: iStock

Wat Ratchanaddaram. Image: iStock

Marvel at Buddhist temples

Of all its architectural exploits, Bangkok is perhaps best known for its rich plethora of Buddhist temples – each incredibly unique and distinctive in character and appearance. Marvel at Wat Ratchanaddaram’s 37 tall grey spires, take in riverside views from the pyramidal Wat Arun, gaze in wonder at Wat Yannawa’s junk ship-shaped structure, and build some stamina to climb the green hill leading to Wat Saket. Those pressed for time should make a beeline for Wat Phra Kaew, Thailand’s most scared Buddhist temple within the grounds of the Grand Palace. A word to the wise: dress appropriately and modestly (avoiding tight-fitting clothing and uncovered shoulders), take photographs conservatively and, as in any sacred space, be respectful towards worshipping locals.

VIP massage room at SO Spa. Image: SO Sofitel Bangkok

VIP massage room at SO Spa. Image: SO Sofitel Bangkok

Indulge in a Thai massage

Spa lovers and relaxation-seekers, look no further: you’ll find few better places for a pampering. Head to Bangkok’s gleaming, sky-high five-star hotels for a seriously impressive collection of spas worth writing home about: SO Sofitel Bangkok’s SO Spa combines personalised treatments with breathtaking city views, the Dusit Thani’s Devarana Spa is a gleaming white and inviting affair at the city’s heart, while the I.Sawan Residential Spa & Club at the Grand Hyatt Erawan offers wellness retreats, hot stone massages and more within a pure and harmonious space. Looking for a quintessentially Thai escape? Head to the atmospheric CHI, The Spa at the Shangri-La Hotel, for treatments based on time-honoured traditions and, of course, the ultimate Thai massage. After all, when in Rome…

Loy Krathong Festival. Image: iStock

Loy Krathong Festival. Image: iStock

Make a wish during Loy Krathong festival

Normally held in November, during the full moon of the 12th month in the Thai lunar calendar, this festival sees light-filled rafts take to the rivers of Bangkok, as locals make their wishes and pay homage to the water spirits. As the Krathongs are decorated with incense and flowers, this ritual offers up a picturesque and fiery display of beauty and colour – a most memorable experience. And, should your candle stay lit until it disappears out of sight, you’ll enjoy a year of good luck – that’s always a bonus! Head to Asiatique The Riverfront, the main venue where the celebration takes place in the city, or surround yourself with the majestic beauty of the iconic Lumpini Park.

Traditional puppet show at the Thai Cultural Centre, January 2016. Image: iStock

Traditional puppet show at the Thai Cultural Centre in January 2016. Image: iStock

Seek out a traditional puppet show

As far as must-see practices go, traditional puppets shows are perhaps unbeatable. While extremely rare and hard to find, the most enjoyable puppet shows can still be watched at Baan Silapin, a hidden canalside artist’s house in the city, where emotional stories are told using beautifully-crafted puppets made to resemble humans or mythical creatures. Combining classical dance with Thai folklore, they place both puppet and puppeteer at the heart of a marvellous and energetic show for an unforgettable experience. The most mesmerising variant, shadow puppetry (known locally as Nang yai), offers a unique form of storytelling as cut-out figures dance across a translucent screen to the sounds of music and narration (those eager to discover its history can plan a trip to the Nang Yai Museum Wat Khanon, Ratchaburi, about a 90-minute drive out of the centre of Bangkok).

Image: iStock

Image: iStock

Sample incredible street food

What better way to get your bearings of Thailand’s capital, than with a tour of its prime foodie hotspots? Pull up a plastic stool and enjoy a plate of mango and sticky race in upscale Sukhumvit, chow down on pad Thai noodles at Bangkok’s historical Old City (Rattanakosin), try some grilled fish (pla pao) at the popular stall outside CentralWorld Mall, or seek respite from the hot and humid weather with a variety of papaya salads in Silom. For a light snack and a bit of fun, the brave-hearted could even sample grasshoppers, bamboo worms and other insects on the Khao San Road (backpacker central and a tourist trap that’s otherwise best avoided). Of course, your palate will demand a trip to Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, for barbecued prawns, crispy pork belly and seafood-topped noodle soups under bright red-and-yellow neon lights.

Grand Palace. Image: iStock

Grand Palace. Image: iStock

Take a tour of the Grand Palace

A fine example of regal opulence and beauty in the city’s heart, the Grand Palace is certainly a checklist-topper, no matter what the reason for your trip to Bangkok. Set by Chao Phraya River, this former royal residence-turned-museum is more than 230 years old and offers a marvellous, gold-hued display of Thai architecture and detailed craftsmanship, with shimmering mosaic tiles glinting at every turn. Split into three zones – the Outer, Middle and Inner courts – its most striking features include the Temple of Emerald Buddha and, of course, the startlingly large, golden Reclining Buddha. Keep in mind that a strict dress code is in place, and visitors must wear covered clothes and avoid flip-flops.

Bangkok and Moon Bar. Image: Banyan Tree Bangkok

Bangkok and Moon Bar. Image: Banyan Tree Bangkok

Hop from sky bar to sky bar

If Bangkok excels at doing one thing better than everyone else, it’s the soaring sky bar with seriously spectacular vistas – and those in the mood for an expertly-crafted cocktail and upscale ambience shouldn’t miss the chance to take their night to dizzying heights. The options are seemingly endless: head to the Mövenpick Hotel Sukhumvit 15 Bangkok’s Rainforest Rooftop Bar (try saying that after a drink or two…) for views over towering skyscrapers and tapas-style snacks, challenge your fear of heights over a perfectly premium drink at Banyan Tree Bangkok’s 61st-floor Vertigo and Moon Bar, or try the Novotel Bangkok Sukhumvit 20’s Sky on 20 bar, complete with a sensational infinity pool. You could also order a drink from the neon pink bar at lebua at State Tower, made famous through its appearance in The Hangover 2, or drink in views of Chao Phraya River over a glass of wine at Mode Sathorn Hotel’s very in-vogue rooftop bar, framed by glass panels up on its 38th floor.

Songkran Festival. Image: iStock

Songkran Festival. Image: iStock

Take part in the Songkran New Year Water Festival

From 13th to 15th April, Bangkok takes on a refreshing appearance as Songkran – the Thai New Year’s festival – brings a wet, water bucket-bearing crowd into streets across the country. From the quieter ceremonies of washing Buddha icons at temples, through to the unbridled and chaotic water fights, locals bless family and friends through this quirky ritual which takes centre stage in Bangkok along Si Lom, Khaosan Road and Royal City Avenue. Grab your waterproof gear and prepare for three days of messy – yet blissful – glee and celebration.

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