Crazy 24-hour street markets and neon-lit bars filled with dancing girls — even if you’ve never been to Bangkok, chances are you’ve heard of its exotic reputation.
Backpackers still arrive in droves, but this is also a cosmopolitan, thrilling and stylish city that can be enjoyed for almost nothing. And once you’ve saved a few pennies in some areas, you can blow them on the treats that Bangkok has to offer.
Step into Bangkok’s exotic whirl and it’s hard to believe that this huge and hectic city started life so recently. On May 6, 1782, a day deemed auspicious by royal astronomers, King Phraya Chakri began construction of his new palace at Baang Mákàwk (Olive Plum riverbank).
He called his new capital “Great City of Angels, the Repository of Divine Gems, the Great Land Unconquerable, the Grand and Prominent Realm, the Royal and Delightful Capital City full of Nine Noble Gems, the Highest Royal Dwelling and Grand Palace, the Divine Shelter and Living Place of Reincarnated Spirits” — a title still in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s longest city name.
This was too much for regional traders who truncated the original name to Bangkok, but Thais still often call their capital Krung Threp or City of Angels.
King Chakri’s Grand Palace is now open to the public: At about $16 it’s not cheap, but you can easily spend a whole day wandering around. Temples, on the other hand, are free and there are dozens of them.
To see the city, avoid the touristy tuk tuks and jump on a riverboat. A day pass costs under $4 with stops at many of the major sights.
Bangkok is also all about shopping. Head to the epic Chatuchak weekend market, where everything from opals to opium beds is up for sale in the 15,000 stalls. This is the place to go for stylish knick-knacks; watch your purse, don’t forget to barter andpick up a free map because you will get lost. Get the sky train to Morchit and follow the crowds.
Bangkok has fabulous fabrics, especially silks, and is a hub for exotic decor items from across Thailand, so combining your trip with a little stylish redecorating is highly recommended. I stock up on cushions, throws and hangings, not to mention lacquer plates and carvings.
On my last trip I bought enough to transform my living room for a fraction of the cost back home. Gorgeous shops with a dizzying range of silks can be found across the city, but Chatuchak market has the best selection, as well as some beautiful furniture which marketeers will happily arrange to have shipped home to you.
And be sure to keep a little cash aside to go and celebrate your shopping success with Bangkok’s beautiful people at the Sky Bar. It’s expensive but you don’t need to eat — the unforgettable view is yours for a $11 cocktail.
Best budget accommodation: The HQ Hostel, hqhostel.com, costs just $15.50 but includes free Internet, and interiors showcased in Elle Decor.
Best restaurant: Don’t go to one! Instead, brave the street eats. Try MBK food court near the National Stadium.
Best drinks: Bangkok specializes in glamourous rooftop bars with magical views. The Sky Bar is on floor 64th of the State Tower.
Best shopping area: Try Chatuchak for bargains — or for a spot of Thai mysticism, head to the Ta Prachan Amulet Market.
Going out: Combine cheap eats, shopping for exotic trinkets and occasionally free music at Suan Lum night market in Lumpini park.
Three things to do for free:
• Temples, temples and more temples. From the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun) with its 70-metre tower built of Chinese glass to Wat Mahathat, home to Thailand’s largest monastic order, you’ll never see them all. Most are free, but remember thatno shorts or tank tops are permitted.
• There are all sorts of weird and wonderful free events every night in Bangkok. Check the listings in BK magazine or the Real Time section in the Bangkok Post on Fridays for a feast of options.
• Free dance at the Erawan shrine near Siam Square — if you’re lucky. Devotees of this Hindu god sponsor performances of traditional Thai dance to give thanks when their wishes are granted. Even if you miss out on the dancing, the shrine is worth a look.