Few cities in the world are preceded by their reputation as much as Bangkok. Legendary for its excess, its intensely laid-back atmosphere, its beaches, and its hedonism, Bangkok encompasses all of these—but they don’t tell the story of the real city, or the real Thailand.
Even the city’s name, “Bangkok,” obscures the truth; although this is the name most commonly used around the world, its citizens call it Krung Thep—"City of Angels." This is a drastically shortened version of its full formal name: “The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city of Ayutthaya of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn.”
But visitors can still call it Bangkok.
With such poetry for a name, the reality of modern Bangkok is more down to earth. Home to more than 11 million people, the Thai capital is a thriving commercial hub, packed with shopping malls, busy highways, and throngs of people. But within this triumph of capitalism still sits a traditional heart, and it is this heart that many visitors will think of when they are asked to conjure up images of Bangkok.
At the head of these for many would be Wat Traimit, the Golden Buddha, much loved by photographers. Along with Wat Pho (the Reclining Buddha) and the Grand Palace (also known as Wat Phra Kaew), these temples and monuments have become the flag-bearers for historic Bangkok, and no first-time visit would be complete without seeing them.
An excellent way to see the city is a tour or two through Bangkok’s canals and Chao Phraya River. For the full experience, there are dedicated boat tours, but a cheaper alternative is simply to use the public ferry services, if you’re happy to dispense with the commentary.
For more active visitors, cycling is also an excellent way to get around the city—but only if you are ready to brave Bangkok’s notoriously dangerous roads. A number of tour operators can provide both bicycles and a route; check out up-to-date travel guides or ask at a hotel for more information.
If you ate at a different place in Bangkok every day of your life, you wouldn’t come close to exhausting all the options for dining in the city. From street food and satays to international dining extravaganzas, Bangkok’s food scene is immense and excellent.
Unlike many cities, street food is generally safe to eat, and often delicious. All the traditional Thai favorites can be found, but for something a bit more adventurous, check out Khao San Road’s bug-dining options—everything from scorpions to crickets, mealworms, and water beetles is there to taste.
There are also plenty of more traditional restaurants all across the city; look for local listings magazines to get an idea of what’s hot when you visit. For a chance to see a bit more of the city while you eat, consider a dining cruise—the food won’t be as good as on land, but it’s often a great way for visitors to experience the city.
While certain aspects of Bangkok’s nightlife are somewhat notorious, the city caters to all tastes when it comes to having a good night out. Khao San Road offers some laid-back bars to try out (after sampling some insects), while Sukhumvit is home to higher-end establishments, with some, such as the Vertigo roof-top bar, offering fantastic views over the city. Serious party animals can check out Silom, but be aware that some of the venues are somewhat racy.
Many visitors to Thailand may never even set foot in Bangkok itself—or in some cases, even outside the airport, on their way to another part of the country or region.
For many, a visit to Thailand conjures up pictures of sandy beaches and swaying palm trees; Phuket is the main source for these images. This island towards the south of Thailand is a major tourist hotspot, so much so that it’s now losing some of its paradisiacal charm.
For alternatives to Phuket’s crowded beaches, have a look at the island of Ko Phi Phi. While Ko Phi Phi is not as crowded as Phuket, tourism has developed significantly in recent years, and it now offers options for all tastes, from five-star resorts to budget backpacker accommodations. For movie buffs, Ko Phi Phi was where much of the film "The Beach" was shot.
North of Bangkok, in Thailand’s interior, is the city of Chiang Mai. Home to hundreds of temples, this is a major stop on the spiritual trail around Asia, but like other parts of Thailand, it is now thronging with tourists.
Bangkok is one of Asia’s major hubs, and a great jumping-off point to explore the region. A relatively quick hop can take you to Cambodia, Laos, Bali, or even southwest China, for a very different view of the world’s most populous nation.