I never thought there would be so many things to do in Bangkok. In fact, the morning after I arrived, I began to sense that there wouldn’t be enough hours each day to see everything I wanted.
By Jim Ferri
I had long wanted to visit Bangkok. And when I finally arrived, I was overcome by its exoticness. It was a kaleidoscope of color, nearly everywhere I turned.
Bangkok is a city both spiritual and sensual. And often, it all comes together in the Wats (temples) amid golden Buddhas, saffron-robed monks, and the faithful who come to pray bringing gifts of food and colorful lotus flowers.
Regardless of the time of day or night, the Bangkok’s streets are always teeming with humanity. Any time of day walk into a teeming marketplace, and you’ll enter another world.
I had planned to visit Bangkok for four full days on a stopover but found I could have stayed much longer. It’s just that kind of city.
If you plan to visit Bangkok – and I think you should if you’re in southern Asia – these are the top things to do in four days.
Don’t Miss the #1 Site: the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo
The Grand Palace is the most dazzling complex of buildings I’ve ever seen in my life.
The pinnacle of architecture and Thai religious art, the buildings and stupas are covered in gold and a thousand different hues of glass, stone, tile, and painting. It’s unbelievable with its golden stupas glittering in the sun, looking like something out of a fairytale.
Since 1782 the Palace was the official residence of the Kings of Siam before the name was changed to Thailand. Although Thailand’s Kings stopped living in the Palace in the early 20th century, the complex continues to be the most famous landmark in Bangkok.
Its most revered and famous building is Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The small 14th-century Emerald Buddha inside is revered among Buddhists.
You’re allowed to take photos anywhere in the Grand Palace except in Wat Phra Kaew, and you must remove your shoes before entering. There are little stands and shelves around the exterior to leave your shoes before you enter.
It can be quite crowded, though people are respectful, and no one is pushing.
Everything in the complex is so overwhelmingly beautiful, you could stay here an entire day walking about admiring every single building.
If you go:
– The complex is open 8:30am – 4:30 pm daily. Try to go early in the morning before the tour groups arrive, and it gets hot.
– The entrance fee is 500 Baht per person for foreigners ($16).
– There is also a strict dress code. Prohibited are sleeveless shirts, vests, short tops, see-through tops, short hot pants or short pants, torn pants, tight pants, and bike pants, and mini skirts. – – – Men must wear long pants and shirts with sleeves (no tank tops). If you’re wearing sandals or flip-flops, you must wear socks (in other words, no bare feet.)
Admire Beautiful Wat Pho and Get a Massage
The adjacent Wat Pho, built in the 16th century as the home of the huge, 151-foot Reclining Buddha, is almost as famous as the Palace complex. The revered Buddha, its reclining position symbolizing Nirvana, is covered in gold leaf, with feet studded with mother-of-pearl.
Although the Buddha is the most popular site in the Wat, it is far from the only. This temple also has resident monks, a school, and, outside, small mounds with statues of hermits. Stupas covered with mosaics are scattered about the exterior, as are several large figures of Westerners wearing top hats. Originally brought to Thailand as ballast on ships sailing from China, they now stand guard in the Wat’s inner courtyard.
But the thing Wat Pho is most famous for, however, is its traditional massage school, considered the best in Thailand. Masseurs at the school provide massages for visitors.
If you go:
– The Wat Pho entrance fee is 100 baht ($3.25).
– A one-hour Thai massage is approximately 480 baht ($14.25). Note that clothes are worn for a Thai massage, so wear loose, comfortable clothing.
Visit the National Museum
The National Museum, one of the largest in Southeast Asia, is the premier museum in Thailand. It’s an excellent introduction to Thailand’s cultural heritage, even if you make just a short visit.
The beautiful Buddhaisawan Chapel, built in 1787, is in the heart of the complex. Notable in the chapel is the small Phra Sihing Buddha Image, one of three claiming to be the original.
Also famous is the Royal Funeral Chariots Gallery, with the elaborately decorated gilded teak carriage used in royal funerals. Each weighs several tons and requires hundreds of men to move them.
As you might expect, there’s also plenty of sculpture and beautiful art and furniture.
If you go:
– Admission for non-Thais is 200 baht ($5.20).
– Open Wednesday – Sunday 9am – 4pm.
– There’s a free museum tour once a week; check with your hotel regarding the specific day.
Spend a Morning in the Damnoen Floating Market
One classic image of Bangkok is that of the crowded floating market where vendors in small boats and canal-side shops sell vegetables and other goods. But Bangkok has filled in many of those canals and transformed them into roads to either (take your choice) alleviate or exacerbate the city’s horrendous traffic problem.
The floating markets are still there, they’ve just moved further out of town. The most popular is the Damnoen Floating Market, about a 1½ hour-drive (approximately 60 miles) from Bangkok.
Yes, it’s touristy, but it still gives you a feel for the old way of life in Thailand. In other words, go see it, preferably arriving around 8:30am before the tour buses arrive.
Through my hotel, I had hired Eak, a tour guide and driver, to take me to the market and to other worthwhile areas in Bangkok and outside the city. When we arrived a bit after 8am, we were the first car in the parking lot. Eak told me that when I returned from my 1½-hour ride, the lot would be full.
I hired one of the women drivers of the numerous sampans available, then paused briefly for the obligatory tourist photo. We soon sped off in our motorized sampan down the 12-foot wide canals, just wide enough to let two boats pass.
The canal banks were strewn with coconuts and palms and the occasional little shoreline shrine, a number tipping precariously. Within a few minutes, we were in the heart of the market, slowly filling with other boats.
All along the banks were vendors selling foodstuffs, paintings, t-shirts, and other souvenirs, with one man offering to drape his python across my shoulders for a quick selfie.
We continually moved on past little sampans on which women were cooking foods, past a canal-side dress shop, another selling nothing but beer, and more python men. It was quite a fascinating morning.
When we returned, we were met by the photographer lady – now holding a plate with my photo in the middle of it, and a framed portrait of me sitting in the boat – and a full parking lot.
If you go:
– The market is open from 7am – 5pm. Admission is 1,500 Baht per group (up to 6 people).
– The cost of a boat varies depending upon where you get it and whether it is motorized. Since I was on a tight schedule that day, I paid 2500 Baht ($80) for a motorized boat at the main arrival area. (I’ve heard of other paying 2,000 – 5,000 ($64–170)). Remember that the cost is per boat, which can carry several people.
– You can save money by walking up the canal to another pier where you can bargain for a much lower price. (I’ve read of people taking a non-motorized boat, with a paddler, for as little as 300 Baht ($9.50).
– And bring bug spray…just in case…although you won’t have any problems bug-wise while the boat is moving.
Go Shopping at the Chatuchak Weekend Market
The Chatuchak Weekend Market, held on Saturdays and Sundays in Bangkok, is the largest market in Thailand. It covers an area of 35 acres and an estimated that 250,000 people visit it each day.
I loved it since it has so much to see and is so incredibly colorful. There are more than 15,000 stalls and 11,000+ vendors in the Chatuchak Market, selling everything imaginable…food, clothing, paintings, home décor, crafts, antiques. It would seem to be almost claustrophobic, but it isn’t since the market is divided into sections, although it does get crowded.
Books are in section 1, antiques in section 26, clothing/accessories in sections 12, 14, 18, and 20, etc. You may also find some good value paintings in section 7, the artist market.
There are also more than 400 food and drink stalls in Chatuchak, many selling a single dish in which they specialize. Walking about and snacking at them can be a near- or full-gourmet experience. There are also several air-conditioned restaurants.
If you go:
– All areas of the market are open Friday (6pm-midnight) and on Saturday and Sunday (9am – 6pm).
– It’s also open Tuesdays – Thursdays for plants and garden supplies.
– Bargaining is expected in the market, and some vendors will reduce their prices by 40-50%.
Visit Ancient Ayutthaya
The ancient Ayutthaya temple complex outside of Bangkok is really quite impressive. I wouldn’t have visited it if Eak hadn’t urged me to pay it a visit, and I’m glad I did. North of Bangkok, it took us less than an hour to reach.
Founded in the 14th century, Ayutthaya was the capital of the Kingdom of Siam until it was sacked and razed by the Burmese in 1767. Today, as you might guess, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a large area, which doesn’t attract the crowds, so it’s quite pleasurable walking/driving about.
Eak had asked if he might bring his nephew with us, and if we might stop at Wat Phanan Choeng in Ayutthaya, built in 1324. The temple was holding a special ceremony, and they wanted to attend. I, of course, agreed.
When we arrived, Eak and his nephew joined about 100 more Buddhists in the “clothing of the Buddha.” The seated bronze Buddha was 62 feet tall and set on a platform high above the floor.
Inside the temple, each attendee bought an orange cloth. Then all sat in adoration in front of a small shrine in which were two large elephant tasks, obviously quite ancient. A monk started chanting and then walked around, taking the cloths off silver plates that each supplicant was holding. He then threw the cloths up to another monk on the base of the giant golden Buddha before us.
They then tied the cloth together and threw them back down to the supplicants below. There was at least a half-dozen strings of cloth, which people unraveled and spread out over the group. This continued for several minutes with people softly chanting and drums beating in the background. The fabric was then pulled back off the people and pulled up around the Buddha, “clothing” it once again. It was quite fascinating.
We then continued on to Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, a temple built in 1357, with a large central stupa surrounded by four smaller ones. It was surrounded by a brick walkway, and line of four-foot-tall, saffron-robed, seated Buddhas. I tried to make a quick count and surmised there had to be over 200 of them. Nearby was a giant reclining Buddha.
Nearby Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya was a pleasant place to stroll around. Among the things I saw was the head of a stone Buddha, enveloped in a banyan tree after the Siamese complex was destroyed by the Burmese.
If you go:
– If you plan to visit Ayutthaya, like most places it’s best to go early in the day to beat both the heat and the tour buses. That also leaves time to be back in Bangkok for lunch and some afternoon activities.
– Bring along some comfortable walking shoes.