Ten cool things to do in Bangkok
Bangkok … a name that conjures up images of the exotic East, of shimmering golden temples, of bustling street markets, of tuk-tuks zooming through the streets, of sights, smells, sounds. A name that was immortalised in the 1980s by the song One Night in Bangkok. But Bangkok deserves much more than one night.
And here are ten reasons why:
1. A city by any other name
Known as Krung Thep (City of Angels) to locals, the full name of Bangkok, one of the world’s longest place names, is Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. Wondering what it means? The full name can be translated as “the city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city 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.”
2. Shop ’til you drop
Think more than 5,000 stalls spread over 35 hectares is doable? Then head to Chatuchak Weekend Market, a roller-coaster shopping experience where one can find practically anything. From vintage clothing to beautiful antique silks, from cheap and cheerful t-shirts to the latest up-and-coming young Thai designer threads, and from oil paintings to puppies to antiques both faux and real, Chatuchak has something for everyone. One tip – if one sees something one likes, it’s buy it immediately. The chances of ever find the way back are as slim as the labyrinthine narrow alleys.
Other great shopping experiences include the glittering, glamorous Gaysorn, Central World and Siam Paragon malls, all within a few minutes’ walk of Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok. Or how about Talad Rot Fai, also known as the Train Market, one of the city’s newest night markets, open on Saturdays and Sundays, and located by rusting railways tracks on land owned by the State Railway of Thailand. Here retro-lovers can find vintage clothes, antiques, mid-century furniture and all sorts of other treasures laid out on the ground, in front of old VW camper vans, or inside Rod’s Antiques in the huge old railway warehouse. Grab a beer and a few sticks of satay from one of the food stalls, and dive in.
3. Jurassic park
Join the locals for an early-morning jog or a spot of tai chi on a Sunday morning in Lumphini Park, and there are more surprises in store than just the sheer number of people running around the carefully-groomed pathways. Lumphini is Bangkok’s very own Jurassic park, home to a population of water monitor lizards. Water monitors can grow to around ten feet in length, but most in the park are a more conservative three to four feet long. They like to swim in the cool waters of the ponds, or sun-bathe on the lawns. Not known to be particularly dangerous, they can still elicit a fright if encountered unexpectedly, and they do have a habit of looking one straight in the eye and licking their lips!
4. Street life
The streets of Bangkok are colourful, lively places, sometimes noisy and crowded, but always a source of life. A stroll along the city’s streets can lead to stalls of sarongs, dresses and Hawaiian shirts (especially popular around Songkran, or Thai New Year), false teeth sellers, ad-hoc bars sprouting up from nowhere in the late evening, and vendors selling anything from plants to sweeping brushes to delicious local iced Thai tea from the back of handcarts.
The streets are also a great place to sample some of the city’s famous street food. From steaming bowls of noodles to sticks of charcoal-grilled chicken and pork satay, from pad thai cooked in a wok over huge flames to the irresistible mango and sticky rice dessert, and from crispy scorpions to crickets and other bugs for the more adventurous, one need never go hungry in this city. A slightly off-the-beaten-track place for visitors to discover their own favourite dishes is Sukhumvit Soi 38, a small alley of street stalls leading off the main Sukhumvit Road just by the Thong Lo BTS Skytrain station. Only open in the evenings, the stalls here stay open late to cater for the post-clubbing crowd. So if all that dancing in the clubs of Thong Lo makes the stomach rumble, this is the place to come.
5. Water, water everywhere
There aren’t that many places in the world where it’s acceptable to empty a bucket of water on a passerby, or take aim at a total stranger with a water pistol. But in April in Thailand, this is exactly what happens – and visitors are invited to join in the fun. Every April sees the arrival of Thai New Year, also known as the Songkran Water Festival. Celebrated from April 13 to 15, the festival embraces goodwill, love, compassion and thankfulness, using water as the means of expression. Originally a sign of respect, the traditional water pouring has evolved into good-natured country-wide water throwing. Locals and tourists alike roam the streets armed with buckets of water, or wait on the side of the road with water pistols to drench friends and strangers alike – all in the name of fun. A word of warning to visitors to the Kingdom of Thailand at this time: you will get wet, so try and remain cool (a good dousing with water usually helps) and join in this good-natured fun with a smile and sense of humour.
6. Escape to the islands
Bangkok is a big, bustling city, and that’s what makes it exciting. But sometimes it’s good to get away, and with some of the most beautiful tropical islands in the world right on the city’s doorstep, escaping to an island paradise is quick and easy. Without jumping on a plane, perhaps the Bangkokians’ favourite is Koh Samed, a beautiful island with white sand beaches, crystal-clear waters, and friendly people. Koh Samed (also sometimes written as Koh Samet) can be reached by car and boat from Bangkok in about two and a half hours. From the boat pier in Ban Phe, take either a local ferry (fun and cheap, yet slow) or a chartered speedboat (fun and still quite cheap, but fast). The island is relatively small, but with something for everyone. From the party beaches in the northeast to the quiet getaways in the south, all one needs to do is find a favourite beach, dip toes in the water, and relax.
7. Shrines to Buddhism, and consumerism
The area directly surrounding Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok is the commercial heart of the city, with some of its swankiest shopping malls close at hand. It’s also a spiritual destination for local Thais and visitors alike, being home to six of Bangkok’s most popular shrines. All are within a short walk of the Hotel, and offer guests a great insight into the spiritual side of the city. As long as one is dressed correctly (no bare shoulders or shorts, and it’s better to wear covered shoes), visitors are welcome to pay their respects at each of the shrines. The most popular is the Erawan Shrine, also known as San Phra Phrom, believed to bring good fortune. Stalls selling colourful flowers and offerings line the street outside. Why not join the locals and pay respects? And to gain that extra bit of merit, pay the traditional dancers at the shrine to perform a dance to accompany prayers.
8. Incredible, beautiful, spectacular flowers, available 24/7
It might not be feasible to take them home, but the 24-hour flower market, Pak Klong Talad, is a temptation nonetheless. It’s open 24 hours a day, and is full of the heady scents of fresh jasmine and bitter marigolds, and the riotous colours of fresh orchids. The stalls that line the streets sell huge bundles of greenery, orchids in vibrant yellows, reds and magentas, enormous sprays of roses, and giant swathes of marigolds. Truckloads of lotus flowers are delivered throughout the day, bundled up in their own leaves, for sale at the side of the road at an unbelievably cheap price. Head into the covered alleyways and the senses with the fragrance of bags full of tiny jasmine blossoms, a scent never to be forgetten. Be sure to take a camera to capture it all, and if one simply can’t resist, Four Seasons will provide vases to decorate one’s hotel room.
9. I want to ride my bicycle
Bangkok may be well known for its traffic jams, but it’s also an amazing place for a cycling tour. Whether pedalling through the old city and Chinatown, past ancient temples, billowing clouds of incense smoke, and crumbling colonial-style buildings, or heading over to the other side of the Chao Phraya river to see a different side of Bangkok, complete with canals, coconut palms and emerald green rice fields, this is a great way to see the sights at a slower pace. It’s also a wonderful way to meet the locals – be sure to try out a “Sawasdee” greeting and smile; this is the Land of Smiles, after all. The Hotel’s concierge can suggest reliable tour companies who can lead a cycling safari of the lesser-known sights of this incredible city.
10. Adrenalin junkies
If just experiencing the excitement of being in Bangkok itself isn’t enough of an adrenalin kick, perhaps a few hours throwing oneself off a tree into the jungle canopy will do the trick. The Flight of the Gibbon ziplining experience will give just the burst of adrenalin one seeks. A 90-minute drive away from the city and located in the rainforests of Chonburi, home to giant squirrels, barking deer, hornbills and gibbons, the zipline experience involves jumping off 24 different tree-top platforms and launching oneself through the trees to the next one over a course of wires three kilometres long. Suitable for adventurers of any age, this is sure to be an unforgettable day out for anyone wanting to unleash their inner Tarzan.