It’s safe to say that Bangkok may not be the kind of city you fall in love with on first sight. When confronted with the heavy humidity that hangs in the air like a blanket, the pungent whiff of smells and the dense traffic clogging the arteries of the city, initial reactions are often along the lines of, “what’s the quickest way out of here?” But rest assured this paradoxical city of flashing lights, Buddhist temples and exposed electrical wires will grow on you.
Once you have a friendly barter with a stall holder, share a cheeky joke with a street vendor, and survive a harrowing tuk-tuk ride with a driver who in his own words idolises Michael Schumacher, you will be hooked. This is a destination for the traveller who wants intense undiluted experiences. The chaos gives you a buzz that you thrive on, and before you know it, you’ve been on your feet all day without stopping. Lucky there’s a Thai massage waiting to administer relief around every corner. There is enough to do in this city of 12 million to keep you busy for months. Here is a 48-hour itinerary that offers just a taste of this colourful city, the ideal stopover on a pilgrimage to Greece.
Acquaint yourself with Thailand’s rich culture with a visit to its most sacred temples, all within close distances to one another. Join the locals on the 3B ferry across Chao Phraya River to iconic Wat Arun, one of the most recognised landmarks in Bangkok, for a quick walk around its peaceful gardens. Once finished, take the ferry back across to Wat Pho, the oldest temple in the city and home of Buddhist monks. It houses the 45 meter long reclining gold-plated Buddha, representing Buddha passing into Nirvana.
The compound is also the centre for traditional Thai massage, where you can have a massage that is all technique but no luxury. Just across the road is Wat Phra Kaeo, considered Thailand’s holiest Buddhist Temple and home to the Emerald Buddha, which is in fact sculpted out of jade.
A gentle introduction to Thai food for the first-timer is at the food court of Siam Paragon shopping centre. Stall after stall of all manner of authentic Thai food, it is hawker-style but in a hygienic and air-conditioned environment. Watch the chefs as they boil vats of spicy Tom Yum Goong, transform roasted duck into curry, and roll Thai dumplings. It may have designer labels and mid-priced shops, but Siam Paragon is no ordinary shopping centre. You can swim with the sharks in the in-house aquarium, sing karaoke in the entertainment complex, or watch a flick in their multiplex cinema.
For a traditional Thai massage at pauper’s prices, there are four neighbouring massage salons opposite Novotel Siam Square, and a two-minute walk from Siam Paragon. Once rested and rejuvenated, get dressed up for a big night out. This is a city of have and have-nots, evident at an array of sleekly designed restaurants and bars.
You can’t go past the upmarket Vertigo Restaurant on the rooftop of the Banyan Tree Hotel. Perched up on the 61st floor, it’s not for the faint-hearted, with commanding views over the glittering city. And for all the Australians, it will inevitably lead to discussions about how it can’t possibly meet safety codes. Settle in for cocktails here at Moon Bar, or move on to the Dome at Lebua (the rooftop bar in Hangover 2) or Red Sky at the Centara Grand hotel.
Beat the crowds and the heat by arriving at Chatuchak market (only open on weekends) nice and early. In this vast marketplace of over 8,000 stalls, you’ll find everything from furniture to live animals to bric-a-brac and handicrafts.
It is a labyrinth, so your map will come in handy but don’t expect to cover even a tiny slice of the market in one day. It’s hot, it’s hectic and it’s a true Bangkok experience. If it’s a weekday, other markets on offer include lively Sampeng Lane Market that winds through Chinatown, or take a half day trip out of town to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, where merchants peddle their wares from canoes in a boisterous but touristy environment. Stock up on regional food here before the long ride back to Bangkok.
Keep the Thai baht flowing at the shopping mecca of MBK, made famous the world over for its fantastic deals on flawless copies in this 8-story shopping centre filled with market stalls. There are plenty of places here for a coffee, a snack or a massage, whatever you need to revive you. After a brief rest at your hotel, it’s time to hit the town again. For lovers of sport leaning towards the violent side, take in a Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) match at Lumphini Stadium. The charged atmosphere will give you some insight into the feistier side of Thai culture. The cheapest seats are the best – there is more action happening here than in the ring. By now, you’ll be acclimatised to the heat, the chili and the slip in hygiene standards, so why not end the day with a meal in neon-lit Chinatown.
Some of the best and cheapest food stalls are here, specialising in Cantonese cuisine, noodles and seafood dishes. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the mismatched plastic chairs in the street and the long queues of hungry patrons. When all is said and done, what you’ll remember most about your time in Bangkok are the genuine interactions with the lovely Thai people. They may be haggling the life out of you, but they surprise you with their unexpected displays of friendliness and fantastic sense of humour, no matter what the circumstances.
Getting there: Thai airways has daily flights to Bangkok from major Australian cities.
Staying there: Centara Grand and Novotel Siam Square are both reasonably priced and centrally located.
Eating there: There are infinite eating options. Food stalls offer cheap, quick and accessible meals. Or treat yourself at the pricey (by Thai standards) Vertigo at the Banyan Tree hotel or The Dome at Lebua.