Bangkok is an awesome city, but it’s also hot, noisy, smelly, chaotic and traffic-choked. Exploring Bangkok on a quick visit and trying to fit in all its spectacular attractions feels like you’ve been put through the spin cycle (a very hot and humid one). Fellow blogger, Planet Bell, said it best: It’s an assault on the senses. I urge you to read his hilarious and oh so accurate description of the craziness that is Bangkok. It’s where I got my inspiration for this post. There’s plenty of information out there on Bangkok’s must-sees. This post is about my very subjective tips on how to survive the must-sees—activities that calm the senses and evaporate the sweat (sort of). Some may surprise you. And, most of them are cheap or free.
Cruising the Chao Phraya—just stay on the boat!
One afternoon, exhausted and hot, Mike and I jumped onto an orange line Chao Phraya boat and stayed on it until close to the end of the route. We lounged on an empty pier for 15 minutes before boarding another boat to take us back (I think we got to stop 24 of 30). The 21 km Chao Phraya Express Boat Route is a great way to visit many of Bangkok’s best attractions, but it can also be a relaxing sit-and-do-nothing break. The piers and boats at the main stations are packed, but as soon as you get past the central hub things quieten down drastically. “Cruising” the Chao Phraya is dirt cheap, there’s a cool(ish) breeze and you float past gorgeous hotels, glistening temples, impressive bridges, charming riverside homes, and peaceful communities. You may even nod off for a bit.
Sunset drinks with a view
Bangkok’s high rise rooftop bars are big tourist attractions. We were tempted to go to the glitzy Sky Bar, where parts of The Hangover II were filmed. Our guest house owner urged us to avoid the busy scene and the hefty prices. He recommended the deck on top of the 3-story Arun Residence. It was a great suggestion—an unobstructed riverside view to Wat Arun, which looked stunning despite the scaffolding. The view in the other direction was just as good with the late day sun illuminating the gold and jewel tones of Wat Phra Kaew and the grounds of the royal palace. What a peaceful few hours!
Visual feast at the flower market
Bangkok’s Pak Khlong Market is the city’s largest depot for wholesale flowers. It’s open 24 hours and it’s busiest late at night and very early in the morning—the time to go if you want to see it in full action (chaos, we were told). We visited after our sunset drinks when things were still relatively quiet—perfect for us. Despite feeling overrun by jet lag, the massive displays of gorgeous orchids, lilies and marigolds was a real treat for our senses and a lovely way to end a day in Bangkok.
Bike and eat night tour
Biking in downtown Bangkok? You’re thinking she’s got to be nuts. How could this possible be stress-busting? I was surprised too. Our tour with Grasshopper Adventures was one of best things we did in Bangkok, and definitely the most fun. We rode through quiet back roads and alleyways (like the one in the bottom right photo). I didn’t think this existed in Bangkok. It was just Mike and me with our local guide Tammy and her hubby Ian; it felt like hanging out with old friends. We learned about life in Bangkok while eating all kinds of delicious street food. We sampled Thai, Indian and Chinese specialties at four different places. And, with Chinese New Year just days away, vendors were plying us with festive treats. This is the only activity of the bunch that wasn’t cheap, but it was totally worth the money.
Thai foot massage
During our last few days in Bangkok I was hit by a horrible cold. I was determined it wouldn’t ruin our plans and we set off to the Chatuchak Weekend Market, the mother of all markets—a sprawling labyrinth of stiflingly hot, narrow passages with 15,000 stalls and God knows how many thousands of visitors. A bad plan! I had fond memories of the market from a visit in 1991, but it has exploded. Within an hour of getting there, my nose erupted in a torrent of blood. It finally subsided with the help of a giant wad of napkins and ice graciously supplied by a nearby food stall. I couldn’t handle more market but needed to relax before tackling the skytrain. We popped into the closest foot massage place (there are lots). It had a door and air conditioning, comfy chairs and tranquil music—a small sanctuary inside the crazy market (I didn’t have it in me to take photos; the one above is a far less intimate place we walked by on another day). It was the first of many inexpensive foot massages we had in SE Asia.
Visiting the less popular temples
Of course you need to visit Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and Wat Arun. They’re magnificent but can leave you cranky and exhausted from jostling with the masses. After visiting the Golden Mount and Wat Saket (another big draw) we wandered aimlessly and came upon Wat Rutchanatdaram (Loha Prasat). There was no entrance fee and the grounds were deserted. With room to breath and explore peacefully, this was a really special temple experience. There are more like this in Bangkok if you get just slightly off the beaten path.
The funny sign that got us through
It was the nearing the end of another good but exhausting day. Did we have one more temple in us? We debated at the courtyard entrance of Wat Suthat. This sign caught my eye. It’s priceless. I love the part about reading the instructions but not to believe them. Wat Suthat turned out to be a nice visit but I’ll always associate it with the crazy sign that gave us the laugh we needed and the push to enter.
Chances are Bangkok will overwhelm you. This isn’t all bad. Slow down and give my Bangkok stress-busting activities a try. Maybe you can share some of your own? Enjoy this fabulously frenzied city!