10 Essential Bangkok Experiences

Detail of the Grand Palace, Bangkok. Photo by Charis Atlas Heelan
By Charis Atlas Heelan

Momentary bad times come and go, but Bangkok always seems to return to popularity. It's one of those must-see Asian cities that always crops up on travel wish lists. From visiting ornate temples to sampling the street food, here are 10 can't-miss experiences in Bangkok.

Photo Caption: Detail of the Grand Palace, Bangkok
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The Grand Palace, Bangkok. Photo by Charis Atlas Heelan
If you only have time to visit one temple (or wat) in Bangkok, make it the Grand Palace. The 18th-century palace feels more like a royal suburb, with structures that range from temples and reception rooms to military headquarters and the royal mint. Make your way to the Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), which houses a 14th-century Buddha and a multitude of stunning gold stupas (pointed domes).

Photo Caption: The Grand Palace, Bangkok
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Oncoming traffic on a klong tour, Bangkok canals. Photo by vtveen
Locals use the intricate system of klongs (canals) that run off the Chao Phraya River to navigate through the city, but few tourists venture along the waterways (except for the floating market tours and touristy river cruises). From the klongs, visitors have the opportunity to take in a different side of the city, catching glimpses of daily life and temples, houses, parks, and schools. You can travel on one of the many public express or standard boats (that carry between 60 and 150 passengers) for between 9 and 30 baht (30¢ to $1) per ride. You can also hire a long-tail boat (Rua Hang Yao) for around 400 baht ($13) per hour. Try to avoid the morning and evening rush hours when the boats are jam-packed. Download a klong route map at www.bangkok-city.com.

Photo Caption: Oncoming traffic on a klong tour, Bangkok canals
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Food cart selling traditional Thai sausages. Photo by Charis Atlas Heelan
Whether you eat at expensive bistros to the food halls of shopping malls, it's hard to get a bad meal in Bangkok. But you should also be adventurous and try the street food. Food stalls are set up all over town, especially at night. Watch where the locals go, and follow. If you're afraid to eat the meat, go vegetarian. Save some room for the dessert rotis sold in stalls with large Carnation Milk signage and what looks like pancake skillets. With egg, banana, and condensed milk toppings, these treats start from around 15 baht (50¢) each.

Photo Caption: Food cart selling traditional Thai sausages
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Sirocco & Skybar at Lebua Hotel. Photo by Charis Atlas Heelan
Escape the chaos of Bangkok's streets with a stop at the iconic Dome at The Lebua Hotel (www.lebua.com). Up here on the 64th floor, there's understandably a strict dress code (closed shoes for men, no shorts) -- the Lebua Hotel is, after all, a five-star property, and the restaurants (Mezzaluna and Sirocco) are fine-dining experiences with six-course chef's tasting menus (4900 baht; $160). At the Sky Bar that juts out over the Bangkok skyline, order a Hangovertini (490 baht; $16), named for the cult Hangover II movie filmed here.

Photo Caption: Sirocco & Sky Bar at Lebua Hotel
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Chatuchak Market. Photo by Charis Atlas Heelan
If markets are your passion, you can't miss this sprawling shopping area, where you'll need a map and a comfortable pair of walking shoes. The Chatuchak (or JJ) Market is only open on Saturdays and Sundays. Plan to arrive early to avoid the crowds and the overwhelming heat later in the day. Despite its labyrinthine appearance, the market isn't too difficult to navigate. Distinct sections sell everything from antiques to live animals. Plus, many young Thai fashion designers have stalls here, so you can pick up fashionable items at wholesale prices.

Hungry? Stop by Stall #126 in Section 2, Soi 38/3 near the MRT (Subway) station -- there is no sign in English (only a Thai name with a green chili on it). There's no menu either; just choose from the day's selection. The owner, who speaks excellent English, grows her own organic brown rice.

Photo Caption: Chatuchak Market
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Mah Boon Krong Shopping Centre. Photo by Charis Atlas Heelan
Shopping in Bangkok is intense, extensive, and ultimately exhausting -- but oh, the things you will buy: original art; handmade shoes and bags; antiques; clothes; handicrafts; jewelry; electronics; tailor-made clothes; and more. Head to Platinum Mall, Mah Boon Krong, Siam Center, Siam Paragon, Central World, and the newly opened Central Plaza. For bargains, visit the wholesale market in Pratunam (especially opulent for Mardi Gras-style diamante and feather costumes) and the Baiyoke Tower next door. Bargaining isn't frowned upon, especially in the wholesale areas, but you may have to buy in bulk to maximize the discounts. Tip: You may notice that most shoppers use bags on wheels -- you might want to do the same.

Photo Caption: Mah Boon Krong Shopping Centre
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Intersecting Skytrain tracks high above the Bangkok traffic. Photo by Charis Atlas Heelan
Yes, you'll undoubtedly want to take a tuk-tuk to say you had that quintessential Thai transport experience, but if you want to get around efficiently and quickly (without the pollution and near-impact moments), the BTS Skytrain (www.bts.co.th) is the answer. Signage is clear, and the air-conditioned trains are reliable and clean. Taking the Skytrain can save you lots of time and stress, as anyone who has ever been stuck in a Bangkok traffic jam will attest. Fares are priced from 15 baht to 40 baht (50¢ to $1.30) for a standard trip.

Photo Caption: Intersecting Skytrain tracks high above the Bangkok traffic
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Sculpture outside The Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre. Photo by Charis Atlas Heelan
Though often overlooked by the art world, Bangkok offers some impressive art institutions and accessible street art. Although a majority of galleries and museums feature more traditional Thai artwork, a small but burgeoning contemporary art scene has emerged at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre (www.bacc.or.th) and at a number of private galleries and university art spaces. Try the 100 Tonson Gallery (www.100tonsongallery.com), Chulalongkorn Art Centre (www.car.chula.ac.th), and H Gallery (www.hgallerybkk.com). Don't forget to also check out the artists' area (Section 7) at Chatuchak Market for inexpensive original pieces. Check out www.bangkokartmap.com for the latest exhibitions and tips.

Photo Caption: Sculpture outside The Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre
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Bamboo massage at Kiriya Spa, Lit Bangkok Hotel. Photo by Charis Atlas Heelan
You can't come to Thailand without experiencing a Thai massage, and Bangkok certainly has its share of reputable -- and less than reputable -- spas. You could go for a questionable version, especially around the notorious Pat Pong area. Otherwise, plan to visit the Kiriya Spa at the recently opened Lit Bangkok Hotel (www.litbangkok.com), located on a small side street across the road from the MBK shopping complex. The spa incorporates treatments based on the rhythms and scents of various Thai regions -- from the Southern Seas to the Green North. Choose from treatments like the hot shell massage and foot bath for 2600 baht (about $80) or the Honey and Papaya Wrap treatment for 1500 baht (about $50). Ritual baths in milk, herbs, or flowers are 500 baht ($16). Finish with a cup of infused tea in the elegant lounge area.

Photo Caption: Bamboo massage at Kiriya Spa, Lit Bangkok Hotel
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Soi Cowboy, in the Red Light District of Bangkok. Photo by Kojach
No visit to Bangkok would be complete without a peek at the sleazy underworld that is the red-light district. Whether you choose to enter the go-go clubs or merely peer in through open doors, you're sure to get an understanding of the goings-on in the night establishments that line the notorious streets of Pat Pong Soi I and Soi II that run off Silom Road. While the bars on the ground floor are relatively tame (topless, pole-dancing), it's a little more aggressive when you venture upstairs. Known colloquially as Ping Pong clubs, there's plenty of partial/full nudity, acts that defy gravity (and possibly nature), and "Lady Boys" to entertain. In general, it is quite harmless, but beware of clubs that offer you free entry and then demand that you order ridiculously expensive drinks. Try the more established clubs like the Kings Castle and the Queens Castle. Alternatively, head to Soi Cowboy (near the intersection of Sukhumvit and Asoke Roads). Here, there are around 100 bars with varying degrees of "activity," including the infamous "shows" at Suzie Wong.

Photo Caption: Soi Cowboy, in the Red Light District of Bangkok
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