The 17 best things to do in Bangkok, from street food feasts to monastery magic

BANGKOK - THAILAND ; View from the Vertigo and Moon Bar - Banyan Tree Hotel on 3 december 2011.This bar is 61 floors above the bustling streets of Bangkok, overlooking a magnificent cityscape.
To see the best of Bangkok, you're going to have to go high © Chantal de Bruijne / Shutterstock

Bangkok is the Asian megacity incarnate. Its vast urban sprawl – home to 22% of the Thai population – is studded with gleaming golden wat (Buddhist monasteries), towering skyscrapers, teeming markets, multi-lane highways, and clusters of village-style houses that show just how far Bangkok has come over the last 50 years. Needless to say, there's a lot to see and do!

For travelers, Bangkok is a feast for the senses. The sense of taste is pushed to almost orgasmic levels by the lavish spices and complex flavors of Bangkok street food. The eyes are transported by the gleaming spires and rainbow mosaics of Bangkok's temples and monasteries, and the ears resonate with the roar of traffic, music and Buddhist chanting. Even the sense of smell gets a workout from the traffic fumes, incense, jasmine blossom and city pongs.

With so much to experience, you'll need to plan carefully to fit everything in. Whether you're here for the culture, the history, the food or the nightlife, here's our pick of the best things to do in Bangkok.


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Feast on Bangkok's famous street food

Home to what could well be the world’s most vibrant street food culture, Bangkok offers travelers a mind-boggling variety of light bites and cheap meals, dished out on almost every street corner. From Thai-style fried noodles, dumplings in myriad flavors, platters of fiery curries and jasmine rice, meaty skewers sizzling on barbecues, fresh-cut tropical fruit or a vast array of deep-fried desserts, the choice of street food in Bangkok is endless.

Locals and visitors throng daily to the countless stalls and carts lining Bangkok’s roadsides, as sizzling woks perfume the city air with the scent of lemongrass, chilli, kaffir lime leaves and galangal. In recent years, some of Bangkok’s boroughs have cracked down on informal food markets resulting in the closure of many stalls, but the collective street food movement still thrives and night markets start up across the city from around 5pm daily. Things are generally quieter on Mondays, though, when many stalls close for the day.

Young Asian woman walks with headphones along stalls and stands of Chatuchak market.
Visiting the Chatuchak Weekend Market is a quintessential Bangkok experience © David Bokuchava / Shutterstock

Browse thousands of stalls at Chatuchak Weekend Market

Possibly Asia’s biggest open-air marketplace, the vast Chatuchak Weekend Market – also known as JJ Market – is the ultimate shopping experience for those in the mood to burn some baht. Rows of pavilions, each housing hundreds of shops and stalls, are organized in neat sections beneath shady canopies, with each section dedicated to selling specific categories of merchandise. 

Garments, shoes, kitchen essentials, glassware, handicrafts, antiques, healthcare products, home décor, foodstuffs, gardening supplies, even live pets – pretty much everything can be found here. Needless to say, you'll want to schedule the better part of a day to immerse yourself in this hugely popular experience. ATMs and moneychangers are on hand to fuel impulsive purchases.

As its name suggests, Chatuchak opens for business only on Saturdays and Sundays. On other days, the market is fairly deserted, except for the nearby JJ Mall that operates through the week. The BTS Skytrain serves nearby Mo Chit station, from where it’s a 500m walk.

The golden, giant reclining Buddha statue lays on its side at Wat Pho temple in Bangkok, Thailand.
It's easy to see how Wat Pho – more correctly, Wat Phracheatupon Vimonmungkraram (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) – got its name © toondelamour / Getty Images

Marvel at the graceful majesty of Wat Pho

Alongside a veritable forest of mosaic-covered stupas and prayer halls, the 16th-century shrine of Wat Pho is home to a magnificent 46m (151ft) sculpture of the Reclining Buddha – gracefully adorned with gold leaf and mother-of-pearl inlays – that commands pride of place as one of Bangkok’s most iconic sights. The monastery is also the spiritual home of Thai massage; treatments are offered daily, and Wat Pho has its own massage school.

Unsurprisingly, Wat Pho is visited by hundreds of people every day, who come to marvel at its jaw-dropping main Buddha image, or pay their respects at the many shrines that dot the peaceful grounds of this sprawling complex. It's worth lingering to spend some meditative moments in the silent corridors and prayer halls before returning to the ceaseless din of the city.

Given Wat Pho’s religious significance, visitors should dress modestly to gain entry into the temple complex. A 200B entry fee is applicable for adults, and this includes a complimentary bottle of water (a welcome bonus on a hot day).

A dancer carries a dragon head on the crowded main street in Chinatown on the first day of the Lunar New Year in Bangkok
Chinatown is a colorful and chaotic visit all year-round, and it explodes with energy during Chinese New Year © MLADEN ANTONOV / Getty Images

Soak up the buzzing atmosphere of Chinatown

A photographer’s muse, a foodie’s dream, a shopper’s paradise and a cultural anthropologist’s fantasy – that's Bangkok's Chinatown. Packed into one of Bangkok’s oldest boroughs, the district is a riotous supernova of smoke-spewing food carts, gold-laden jewelry stores, atmospheric temples, vibrant food markets and quaint family homes. 

Walking down the area's main thoroughfare, Th Yaowarat, is a sensory overload. The nose tingles with aromas of burning incense, jasmine tea and burnt garlic oil, as the eyes feast on a colorful jamboree of flashy neon signage and rows of ornamental lanterns and streamers dangling above the streets. At any time of day or night, you'll find Chinatown bustling with a multitude of residents and visitors. 

During the Chinese New Year celebrations in late January or early February, a carnival spirit sweeps through the entire district, with lively dragon and lion dances and sumptuous food galas adding a festive touch to the proceedings. While Chinatown is a fabulous budget dining destination, it’s worth noting that most street food vendors here only operate in the evening (and remain shut on Mondays). At other times, you'll have to find a sit-down restaurant.

The golden stupa of the Grand palace, Wat Phra Kaew shimmers against a blue sky in Bangkok, Thailand.
Bangkok's Grand Palace is a gold-plated knockout © southtownboy / Getty Images

Admire the regal grandeur of Wat Phra Kaew & the Grand Palace

Spectacular and majestic, the royal complex made up of Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace was established by former Thai kings as the nerve center of a capital city that soon expanded far beyond its original boundaries on the island of Ko Ratanakosin to become the modern-day Bangkok. 

Consecrated in 1782, the sprawling complex – which formerly served as the official residence of the Thai monarchy – is home to a number of imposing palaces, reception halls, temples and courtyards, and is easily the city’s biggest tourist attraction. The best reason to come here, however, is to visit the adjacent Wat Phra Kaew temple, home to Thailand’s most sacred religious artifact, the Emerald Buddha – actually made from jade and dating back to the 12th or 13th century.

The walls of the corridors lining Wat Phra Kaew’s courtyard feature the famed Ramakian Murals, originally painted in the 18th century and featuring lavish scenes from the Ramakian (the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana). Recently restored, these murals represent some of the finest religious art to be seen anywhere in the country.

A white river cruise ships passes the stupa of Wat Arun in Bangkok under the soft glaze of an apricot-colored sunset
The sunsets from the Chao Phraya River really can be special © Pakin Songmor / Getty Images

Take a sunset dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River

Ranging in mood from subtly romantic to humorously tacky, a dinner cruise on the swirling greeny-brown waters of the Chao Phraya River can be one of the most enduring memories you'll take home from a visit to Bangkok. 

Depending on your choice of vessel – options stretch from sophisticated teakwood boats with curated fine-dining facilities to hulking catamarans outfitted with flashy lights and loud onboard entertainment – you'll be treated to either an atmospheric candlelit dinner served up by a private chef or a raucous floating party with thumping music and a buffet to feed a few hundred guests. Either way, it’s worth an evening of your time, not least for the cool evening river breeze that blows away the discomfort of a hot Bangkok day.

These cruises are wildly popular with tourists, and boats – especially the top-end ones – tend to get booked out weeks in advance. It helps to reserve a table before you get to Bangkok to avoid disappointment. Most dinner cruises operate from the piers at the showy, antique-stuffed River City Mall, picking up passengers from around 7pm.

A Thai masseuse at work at Wat Po, Ko Ratanakosin in Bangkok, Thailand
A Thai massage is a fab way to round off a day of sightseeing in Bangkok © Greg Elms / Lonely Planet

Book in for a pummeling Thai massage

Blending ancient healing techniques and natural products aimed at holistically reviving the mind and body, Thai massage is one of Bangkok’s top experiences. The city has an unshakeable reputation as the massage capital of the world, and a vigorous kneading, particularly after a long day of sightseeing, can be heavenly.

Ranging from inexpensive foot massages at street-side parlors to the full pampering wellness package at chic spas, Thai massage comes in many therapeutic flavors. Some massages incorporate aromatherapy oils or herb presses, while others simply focus on a mix of pressure and stretching moves to relax muscles and increase blood flow.

Several well-known spa chains across Bangkok – Health Land, Divana Massage & Spa and Asia Herb Foundation to name just a few – offer high-quality massages at reasonable prices. However, they can get crowded (especially on weekends), so advance reservations are a wise move.

As seen from a vantage point, the stalls of Artbox Night Market in Bangkok glow with light as vendors sell their wares.
Bangkok is famed for its night markets, and Artbox is one of the best © JAMESTHEE / Shutterstock

Graze through myriad Thai flavors at a night market

Bangkok’s legendary night markets offer a delightful combination of guilt-free holiday shopping, socializing with friends, boozy drinks served in buckets, and feasts of waistline-expanding Thai food at outdoor food stalls. 

The legendary Talat Rot Fai Srinakharin night market in Northern Bangkok promises one of the city’s most satisfying after-dark experiences, while the fashionable Artbox on centrally-located Th Sukhumvit draws young hipster crowds with arty creations, smooth jazz performances and an irreverently laid-back atmosphere. 

In contrast, the more disreputable Patpong Night Market is a curious mix of souvenir stalls, food carts, massage spas, pubs with live music, and go-go bars peddling various forms of 'adult' entertainment. It's popular, but won't appeal to everyone.

But you'll find night market food stalls springing up all over the city from around 5pm most nights, including along the backpacker hub of Th Khao San (Khao San Rd). The underground MRT is a convenient way to get to Talat Rot Fai Srinakharin, while the BTS Skytrain can drop you near both Artbox and Patpong Night Market.

The ochre exterior of the Jim Thompson Museum is Bangkok. The wooden building is slightly hidden behind some trees.
The Jim Thompson Museum in Bangkok is home to some wonderful examples of Asian art © cowardlion / Shutterstock

Step into history at the Jim Thompson House

Jim Thompson, the American entrepreneur and silk mogul, used his traditional Thai-style home on the canal running between Banglamphu and Th Phetchaburi as a repository for age-old Thai treasures and art. When he vanished mysteriously in 1967, his teak-framed house was transformed into a captivating museum – and one that every visitor secretly wishes they lived in. 

Why? The rooms are adorned with his exquisite art collection and personal possessions, including rare Chinese porcelain and priceless Burmese, Cambodian and Thai artifacts, set in a garden that's a miniature jungle of tropical plants and lotus ponds. You can also buy lush Jim Thompson silks on site.

Drinkers at the Bangkok Bar in Banglamphu enjoy their cold, golden lager beneath the golden glow of the low-slung lights of this bar near Khao San Road.
Banglamphu is Bangkok's coolest, most fun-filled neighborhood © Greg Elms / Lonely Planet

Feel the complex character of Banglamphu 

Easily Bangkok’s most charming neighborhood, Banglamphu is the city’s former aristocratic enclave. Once filled with the riverside mansions of diplomats, dignitaries and minor royalty, the old quarter is today dominated by backpackers seeking R&R on famous Th Khao San, civil servants shuffling between offices and lunch spots, and bohemian artists and students bringing new life to antique shophouses. 

Busy street food carts and classic Thai restaurants offer ample options for hungry travelers and the area also hosts some of the city’s best live music. By day and by night, the lanes of Banglamphu host eclectic street markets selling Thai souvenirs and trinkets, with bars that spill out into the street and pop-up cocktail stands that buzz until midnight, when the sale of alcohol is officially banned until the following day.

The Helix Quarter at Emquartier Shopping Mall in Thailand as seen from the top floor, with escalators, shops, and green interior plants for decoration all on view.
The Emquartier Shopping Mall is just one of many blissfully air-conditioned shopping centers in Bangkok © artapartment / Shutterstock

Throw yourself into a Bangkok shopping spree

Even those who vocally oppose consumerism may feel a moment of weakness in Bangkok. One minute they'll be touting the virtues of a life without material possessions, the next they'll be admiring the treasure troves of street merchandise and mapping out the route to the nearest night market to pack their bags with Thai silks, handicrafts and famous name fashions. 

In this shopping-obsessed city, malls daisy-chain into an almost continuous shopping precinct, and the pavements in between the malls serve as a spillover retail space for vendors without a postal address. As well as top international brands, Bangkok is a long-established destination for bespoke tailoring, and has its own emerging fashion scene.

Start the retail adventure in megamalls such as Siam Paragon, centralwOrld, MBK Center and Emquartier. Post-shopping, pause for a cocktail at a rooftop bar with a city view – Red Sky, atop the Centara Grand at centralwOrld, Moon Bar atop the Banyan Tree in Sathorn, and Brewski at the Radisson Blu Plaza near Th Sukhumvit are all top choices.  

A chartered long-tail boat on the Chao Phraya river, Bangkok
Explore the Chao Phraya River by public ferry or chartered long-tail boat for a water-based Bangkok adventure © Nattanan Zia / Shutterstock

Ride the Chao Phraya River

Bangkok's most important waterway, Mae Nam Chao Phraya – the Chao Phraya River – is always teeming with activity. Hulking freighter boats trail behind dedicated tugs, river-crossing ferries skip across the wake, and children practice cannonballs into the muddy water that laps against the side of boat jetties and stilt houses.

You can witness soothing river vistas from the shore (ideally from Ko Ratanakosin or Thonburi), but it's more fun to get out on the water on a chartered long-tail boat or cruise along the river on the Chao Phraya Express Boat. Regardless of your vantage point, as the blinding sun slips below the horizon, briefly silhouetting the gleaming spires of temples and palaces against streaks of red and gold, Bangkok suddenly looks beautiful and serene.

A woman in a light blue apron, whose head we cannot see, is using a gray pestle and mortar to grind herbs as part of a cooking class in Bangkok.
Try a Thai cooking class if you want to take the taste of Bangkok back home © DextairPhotography / Shutterstock

Learn to make green curry at a Thai cookery school

Don't let a plump tummy be the only souvenir of a culinary visit to Thailand. Instead, spice up your life – and your future dinner-party menus – by learning to create the kingdom’s zesty dishes at a Thai cookery school.

Cooking schools in Bangkok range from formal affairs for amateur chefs to home cooking for the recipe-phobic. Everyone always has a grand time – visiting a wet market, fumbling with ingredients, tasting the fruits of their labor and trotting home with new cooking techniques.

Assorted vintage objects and furniture at Papaya Studio in Bangkok
Papaya is an Aladdin's cave of vintage, antique and retro objects © ltdedigos / Shutterstock

Dive into the vintage universe of Papaya

What began as a personal antique-collecting hobby for the reticent owner of Papaya has snowballed over the years into a mind-boggling collection of vintage 19th- and 20th-century objects that occupy every inch of a warehouse-size exhibition space off Th Lat Phrao in northern Bangkok.

Art-deco furniture, 1960s beer signage, superhero statues, Piaggio scooters, typewriters, movie projectors, love seats, TV sets, VHS players, wall clocks, storefront mannequins, lampshades – the list goes on and on. Many objects are technically for sale, but the owner prices them astronomically just to keep his collection from depleting, so treat it more as a museum of recent history.

Visitors sit and lie on the glass floor at the rooftop of the King Power Mahanakhon building in Bangkok as the lights of the city skyline, some way below, glitter.
The SkyWalk at King Power Mahanakhon offers unrivaled views of the city - if you can handle the height. ©Sek Samyan/Shutterstock

Walk the SkyWalk at King Power Mahanakhon

Offering an unparalleled 360° view of the Bangkok cityscape, this two-tiered observation deck is perched atop King Power Mahanakhon, currently Thailand’s tallest building. Stepping onto the dizzying SkyWalk – a glass-floored balcony dangling 78 floors and 310m (1017ft) above the earth – is a hair-raising experience, but you can soothe your nerves afterward with a stiff sundowner at the open-air bar one flight up on the skyscraper's pinnacle. An indoor 74th-floor observatory offers a less vertiginous experience, for a cheaper entry fee.

A fighter celebrates after a fight at Rajadamnern Stadium, Bangkok
Attending a moo·ay tai (Muay Thai) fight at Rajadamnern Stadium is a great introduction to Thai culture © feelphoto / Shutterstock

Cheer on the fighters at a Thai boxing match

Almost anything goes in the quintessentially Thai martial art of moo·ay tai (also spelled Muay Thai) – more commonly known outside Thailand as Thai boxing or kickboxing. If you don’t mind the full-contact physicality, a Thai-boxing match is well worth attending for the pure spectacle, the wild musical accompaniment, the ceremonial beginning of each match, and the frenzied betting.

The best of the best compete at Bangkok’s two boxing stadiums. Built on royal land at the end of WWII, the art-deco-style Rajadamnern Stadium is the city's original stadium, and it has a relatively formal atmosphere. The other main fighting stage, Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, has moved from its eponymous 'hood to a modern home north of Bangkok. Admission fees vary according to seating; we recommend sitting in the 2nd- or 3rd-class seats for maximum fan atmosphere.

People, captured with blurred motion, walk at night along Khao San Road in Bangkok. This area is very popular with backpackers and other travelers.
The fabled, ever-changing Khao San Road – no trip to Bangkok would be the same without visiting © Didier Marti / Getty Images

Plunge into the backpacker mayhem on Th Khao San

Th Khao San, better known as Khao San Road, is genuinely unlike anywhere else on earth. It’s an international clearing house of independent travelers either entering the liberated state of traveling in Southeast Asia or pausing for one last party before returning to the comfortable normality of 'real life' back home. Its uniqueness is probably best illustrated by a question: apart from airports, where else could you share every inch of space with the citizens of dozens of countries at the same time?

Strolling down this market-stall-crowded thoroughfare, you'll see everyone from first-time backpackers scoffing banana pancakes to 75-year-old grandparents sipping G&Ts, and everyone in between, including hippies, hipsters, nerds, glamazons, package tourists, global nomads, weekend trippers, gap-year explorers and other travelers of every color and creed.

Th Khao San is perhaps the most high-profile product of the age of independent travel, but the bedbug-infested guesthouses of old have been replaced by boutique hotels, and downmarket TV bars showing pirated movies have been transformed into hip design bars thronged by flashpackers in designer threads. No visit to Bangkok would be complete without a wander along this famed street.

This article was first published on June 3, 2021 and updated on June 9, 2022

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