Bangkok Travel Guide
Bangkok has long been referred to as the ‘Venice of the East,’ but it’s high time to start calling Venice the ‘Bangkok of the West.’ For the third year running, Thailand’s capital is the world’s most visited city, beating out London, Paris and New York. It’s no mystery to us why 20 million visitors descended upon Bangkok last year, since we can’t think of one good reason not to go there. A chaotic megacity where monks in saffron robes are as easy to spot as ladyboys, Bangkok is a study in contrasts. It’s traditional and it’s irreverent. It’s naughty and it’s spiritual. It will nourish you and suck you dry. Yes, it’s all a bit overwhelming, but you’re not travelling thousands of miles to be underwhelmed, are you? The best way to approach this teeming miracle of a city is to embrace every single sweaty and congested inch of it. Go high and go low because Bangkok is transcendent in both areas. And because the entire LGBTQ+ spectrum is considered a natural part of life in Thailand, the country is an extraordinarily welcoming place for gays, most especially in Bangkok, which is the de facto gay culture headquarters for all of Asia.
The best hotels in Bangkok
Bangkok is one of the world’s hottest capital cities, and we’re not talking food and fashion. No matter the season, daytime temps hover around 90 degrees Fahrenheit/32 degrees Celsius. Aside from the heat, the crowds and chaos can be depleting. The sanctuary you come back to at night really matters.
The Siam Hotel is billed as an urban luxury resort and it’s all that and a bag of shrimp chips. Set on three acres on the Chao Praya River, the vibe is Art Deco with a dash of colonial opulence. It’s got a world-class spa, infinity pool, cinema, library, and a Muay Thai boxing ring, in case you feel the urge to go a couple of rounds. Your own personal butler will cater to your every need.
Baan 2459 is a century-old heritage hotel in the heart of bustling Chinatown. With only four rooms and an enchanting terrace and garden, this hotel is an oasis. And we love the backstory, too—a tale of forbidden love that reminds of an Asian version of The English Patient. The original owners were a Muslim couple from opposing sects, Sunni and Shiite, whose love conquered their families’ opposition to the marriage.
Despite its unfortunate name, Chillax Heritage has two major things going for it. The luxury boutique hotel is in the Old City neighbourhood, which is packed full of historic sites, and it has a rooftop swimming pool and in-room jacuzzis.
The Bangkok Publishing Residence is the ideal B&B for the bookish. The lovingly restored guesthouse in a former printing house is an ode to all things print, with vintage printing machines, first-edition books and old newspapers. Heads-up, there’s no pool nor lunch or dinner service, but its charm outweighs the drawbacks.
The award-winning Hotel Muse Bangkok is a high-rise property in a posh neighbourhood that manages to pull off vintage feels with its dark lobby, Prohibition-themed speakeasy, steakhouse and cigar bar. It’s not all retro, though; the Muse has one of the best rooftop bars in Bangkok and a freshwater infinity pool with 360 views of the neighbouring skyscrapers.
No culture has elevated the massage to a higher art form than the Thai
Things to do in Bangkok
While Bangkok is generous in bestowing its many glories, silk and massages are perhaps two of its best-known offerings. Of course, tourism has led to a tragic cheapening of the two commodities, so beware of cheap knock-offs.
For silk, head to the exquisite Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, which is housed on the heavily-trodden grounds of the Grand Palace. Luckily, the throngs of tourists are so consumed with their selfie sticks they have no interest in an exquisite Italianate building erected in 1871 that’s been turned into a textile museum. The Queen of Thailand donated her best silk finery to this little- known collection, which houses traditional silk robes as well as sumptuous couture created for the Queen by French fashion designer Pierre Balmain.
Ah, the infamous Thai massage. It’s probably an understatement to say there’s some sketchiness surrounding the industry. But assuming you’re looking for a legit rubdown, no culture has elevated the massage to a higher art form than the Thai. Two state-of-the-art settings are Pañpuri Wellness in the vibrant Ratchaprasong district and the Thann Sanctuary Spa, which has a few locations around town.
If you want to check out an upmarket gay retreat, try Chakran Spa, with five stories of beautiful (local) people being beautiful in the complex’s many pools, gyms, steam rooms, saunas and gardens.
If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, the way to a country’s soul is through its cooking. So instead of just eating your way across Bangkok, consider taking a cooking class. The Oriental Thai Cooking School offers instruction in a period teak house. Learn four classic Thai recipes so you can impress your friends when you get back home.
Things to see in Bangkok
With its total lack of urban planning, haphazard layout, fierce heat and hellish traffic, this city is not designed for casual perambulating. That said, you have to do it anyway. Why? Because Bangkokians live, eat, and sell their wares in the streets, which pulse with life in all its messy glory. The Creative District bursts with artists, galleries, co-working tech spaces, historical buildings, street stalls, coffee houses, temples and old-style shophouses. If you’re going to don your comfy dad shoes and choose one sector to explore this is the one. Don’t miss the artist galleries of Charoenkrung Soi 28 (CK28) and the in-your-face street art created for an international wall art festival in 2018. The Unicorn Cafe, an emporium of all the unicorn detritus you could possibly hope for, is a good place to check out if you have never been inside a unicorn explosion. Unicorn rainbow waffles, onesies, crepes, and even a unicorn bacon beef burger are all on offer.
Photography allows you to see how a country sees itself. The Kathmandu Photo Gallery in a pre-war shophouse in Bangkok’s Little India neighbourhood is owned by one of the country’s most heralded photographers and hosts exhibitions of the well-established and the up-and-coming.
Wat Pak Nam isn’t on most Bangkok temple tour itineraries—but it should be. Nicknamed the “Temple of Space,” the surreal (some might say bizarre) paintings on the ceiling of the temple, and the emerald pagoda inside it, are worth a peek. And because this is Bangkok, and sometimes things don’t make sense here, this is the place that probably makes the least sense, which is why we love it the most. So Heng Tai is the only surviving traditional Chinese courtyard mansion. Hidden down a dizzying maze of alleyways and in an alluring state of decay, the 200-year-old mansion houses a scuba diving school in the courtyard’s pool and a beagle-breeding kennel on a lower floor. If none of this sounds appealing to you, we understand, but if you live for things like this, that’s something we understand a whole lot more.
Once you eat Thai food in Thailand, you will have to come to grips with the depressing fact that any Thai food you’ve eaten before is a faded photocopy of the real thing
Where to eat in Bangkok
Is there a cuisine as complex, as flavourful and as fresh as Thailand’s? That’s a rhetorical question since the answer is obviously no. Once you eat Thai food in Thailand, you will have to come to grips with the depressing fact that any Thai food you’ve eaten before, and will eat hereafter, is a faded photocopy of the real thing.
However, buyer beware, there’s no shortage of mediocre restaurants geared toward the undiscriminating farang (aka foreigner). Here are a few eateries that won’t disappoint.
Located in a converted industrial warehouse, The Never Ending Summer serves up haughty versions of the classics. The nostalgic menu is inspired by the owner’s favourite childhood recipes. Named 80/20 because 80 per cent of the menu’s ingredients is sourced locally or sustainably, this innovative eatery in the Charoenkrung neighbourhood has an open kitchen, refurbished wood and gorgeous food.
Don’t let hotel restaurants put you off since some of the finest eateries in Bangkok are to be found in its five-star hotels. The Thiptara at the Peninsula Hotel offers traditional dishes and thankfully doesn’t tone down the spice level for white people.
Please also reserve judgment on mall-based eateries, specifically, Paste. Chef Bee Satongun, who’s been known to forage in the forests of northern Thailand for ingredients, was recently named Best Female Chef in Asia.
Le Du reinterprets Thai classics by applying modern cooking techniques to traditionally grown produce. A sommelier ensures a thoughtful and intriguing wine list. And because everyone loves brunch…the Restaurant Colonnade at the Sukhothai Bangkok is packed with hungover gays and their entourages. This place is quickly becoming a hair-of-the-dog institution that is not to be missed.
Now, onto the street food. You’ll pass hawkers cooking up mystery dishes in their woks everywhere you go. You’re not going to know what anything is, but you don’t have to. Just keep a wad of baht in small denominations in your pocket, order whatever looks intriguing and remember there are no mistakes. We love the Ratchada Train Market for its fresh seafood and boat noodles as well as its vintage shops. The market stalls of Huai Kwang Night Market also offer a dizzying selection of treats.
Shopping in Bangkok
Shopping is no exception to the go-high/go-low rule. Spend an afternoon haggling in a sprawling outdoor market until you feel like a shell of your former self and then go get measured for a bespoke suit in an extravagant air-conditioned atelier.
Might as well start at the colossal Chatuchak Weekend Market. It covers 27 acres, houses more than 15,000 booths and welcomes 200,000 visitors daily. Pick up souvenirs here since the prices aren’t inflated for foreigners.
Bespoke suits are the ultimate Bangkok treat yo’self. We love Pinky’s Tailor. They’ve been in business for 40 years and are obsessed with helping you identify the perfect textile and then measuring you down to what seems like the micrometre.
Pila Studio is not your granddaddy’s suit maker. The emerging young talent behind this shop has won all the young designer fashion awards. He incorporates vintage inspo as well as bold colours, cutting-edge details, loose shapes and offbeat fabrics. This is the only place for the fashion-forward to get a suit made in BKK.
P. Tendercool is a Bangkok-based, Belgian-run design studio making bespoke furniture, with a speciality in cross-cultural tables. Yes, that’s a thing, apparently. And yes, they ship.
The furniture, lighting and accessories of Alexander Lamont strike a graceful balance between East and West. His ateliers work in raw shagreen, slivers of straw marquetry, natural black lacquer, parment, gesso, raw shagreen, gilt leaf and bronze.
Bangkok’s main gay neighbourhood is called Silom, which has three separate ecosystems
Bangkok’s nightlife scene is decadent. Seven nights a week, nightclubs thump with techno, watering holes doctor up inventive drinks, go-go bars put on libertine shows, karaoke joints bring out people’s inner divas, ladyboy cabarets amuse and delight and saunas cater to those who prefer to do their socializing in the nude.
Bangkok’s main gay neighbourhood is called Silom, which has three separate ecosystems—Soi 2 caters to the foamy dance party set while Soi 4 is a little more mellow and mature with a mix of bars and restaurants, while Soi Twilight is the gay Red Light district. For starters, try Whisgars, a high-end whiskey bar or the Telephone Pub with its al fresco terrace and karaoke bar on the top floor.
For dancing, we like Fake Club. The energetic hot spot is in northern Bangkok, further afield from the tourist-heavy, Rice Queen-centric Silom, and therefore draws a more local (and fashionable) crowd. Expect live Thai and international music followed by laser beams and house music.
Since we don’t see how anyone can go to Bangkok and not support the ladyboys, the Calypso Cabaret has been bringing family-friendly burlesque to Bangkok for a generation.
On the straight tip, Tep Bar is a signless speakeasy tucked away in a Chinatown alleyway that has been lauded for its “Thai-ness.” The home-brewed herbal whiskey (called ya-dong) is Thai, the tapas are Thai and the xylophone band is Thai. An intimate speakeasy, the Q&A Bar is a dark wood, leather seat joint that evokes a dining car on the Orient Express. Nattily dressed bartenders pour bespoke cocktails based on your predilections. There’s no food served here since this place takes its drinks so seriously food would be an utter distraction.
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Reclining Buddha | Photo: Suzi Siegel
Alexander Lamont, Alex workshop
Pinky's Tailor, owner