24 Hours in Bangkok
Discovering the exotic, relishing the familiar.
Bangkok is a rapidly progressing Asian city that’s utterly comfortable in its own skin; it teems with a confidence in its culture while also presenting a healthy openness toward others. And indeed it has much to show off, as Bangkok has come a long way since its days as a city of canals and elephant paths. The economic boom of the ‘80s and ongoing globalization have revitalized the cityscape by adding high-rises, expressways and shopping centers while also influencing art, fashion and entertainment.
And yet you’ll still find spirit houses outside restaurants, innumerable temple spires piercing the sky, gigantic royal portraits adorning buildings, and suited businesspeople chanting alongside robed monks at Buddhist shrines. Spend the day exploring not just the sights but also these peculiar yet charming juxtapositions.
Wake up early next to a pair of sequined Muay Thai boxing gloves, a nod to the city’s favorite sport and a standard room fixture at the W Bangkok — one of the city’s poshest luxury hotels. Then kick-start the day with breakfast at the W’s in-hotel restaurant, The Kitchen Table, offering everything from pancakes to sushi. For a light meal, try the mixed-fruit salad served in mason jars and scrumptious green-tea croissants from the patisserie counter.
Board the skytrain from Chong Nonsi Station and take it to Saphan Taksin; emerge from Exit 2 and descend a flight of stairs to the ferry terminal. Buy a 20-baht (roughly US$0.50) ticket to the Memorial Bridge Pier, and then take care to hop aboard the proper ferry — either one with an orange flag or no flags at all.
Even though they can be noisy and overcrowded, these quaint wooden motorboats provide an undeniable sense of charm while crisscrossing the russet waters of the Chao Phraya River. From the breezy deck, enjoy an unhurried slideshow of stilt houses, golden bell-shaped temple pagodas, decaying 19th-century buildings and luxury hotels passing by.
Once back on land at the Memorial Bridge Pier, head to Pak Klong Talad — Bangkok’s biggest fresh flower market, where business spills over from brick-and-mortar shops right onto the pavement. Watch as mountains of roses, chrysanthemums, lotuses, jasmine and lilies are arranged in buckets, spun into garlands or gathered into bouquets by deft shop hands. Feast your eyes on the astounding variety of exotic orchids sold at low wholesale prices, and then go ahead and grab a bunch of brilliant tiger orchids for only 35 baht (roughly $1).
Take a taxi to Wat Suthat, home to the country’s largest cast-bronze Buddha. After your senses adjust to the dimness and tranquility inside the temple’s monumental viharn (assembly hall), you’ll find exquisitely painted floor-to-ceiling wall murals depicting incarnations of Buddha, whose 26-foot statue in the bhumisparsha mudra (earth touching position) dominates the room. Shafts of sunlight pour through the tall lacquered doors and light his face. Feel the reverence rise from the chants of monks and other devotees gathered around.
Before leaving, take a few minutes to explore the temple courtyard, amply decorated with ornamental trees, stone sculptures, pagodas and an abundance of Buddha images (156 in all). Once out, walk past the huge red teak posts of the Giant Swing — once used to observe the Brahmin New Year ceremony — and stroll along Bamrung Muang Road. A former elephant trail and one of Bangkok’s oldest paved roads, Bamrung Muang is now lined with weathered 19th-century row houses that retail traditional Buddhist accessories — everything from alms bowls and robes to chanting books and more.
Taxi downtown to the Jim Thompson House & Museum, home of the U.S. Army officer who’s credited with reviving the long-neglected Thai silk industry after World War II. A former architect with an appreciation for traditional Thai houses, Thompson transported six teak buildings, at least two centuries old from the upcountry, and combined them here. Every artifact in this unique assemblage speaks of Thompson’s singular taste and ingenuity, as well as of his reverence for Southeast Asia’s artistic history. Don’t miss the quirky mouse house in the main bedroom, a wooden mouse maze commonly used for entertainment in the 19th century.
For lunch, try the pomelo (a Southeast Asian citrus fruit) salad and tom kha talay (a coconut-galangal seafood soup with mushrooms and lemongrass) by the koi pond in the Jim Thompson Restaurant and Wine Bar.
Shuttle from the museum to the National Stadium Station. Take the skytrain to the next stop, Siam, and saunter into Siam Paragon, an upscale mall boasting everything from a multiplex cinema to Southeast Asia’s largest aquarium. After meandering through the shops, head down into the basement, where the Gourmet Market presents a sprawling section of dried fruits, candies, spices, teas, infusions and sauces. Be sure to load up on Blue Elephant–branded red and green curry pastes and Tom Yum–flavored rice crisps for your pantry, among other goods.
If hankering for a late-afternoon snack, head to the adjoining Food Hall and order some khanom bueang, crispy pancakes with sweet-and-savory fillings of coconut, scallion and fried egg yolk.
From Siam, take the skytrain to Sala Daeng Station, emerge from Exit 2, and then skip down Convent Road to the charming Ruen Nuad Massage Studio. Here, 350 baht (roughly $10) gets you an hour-long Thai body massage — a style influenced by ancient healing techniques, whereby pressure is applied along energy channels called sen to balance the body’s energy flow and relax muscles. The session concludes with a relaxing cup of jasmine tea served on the balcony.
With its vaulted ceiling, terra cotta–tiled floor and antique wood decorations, Baan Khanitha on South Sathorn Road presents a charming space to enjoy a traditional Thai dinner. Start with deep-fried morning glory (water spinach) with sweet and spicy salad dressing, and then dive into a plate of chui chi khung nang (river prawns in red curry sauce and coconut, served with fragrant jasmine rice). End with the sublime tastes of sticky rice and mango lingering in your mouth as you walk back to the hotel, reliving the day’s highlights as well as the delicate nuances that define this multifaceted city.
Somali Roy is a freelance writer and sketch artist based in Singapore with an insatiable appetite for pad thai, a popular noodle dish churned out fresh and piping hot from the innumerable roadside stalls in Bangkok. She documents and illustrates her travels and day-to-day life at avignettist.com.