As the world’s second-most visited city in the world, Bangkok remains an irresistible draw. Sometimes overwhelming, it’s a dizzying mix of high-end glamour and gritty street life, full of surprises at every turn. Whether this is your first trip or your fifth, our expert advice will help you keep a cool head and avoid common pitfalls while discovering the best of what this magnetic metropolis has to offer, from muay thai to sky bars to cooking classes. Read on for our top ten things not do in Bangkok, which will help you make the most of your time there.
1. Don’t stay at a chain hotel
Thailand’s capital has no shortage of desirable places to stay, but with so many homegrown properties opening, the scene right now is more about Asian-cool than big-box chains. Hot new hotels include the U Sukhumvit Bangkok, with a design scheme that references four regions of Thailand, and the boutique Sala Rattanakosin, a former shophouse renovated into a handsome, intimate retreat. The hotly anticipated Avani Bangkok Riverside, the second hometown property for this Bangkok-based brand, will open late 2015. But our top pick right now is the Anantara Siam Bangkok (previously the Four Seasons), which rebranded in March 2015 and does Thai luxury like nowhere else.
2. Don’t miss the smaller sights
It can seem as if everything in Bangkok is larger than life, and that certainly goes for its big attractions. The sprawling, 94.5-hectare complex of Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace are together Bangkok’s most visited sites and can be overrun with tour groups. Take a break from the heat and crowds at the complex to duck into the Museum of Textiles, which displays cultural ambassador and style icon Queen Sirikit’s dresses, many designed by Balmain and others. Another silk-related, off-the-beaten path oasis is the secluded The Jim Thompson House, where tour guides do an excellent job of bringing Thompson’s Southeast Asian art collection (and his own mysterious biography) to life.
3. Don’t underestimate songkran
The New Year festival of Songkran, held over five days in April, is a unique time to immerse yourself in Thai culture. Bangkok is (relatively) empty, as hundreds of thousands of people return to the countryside to celebrate with family. Witnessing traditional almsgiving ceremonies and water sprinkling at sacred sites is a real privilege for visitors—attending Wat Po at this time is particularly humbling. On Day One, after seeing the temples, embrace the madness and head to Khao San Road with a SuperSoaker to join the full-scale water fight that takes over the streets. After the first day, however, being drenched (and we mean completely soaked to the bone) all the time begins to wear thin, and you’ll need to plan your day around several changes of attire. We’re not saying don’t go outside—just pack a raincoat and a sense of humor.
4. Don’t just eat thai food – learn to cook it
Thai cuisine balances flavors, spices, and textures in such astoundingly delicious ways that every meal will have you itching to learn the secrets of this kitchen alchemy. Not only is Bangkok a foodie’s dream, but it’s also home to some of the country’s most sought-after cooking schools. There are dozens to choose from, but Tam’s half-day waterside class at the Amita, accessed by boat across the Chao Phraya River, is very special. Learn the fundamentals of classic dishes such as Pad Thai—it’s all about the quality of the tamarind—and Som Tam Goong (spicy papaya salad with shrimp).
5. Don’t leave without seeing an authentic Muay thai match
One of the world’s most intense spectator sports, Thai boxing (muay thai) is also known as the sport of kings. More than 2,000 years old, it’s still a national obsession in Thailand, and going to a midweek match is a quintessential Bangkok experience. Ratchadamnoen Stadium has bouts four nights a week, with tickets starting at about $30. Try to visit with a Thai friend who can explain the many rituals fighters engage in before each round, including the homage paid to the kru (trainer).