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Bangkok has attracted millions of visitors annually for decades, offering tourists an incredible experience of cultural tradition-meets-modernity. It’s got world-class food, stunning historical landmarks, and some of the best hospitality around the globe. But what else makes this Southeast Asian destination so unique?
Gender identification has long been a loose concept in Thai culture, with myths, creation stories, and historical records featuring accounts of “third sexes” like hermaphrodites and those who didn’t strictly identify as male or female. Today, Thai society is among the most socially tolerant in Asia.
Gay nightlife and events are regularly touted as some of the best attractions in Bangkok, drawing mixed crowds of all gender identities. Instant hits like Drag Race Thailand – the first Asian off-shoot of the ultra-popular U.S. RuPaul’s Drag Race – are also further poised to elevate third-gender and LGBTQ culture.
As the only Southeast Asian nation to retain its independence through the period of Western colonialisation, Thailand has retained a unique continuity of its culture, uninterrupted by foreign imposition.
Much of Southeast Asian culture today is directly influenced by colonial legacy, responsible for modern governmental structures, education, as well as aspects like cuisine, but many societies also experienced dramatic cultural erosion. Thailand’s consistent history has led to a cultural authenticity and general openness among Thais to foreign cultures not found throughout the rest of the region.
Cultures in Bangkok mix with ease–seen in the blended architecture to the heavy penetration of foreign entertainment and cuisine. Generations of migrants have established thriving communities within the city, but none as large and vibrant as the Chinese settlement-turned-cultural and culinary epicentre, Yaowarat.
Whatever visitors head to Chinatown for, they’ll undoubtedly stay for the food. Chinese chefs have expertly reworked signature dishes to craft unique Thai fusions, like springy tapioca oyster omelets doused in chili sauce or Chinese-style egg noodles Tom Yum. Then there are the specialties that mustn’t be trifled with, like steamed Dim Sum and roasted duck herbal soup.
Images like towering Wat Arun or the eponymous Reclining Buddha are recognizable around the world as unmistakably Thai. But Bangkok is home to a number of interesting and strange landmarks missing from the postcard displays.
Bangkok’s historical architecture is among the most impressive in the world, wowing millions of visitors each year. But that doesn’t mean innovative Thai architecture simply halted in the 19th century. Between centuries-old structures and immaculately-kept historical relics, today’s architects have channeled a unique mix of regional tradition with contemporary aesthetic.
Inspired by the architect’s son’s love of robot toys, this building was completed in 1986 and directly opposed the time’s classical revivalism that embodied much of its architecture.
Considered one of the most aesthetically stunning art museums of all time, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bangkok was constructed as if a whole block of granite was hollowed out and carved like a stem of jasmine, representative of Thai culture. It focuses on the use of natural light and expansive spaces to highlight its impressive collection.
Traditional Thai massages are part of an ancient healing practice important to Thai culture, and few places in the world exist where high-quality spa and medical services are so readily and cheaply available. While the benefits of Thai massage are debated among modern medical communities, practitioners–and regular receivers–swear by long-term benefits like decreased cortisol levels, improved circulation, chronic pain relief, and even research-backed behavioural reconditioning for afflictions like autism and depression.
Once indulging in massages, travelers can treat themselves to celebrity-endorsed facial treatments, ancient full-body soak rituals, modern chemical skin treatments and hair care, teeth whitening and dental work, and even a wide range of surgical procedures.
One night out in Bangkok will confirm its longstanding claim as a top party hub. But after downing that last Khao San Road bucket or Hangover-tini at Lebua Skybar, Bangkok reveals its completely polar persona as a wellness capital.
Nearly 95% of the Kingdom identifies as Buddhist, and this long-standing religious tradition is evident in many aspects of day-to-day Thai life. Many meditation centres operate in and around Bangkok, established to serve local communities and welcome foreign visitors to their practice. Workshops and English-led classes are more widely available than ever, making it easy to put together your own wellness retreat on the heels of your epic party weekend.
Thais are not particularly brand loyal, and the nature of shopping in Bangkok reflects this persona perfectly. The city is stocked with huge emporiums of similar products, keeping sellers transparent and honest as shoppers eagerly compare products side-by-side.
Then there are the traditional Thai-style markets, so pervasive in their operation within society to ever be unseated by the arrival of Western brands. Tourists flock to mega-centres like Chatuchak Weekend Market, while locals know how to navigate individual bazaars to source their necessities at places like Klong Toey Fresh Market or Pantip Plaza.
Listed by CNN as one of the most authentic markets in Bangkok, Khlong Toey reportedly provides at least half of all Bangkok restaurants and stores with their daily produce, meats, and fish.
No matter how you feel about trendy themed restaurants or cafes, there’s no debating how fun their novelty can be, and they’re photogenic to boot.
This Japanese confectionary is about serious indulgence. Crafting unique ice cream burgers or towering waffle desserts, its signature offering are its enormous parfait concoctions, delicately and aesthetically arranging premium ingredients around up to 22 scoops of ice cream.
This contraceptive-themed restaurant was first opened to promote a better understanding and acceptance of family planning. The interior is decked out in colorful contraceptives, with everything from lighting fixtures to foliage covered in condoms.
Bangkok is often lovingly called the Venice of the East, and so the designers of the city’s eponymous Rome Resturant took the Italian motif to the next level. The restaurant’s massive floor space is enclosed by mock Roman-style architecture, with its own Leaning Tower of Piza and an expansive Coliseum.
Bangkok’s rise as the socialite of Southeast Asia has attracted a number of leading artists like The Foo Fighters and Two Door Cinema Club, with acts like John Legend and Bruno Mars on tap for this year. Music lovers can also stick around for the city’s Bangkok Jazz Festival or the EDM-crazed Road to Ultra. For nightlife addicts there are massive circuits of hit parties rotating among venues, like the GO GRRRLS LGBTQ dance party, and weekly pool parties at locations like Sofitel So, The Double Tree Sukhumvit, and Ocean Bangkok.
Then there are the massive expos that have awarded Bangkok a coveted spot on their circuit. Each April, ComicCon has attracted cosplay crowds of more than 100,000-strong, and the March Mad Face Food Week has become the biggest food festival the city’s residents have ever seen.
Or take the cultural high road and enjoy one of Thailand’s major festivals happening nearly every month, celebrated city-wide. Songkran, the Buddhist water festival, is hotly anticipated each April, go wild with Chinese New Year each February, or watch the beautiful processions unfold during November’s Loy Krathong.
Want to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary? Swim with sharks or scuba dive with turtles? Check out floating marketplaces? No matter what your adventure has in store you’ll likely start the journey in the City of Angels, and from there getting to your next destination is likely to be very, very easy.
The hospitality industry is well established in Thailand, able to efficiently and thoughtfully get you from A to B with little hassle and an extra dose of friendliness.