As early as you can, rouse yourself and head for the Chao Phraya River, along the banks of which many of the city’s most beautiful temples are located, including Wat Arun, a tower encrusted with shimmering porcelain tiles that’s dedicated to Aruna, the Indian sun god.
Fittingly, given that Wat Arun also goes by the moniker ‘the temple of dawn’, morning is the best time to visit before the crowds, the heat and the influencers descend. Afterwards, hop on a ferry and alight at Tha Tien port to explore the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, and grab an early lunch at the nearby Supanniga Eating Room. Known for its khunyai (grandma) recipes from the northern province of Isan, this riverside spot offers vibrant, spicy salads and bottomless servings of sticky rice with a huge variety of iced teas to wash them down.
Once suitably satiated, head a little way north and visit Tha Phra Chan Amulet Market, a treasure trove of talismans with a huge volume of annual sales. According to a recent poll, some 70 percent of Thais wear Buddhist amulets to fortify themselves against bad luck and to attract good fortune. You’ll find this place packed with locals scouring piles of sacred trinkets, looking for a piece that can be strategically placed in a car, on a shrine or around a neck for protection and blessings.
From here, take a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride to the Jewelry Trade Center Thailand, a huge centre for sourcing, selling and distributing jewellery, with its own gem-testing lab and gemological school. Bangkok is known as a gemstone capital of the world, and the retail section of the building (on the lower level) is packed with fine jewellery stores.
At this point you’ll probably be pretty tired from all the sightseeing and shopping. A straight shot down Silom Road will bring you to Perception Blind Massage, a massage studio that’s staffed by therapists with sight impediments. Opt for the classic Thai massage and notice the way they use palpation – an examining touch that identifies which muscles need extra care – to release tension from the entire body.
As the day winds down, make the quick journey to nearby Vertigo and Moon Bar on the top of the Banyan Tree Hotel. This elevation, 61 storeys above street level, is the perfect place for a sundowner with great 360-degree views over Bangkok.
A little after sunrise, health-conscious locals head to Lumpini Park to get their morning exercise. Even if you aren’t in the mood to join a tai chi session, walking the foliage-framed paths and tranquil lake edge is a wonderful way to begin the day before the city is in its full chaotic swing.
Next, make a beeline for Silom Thai Cooking School. Classes begin with an early trip to some food markets to stock up on fresh ingredients before returning to the school to prepare a five-course lunch. There are no shortcuts here. You’ll make every part of your meal from scratch, right down to the curry paste, which is pulverised by hand in a pestle and mortar.
After lunch, tuk-tuk over to Yaowarat, Bangkok’s bustling Chinatown, and swing by Pak Klong Talad, a flower market overflowing with fragrant jasmine, orchids, roses and lilies. Here you’ll see people creating phuang malai, the intricate garlands often placed in temples as offerings or given to guests as a sign of respect. While you’re in the area, stop by Floral Café for coffee and carrot cake. The entire place, including the ceiling, is adorned with bunches of dried flowers and hanging boughs.
For a memorable dinner, book a table at Baan Suriyasai. Situated inside the elegant former residence of a well-to-do Bangkok family, the restaurant uses recipes and cooking techniques passed down from the Thai royal court. Presentation is immaculate and each dish is served with a backstory from old Siam.
Follow dinner with a Muay Thai fight at one of Bangkok’s most famous stadiums, Lumpinee Muay Thai or Rajadamnern, and a visit to one of the city’s many night markets. A couple of hours perusing stalls and sinking Chang Beers at Srinakarin Train Market, Asiatique The Riverfront Night Market or Khaosan Road will have you ready to clamber into bed.
Skip your hotel’s breakfast buffet and join the Thonburi Food and Canals Adventure, a tour that takes you through the backwaters of historic Thonburi (once the capital of Thailand) by long-tail boat. You’ll sample tom luad moo, which means ‘boiled pork blood’ (reminder: this is billed as an adventure tour!), Thai iced coffee made with sweet condensed milk and cardamom and lots of other market snacks along the way. Plus, you stop at Baan Sillapin, known as the Artist’s House, for a rare traditional Thai puppet show.
If it’s the weekend, make your way to Chatuchak Weekend Market next. Covering 14 hectares (35 acres) and with thousands of sellers, it’s grown into the city’s most impressive market, with stalls hawking everything from tie-dyed linen apparel to the triangular floor pillows ubiquitous at backpacker-friendly restaurants and bars. If your Bangkok visit falls on a weekday, the Or Tor Kor Market is a recommended stop for unbridled grazing. Turn up with an empty tummy and get your fill of perfectly ripe mango, plates full of sizzling seafood and vats of freshly made curry pastes for home-cooked feasts.
There’s no shortage of massage parlours in the city, but PAÑPURI – a spa with its own line of clean beauty products – stands out for its relaxing ambience and skilled therapists. Try the signature facial treatment (a relaxing experience that incorporates a dreamy head, neck and shoulder rub) followed by a session in the Japanese-style onsen soaking pools. Afterwards you can nap in PAÑPURI’s relaxation lounge and grab a ginger tea before you head back out into the busy city.
Wrap up your whirlwind trip to Bangkok with a meal at Jay-Fai, the world’s only Michelin-star street-food restaurant. In a no-frills, open-fronted dining room with strip lighting, the restaurant’s eponymous chef works tirelessly over two burners. She’s 74 years old and dons giant safety goggles to cook her twist on upscale Thai cuisine. Try silky crab meat folded into a golden, fluffy-as-a-cloud omelette, ‘dry’ tom kha soup that’s sour and spicy but missing the liquid or melty, lightly charcoaled noodles you’ll pine for after returning home. Email to book a spot way ahead of time – around two months out – or be prepared to get there in the morning and wait patiently until dinner time for a table to open up. Bear in mind that Thip Samai Pad Thai, a legendary noodle place, is just a couple of doors down and makes an excellent plan B.
Culture Trip was the guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Bangkok Airways.