The capital of Southeast Asia’s only uncolonised country, Bangkok retains much of its cultural depth. Despite relentless development, Krung Thep (the ‘City of Angels’) keeps true to itself, embracing every onslaught with its mai pen rai (never mind) nonchalance, trademark smile and pervasive sense of the sacred. But it remains so fascinating partly due to its endearing chaos. Accessing Siamese heritage isn’t always straightforward, but the joy is in treating Bangkok as an expedition. In this vast metropolis of over ten million people, the majority of sights lie in the old town nucleus of Phra Nakorn, the preceding capital of Thonburi, Chinatown, Dusit and along the waterways. Yes, there are glorious landmarks, but much of what you’ll remember happens serendipitously en route.
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Like its iconic green curry, Bangkok dining is a sophisticated, eclectic stew. The disparate cooking traditions, exacting chefs, ultra-fresh ingredients and demanding consumers have combined to forge a great world food city.
There are intimate fine dining gems and excellent Italian trattorias, pierside Sino-Thai seafood halls and vendors who serve a single dish so well that locals travel across town to eat it.
The drinking scene is equally vibrant, though increasingly regulated. From streetside bars serving beer and bucket cocktails, to artsy holes-in-the-wall, chic cocktail lounges and towering rooftop hangouts (see 20 great things to do in Bangkok), you can quaff on a shoestring or an expense account.
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At times, Bangkok feels like one long, uninterrupted bazaar. Market-going infuses the culture, and Thais’ faddish tastes ensure a constantly refreshed variety of goods and retail experiences, with endless fairs, promotions, festivals and entertainments. As with their food, Thais like their shopping spicy.
Thais prize convenience, so not only do retail outlets proliferate beyond any imaginable demand, but shops come to you, in the form of itinerant vendors. As tastes and incomes change, however, so shopping goes up-market.
Bangkok now boasts luxury malls, global branded stores, homegrown boutique labels and world-class design. Yes, prices have risen, but they still remain good value. In Thai retail slang, the city stocks everything ‘from pestles to warships’.
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Bangkok’s nightlife has outgrown its go-go and cover band notoriety through new nocturnal scenes, from quirky dens to models’ bars to star DJs. And open-air cocktail nests atop skyscrapers (see 20 great things to do in Bangkok) put BKK on the jet-set map. Ever-sleeker clubs attract varying Thai:foreign ratios, while the indie scene thrives on peripatetic party nights; live music is never far away, and after-hours venues keep shifting. The city never stops partying – what else to expect from the home of Red Bull?
A ‘social order’ campaign demarcated just three nightlife zones, ignoring most bar strips, yet matching the sex trade haunts. The Patpong Zone includes go-go bars, the half-gay bar strip Silom Soi 4 and all-gay Silom Soi 2. The Ratchadaphisek Zone harbours massage parlours, the down-market disco barns of Ratchada Sois 4 and 8. The adjacent Phetchaburi Zone has more massage joints and bars for the hipper youth at Royal City Avenue (RCA).
Outside the zones, rules on clubs prove unrealistic, so ambiguity reigns. Some areas seem devoid of nightlife, yet streets can burst into vogue, like unpretentious Thanon Kamphaengphet (Chatuchak & Aree), or the rich-kids playground of Thonglor-Ekamai (Sukhumvit). Thanon Khao San has parallel scenes for backpackers and Thais, while Thanon Phra Arthit (Banglamphu) harbours indie hangouts. Nana (Sukhumvit)is notorious for its go-go, but Q Bar and Bed Supperclub have prompted so many chic rivals that a Sukhumvit Soi 11 Association has emerged (Facebook: Sukhumvit Soi 11). Pricey expatriate pubs focus on Phromphong, Nana and Saladaeng. Yet budget boozing can be done pretty well anywhere: down alleys, in markets, on piers, even in ’70s-style suburbia. Cool-season beer gardens flourish, while Thanon Khao San and Nana have pavement bars set up around stalls or on open-top tuk-tuks.
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Modern entertainments may increasingly eclipse traditional arts, but few images signify Thainess like glittering costumed court dance. Do try to see masters of dance, puppetry, music or, indeed, Muay Thai boxing, which shares this balletic and ritual heritage. Those seeking deeper arts insights can attend Siam Society events and the hands-on cultural programmes of Origin.
Modern staged productions veer from orchestras and opera to musicals and ladyboy cabaret. Thai film has auteurs worth catching. And Thais sure know how to relax at sumptuous spas.
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