36 Hours in Bangkok
How to spend 36 hours in Bangkok, a modern city with no shortage of tradition and graceful beauty. Video: New York Times
Bangkok, aptly nicknamed "the Big Mango", is the most cosmopolitan capital in southeast Asia and the most fun by miles. A huge tourist destination, it attracted 21.5 million international visitors last year. As also a major regional air hub, Bangkok is perfectly placed for a break on the grinding, long-haul journey between Australia and Europe. History, temples, massage, museums, great food, nightlife and hotels - Bangkok is the full tom yam, with world-class traffic jams.
Some days it feels like half of those 21.5 million visitors are at the iconic Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo, jostling you. Simply skip the lot and go to the adjacent Wat Pho, home of the giant Reclining Buddha. There are dozens of other ornate Buddhist wats throughout the capital and visitors are welcome: please remove your shoes and cover bare shoulders. In a city of quirky museums, one overlooked gem is the riverside Royal Barges Museum, which houses exquisitely delicate vessels that appear in rare but stunning royal processions on the river (bangkok.com/attraction-museum).
See Bangkok's River of Kings from the Chao Phraya Tourist Boat, with English commentary. A one-day ticket costs $6 and gets you to 13 piers near major temples and attractions (chaophrayaexpressboat.com). For intensive care shopping head to the fashion mega-malls around Rajprasong intersection, Pratunam and the Siam Center. For serious market trawling, catch the SkyTrain to the massive Chatuchak weekend market, one of the world's largest (chatuchak.org). If you're in town in November, watch the Loy Krathong Festival of Lights on the river. And on any visit don't miss a spa session and massage, if not at your hotel then almost next door.
Get an angel's-eye view of the City of Angels from very high-rise bars and restaurants such as Centara Central World's level 55 Red Sky or Banyan Tree's well-named Vertigo and Moon bar. Far a more intimate view of the nocturnal river and its restless craft find your way to the Amorosa Bar above The Deck restaurant (arunresidence.com). Or look in another direction at contemporary Thai art and installations at BACC, the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre (en.bacc.or.th) opposite MBK department store and National Stadium SkyTrain station.
Krung Thep (the local name for Bangkok) seems to never sleep or cease eating. Join in to savour truly excellent Thai fare at the Metropolitan hotel's Nahm restaurant (comohotels.com/metropolitanbangkok) or the celebrated Bo.lan (bolan.co.th). For Chinese food of all kinds graze along Yaowarat Road, Chinatown on any night for a progressive feast of hawker snacks or restaurant dining. Rang Mahal Restaurant atop the Rembrandt Hotel (rembrandtbkk.com) offers fine Indian fare, while both The Deck and Supatra River House (supatrariverhouse.net) give you riverside vistas along with foreigner-friendly spice levels.
Luxury hotel chains are present here in force, including Anantara, Mandarin, Shangri-La, Peninsula and Sheraton, all offering river views, but don't overlook premium retreats elsewhere with distinctive character like LiT, The Siam, Sala Rattanakosin and Cabochon, to name a few. There's the usual flush of Accor options and literally hundreds of quality, keenly priced hotels in popular areas like Sukhumvit, Silom and Surawong. The venerable Dusit Thani (dusit.com/dusitthani/bangkok), one of Bangkok's original and still very best hotels, has an enviable position at the beginning of the Silom Road shopping and nightlife strip.
Metered taxis can be cheaper (at least for tourists) than tuk-tuks while the SkyTrain is cheaper and faster than both. Either way, be sure your taxi's meter is on and negotiate the tuk-tuk fare before you start. If you're over 30, stay indoor during Songkran, the Thai New Year water festival in mid-April; if you're under, head to Khao San Road for a drenching.
John Borthwick was a guest of the Tourist Authority of Thailand.