With the upcoming Chinese New Year, my thoughts automatically go to our trip to Thailand in 2020, when we celebrated the day in Bangkok’s Chinatown.
We have spent in total 14 days in Thailand, starting from Bangkok with short visit to ancient city of Ayutthaya, followed by charming stay in Chiang Mai in Thai mountains region bordering with Myanmar, and finally flying to the South to Phuket (with a one day trip to famous James Bond island–Khao Phing Kan) and having a total relax in a dreamy island Kho Lanta.
For a better grasp of our itinerary, I include a map with visited places.
- Bangkok–first impressions
- Chinese New Year and where to stay in Bangkok
- Cultural attractions in Bangkok you can’t miss
- Exploration of Bangkok
- Moving around Bangkok
- One day trip to ancient city of Ayutthaya
- Practical tips
We flew from Europe with Qatar Airlines, a very convenient way to arrive to Bangkok. We have naturally started our journey with Thailand’s capital, which completely enchanted us with a very dynamic, vibrant atmosphere of fast developing Asian big metropolises. I find Bangkok a very successful mix of modernity and tradition, with a difficult to define but impossible to miss– raw and authentic southern vivid Asian spirit. Bangkok is so real with its fast life of the inhabitants, modern business districts, small neighbourhoods with narrow streets hiding quirky shops, restaurants and other businesses where only insiders are invited.
Bangkok has this amazing vital force with crowds of people going to work and running their errands, the streets are busy with vendors selling tropical fruits and Thai delicious snacks, the roads are loud with a mix of sounds from cars and motorbikes–all this interesting blend in a consuming dense humid heat prompting to just sit down in a shadow to cool down a bit.
Interestingly, aside of modern, quick and dense parts of Bangkok, you will find there many traditional Thai temples, stunningly decorated palaces, lush gardens, museums and relaxing zen areas which perfectly coexist with a bustling parts of the city and remind about Thai cultural heritage and past.
To put in short, in Bangkok you will get everything, dynamic business districts, impressive gastronomical scene, vibrant partying neigbourhoods, and rich cultural heritage, it’s so easy to bump unexpectedly on stunningly decorated golden temples, where you can forget all the chaos from the nearby streets and immerse into amazing Thai culture and its spiritual world.
Bangkok is large busy city so it’s important to choose accommodation according to your needs. In my opinion, there are 3 areas where most of the people stay
- Siam Square/ Riverside for upscale hotels
- Khao San for backpacker hostels
- Chinatown with a fair concentration of tourist infrastructure but remaining a genuine Chinese neighborhood where people work and live.
Personally, we had selected Chinatown and congratulated ourselves many times for this choice. In Chinatown you will find a lot of good but also reasonably priced hotels. You will find yourself in the middle of a very authentic district full of energy, Chinatown is vivid and hectic–packed with people, market stalls and restaurants.
Out of curiosity we went to see Khao San street, we read about it before our trip and it was always advertised as a great affordable place to stay, recommended especially for backpackers travelling on a budget. We went there for a walk one evening and were completely disappointed, the place was very fake, full of shops with cheap souvenirs, restaurants where you struggle to find authentic Thai cuisine, full of foreign tourists and locals just coming to sell and work in the hotels, but otherwise you won’t find there Thai people.
If you want to have a real experience and live closer to the locals, avoid Khao San, you will find many affordable accommodations in other areas, and with Bangkok being relatively safe capital, choice of a right place is really big, just make sure you are close to metro system for efficient commute.
As I already mentioned, we are extremely happy we stayed in Chinatown which is well connected with the rest of the city, has plenty of good Chinese and Thai authentic restaurants but also enabling us to coexist with locals for those few days.
A huge highlight of our time in Chinatown was also Chinese New Year celebrations at the end of January, 2 days of amazing festivities, music, shows and food stalls selling Chinese and Thai food. What’s even more important, this event was attended mostly by locals so we had a really vivid and organic experience.
For Chinese New Year the entire Chinatown district transformed into vast walking area with buildings and streets decorated in red banners and lanterns, the atmosphere was full of amazing energy of crowds, the bustle was enhanced by exploding firecrackers. The streets were filled with stalls with Thai and Chinese food, some of them being really quirky.
We were very excited to try the grilled scorpions, they appeared to be very crunchy but it’s difficult to know their taste, all the flavour comes from generously added spices, so I guess they may be without taste, thus need to add spices.
The whole area was extremely crowded with locals, whole families came there to celebrate and try delicious food. All this accompanied by sounds of traditional Chinese and Thai music, amazing blend of sounds produced by various musicians (not necessarily coordinated).
During one evening we were part of a very interesting ceremony, with an enormous dragon being carried by several people, with the creature producing fireworks coming from its mouth. The procession was very dynamic, with a dragon running back and forth, all accompanied by the sounds of drums. We didn’t fully understand the meaning of it, but definitely shared all the excitement.
Most of celebrations are concentrated around Yaowarat Road in Chinatown with most of the events happening the 1st day of the Chinese Lunar Calendar (January or February).
I think that the best time to discover Chinatown is during Chinese New Year when you can be a part of really amazing celebrations. After the festivities the area gets much calmer but we still recommend this district with plenty of great restaurants and where you can coexist with the locals.
We were spending most of our evenings in Chinatown to participate in Chinese Year celebrations, but the rest of the day we were exploring Bangkok cultural sites, especially gorgeous Thai temples and The Royal Grand Palace.
Located in central Bangkok, the Grand Palace is a complex of buildings divided into two zones: The Temple of Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) and the royal residence. The palace served as the official residence of the Kings of Siam since 1782. The king with his court, and royal government occupied the grounds of the palace until 1925. Nowadays, the residence is used to host royal receptions, welcome king’s and state’s guests.
Probably the most precious part of the complex is the statue of Emerald Buddha which is regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand. The figure of meditating Gautama Buddha seated in the lotus position is made of jade and his clothes are made of gold. The statue’s height reaches about 66 centimeters.
It is really worth to visit all Wat Phra Kaew sites and not to focus solely on the Emerald Buddha image. The temple is incredibly gorgeously decorated with golden details and floral motives. The whole place is absolutely stunning so take your time to absorb all the beauty.
The Palace gets crowded during the day, and the heat and high humidity can be exhausting, so I recommend to visit the complex early in the morning. The palace is also closing relatively early (at 3.30) so make sure you plan enough of time for your visit. For more information, go to the official website of the site (click here).
It takes 10-minute walk from Royal Palace to get to famous Reclining Buddha Statue and the surrounding complex of temples. The statue itself is really of impressive size: 15 meters tall, 46 meters long, it takes all building to cover it. The Buddha’s feet are intricately decorated with mother of pearl images of auspicious laksanas.
The Reclining Buddha is definitely a highlight of the complex but Wat Pho is one of Bangkok’s oldest temples and it is really great place for a detailed visit. It was constructed before Bangkok was established as the capital by King Rama. It’s worth to have a walk and see four chapels with 394 gilded Buddha images, the golden statues brought from different regions of Thailand sitting in the lotus position. Although the richly detailed murals that cover your path around Wat Pho are impossible to decipher without a book or guide, the stunning murals are so detailed and intricate that even without understanding all the imagery you can still admire the artwork.
This gorgeous temple is named after Aruna, the indian god of the dawn and is one of the most remarkable cultural sites in Bangkok. The main feature of the temple that immediately grabs attention is the imposing Khmer-style tower (prang) with a height of 104 metres.
The prang is adorned with pieces of porcelain that was used as ballast by boats coming from China. It is surrounded by four smaller prangs, all decorated by seashells and bits of porcelain. From the temple’s central balcony you can admire a beautiful view at the royal palace and the Temple of Emerald Buddha which are just across the river. When strolling around Wat Arun, it’s worth to take a closer look at a stupa-like pagoda encrusted with colorful glazed porcelain tiles and seashells, giant statues, the Ordination Hall, the Bell Tower, and plentiful of Buddha statues.
Being a safe and walkable city, I strongly recommend to just have a walk around Bangkok without specific itinerary and just explore the city. Bangkok has plenty of small narrow quirky streets hiding restaurants with delicious food, handicraft shops or just houses of locals so you can have a glimpse how the Thai people live.
During one of those spontaneous walks we discovered a really gorgeous temple, which we very much appreciated because it was in service and really attended by Thai people to pray. As stunning as Wat Arun or Emerald Buddha Temples are, they are filled with tourists and are functioning partly as museums (even if people come to pray there too of course).
I don’t know the name of temple (we didn’t check our location that moment), but we were completely enchanted by intricately ornamented golden interiors and exteriors, traditional Thai music quietly sinking from discretely installed loudspeakers and intoxicating smell of fresh flowers with which the temple was adorned. We spent there one hour absorbing the tranquility and spiritual unique Thai atmosphere, all this in the middle of busy loud vivid city.
I also recommend a walk along Tha Maharaj river (or just take a boat cruise) to see more upscale neighbourhood of Bangkok with many official governmental buildings. This is a very different view at Bangkok, with wide roads, and less traffic and crowds, and it’s a really a good place for a relaxing late afternoon stroll after visiting cultural sites of Bangkok.
Bangkok is relatively safe city to discover on foot but as in any capital you need to be aware of pickpockets. We preferred to walk to the attractions since we could observe locals, spontaneously step to some restaurant or temple which we didn’t find in the guides but we found it interesting. Wandering around Bangkok’s streets really allowed us to explore better the city, and absorb it’s vivid atmosphere and energy. The best time to walk around Bangkok is early morning and late afternoon, otherwise the heat and humidity can make it exhausting.
However, the city is quite big, so many sites are not reachable on foot. A good way to navigate quickly is Bangkok’s metro system, which is fast and modern. It doesn’t get you to all parts of the city, but it stills reduces your commute to 15-minutes walk from the station to the site you want to visit.
Another way to move around is tuk tuk which is an auto-rickshaw, a very common transportation mode in Asia. It’s convenient to take tuk tuk if you are far from metro station and don’t want to be stuck in traffic in a taxi.
Be aware that tuk tuk prices are not fixed and tend to be elevated for tourists so it’s highly recommendable to negotiate. During my first visit to Asia I didn’t know how to negotiate since I didn’t know what is an approximate real cost of such a ride. My way to deal with it is to open Uber App and check the estimated price of my itinerary in the App. The tuk tuk price should not be higher that the cost of Uber ride and this is what you want to negotiate (or slightly lower price since car ride is generally more comfortable than rikshaw). With that simple trick you just know what you’re speaking about with your tuk tuk driver so you can have really affordable journey. And hey, riding tuk tuk is a lot of fun too!
Last but not least mode of transportation is to take simply Uber or taxi. I recommend this way especially if you travel with big luggage or long distance. I was relying only on Uber in Thailand since I knew in advance what is the cost of my journey and was afraid of taxi scam and the driver giving me a high final price. However be aware that Bangkok is crowded and has heavy traffic so it’s easy to get stuck in a car. Thus if I was travelling light and within the city center, I was always taking metro and tuk tuk.
To book long distance travels by train to another region in Thailand I really recommend service 12go.asia. The website is in English and allows you to find a connection between selected cities/countries. You can book your travel conveniently from home few months in advance. All you need to do is make your booking through the system and pay, and then 12go.asia will purchase for a small fee a ticket for you. After making a payment you receive a voucher which you can then exchange for a ticket in the 12go.asia agency in Bangkok.
I have tasted this service in Thailand and India and both times it worked perfectly. Not only it allows you to book in advance and do it in English, but also allows to avoid difficulties such as a necessity of having local phone number or address (which was the case in India).
For longer distances a good alternative to trains are also planes. You can travel by plane to the north of the country (Chiang Mai) and to the south (Phuket and Krabi) to quickly access Thai islands. The prices are reasonable and flights are frequent, so flying is really an option to consider.
With a very functional railway system in Thailand, it is easy to take a day trip by train from Bangkok. We have chosen to visit Ayutthaya and its ancient temples which are often compared to Angkor Wat, a famous Cambodian ancient temple complex.
The travel time by train is around 2:40 hours, and there is no need to book a ticket in advance. If you are afraid that the staff doesn’t speak English at the station, you can always show the name of the city on the phone or on a paper but Ayutthaya is quite popular tourist destination so there shouldn’t be much complications. Make sure you choose the ticket with a place in compartment with AC.
Alternatively, if you prefer to avoid trains, there is plenty of companies which organize one day trip to Ayutthaya, it’s best to ask in your hotel to help you with arrangements.
We decided to do this trip on our own and take a train. When you arrive to Ayutthaya station, it’s worth to take a tuk tuk, the archeological site is few kilometers away and separated by river with very few bridges to cross.
You can hire tuk tuk for all day (that is what the driver will insist on), but generally it’s fine to grab the other tuk tuk on the way back. Since you will rely on tuk tuks quite a lot during this trip and the drivers know it, there is no much space to negotiate prices though. Also remember to have enough of cash.
The Ancient City of Ayutthaya, established in 1350, was the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom. It was fast developing from the 14th to the 18th centuries, and it grew to be one of the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban areas and a center of global diplomacy and commerce. Ayutthaya was destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century. Nowadays you can explore the remains of the city with many prangs (reliquary towers) and gigantic monasteries which give a testimony to Ayutthaya’s grand past.
The archeological sites spread on the area of 289 ha so you will need a bit of tuk tuks and there will be quite some walking involved. I don’t think it’s possible to visit all the temples and cultural sites in one day. We have chosen few of them:
- Wat Chaiwatthanaram which is vast complex on the west bank of Chao Phraya river and is one of Ayutthaya’s most spectacular temples constructed in the traditional Khmer style.
- Wat Phra Si Sanphet which is most historically important temple in Ayutthaya. This wat is also called the King’s Temple.
- Wat Ratchaburana and Wat Mahathat (our favorite complex). The Ratchaburan temple’s main prang is one of the greatest in Ayutthaya and in Wat Mahathat you can find the most photographed Buddha in the city with the face made of stone peeking out from the roots at the base of a tree. Both sites have undergone restoration and some parts of the prangs are really well preserved so you can really admire many architectural details in this complex.
Visiting these temples took us 6 hours, and we have decided to walk to the railway station. At the exit from Wat Mahathat we have bumped into amazing food market with many Thai delicacies. Absorbed by various tasting we found ourselves running out of time and sped up to the train station. However, in order to get to the station one needs to cross back the river, and we painfully experienced a really sparse bridge infrastructure. We had to make few extra kilometers (there was no tuk tuk around) and made it on time only because the train was 20 minutes delayed. If I can give advice from this experience, it would be to give yourself more time to come back to the station (or to find tuk tuk).
At the station we were witnesses of a very interesting event with the Thai National Anthem played from the loudspeaker. At 6pm, all people suddenly stood out and the atmosphere became quite solemn. Doing some reading afterwards, we learned the Thailand’s tradition to broadcast the anthem across all television and radio stations as well as public places like schools, train stations, shopping malls and markets. We found it quite a beautiful moment of a peculiar reunion with the locals.
- Practical tips
- The best time to visit Thailand is winter months, from November to March, when the temperatures are lower and it’s less humid
- Thailand (including Bangkok) is a safe country, violent crimes are very rare
- Thai cuisine is delicious but different climate and food to which the stomach is not used can cause diarrhea. Drink always bottled water and avoid raw foods, be aware especially at the food markets when it’s east to get tempted and forget the rules when trying Thai great dishes. In case of diarrhea, drink plenty of fresh coconut water to supply minerals
- Always carry with you a bottle of water and suntan cream, I recommend to cover your head with hat to protect from heat
- Metro in Bangkok is good and safe way to navigate through the city and to avoid traffic
- Tuk tuk is a good way of transportation. If you are far from metro station, be aware the prices can be elevated for tourists and you need to negotiate
- Thailand has functional railway, and it’s convenient to take trains to other parts of the country, if you want to buy tickets in advance I really recommend to do it through 12go.asia
- In Thailand in all larger cities you will find ATMs, but in many places you can pay only in cash, so make sure you take a credit/debit card which takes small withdrawal commission
- If you decide to go for a trip to jungle, make sure you have insect repellent for tropical climate
- You can easily purchase SIM card with Internet package at the Bangkok’s airport
- Practical tips