While we get plenty of return visitors and Bangkok old-hands on our tours, we also get lots of customers on their first trip to the Thai capital. Our tours aim to show you a different side of Bangkok, away from the usual tourist attractions – but we understand that if it’s your first time here you also want to tick off some of the city’s world-renowned sights. That’s why we include these too, but show you them with a twist – so that when you discover them with us, it’s from a perspective you won’t get elsewhere. Here are just a few of the must-see destinations if it’s your first time in Bangkok, or even Thailand.
Thailand’s most important royal palace and Buddhist temple, the Grand Palace – which houses Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha – is an absolute must-do for every first-time visitor to Bangkok. There’s no denying that the entire complex, a beautiful example of architecture from the current Rattanakosin era of Thai history, is awe-inspiring.
Originally constructed under the reign of King Rama I in 1782, the Grand Palace compound contains a number of buildings which are still used in royal ceremonies today, even though the royal family no longer live here. The Chakri Maha Prasat hall combines Italian renaissance style with golden Thai chedi-like spires and contains the ashes of previous monarchs, though you can only tour the ground floor. Elsewhere are parts of the former royal residences, and the royal funeral hall, while numerous other buildings remain inaccessible to visitors.
Be warned – the Grand Palace is heaving with tourists just about every day and, unless you arrive very early and queue before it opens, you don’t have a hope of a peaceful solitary wander here. The camera-wielding crowds can be off-putting, but for most visitors the Grand Palace is still an essential part of the Bangkok itinerary. Admission is pricey at 500 baht – free for Thai nationals, who enter either via a separate queue at the main entrance or through a back entrance that non-Thais cannot use. The ticket can also be used within seven days to gain entry to the Vimanmek Mansion in nearby Dusit district. The Grand Palace’s dress code is strict and applies to both men and women; if you turn up in even slightly revealing clothing, you’ll be asked to hire something more appropriate before being allowed in.
Finally, ignore anyone who tells you the Grand Palace is closed – scammers are in abundance outside and nearby the complex, and insist on telling anyone who’ll listen that the palace is shut for a ceremony, has burned down and so on, all with the aim of taking you on a tuk-tuk tour to a fake gem store, where you’ll spend a fortune and the driver will get a hefty commission (tuk-tuks are great, but if you want to ride one then take our Bangkok Night Lights tour instead!) The public areas of the Grand Palace are almost always open in their entirety, and even when parts really are closed for ceremonies and the like, other areas inside remain open for visitors. What’s more, if you’re visiting around the time of the king’s birthday on 05 December, it’s the norm for the usual admission fee to be waived for a couple of days (while parts of the complex are closed), and for the grounds to be opened for several evenings – great for sunset shots of the buildings.
If you’re staying in the Banglamphu area, you can walk to the Grand Palace with relative ease – from elsewhere, take the Chaophraya express boat to Tha Chang pier. Daily, 8.30-11.30am and 1.00-3.30pm.
The Chaophraya river’s Wat Arun translates as the Temple of Dawn, yet ironically this striking attraction is best viewed from the opposite river bank around sunset. This was the former royal temple of King Taksin, who stopped here in the early morning (hence the name) to worship the Buddha’s image as he arrived by boat to move the Thai capital from Ayutthaya to Thonburi.
Wat Arun once housed the Emerald Buddha that now resides at the Grand Palace on the other side of the river, and remains one of Bangkok’s principal tourist attractions; it’s possible to climb up the most central of five Khmer-style spires in order to take in impressive views of the capital and its waterway (though of course you won’t get the famous shot that includes the temple itself, which you’ll need to take from opposite).
To get to Wat Arun, take the Chaophraya express boat to Tha Tien pier and then a cross-river ferry to the temple. Daily, 8.30am-5.30pm; admission 100 baht, free for Thai nationals.
Note: At the time of writing (Aug 2015) the main stupa at Wat Arun is under rennovation so can not be climbed.
Wat Pho has a special place in our hearts, since it’s one of the most stunning and memorable stops on our Bangkok Night Lights tuk-tuk tour, when we often have the place entirely to ourselves. Famous as perhaps Thailand’s most prestigious massage school and offering Thai massage and classes to visitors too, Wat Pho contains Bangkok’s largest laying Buddha image, 46 metres long and gold plated.
It’s an impressive temple; the reclining Buddha represents his moment of ascension to nirvana, and you can also garner yourself some good fortune by dropping a coin into each of 108 pots that represent his 108 traits as depicted in the statue. But like the Grand Palace, Wat Pho gets very busy in the daytime and admission is 100 baht (free for Thai nationals), which is why we love it at night – empty, cooler, even more serene, and with no entry fee. If you’re unsure about visiting at night yourself, hop on a tour with us and we’ll show you Wat Pho like no-one else will.
The majority of Bangkokians have some degree of Chinese heritage, so it’s no wonder that Chinatown – or Yaowarat – is as expansive and in-your-face as it is here in the Thai capital. We love Chinatown for the endless array of delicious food, both at street stalls and more refined restaurants, as well as the general hustle bustle, countless gold shops, and a number of visit-worthy temples like Wat Traimit. Yaowarat is also arguably the Bangkok centre of the annual vegetarian festival, when you’ll find plenty of irresistible meat-free dishes to try streetside. You can discover a lesser-known part of Chinatown on our Tales of Talat Noi walking tour, To get here under your own steam, walk or grab a taxi or tuk-tuk from nearby Hualamphong MRT station.
If there’s one shopping experience that first-time visitors to Bangkok come anticipating, it’s Chatuchak. Also known affectionately as JJ, this is allegedly the world’s biggest outdoor weekend market – and there’s certainly no denying it’s vast! The saying goes that if you can’t find something at Chatuchak, it probably doesn’t exist; we’re willing to take that as fact. You’ll find food, clothes, home furnishings and pets here, and just about everything in between – the market is at its busiest on Saturdays and Sundays, when it’s open from 9am until 6pm, but a more limited number of stallholders also open up shop on Friday evenings from 6pm to midnight. BTS Mo Chit, MRT Kampaeng Phet and MRT Chatuchak Park stations all offer easy access to the sprawling market.
Don’t miss these other blog posts and resources when planning your first trip to Bangkok:
Where is on your list for your first trip to Bangkok? Do you have tips for other first-time Bangkok visitors? Let us know in the comments!
Photos by Jorge Láscar; Mark Fischer; Aleksandr Zykov; all other photos by Chris Wotton.