Thailand’s vivacious capital is preceded by a reputation like no other city. With such a mass of information and opinion out there, figuring out what to do in Bangkok with just a few days can be challenging. We decided to split our week’s stay across three of the city’s famous districts.
As with any city, we wanted to capture the taste of Bangkok from all angles, including the temples, the museums, the food, the markets and – perhaps most importantly – the nightlife. This sample itinerary follows how we fit all of this into just seven days.
Days 1–3: Khao San Road
We arrived a stone’s throw from Bangkok’s famous Khao San Road at 6am on a Saturday after a 17-hour journey from Koh Phi Phi. (Check out my guide on how to take overnight buses like a pro here).
Getting to Chatuchak Market from Khao San Road
We were half expecting to find a few souls still standing from Friday night’s festivities, but the streets were deathly quiet. Unable to check into our hostel until the afternoon, we dropped our bags, and rather than waste the day we decided to take a trip to Chatuchak Market.
With over 15,000 stalls spread over 35 acres, Chatuchak is the world’s largest weekend market. It’s also some 10km away from Khao San Road on the other side of the city, so first we had to get there! Rather than take a pricey tuk-tuk or taxi, we opted for the local bus. Numbers 3 and 544, both air-conditioned, both went directly to the market gates for 17 baht each.
Whiling away 3–4 hours in this enormous labyrinth of stalls, entertainers and food carts was not difficult. Vendors selling all sorts of trinkets from incense burners to magic cushions to vintage clothing vied for our attention. Once we decided to head to the hostel, it took us more than half an hour to find our way back out through the mayhem.
Where to stay in Khao San Road
We arrived back in perfect time to check into our accommodation – Everday Khaosan Hostel. At 250 baht each per night for a dorm room, this place quickly became one of our travel favourites. Situated a couple of blocks away from the busy main drag, it was secluded from the chaos, and there was a great choice of super-cheap Thai food outlets just around the corner.
The hostel had a great vibe and the staff were brilliant – they provided loads of advice on what to do in Bangkok, and they even ran a free Thai cooking class while we were there. We also had our first hot showers for nearly a month.
Khao San Road nightlife: our first impressions
That night, after a much-needed afternoon nap, we went out in search of Khao San Road’s famous nightlife. It was very different to what we had anticipated! Our first experience of Thailand had been the raucous Bangla Walking Road at Patong Beach in Phuket, with its rows and rows of manic bars and locals touting special offers, and we were expecting something similar.
Khao San Road wasn’t on the same level of crazy. There were more market stalls than bars, lots of street food vendors, and the occasional expensive night club tucked away from the street. We ended up cruising to a couple of the bars on a parallel street, where we found live music and cheap beer.
The Museum of Siam: a maze of interactive exhibitions
We didn’t get properly up and running until the next day, with the benefit of a good night’s sleep. Keen to explore some of Thailand’s history and culture, we first headed to Bangkok National Museum, easily walkable from our hostel, but were disappointed to find that half the exhibitions were closed. Not wanting to pay the full fee for half the insights, we decided to leave it.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it gave us more time to spend at our next destination: the Museum of Siam. We’ve been to a lot of museums on our travels, and this one ranks right up there among the best.
For the 200-baht entrance fee (it’s 50 baht if you’re a student), we enjoyed three hours of fascinating exploration of Thai identity and culture, and would’ve spent longer if it wasn’t for our rumbling stomachs.
Organised into 14 different interactive room displays, the museum invites visitors to ‘decode Thainess’ by exploring various components of the nation’s identity, such as its food, traditions, dress, music, history and religion. By the time we worked our way through most of the puzzles and games, lunch was long overdue. We grabbed some tasty cheap local food at Baan Thatien nearby, and took a slow walk with the camera back towards the hostel.
Khao San Road nightlife: the backpacker way
Our plans for a quiet Sunday night in were soon disrupted when we got chatting to a British solo traveller called Sam, and headed out once again to Khao San Road. Brimming with Chang beer confidence and perhaps wanting to impress a new friend, we felt the time was right to try eating a scorpion. We picked up two for 100 bahts from a street vendor. How can I describe the flavour? It was a bit like a pork scratching thrice-charred to death on a BBQ.
One of the real surprises about Khao San Road was that it completely shut down at 1am, even on weekends. Once the bars started closing it was really difficult to find anywhere to keep the night going, but we had an idea. The massage parlours seemed to be still open. I can now attest that there is no better way to end a night out than with a half-hour, 150-baht foot massage.
A visit to the Grand Palace
The next morning we were up and out early to try and beat the crowds to the Grand Palace, as we had heard how chaotic it can get. The tales were true, and our plan was a good one. Arriving at 9am we already found ourselves caught in a tidal wave of tourist traffic, but when we left a couple of hours later it was a lot worse.
The Grand Palace is touted as a must-see in Bangkok, and although it was a magnificent spectacle to behold, we didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. At 500 baht each, it was by some distance the most expensive single attraction we saw in Thailand. The crowds were so intense that we spent most of the time scrambling, jostling and trying to avoid being pushed over. The dress code was super strict – it wasn’t acceptable for Lisa to cover her shoulders with a sarong, so she had to pay extra to hire a cardigan (which was barely any different to her sarong anyway).
A visit to Wat Pho (the reclining Buddha)
After our visit/ordeal was over, we walked a few minutes down the road to visit Wat Pho, one of the city’s most celebrated temples. This turned out to be a much more enjoyable experience than the Grand Palace in every way possible.
Don’t overlook this one when you’re working out what to do in Bangkok. The grounds and buildings were every bit as beautiful as the Grand Palace, but the volume of tourist traffic was far more bearable, and the entrance fee was much more reasonable at 100 baht each.
More places to visit near Khao San Road
Had we an extra day around Khao San Road, or taken it at a faster pace, we could have walked north from our hostel and visited some more of the city’s famous sites such as the King Rama V Monument, Chitralada Palace, Wat Benchamabophit and Paruskawan Palace. Or if we could muster the stomach for it, a short hop across the Chao Phraya River would have taken us to Siriraj Medical Museum. The problem with deciding what to do in Bangkok is that there’s so much choice! Time caught up with us, and it was time to move on to the next district.
Days 4–5: Silom
We ordered a Grab to head over to Silom, costing us 164 baht for the 7km journey. Silom is at the epicentre of Bangkok’s commercial history, once the home of Thailand’s first printing press, and today a thriving financial district. Backpackers are drawn by the bustling nightlife of Patpong and the proximity of Lumphini Park.
Where to stay in Silom
Our abode for two nights in Silom was Lub D hostel, conveniently situated close to Silom Road and a short walk from Patpong and Lumphini Park. We paid 270 baht each per night for a dorm room. As soon as you enter, a large wall painting illustrates what to do in Bangkok, and around the Silom area. The hostel bar sold food and beer, albeit a bit more expensive than Everyday Khaosan.
Shopping in Silom
A quick consultation with a local map showed that we were walkable distance from the MBK Center, one of the city’s legendary giant shopping malls. For a few weeks we had been keeping an eye out for deals on a new tablet or laptop to replace a broken one, and with over 2,000 outlets spread over eight floors, this place seemed a fair shout. It took us about 20 minutes to walk there from the hostel.
The entire fifth floor of the mall was dedicated to electronics, and it didn’t take long to find a bargain – we bought a tablet/laptop combo for 6,000 baht, about half what it would’ve cost back home.
On the next floor up, we found a huge food court – often a feature of the Asian megamalls – with a host of different Thai food options for super cheap prices. We paid 40 baht each for some seafood noodle soups.
Not fancying the walk back to the hostel after dark with our new gadget, we decided to take a metered taxi from the rank by the mall. This worked out even cheaper than taking a Grab.
A visit to the Bankokian Museum (Bangkok folk museum)
We opted for a quiet night and allocated the next day for exploring the area and taking photos. We started with the Bangkokian Museum, just ten minutes’ walk from the hostel. The museum is the former home of a middle-upper-class Thai family, preserved to give insight into high society life in the city over a century ago.
Walking through the bedrooms, bathrooms and family living areas was like taking a step back in time to a forgotten place – quite a different experience to other museums we’ve encountered on our travels.
Getting around Chinatown
We dedicated the rest of the day to walking aimlessly around Chinatown, something that rarely disappoints. The route to it was perfect for a slow stroll, through lively backstreets, along the river, and past scatterings of street food stalls. We stopped on the way to marvel at the magnificent white and gold structure of Wat Traimit.
If there was one mild disappointment in Chinatown, it was, surprisingly, the food. While we tried some tasty titbits from street stalls, all of the restaurants seemed vastly overpriced by the city’s standards. We ended up waiting, and found a cheap backstreet Thai café back near our hostel.
Nightlife in Silom
That night we tried out the Patpong scene, and found something far more closely resembling the chaos of Bangla Walking Road. Bar staff hustled in the street to try and get us into their establishments, and women clad in, er, not much at all tried to allure us into ping pong shows and other seedy entertainments.
Drinks were about twice the price of Khao San Road and we’d missed happy hour, but we stayed out for a few drinks to soak in the madness, grabbed a McDonald’s fix and headed back to the hostel. We had intended to call it a night, but we met a group of reveling backpackers in the hostel’s outside bar area, and ended up joining them for drinks and chats until 6am.
Could just one night in Bangkok go according to plan? The late night was a death knell for our intention to check out Lumphini Park in the morning. Maybe next time, eh? We took another Grab, this time for 147 baht, and headed to our final Bangkok residence: Sukhumvit.
Days 6–7: Sukhumvit
Sukhumvit doesn’t offer a lot in terms of historical or cultural attractions; it’s more of a place to indulge in shopping, eating and drinking, and so might not be the obvious choice for backpackers on a budget. There are ways to work around it cheaply, though, and anyone who has seen The Hangover 2 may want to witness the nighttime scenes on the notorious Soi Cowboy.
Where to stay in Sukhumvit
We stayed at Revolution Hostel, our cheapest Bangkok stay yet at 230 per night each for a dorm bed. We couldn’t really fault the place: the beds were large and comfy, it had a cool little rooftop bar with great city views, and the bar sold breakfasts with names like “the Che-Guevara’.
Finding cheap food in Sukhumvit
It was a lot harder to find budget food around Sukhumvit, and on the first night we bit the bullet and splashed out more than usual on a pizza from around the corner. The next day, however, we found a gem in yet another Bangkok megamall, Terminal 21.
On the fifth floor of the mall there were a whole bunch of restaurants with various (mainly western) themes, and fine-dining prices. By chance we decided to take the escalator one floor higher, where we found a giant local food court. There was barely a western tourist in sight. Busy stalls sold main dishes for as little as 25 baht; we got a plate of BBQ duck and pork with rice and veg for 35 baht each.
Things to do in Sukhumvit
Although Sukhumvit often tops lists of what to do in Bangkok, we found its general vibe a bit plastic, geared towards richer folk and nowhere near as interesting as the previous two districts we’d encountered. We walked along the main road to Benchasiri Park (otherwise known as Queen’s Park) and had a look around another mall, the Emporium. This place wasn’t really our scene: we headed back to the hostel to chill on the rooftop with a beer instead.
A night out in Sukhumvit
We couldn’t spend our last night in Bangkok without going out for a couple of beers, especially with it being a Friday. We thought we’d find out if Soi Cowboy was all it’s cracked up to be. We found a bar on the corner selling bottles of Singha for 80 baht all night, and holed ourselves up there watching the weird and wonderful Bangkok world go by.
Soi Cowboy is a narrow road with flashing neon signs protruding from both sides, and dancing girls beckoning groups of western men through shady-looking doors. We were perfectly content to sip our beers and chat to the friendly staff at our bar for a couple of hours. There were to be no 6am shenanigans this time: before midnight struck we called time on a great week and headed for bed.
Only one night in Bangkok? Verdict on the nightlife
Khao San Road, Patpong and Sukhumvit have all become clichés to some extent, but if you are unsure what to do in Bangkok with one night to spare and want to sample the city’s famous scene, one of these three is probably the best way to do it.
My choice would be to make a beeline for Khao San Road, but don’t just stick to the main drag. Wander out to the streets parallel either side, and don’t just go in the first bar offering cheap beer. Go in the places that look the most interesting!
Do you have any tips on what to do in Bangkok with limited time? Share your experiences in the comments below.