This section will undoubtedly illicit some controversy. Some of the items below that make the skip of avoid list are tourist mainstays of Bangkok.
In particular, a lot of people disagree with the first site on the list, Chinatown. For me, after going there many times, I’ve just never liked it. There are interesting businesses and historical places in Chinatown, but most importantly this guide is not made primarily for expats who have plenty of time to dig deeper into a neighborhood. This guide is mainly aimed at visitors to Bangkok. Most travelers only spend a couple of days in the city, and for me I wouldn’t recommend that they spend their time wondering the congested furnace that is Chinatown trying to figure out what to see.
Thai people in particular might be outright offended that I’ve put the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaow on the list. But, for non-Thais raised without being bombarded with constant love-the-monarchy propaganda, the allure of the place just isn’t that strong. In a country where saying anything negative about the royal family lands people in prison for years and even decades, I would rather not recommend that people support this authoritarian institution and its old feudal domains.
Last update: 1 December 2013
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Skip or Avoid
Nearly every city in the world has a Chinatown and there is this err, country called… China. So, why visit Chinatown in Bangkok? It’s overcrowded, full of traffic, a maze, and insanely hot due to all the concrete. Unless you’re just hunkering for Chinese food, which can be found all over Bangkok, or you really want to support the cruel practice of shark finning, then you can miss this place altogether. On the other hand, it’s worth a visit during the night time festivities for Lunar New Year. The Temple of the Golden Buddha (Wat Tramit) is quite nice, especially on a holiday. Reach Chinatown and Wat Tramit by walking towards the river from Hua Lamphong MRT/Subway Stn for about 350 meters.
City Pillar Shrine
Even if you’re just walking right by, you probably don’t even need to consider going out of your way to see it. It’s basically just a golden phallus in a temple crammed full of Thai people doing inexplicable worshipping activities. If you must see this sacred golden cock, then it’s just across from the Grand Palace and diagonal from Sanam Luang grassy mall off Ratchadamnoen Chai Rd.
Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaow
Considered a must see by nearly every visitor to Bangkok, this site can actually be skipped. The palace itself is a descent architectural site, but with an outrageous 500 baht entry fee, a strict dress code, and hordes of tourists, this place can be crossed off your list. The tour guides are generally lousy and get half their information incorrect, and you can only peak inside a few buildings. In reality, unless you are obsessed with the intricacies of Thai architecture, you can see plenty of similar looking temples in the area. If you insist on visiting, you can get their by taking the Chao Praya River Express boat to Tha Chang/N9 Pier. Never believe anyone who tells you it is closed, no matter how friendly and well dressed they are.
Famous for the “ping pong show”, Patpong is on the low end of the flesh trade in Bangkok. Like carnival barkers, a hoard of men try to sell sex shows to tourists. These shows are bizarre to the say the least and more than a little depressing. As a woman well past her prime as a sex worker shoots darts out of her vagina in front of a picture of the Thai king and then her child (or maybe even grandchild) walks in the room, you don’t know if you’ll ever live down the shame contributing to that enterprise. Plus, the establishment managers (so called “mama sans”) are more than happy to make you empty your wallet before you leave using the threat of their hired thugs. Oddly, Patpong does have a decent souvenir market though. Located near Sala Daeng BTS/Skytrain Stn.
Particularly around the historic sites in the old city, Kao San Road, and Chinatown, tuk tuks run schemes to try and rip tourists off. They offer a very low price, but then instead of taking you to your destination take you to a series of shops selling jewelry, tailored clothing, or trips. Since you have to negotiate the price, they generally try to charge tourists insanely overpriced rates if they are not running a shop visiting scam. Unless you know how much to pay, you’re better off avoiding them and taking a metered taxi. The novelty of riding in the open air soon wears off in a tuk tuk when you are stuck behind a diesel bus and you realize that you actually can’t see anything out of the vehicle due to its low roof.
Note from the author:
This guide reflects my personal recommendations, therefore, it is deliberately influenced by my own likes and dislikes. It is not intended to be a comprehensive or general guide to the whole of Bangkok. There are of course many great places that have been left out of this guide that I simply have never been. In particular, the Arts and Culture category is a bit lacking, and the Food and Beverage category could easily go on and on. For the restaurants listed, I have been to them multiple times so can attest to their consistent quality of food and/or experience. To keep this guide relatively concise and simple to use some quality restaurants were excluded. For example, there are quite a few excellent Italian restaurants, but I chose to list only the one I felt had consistently been the best. I am generally not a big fan of Indian food, hence, none of those restaurants made the list. But I am a fan of Middle Eastern food which is why two restaurants from that category made it into the guide. Some might be a bit crestfallen with some of the things in my Skip or Avoid section, but those are my opinions and I’m sticking to them.
This guide began when I was helping out with the hosting of a group of American exchange students to the university where I work. I decided to expand it, allowing me to have something to give out to visiting friends who would always ask for my recommendations anyway.
Isaac Olson has lived in Bangkok for nearly five years. He originally came to the city to study for his master’s degree in Southeast Asian studies, which he completed in 2010. He stayed on in Bangkok working at a variety of jobs for international organizations, language schools, and universities. He’s admittedly not a huge fan of night life or shopping, but enjoys the outdoors, sites, and unique cultural experiences. He admits that like most expats his Thai could be better, but he has been slowly working his skills up, and can… shockingly… read and write in Thai and even carry on meaningless conversations with taxi drivers.
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