A local’s guide to Bangkok: 10 top tips
‘David Beckham Temple’
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Bangkok shrines all look alike after you’ve visited your fifth one. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything like Wat Pariwat, a temple complex in the city’s south-eastern corner. At first sight, it may look like your typical run-of-the-mill wat – but look closer and you’ll discover ornate depictions of emoji pandas, Wonder Woman, Pikachu, Disney figures and an angelic bare-chested Obama (to name a few) all blending in with the traditional intricate mosaics covering the walls and ceiling. It’s a visual feast and worth spending some time at as you hunt for pop culture references, including David Beckham, after whom it is nicknamed.
• 734 Rama III
Street food central
In the thick of Rattanakosin, one of Bangkok’s oldest districts, the area around Phraeng Bhuthorn Road is home to some of the city’s most legendary street food institutions. If you’re an adventurous eater, start at Samong Moo Thai Tham, famous for its bowls of pork broth loaded with crispy fish skin, innards and melt-in-the-mouth … pig brain. A few doors down, a meal at Udom Pochana requires less courage. The stars on the menu of this decades-old restaurant are creamy Chinese-style curry, made with stewed beef and served over rice, and fresh spring rolls drizzled with spicy gravy and flecked with succulent crab meat. Cool down with a bowl of corn-topped coconut ice-cream at Nuttaporn, arguably the best place in town for this classic Thai dessert.
Vintage design studio
There are few better places to rummage through vintage goods than Papaya Studio, a furniture depot in the far-flung Lat Phrao suburb. You name it, they probably have it – in multiple shapes and sizes: lifelike Star Wars figures, pompous rococo mirrors, chinoiserie vases, classic Eames chairs – organised by era and function in one of the many warehouses or mock living rooms. The collection is brought together by Mr Tong, a long-time antique dealer and respected figure in the city’s design scene. While all items are technically for sale, the hefty price tags discourage potential buyers; instead, they’re often rented out for films or photo shoots. Admission is free but those toting professional camera equipment are asked to make a small donation.
• 306/1 Soi Lat Phrao 55, papaya55.com
Fab 40s restaurant
Stepping inside Muslim Restaurant feels like stepping back in time. The interior of this Islamic-Thai eatery in the multicultural Bang Rak district hasn’t changed a bit since it opened in the 1940s. With its wooden booths, sky-blue walls and faded family portraits, it’s as charming as it is photogenic. People don’t just come here for the old world atmosphere, though – the food is fantastic. My personal favourites include roti mataba, a flaky pocket of beef and spices; and sup hang wua, spicy oxtail soup with a nice tang to it. Drop by on a Monday or Friday for their signature khao mok phae, a fragrant mutton biryani with falling-off-the-bone goat meat hidden under a pile of bright yellow rice. Best of all, a full meal with multiple curries, snacks, and drinks will only set you back a couple of pounds.
• 1354-56 Charoen Krung Rd
Bangkok’s green lung
A short rickety boat ride from Bangkok’s business district, Ban Krachao – also known as “the green lung” – is a welcome respite from the busy streets. This small peninsula in a horseshoe bend of the Chao Phraya river is home to a patchwork of banana plantations, dense jungle, and small villages. Only the occasional sight of the city’s skyline shimmering through the dense foliage reminds you that you’re still in the middle of one of Asia’s most sprawling metropolises. It’s best discovered by bicycle (available at the arrival jetty, £2.30 for a full day or £1.20 an hour), which allows you to pedal the stilted pathways meandering through mangrove forests and local backyards. While simply getting lost here is an adventure in itself, it’s worth plotting the Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park and the Bang Namphueng floating market on your map.
Unique Chinese mansion
Hidden in a maze of alleyways in Talad Noi (a workers’ district bordering Chinatown), stately Sol Heng Tai Mansion is one of the last remaining traditional Chinese houses in the city. Built by a notable Hokkien family some 200 years ago, the structure consists of four wings surrounding a courtyard, all in traditional Hokkien style. Passed down through eight generations, it still functions as a family residence. The current residents operate a diving school (including a four-metre deep pool) and a beagle breeding kennel on the premises. Parts of the house have seen better days. (Sadly, its owners don’t receive financial support from the government to help restore it – the city is notoriously indifferent about preserving heritage buildings). Visitors are encouraged to order something from the makeshift coffee shop as a way of contributing.
• 282 Soi Wanit 2, Khwaeng Talat Noi
A taste of the north
In a district dominated by glitzy restaurants and mall food courts, Gedhawa stands out for its quirky decor and unfussy atmosphere. In a quiet alley off Sukhumvit Road (the area’s main thoroughfare), this small eatery is packed with northern Thai prayer flags, Lanna-style wood carvings, and retro knick knacks against a backdrop of shocking pink walls. The handwritten menu focuses mostly on northern Thai fare – a rarity in Bangkok – such as the classic khao soi (curry noodle soup) and the nam prik num, a northern Thai chilli dip served with boiled vegetables. Despite its “hidden gem” appearance, it’s popular with the area’s large Japanese community, so call ahead (+66 2 662 0501) to secure a table.
• 24 Sukhumvit Soi 35
Classic neighbourhood cafe
Recent years have seen hipster cafes pop up like mushrooms in Bangkok. And while exposed-brick walls, bare light bulbs and letter-board menus are all the rage, few cafes can drum up to the atmosphere that Kope Hya Tai Kee, opened in 1953, exudes. There’s no hipster-chic here; instead, the place is littered with marble-top tables, old-school tea boxes and black-and-white photos of the original owners. It’s usually packed with uncles chatting the day away in Teochew dialect. They’re friendly, and you’re more than welcome to join them over a cup of kafe boran, a robust brew served with generous helpings of sugar and sweetened milk. Simple “American style” breakfasts are served here, too. Try the signature kai kata, with fried eggs, sweet Chinese sausage, ground pork and peas alongside a slice of buttered toast.
• Wisut Kasat Junction, restaurant-27062.business.site
Riverside drinking den
A ramshackle drinking den in the shadow of the Shangri-La Hotel, Jack’s Bar is a favourite with local chefs, in-the-know tourists and expats. And for good reason: the combination of prime river views, cheap drinks and an unpretentious atmosphere is hard to beat. Perched on a stilted platform over the water, it’s a perfect spot to watch the river with a cold beer (drink it the Thai way, poured over ice, as there is no air-conditioning to cool you down). And come hungry if you’re a fan of no-frills, authentic Thai food. The seafood-centric menu covers the usual classics and harder-to-find southern dishes that pack a spicy punch. Chef’s recommendations are the stir-fried stink beans with shrimp, and the khua kling, a peppery dry curry with minced pork and lemongrass.
• On the river between Shangri-La and The Peninsula Pier, jackandxbar.blogspot.com
This pastel colonial villa in the Surasak district was once surrounded by fruit orchards and canals. Fast-forward 70 years and it’s now sandwiched between buzzing expressways – but hasn’t lost a pinch of charm. It now houses Baan Pra Nond, a homey B&B operated by the granddaughter of the villa’s original owner (whose portrait is the centrepiece of the living room). It’s a far cry from the luxury digs around the corner, but what it misses in amenities, it makes up with heaps of old-world charm and genuinely friendly service.
• Doubles from £35 B&B, 18/1 Charoen Rat Road, baanpranond.com
Best time to go
Bangkok is busy year-round but especially so at Songran (Thai New Year), in mid-April. January and February are good times to visit, when the sun shines but the hottest weather hasn’t yet set in. September and October are the rainiest months.
Chris Schalkx is a writer, photographer and Bangkok resident who scours the city for his travel blog Rice/Potato
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