As the only country in Southeast Asia never colonized by Europeans, Thailand has maintained its distinct character, culture, and language throughout the centuries. This rich culture — and a welcome respite from the tropical heat — can be found in the many Buddhist temples, art galleries, and theaters throughout the city.
Temples and sacred places
The Grand Palace — The opulent former home of the royal family, the Grand Palace is Bangkok’s most famous attraction, and for a good reason. As you walk around the palace grounds, you’ll see stunning ornate prayer halls, golden stupas, stone carvings, and grand buildings arranged haphazardly around courtyards and lawns.
There are two main zones at the Grand Palace: the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the royal residence. The Emerald Buddha, the most sacred statue in Thailand, is housed in a gilded temple covered in murals and intricate carvings. At temples in Thailand, visitors should remain silent, avoid pointing at the Buddha statues with fingers or feet, and dress modestly with no shorts or tank tops. If you show up to the Grand Palace dressed inappropriately, don’t worry — you can borrow a sarong for free to cover up.
The royal family moved out of the residence in 1925, but the buildings are still used today as government offices and for hosting visiting dignitaries and special events. Most of the interiors are off-limits to tourists, but you can still wander around and admire the spectacular architecture from the outside.
Where: Grand Palace Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10200, Thailand
Wat Pho — In a city packed full of stunning Buddhist temples, Wat Pho is the oldest, largest, and most spectacular religious site in Bangkok. Wat Pho is famous for its gigantic reclining Buddha statue, standing 45 feet tall and stretching 150 feet in length.
The sprawling temple complex features four prayer halls containing nearly 400 Buddha statues and a bell tower covered in colorful tile mosaics. The temple entrances are guarded by giant stone-carved statues to protect from evil spirits. Make sure and check out the whimsical sculptures wearing top hats at the Marco Polo gate, which represent the first western visitors to the temple.
After touring Wat Pho and the temples of the old city, take a break at the Wat Pho Massage School, one of the best places in town for a traditional Thai massage.
Where: 2 Sanam Chai Rd, Khwaeng Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Khet Phra Nakhon, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10200, Thailand
Giant Swing and Wat Suthat Thepwararam — The 60-foot-tall giant red swing in front of Wat Suthat Thepwararam is one of the most iconic sites in Bangkok. Today, the towering swing looks like an art installation, but it used to be part of religious traditions in which priests swung on ropes in an attempt to catch a bag of coins placed on the pillars. These ceremonies have been stopped for safety reasons. The interior of the main prayer hall of Wat Suthat is covered in intricate paintings and features a 30-foot-tall golden Buddha.
Where: 239 Dinso Rd, Bang Khun Phrom, Khet Phra Nakhon, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10200, Thailand
Erawan Shrine — The Erawan Shrine, one of five Hindu shrines in downtown Bangkok, sits on a small plaza at a busy intersection on Sukhumvit Road. In 1956, after a series of delays, mishaps, and worker injuries during the construction of the Erawan Hotel, the shrine was built to appease the gods, and the project was successful thereafter.
Today, visitors come to the shrine to pray for wealth and good luck, and the area is constantly buzzing with activity. Worshippers circle the four-headed Buddha statue, praying, lighting incense, and leaving offerings on all sides. Workers continually clear away the piles of flowers, joss sticks, and carvings to make space for new offerings. On the south side of the plaza, a troupe of Thai dancers, and musicians in traditional costumes perform while devotees pray.
Where: 494 Ratchadamri Rd, Khwaeng Lumphini, Khet Pathum Wan, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10330, Thailand
Wat Kalayanamit — Few people make the short boat journey across the Chao Phraya River to this spectacular temple, which means that in-the-know travelers can explore the complex in relative peace. Originally built in 1825, the temple recently underwent a renovation, and today the complex sparkles with new paint and plaster. The ordination hall, with walls covered in murals, houses a giant golden Buddha statue.
After visiting Wat Kalayanamit, walk along the river to the Kian Un Keng Shrine. The perfectly preserved shrine, the oldest in Thonburi, sits inside a Chinese joss house. You’ll likely be the only visitor and can admire the paintings and dragon carvings in solitude.
Where: 371 ซอย อรุณอมรินทร์ 6 เเขวง วัดกัลยาณ์ Khet Thon Buri, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10600, Thailand
The Jim Thompson House Museum — American Jim Thompson is known as the “Thai Silk King” because he helped revitalize the silk trade after World War II. In the late 1940s, he set up silk weaving collectives in rural Thailand and imported the silk to America where designers used the fabrics in movies and fashion. The Jim Thompson House Museum, Thompson’s former home, is a series of wooden buildings made in classic Thai style, giving visitors a glimpse of a bygone era before high-rises took over the city. The informative tours of the former residence tell the story of the silk merchant, architect, army office, and spy who disappeared mysteriously in 1967. After touring his home, check out the Jim Thompson Art Center to learn about the silk-making process and see his private art collection. The art center also hosts rotating exhibits by visiting artists.
Where: 6 Kasem San 2 Alley, Khwaeng Wang Mai, Khet Pathum Wan, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10330, Thailand
Erawan Museum — The Erawan Museum, housed inside a colossal three-headed elephant statue atop a pedestal, is one of Bangkok’s most unique sites. The complex, which represents the Hindu universe, is more of a temple than a museum. The first floor represents the underworld, housing carvings, statues, and antiques from various places in the world. An elaborate staircase covered in carvings leads to the second floor, which represents Earth. The ceiling of the second floor, which is the top of the pedestal, is made of dazzling stained glass depicting the zodiac. The top floor, located in the belly of the elephant, has a prayer hall representing heaven. The museum is relatively small, but it is surrounded by gardens, making it a tranquil place to relax.
Where: 99 Tambon Bang Muang Mai, Amphoe Mueang Samut Prakan, Chang Wat Samut Prakan 10270, Thailand
Bangkok Art and Cultural Center — The Bangkok Art and Cultural Center houses a massive collection of native arts, crafts, and contemporary art, plus rotating exhibitions by Thai and international artists. The purpose-built building is itself a work of art. The exterior has slanted walls common in traditional Thai architecture, and the interior features a bright atrium, with rounded staircases reminiscent of the Guggenheim museum in New York City. The museum is an excellent place to visit midday to get a break from the tropical heat and has a cafe, restaurant, gift shop, and library on site.
Where: 939 Rama I Rd, Wang Mai, Pathum Wan District, Bangkok 10330, Thailand
Theaters and live performances
Siam Niramit — The Siam Niramit, a huge stage show with over 100 performers, is a must-see. The three-act play focuses on Thai history, culture, and festivals, and the dancing, costumes, set design, lighting, and sound production are breathtaking. The ticket includes transportation and a buffet meal of Thai and Indian food, and after the show, spectators can pose for photos with the performers.
Where: 19 Thiam Ruam Mit Rd, Khwaeng Huai Khwang, Khet Huai Khwang, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10310, Thailand
Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre — Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre has five performances of the Thai mask dance each day. The mask dance, known as Khon, is a UNESCO recognized cultural art form, and the costumes, choreography, and music of the show are excellent. Admission to the Royal Palace includes a free same-day ticket to the dance performance, so plan ahead and save money. Shuttle buses take visitors from the Grand Palace to the theater for those who don’t want to make the short walk.
Where: 66 Charoen Krung Rd, Wang Burapha Phirom, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok 10200, Thailand
Chatuchak Weekend Market — With over 15,000 stalls and a bewildering number of items on sale, Chatuchak Weekend Market is one of the largest markets in the world. Chatuchak is the ideal place to stock up on souvenirs or household items before returning home. You’ll find everything here from quality hand-carved artwork to tacky beer-themed t-shirts. As you shop, stay hydrated by carrying around a beer, iced coffee, or fruit juice and take a break to eat the coconut ice cream sold throughout the market. There are dozens of restaurants to hit when you get hungry, and the nearby Chatuchak Park offers a green respite after a day of haggling.
Where: สวนจตุจักร Kamphaeng Phet 2 Rd, Khwaeng Chatuchak, Khet Chatuchak, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10900, Thaïlande
Rot Fai Ratchada Night Market — The massive Rot Fai Ratchada Night Market is one of the most Instagrammed places in Bangkok. At sunset, photographers and selfie-snappers ascend the parking garage of the Esplanade Mall and take photos of the colorfully illuminated tents with the skyscrapers of downtown in the distance. At the market, you can shop for artwork, clothes, souvenirs, jewelry, and handbags, but most visitors come for the party vibe. The market, busy with a mix of tourists and locals, has dozens of bars with live music.
Where: Ratchadaphisek Rd, Din Daeng, Bangkok 10400, Thailand
Pak Khlong Flower Market — The Pak Khlong Flower Market and surrounding streets burst with color as the area is the main place to buy flowers and produce. Inside the market, workers chat and gossip while making flower arrangements that locals buy to give at temples. On the loading docks, men push colorful carts laden with flowers and produce to distribute at the various stalls in and around the market. After exploring the traditional markets, get a drink or have dinner at the adjacent Yodpiman River Walk, a renovated shopping complex with beautiful views of Wat Arun and the southern Bangkok skyline.
Where: ปากคลองตลาด สน พระราชวัง Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, Thailand
Asiatique — Asiatique, a modern, open-air market on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, is famous for its huge Ferris wheel. Converted into a market in 2014, Asiatique occupies the warehouses of a former international shipping pier. The market, which has over 1,500 shops, is an excellent place to buy silk scarves and high-quality handicrafts. When you are finished shopping, get a drink, watch the sunset, and enjoy the breeze at the riverside restaurant.
Where: 2194 Charoen Krung Rd, Khwaeng Wat Phraya Krai, Khet Bang Kho Laem, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10120, Thailand
Other points of interest
Group dancing, yoga, and Tai Chi in the parks — At sunrise, Bangkok’s parks burst with activity. Locals take over the squares, dancing in large groups led by head-set wearing instructors shouting encouragement over crackling speakers. In the quiet lawns, people practice yoga, Tai Chi, and fan dancing in a more serene setting. As a visitor, this culture of group exercise makes a fascinating scene. If you want to participate, you’ll make dozens of new Thai friends and be the center of attention.
Muay Thai – Thai kickboxing, known as Muay Thai, is a traditional form of martial arts that is Thailand’s de facto national sport. Visitors can watch fights at several venues in Bangkok or join a Muay Thai class to learn self-defense.
Each Muay Thai match begins with a dance ceremony, known as Wai Kru, to honor and thank the teachers. Bouts consist of five three-minute rounds separated by a two-minute break. As a result, each fight takes about half an hour. Most venues have eight to 10 fights each night, with the main event occurring near the end. Check out a fight at Rajadamnern Stadium.
Where: 8 Ratchadamnoen Nok Rd, เเขวง วัดโสมนัส Khet Pom Prap Sattru Phai, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10100, Thailand