Arriving in Bangkok can be an intimidating experience. Riding in the back of a little taxi through heavy traffic making its languorous way along the elevated freeway that winds from the airport toward Sukhumvit, the skyline looms. So many skyscrapers, stretching as far as the horizon. At their feet, a dense and endless web of city streets.
Dropping down an exit ramp and right into the beating heart of it, Thailand’s capital rises up around you—blocks and blocks of buzzing tuk-tuks, busy street food vendors, and markets swirling with color that completely engulf the sidewalks.
It’s fast and gritty, and, for the first-time visitor, more than a tiny bit bewildering. But with a little research, and maybe some local advice, you can navigate the numbered “sois,” (side streets) and ride the smooth curves of the Chao Phraya River to temples and floating markets. Plus, descend down to a canal system that runs below street level and remains mostly unknown to tourists.
A rambling city with some 14 million in its metro area, most visits to Thailand will begin here in the capital. While some will simply fly on to their final destination, perhaps an island in the Andaman Sea or an escape to the hill country, Bangkok is worth some time, if only to peel back its many layers.
Sukhumvit Road, which serves as a main thoroughfare, is busy all day and most of the night. Travelers often arrive and check in along this six-lane street. It slices through all sides of the city and is lined with high-rise international hotels. A walk here is always chaos for the senses, the scent of grilling satays, mango sticky rice, and pad Thai rising into the air from food carts, the road a cacophony of horns, and the crush of foot traffic constant.
Along stretches, the BTS Skytrain rolls above the street, smooth and air-conditioned, and whisks you all across the city, as elevated walkways provide another plane for shops and restaurants. But it’s well worth exploring down below, going deeper into the neighborhoods tucked away, exploring the sois. This is Bangkok, up close and personal. Sois, the small streets that branch off on either side of Sukhumvit, are simply named with a number, like streets in Manhattan. All have their own distinct personality—some quiet and laid back, others rollicking into the wee hours of the morning.
You’ll find everything from simple, local spots—restaurants with plastic tables and chairs out front, or little shops hanging all of their wares on the street—to high-end luxury, all of it side-by-side, cheek-by-jowl. Around Sukhumvit Soi 19, there’s Terminal 21, one of the area’s huge, vertical shopping malls, with escalators soaring up toward skylights. The air conditioning here is irresistible on a muggy afternoon. The stores and restaurants inside fill up floors themed according to glamorous locations around the globe—Paris, Tokyo, Hollywood.
Down at Soi 11, a favorite for expats, bars and restaurants spill out onto the street, and you’ll find more excellent nightlife around Soi 55. With its series of small cafes, Soi 31 is a destination for coffee lovers. And at Soi 10, Chuvit Garden provides a rare bit of green space amid the urban tangle.
At various points nearby, you can descend into a whole different world. In addition to the sois, the city is crisscrossed by a network of “klongs,” or canals. Here, long boats covered with canopies and filled with wooden benches make a series of scheduled stops along waterways that are often cool and breezy, rare in this super-heated city.
This was once the primary way to get around. King Rama I created the first canal here in the 18th century when he dug a moat for the newly created Rattanakosin Island and the Grand Palace. In the following 100 years, the network was expanded, with waterways covering hundreds of miles. Bangkok was the Venice of the East—until it wasn’t. Transportation shifted to roads soon after this heyday, and now just a fraction of that system is plied by public boats.
After you board a boat and find a place—in the middle of the day it’s not particularly busy—a collector makes his way, bow-to-stern, to collect a small fare from each of the riders. He hangs from the side and walks a thin line along the edge, one hand clinging to the canopy, the other outstretched for a few coins. Commuters ride these boats to work. Shoppers board to get home after a morning at the market, bags in their laps.
The view along the way feels like seeing a secret revealed. It’s like someone has cut open a cross-section of the city and allowed us to peek inside. The boat glides past restaurant patios, hidden lanes, and private homes, the temptation irresistible to peek inside the windows, for just a second, to catch a glimpse of these day-to-day lives.
You can disembark near the Jim Thompson Museum, a shady oasis, the former home of the silk magnate who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1967. Now weavers work at looms in the courtyard and tours take you through a series of traditional Thai-style houses that display, among other things, art collected by Thompson during his travels across Asia.
Along the River
If the canals take you right into the heart of the action, the big, graceful bends of the Chao Praya River give you a little more perspective. Flowing all the way to the Gulf of Thailand, it’s a broad and busy waterway. Working boats roar past boats belonging to some of the five-star hotels that stand along the banks, from the Peninsula to the Shangri-La, shuttling guests to a number of wharves across town.
In a city where you’ll find most of the sweeping views from above, here, you see everything from below, all of Bangkok arrayed around you. Amid the 20th-century towers, there’s the Santa Cruz Cathedral on the west bank, a Portuguese-style church that looks like it was lifted out of Lisbon, as well as Burmese-style temples, and more, built in the Royal Siamese style.
You might alight at Wat Arun, Temple of the Dawn, with its distinctive central spire rising more than 300 feet, just beyond Pier 8. Get close to inspect its intricate designs, some made with porcelain brought as ballast from China. Across the way are the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Or maybe you’ll just stay onboard the boat and roll down the river, a floating market awaiting you further downstream.