What to see, where to stay and what to eat in Bangkok, Thailand

My first night in Bangkok, I felt a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio’s backpacker character, Richard, in the hit thriller The Beach.

As non-stop neon lights glared and English karaoke hits blared; tuk-tuks and taxis zipped and zoomed and tourists crowded the sidewalks down below, clamouring for deep-fried pork skins, chicken and even banana, I sat cross-legged on the bed in my hotel room, memorizing the details of my trip’s itinerary.

Most first-time travellers to Thailand head south after landing in Bangkok and start in the Phi Phi Islands, hitting up DiCaprio’s fictional hideaway inspired by the real-life Maya Bay, before ferrying over to Phuket, the country’s largest island covered in rainforest canopies and surrounded by warm waters so blue they look fake.

But I was heading west for Kachanaburi, the first town of several I’d be seeing in a span of eight days with G Adventures, as part of the tour operator’s National Geographic Journeys collection.

From trains to planes, rivers to waterfalls and serene Buddhist temples to bustling street markets, after starting out in the capital city of Bangkok, the itinerary encompassed visits to some of Thailand’s most popular cities, like Chiang Mai in the north, as well as lesser-known parts, like the ancient city of Ayutthaya, the former capital of the Kingdom of Siam and home to the UNESCO-designated Ayutthaya Historical Park.

As a National Geographic Journey tour, accommodations included four and five-star luxury properties and transportation (with luggage handling) via a private, air-conditioned vehicle.

From Bangkok to Chiang Mai and back, here are some of the best things to see, do and eat—as well as the best places to stay—on your next trip to Thailand.

STAY

SIRIPANNA VILLA RESORT & SPA

A five-star hotel located in Chiang Mai, rates range between $67 a night for a deluxe room to $160 for the royal villa. The outdoor pool, designed to mimic the ancient Mae Ping river in the centre of the lost city of Wiang Kum Kam, is the star of the resort, framed by fragrant frangipani trees. The newly-opened Divana Spa is another highlight, with a series of signature Thai massages and treatments, including discounted morning specials for early risers.

SHANGHAI MANSION

Tucked away in Bangkok’s Chinatown neighbourhood, Shanghai Mansion is a four-star, luxury boutique property that’s located close to the famous Khao San Road, and steps from the new MRT station, Wat Mangkon.

The colourful rooms are decked out in nostalgic Chinese decor—think paper lanterns and silk throw pillows—while the lively lobby expands to the hotel’s Red Rose Restaurant, which spotlights some of the city’s best Chinese plates—including a cannabis-focused menu—and stunning cocktails in an open-air setting.

ROYAL RIVER KWAI RESORT

Set along the banks of the River Kwai, Royal River Kwai Resort is framed by a series of beautiful gardens and stone statues depicting Thai relics. Go for a quiet morning swim at the resort’s spacious pool, or head to the Rantee spa for a hot stone massage.

The hotel’s restaurant, also located on the river’s edge, is the perfect spot to catch a stunning sunset during dinner, or wind down with a glass of wine.

EAT

The signature dish of Chiang Mai, Khao Soi is a must for anyone visiting this part of Thailand—in fact, it can be quite tricky to find it once you leave the city. Khao soi is a coconut curry soup made with fresh egg noodles and garnished with freshly-chopped shallots, green onion, pickled Chinese cabbage, crispy fried noodles and sometimes, an egg. 

Rice accompanies many dishes in Thailand as a side, but it’s also enjoyed as a dessert, too. Mango sticky rice is made with cooked rice that’s then drizzled with a cooked coconut cream and served with sweet, ripe mango. It can also be enjoyed for breakfast or as a snack.

Thailand is home to red, yellow and green curries, each with a completely different flavour profile. While yellow is typically the mildest and red is considered medium-heat, those looking for something spicy should order the Thai green curry—but you’ve been warned! Served with warm roti bread or rice, the green curry is made with a coconut milk base, bitter-tasting baby eggplants, lime leaves and cilantro and topped with either chicken or shrimp. 

DO

ERAWAN WATERFALLS

Located in Erawan National Park in Kanchanaburi, just north of Bangkok, Erawan Falls is a cascading, seven-tiered waterfall that gets its name from the three-headed mythical Hindu elephant bearing the same name.

The hike to the seventh tier takes a couple of hours, but level two of the falls is a gorgeous spot to take a dip—and enjoy a free fish spa treatment.

The falls are home to hundreds of red garra fish, sometimes called “doctor fish”, as they’re known to nibble the surface layer of your skin—it doesn’t hurt, but if you’re ticklish, just keep treading!

TAKE TIME FOR TEMPLES

Thailand is home to more than 40,000 temples, ranging from ancient ruins to modern works of art. In Ayutthaya, you’ll find one of the region’s oldest and most significant temples, Wat Maha That, a former royal temple opened in 1374.

In Bangkok, travellers can visit Wat Traimit, also known as the Temple of the Golden Buddha.

Wat Pho is a temple complex where you’ll find the Reclining Buddha, a massive statue measuring 46 metres in length and 15 metres tall, covered in dazzling gold foil and mother-of-pearl. In Thailand, it’s customary to remove your shoes before entering a temple.

BARGAIN IN BANGKOK

For those looking for a deal on souvenirs, Thailand’s night markets—aptly named because they typically open at 6 p.m. or later and run into the wee hours of the morning—are the perfect place to spend your remaining Thai baht.

Like any good street market, you can bargain with the vendors (to a degree). From incense sticks to Muay Thai boxing shorts, to handmade pottery and jade jewellery, you’ll find it here. The Anusarn Market in Chiang Mai is one such market that also doubles as a food hall where you can delve into Thai favourites, or try something new, like fried scorpion.


This story first appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of OFFSHORE. To subscribe to the print magazine, click here.

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