Pulsing with energy and stylish design, Bangkok, Thailand, is ready for the future.
What isn’t happening in Bangkok this year? A serious hotel boom, along with the arrival of innovative restaurants, one-of-a-kind boutiques, and edgy art galleries, has transformed the city into one of Asia’s most exciting metropolises. Take Silom, a downtown business district, now home to Bangkok’s most buzzed-about new hotel, Sofitel So. Or the historic Rattanakosin neighborhood, filled with just-opened colonial-chic inns. Upscale Thonglor is still the playground of choice for movers and shakers, but foodies are making the pilgrimage to the up-and-coming Ari borough, where the culinary scene is coming into its own.
Related: Thailand Travel Guide
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What to know before your trip.
Getting There: Most major American airlines fly to Bangkok via Tokyo. Thai Airways International has direct flights from Los Angeles.
When to Go: The best time is from December to January, when the weather is relatively cool and dry. Avoid September and October—the height of the rainy season.
Getting Around: Bangkok can seem daunting at first. The traffic is endless, and few neighborhoods are pedestrian-friendly. Luckily, much of what you’ll want to see is accessible via the SkyTrain and subway systems.
Cabs are plentiful and can be hailed on the street; just make sure to take your hotel’s card with the address on it in case you get lost. Although they’re fun once in a while, the motorized rickshaws, known as tuk-tuks, usually aren’t worth the hassle.
If you’re sightseeing along the Chao Phraya River, take the ferry (6 a.m.–7 p.m. daily) from the Saphan Taksin SkyTrain stop. Water taxis also ply Bangkok’s canals. One caveat: tolerance for unpleasant smells is required.
Six enticing hotels, for every type of traveler.
Hotel Muse: Crystal chandeliers and black-and-white marble floors evoke a fin de siècle French château at this chic property in the leafy Langsuan neighborhood. At night, head to the hotel’s Medici Kitchen & Bar, one of the city’s hottest tables. Best For: Scenesters looking for stylish affordability. 55/555 Langsuan Rd.; hotelmusebangkok.com. $
Mandarin Oriental: This grande dame on the Chao Phraya River just got a face-lift. Tech amenities such as iPod docking stations and flat-screen TV’s were added, along with such delicate touches as hand-tufted rugs and teak writing desks. Best For: Traditionalists and sophisticates. $$$
The Peninsula: The W-shaped design of this landmark tower ensures uninterrupted vistas of the river and city skyline beyond. Its rooms—some of the largest in Bangkok—are accented with Thai silk fabrics and plush carpets. Best For: Those who covet space and knockout views. $$$
The Siam: Thai rock star and actor Krissada Sukosol Clapp can now add hotelier to his résumé. His 39-suite property is like a living museum, filled with 19th-century maps of Siam and Asian curios from his extensive art collection. Best For: In-the-know globe-trotters on the hunt for gems. 3/2 Khao Rd.; thesiamhotel.com. $$
Sofitel So: High design meets cutting-edge technology at the Asian debut of Sofitel’s contemporary brand, So. A colorful mobile of fantastical animals created by fashion designer Christian Lacroix dominates the slate-colored lobby. The rooms are themed around the Chinese elements and decorated by local designers. Best For: Business travelers with an interest in pioneering design. 2 N. Sathorn Rd.; sofitel.com. $
The Sukhothai: Looking for a hidden sanctuary in the heart of Bangkok? This is it. Housed on six acres of lush gardens, the renovated property is done up in an earth-toned palette with chenille canvas wall fabrics. Best For: Privacy seekers who still like to be close to the action. $$$
See + Do
A five-part tour of the city’s emerging contemporary art scene.
Start at V64 Art Studio (143/19 Soi 1, Chengwattana Rd.), a warehouse-like space with 35 working studios featuring more than 70 Thai designers.
Next, head to Gallery Ver (200/1 Ko Dang), run by the country’s best-known artist, Rirkrit Tiravanija, who showcases experimental works by rising talents.
Downtown, the Jim Thompson Art Center (6 Soi Kasemsan 2) stages rotating modern art and textile exhibitions.
Need a City Break?
Take a guided bike tour of Bangkok’s lush Bang Krachao peninsula with ABC Amazing Bangkok Cyclist (tours from $32).
Spot wild elephants on a hike through Khao Yai National Park, a three-hour train ride from downtown.
Don’t miss a Thai massage at Chi, the Spa at Shangri-La (89 Soi Wat Suan Plu New Rd.; massages from $77).
Our picks of Bangkok’s best tables and stands.
Issaya Siamese Club: In a green-walled 1920’s villa on the edge of the Sathorn district, native son Ian Kittichai continues to expand his culinary empire. Updated Thai classics are the standard, and the fiery lamb massaman curry is some of the finest you’ll find anywhere. 4 Soi Sri Aksorn, Chua Ploeng Rd. $$
Ruea Thong: Don’t be put off by the no-frills shopfront—behind the door you’ll find a neighborhood spot in Thonglor that specializes in mouthwatering Thai comfort food. Order the staples: yum khai dao (fried-egg salad) and gaeng som cha-om tod (sour curry with acacia-leaf omelette). 351/2 Soi 55, Sukhumvit Rd.; 66-2/185-2610. $
Water Library: At this eight-month-old eatery, Singapore-born chef Haikal Johari executes a 12-course menu for 10 at a long wooden counter. Expect seriously ambitious fusion plates such as sous vide Dover sole with a miso sabayon. The Grass, Thonglor Soi 12, Sukhumvit Rd. $$$$
Street Food 101
For pad thai and egg-noodle soup with crabmeat and roast pork, head to Sukhumvit Road’s Soi 38 (8 p.m.–3 a.m.).
Locals love Or To Kor Market (Kamphaeng Phet Rd.; 8 a.m.–6 p.m.) to eat spicy sausages and classic curries.
Look for more Chinese-Thai specialties, including rice dumplings, in Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown.
Where to find fashionable designs, funky housewares, vintage accessories, and more.
On the ground floor of the Four Seasons Hotel, British designer Alexander Lamont’s namesake boutique is an Aladdin’s cave of Asian home accessories and furnishings created in his Bangkok studio. We love the packable treasures such as bronze bud vases and lacquered teacups. 155 Rajadamri Rd.
Minimalist Code 10 is a one-stop shop for style-setters. On the racks: Thai custom labels, including Nagara and T-Ra, and collections by up-and-coming local designers such as Vatit Itthi and Pravit Sawadviphachai. Look for leather and python handbags by Tu’I. Siam Paragon, first floor, 991 Rama I Rd.; 66-2/610-8312.
The just-launched, slick-but-casual men’s line Project 1.1 by Greyhound specializes in razor-sharp cotton suits, 1980’s-style skinny ties, stovepipe trousers, and tailored Bermudas. Siam Paragon, second floor, 991 Rama I Rd., 66-2/610-8312.
If you’re looking for one-of-a-kind, retro gifts, spend an evening at Talad Rot Fai market, filled with 1970’s Thai rock records, old-school cameras, and occasional finds like an original Hans Wegner chair from the 1950’s. Kamphaeng Phet Rd.; open weekends, 6 p.m. to midnight.
At the light-filled Urban Tree Organics, owners Adisak Kaewrakmuk and Jirasuda Areepunth stock beauty products made with indigenous ingredients—the coconut and Kaffir-lime shampoos and honey-scented body wash are your best bets. 934 Samsen Rd.
Bangkok Do’s and Don’ts
Do take your shoes off at Buddhist temples and traditional private houses.
Don’t touch anyone’s head. It is considered the most sacred part of the body. Apologize immediately if you do it accidentally.
Do use the wai, the prayer-life gesture and traditional Thai greeting (hands together with the tips of the fingers just below the chin). The higher the wai, the more respectful.
Don’t wear revealing clothing at religious sites. That means covered shoulders and no bare legs.
Three insiders share their favorite places in the city.
Krissada Sukosol Clapp
Rock star, actor, and owner of the Siam
I live on the edge of Rattanakosin Island, Bangkok’s historic center. My go-to spot for a laid-back lunch is Nai Soey Beef Noodles (100/2-3 Phra Athit Rd.; 66/86-982-9042; $). For dinner, I love Raan Jay Fai (327 Mahachai Rd.; 66-2/223-9384; $$)—it might be the most expensive open-air seafood restaurant in the city, but the crab omelette alone is worth the splurge. There’s not a lot of green in Bangkok, so I’m lucky to live across from Rommaneenart Park. I spend my Sunday afternoons wandering the paths.
Director at WTF Bar-Gallery
My neighborhood of Thonglor has wonderful indie venues. VTG at Palio (Soi 10, Ekkamai Rd.; 66/83-906-0767) sells a well-curated selection of vintage clothes. At RMA Institute (off Soi 22, Sukhumvit Rd.; 66-2/663-0809) you’ll find interesting exhibitions showcasing a range of art, from pen-and-ink illustrations to ceramic sculptures. For a late-night bite, there’s the 24-hour café at the Rex Hotel (762/1 Sukhumvit Rd.; 66-2/259-0106). The décor is very retro and quirky, but the real draw is the authentic Thai-Chinese dishes.
Designer of Asava women’s wear line
When I first moved to Sukhumvit 49 in the early 1970’s, it was a quiet residential area. Now the neighborhood is filled with great restaurants. Little Home Bakery (413/10-12 Soi 55, Sukhumvit Rd.; 66-2/185-1485) is my standby for breakfast and has fantastic waffles. A cup of tea in the garden at nearby Agalico (20 Soi 51, Sukhumvit Rd.; 66-2/662-5857, ext. 11) is a must. I’m half Japanese, so I can tell you that Maru (95/5-6 Soi 3, Soi 55, Sukhumvit Rd.; 66-2/712-5001; $$$$) serves some of the freshest sashimi in Bangkok.
Bangkok’s Best Guides
Plugged-in former Cartier executive Carmen Gómez Menor creates bespoke shopping itineraries and will introduce you to local designers and artists.
With her encyclopedic culinary knowledge, Olive Tippapapat of Bangkok Food Tours hunts down authentic regional eats for you.
Explore the city’s historic Buddhist temples and markets by bike with native Anucha Seenuan.
The Peninsula Bangkok
370 rooms appointed with teak floors, silk-covered furniture, marble bathrooms, and high-tech control panels, set within a 37-story tower that overlooks the Chao Phraya River. The hotel's spa was revamped in 2007 to an impressive 21,000 square foot space.
Mandarin Oriental Bangkok
It would be a shame for any visitor to come to Bangkok and miss the splendor of the Mandarin Oriental. For more than 135 years, this Travel + Leisure favorite hotel has been at the center of Bangkok life. The 339 rooms and 35 suites are spacious and elegant and enhanced by lush surroundings and serene riverside locale. The Authors’ Suites pay tribute to the long list of literary greats who have been long-time clients of Bangkok’s Grand Dame.