10 of the best things to do in Bangkok
There’s more to the Thai capital than eating plates of Phad Thai and haggling for cheap clothes on the Khao San Road. Bangkok resident Oliver Holmes finds some great alternative activities
An ideal final night: Issaya Siamese Club, Bangkok – one of the best places to blow the last of your holiday money. Photograph: Zuphachai Laokunrak/Issaya
Cycling and craft beer
Ko Kret is on the edge of the capital but it’s the sleepy, friendly Thailand that you’ve been looking for. This tiny river island north of the Old City can be reached by boat. Once you get to the pier, head off on one of the dozens of rickety rental bicycles – after checking the tyres. There is a clearly marked route that circles the island, passing through a busy food market and banana plantations. Once you finish cycling, grab a table overlooking the river at Chit Beer, the best and cheapest home brewery I’ve found. Take a green Chao Phraya express boat to Pak Kret pier.
Bangkok’s Big Easy bar
Smalls – a rundown corner townhouse with low red lighting and cracked brick walls – is my favourite Bangkok bar. There’s minimal pretence and a cosy vibe. Head up to the New Orleans-themed third floor for outdoor seating. I wouldn’t recommend the food, but never mind that – there’s a varied selection of absinthe and hard liquor behind the candlelit bar.
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When visiting a friend in Bangkok, you’ll likely be in the modern part of town far to the east of the Old City temples. Although it’s less kind on the eyes, some of the city’s most tempting street food stalls can be found here (even if the local authorities are bizarrely trying to squash them). With your mouth burning from Thai-level spiciness at dinner, get some cooling mango with sticky rice and sweet coconut sauce. My go-to place is Maewaree. I often skip dessert when taking out guests so we can head there later. It’s by the corner of Thong Lor and Sukhumvit. You can’t miss it for the giant piles of mangoes outside.
Seats at a Thai boxing match are a big draw for visitors but it can be a shocking experience as minors are often fighting. With elbow smacks and high kicks allowed, it’s not uncommon to see a competitor leave the ring on a stretcher. Taking part in a Muay Thai training class is a much better way to experience the sport. Chacrit school on Sukhumvit Soi 39 is an earthy, no-frills outdoor gym and you can drop in anytime. The guys will have you jumping ropes and practising punches on bags but every lesson includes a five-round spar in the ring – trainers cover themselves in protective padding while you are free to take it all out on them.
800 baht (€21) for a one-hour lesson, chacritmuaythaischool.com
The mall that isn’t a mall
If you’re going to embrace Bangkok’s mall culture, do it at The Commons, an outdoor-indoor four-storey complex. The ground floor is a market-style food hall representing some of Bangkok’s best restaurants, including Peppina for pizza lovers and Soul Food for a twist on Thai cuisine. There is a wine store, too, that serves by the glass. Order from anywhere in the food hall and it will be delivered to your table. Sit outside under giant propellor fans that whisk the air around. Live music on weekends.
Soi 17, Thong Lor
Not-so-secret park walk
There’s a secret walking route that parallels the capital’s main east-west road, Sukhumvit. Well, it’s not so secret but is quiet and a great way of avoiding trudging alongside traffic. The path starts at Benjakitti park lake and follows a canal, cutting through wooden homes that sit in the shadows of the huge buildings along Sukhumvit. You’ll pass a tobacco factory, a mosque and stilt houses. The walkway ends in Lumpini park, which is home to huge water monitor lizards. The easiest way to find it is at the north-west corner of Benjakiti park. You’ll see a bike lane. Follow it round.
Acoustic karaoke bar
The tiny Waon Piano & Scotch is the most charming end-of-night spot in Bangkok. It’s owner, Akirosan, spent his career playing in hotel bars across Japan before moving to Thailand to realise his dream – the acoustic karaoke bar. Akirosan sits at a shiny grand piano smoking cigarettes and playing 60s and 70s soul. He has thick, dog-eared books of songs with English lyrics so you can sing Beatles into a microphone, all while suited Japanese salarymen sip on their whiskies. And acoustic karaoke has another advantage – Akirosan will forgivingly slow the tempo when you lose the tune. The place is a bit hard to find – walk down Soi 26 from Sukhumvit and take the alley to the right after the Arize hotel. Then look for the piano.
Wakeboarding on the edge of town
If you’re in Bangkok during its hottest months (March-June), take a taxi to the outskirts for some refreshing watersports. There are three wakeboarding venues around Bangkok but Taco lake is particularly relaxed and welcoming. It’s surrounded by trees, birds, and a community of friendly Thai wakeboarders who will help you get up. If you get tired and hungry, the basil prawns with steamed rice is delicious. Food goes nicely with an iced Singha beer to drink while watching the pros flip off ramps.
Day pass, 400 baht (€11), tacolake.com
Our daily bread
In a world where rice is king (“steamed rice” in Thai is translated as “beautiful rice”), I miss bread. Well, I miss great bread. The fluffy, salty type with a crunchy crust. I get my fix at Holey. Opening at 7am on Sukhumvit Soi 31, this place crafts loaves and pastries with unbleached flour and house-made sourdough. Head in to pick up croissants and baguettes or – where Holey really shines – grab a sandwich. Ham, brie and red onion chutney and roasted chicken with Spanish smoked paprika are wise choices.
Baguette from 100 baht (€270), holeybread.com
Where to go on your last night?
I have a mental list of “last-night restaurants” for guests to splurge the remainder of their holiday money in style before they leave. Issaya Siamese Club, an old wooden Thai house-turned-restaurant, is the one that’s garnered the most pats on the back. The garden and outdoor terrace are relaxing retreats while the multicoloured sofas and walls inside will wake up anyone still suffering jet lag. The former TV celebrity chef Ian Kittichai has designed a menu that isn’t strictly Thai but uses all the country’s best ingredients to create his own dishes. Soft shell crab with a salty egg sauce (€13) is a must, as is the sweet aubergine dish. The set menu is just over €40 but I prefer to pick and choose as the menu is a pleasure to read through. Remember to get dishes to share. Ask for advice from the waiting staff.