This sinking city is buoyed by a populace and a culture that are as diverse as its full name is interminably long.
1. Most accomplished monarch
Although His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej spends much of his time outside of Bangkok, the city is pivotal to his (and his ancestors’) reign. Revered as semi-divine by Thais, he’s been more than just a moral compass for his 60-plus years on the throne. His Majesty was born in Cambridge, educated in Switzerland, he speaks multiple languages, and holds several agricultural patents.
He composes (and plays) some mean jazz, designs sailboats, is an accomplished painter and photographer, was the first recipient of the UN’s Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award and, oh yeah, is the longest reigning monarch on Earth.
2. Statue with the craziest back story
In 1955, renovators dropped a five-ton 13th-century image of the Buddha, cracking its plaster casing. Horror gave way to awe when they realized that, underneath, it was in fact made of gold, covered up to fool the invading Burmese back in the day.
A brand new temple, Wat Traimit, has just been finished to augment the glitz factor.
3. Real cities have long names
Known as Krung Thep to locals, the full name of Bangkok – given by Rama I, first king of the still-reigning Chakri dynasty in the late 1700s – is Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. Try to fit that on your tax return.
4. Most ornate palace
Filled with over 54 acres of spiky temple spires, gold-plated walls, and overly elaborate painting, sculpture and metalwork, the Grand Palace was once the private home of the Thai monarch, but is now Bangkok’s most-visited attraction. Check out the mural of the Ramayana along the inner wall, the longest wall painting in the world.
5. An outrageous variety of street food
Bangkok’s well-deserved reputation for 24-hour street food gets crazier with each corner. Barbecued duck tongues and soup made from bird saliva are passé. Head to Phraeng Phuton a few blocks west of the Giant Swing in Chinatown to indulge in some pig brain soup that’s surprisingly good… if you can forget that it’s pig brain soup.
6. See it while you can
Built on a vast expanse of plains and river deltas at an elevation of about six feet, the entire city is sinking into the muck at the rate of about three inches per year, say scientists. Like Van Gogh or the one from Milli Vanilli who’s not still alive, you’re only going to love us more when we’re gone.
7. See a sunburned British college kid dance in the street with a tipsy African businesswoman while downing a falafel sandwich and a Laotian beer
The (in)famous Khao San Road is still the champion of whacked-out people watching, with every nationality, age, color, occupation, education level, and smell getting equal representation. Take a seat on the curb outside of Buddy’s Bar and get to know the local punk rockers who flock here for after-hours beers.
8. Best little movie poster shop in the east
This tiny closet of a space is home to the densest collection of new and classic movie posters this side of Hollywood. When owner Mr. Santi isn’t here selling to collectors from all over Asia, he’s on the web trolling for lost treasures. Best find: original Thai-language posters for Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, and The Great Escape.
9. Reddest red light district
Pat Pong is watered down and clogged with tourists. Nana Plaza is big, but too crowded. But Soi Cowboy (BTS Asok; MRT Sukhumvit) is big enough to have fun and small enough that you won’t lose any friends. Its neon glow can be seen for miles around, and a quick drink with the boys here can turn into a night that few remember but no one will forget.
10. Hang out with Thai-Chinese octogenarians as they argue, gamble, smoke, play mahjong, smoke, drink coffee, spit, and smoke
Iae Sae coffee shop on Chinatown’s Padsai Road has been straining java for 60 years. The coffee’s actually nothing special, but the lively, loud clientele will entertain for hours. Raise a glass to the gaffer at the next table and he might regale you with wild tales of a time when the area was accessed by dirt paths and tram lines.
11. Best all-night food counter
Took Lae Dee (cheap and good) at the 24-hour Foodland grocery store on Sukhumvit soi 5 is great for breakfast, lunch, or a hair-of-the-dog nightcap at 4:00 am. Its krapow gai (fried chicken and basil) is unforgettable, as is the motley crew that will be sharing the counter with you.
12. The market to end all markets
You’re not a serious shopper until you can spend a day at Chatuchak Weekend Market without screaming for help. It’s a 35-acre maze of aisles and alleys that offers solid wood furniture, pets from around the globe, original art, old comic books, antiques, plants, and clothes from every decade since the Great Depression.
13. Watch the sun set above the little people
Sirocco sits on the roof of Silom Road’s 64-story State Tower, giving diners a near-360-degree view of the entire city. If the US$10 chocolate martinis from the bar that pulses with pastel lights aren’t enough, get a bottle of the Chateau Petrus 1990, Pomerol AOC Bordeaux, a steal at US$3,600. Those with vertigo are advised to stay away from the edge – a four-foot glass wall is the only thing separating you from an exciting BASE jump.
14. A pretty girl can sell anything
From Burger King promotions and temple fairs to 7-Eleven giveaways, the ubiquitous “pretty girl” and her flashy, colorful outfit are there to make sure you pay attention to whatever it is that’s being hawked. If you… hey! Are you paying attention? I’m pretty!
15. Intermittently hilarious business names
Japan has the market locked on Engrish, but Thailand takes the “Thinglish” ball and runs with it. From “Hair Saloons” to “Englash Programs” to names we can’t reprint on a family website, a wary eye will often reward you with comedy gold.
16. Steak that will break the bank
Anyone can cook a slab of beef, but few in Asia can cook it as skillfully as the JW Marriott’s New York Steakhouse. It ain’t cheap, but after a meal here, the next time you slum it at McDonald’s your stomach will churn and gurgle in protest.
17. Most ironic monument to consumerism
Why anyone would go to Bangkok and buy a genuine Gucci shirt that’s just as – if not more – expensive as it is back home is beyond us, but who are we to judge? The local “hi-sos” certainly enjoy their luxury brands. The lower levels of Paragon shopping mall (BTS: Siam) are packed with restaurants and teenyboppers, but the other four floors are chock with high-end merchandise, from Lamborghinis to McIntosh stereos.
18. Eager (too eager?) bathroom attendants
Men using the urinals at many bars and clubs might be startled when a strong pair of hands grabs theirs shoulders. Don’t whip around with your zipper down ready for a fight – it’s just the bathroom attendant, who will put a hot towel on your neck and give you a quick shoulder rub – for a small tip. If you find this creepy, like many do, just say “no thanks.”
19. Best Middle Eastern food outside the Middle East
Bangkok is a huge melting pot of undiluted cultures, and with culture comes cultural food. Sukhumvit soi 3/1 (BTS: Nana) is lined with Middle Eastern restaurants that won’t disappoint.
Burqa-clad women and Nigerian fashionistas mingle amid hawkers of laser lights and imported Arabian perfume. The steering-wheel-sized bread baked fresh in wood ovens is perfect for scooping up freshly prepared hummus and tahini.
20. Cutest attempts to suppress teen hormones
Mill around any known teen hangout on Valentine’s Day, and you’ll likely see a lot more police than usual. The boys in brown are out in force on February 14th – usually with press in tow – to deter any amorous youths from doing anything more than holding hands. Because, obviously, the first place teenagers go to make out is a bench at the shopping mall.
21. Eat among forgotten 20th-century curios
A night at Tuba, on Soi Ekkamai, is like partying in Grandma’s attic. Ancient glasswork, 1950s pop culture iconography, and oddly-shaped furniture give each dark and musty corner its own unique dose of kitsch. Best part? Every bit of it is for sale.
22. Adrenaline-fueled affordable mass transit
It’s not perfect, but for what Bangkok’s mass transit system offers, the prices can’t be beat: US$0.25 canal taxis, US$0.50 river taxis and buses, US$1 taxicab flag fall, and US$1.25 end-to-end skytrain and subway rides. Throw in the haggle-happy tuk-tuks and motorbike taxis and the permutations are complex enough to make those “Amazing Race” amateurs throw in the towel.
Privately-owned green minibuses are the bulls in Bangkok’s china shop. Often seen flying around corners with the ticket attendant hanging out of the door with one hand, bored out of his mind, they don’t offer the safest trip from A to B via S, but it’s certainly not the dullest.
23. Party like it’s 1989
The house band at Rock Pub, next to the Rachathewi BTS station, belts out classics from Guns N’ Roses, Warrant, Ozzy, and Iron Maiden at astonishing volumes. Put on your leathers and aviator shades and walk in with your fist held high.
24. Best place to see cutting-edge trends that you don’t get
On weekends, the maze of shopping aisles at Siam Square (BTS: Siam) is crowded with teenagers wearing the latest and greatest Bangkok fashions. In vogue this week: outrageously impractical high heels; eyeglasses with no lenses and teased hair that recalls the glory days of Joan Jett. Begin shaking fist at darn kids in 3, 2, 1…
25. Swinging-est politician
They don’t come much livelier than Chuwit Kamolvisit, the massage parlor tycoon-cum-politician. After an alleged kidnapping following his threats to release the names of the people he’s given “gifts” to, he unsuccessfully ran for governor of Bangkok – twice – and had most of the city’s power elite sweating when he said he had hours of security camera footage from his various after-hours establishments. His in-your-face campaign billboards are sadly no more.
26. It’s easy to give back
There are plenty of worthy charities in Thailand, and most are based or have offices in Bangkok. The language barrier and various levels of mismanagement often make it difficult to find something, but a local blogger named Dwight Turner has put a lot of work into separating the wheat from the chaff.
27. Eat without touching your food
If you’re feeling lazy – really lazy – the helpful girls at the aptly named “No Hand Restaurant” (there are several around the city) will help you out by actually putting food in your mouth for you, leaving your hands free for other more worthy pursuits, such as drinking beer or playing PSP.
28. Great food where you least expect it
Pantip Plaza, the dingy Roman-columned monument to all things tech, has a surprisingly awesome food court on the 3rd floor. Try the khao soi gai (chicken and egg noodles in a tangy coconut curry), dished up by possibly the surliest old lady since “The Goonies.”
29. World-class acrobatic mash-ups
If you’ve never seen a guy spike a wicker ball over a net with his foot – while upside down – you’ve never seen Takraw. Benjasiri Park (BTS: Phrom Phong) in the late afternoon is the best place to catch some crazy moves. Imagine Jackie Chan playing volleyball with his hands tied behind his back.
30. Pizza toppings most likely to give an Italian heartburn
Thailand sure knows how to shake things up pizza-wise. Normally eaten with ketchup, popular ingredients include squid, octopus, corn, green curry, mayonnaise, broccoli, and salad dressing. Great for the adventurous epicure, but if you prefer a more traditional pie, check out Ronnie’s New York Pizza on Sukhumvit soi 4. Order something custom to ensure they cook it fresh and your taste buds will be dancing.
31. The coolest night market
Forget Pat Pong and Suan Lum, with their shopkeeps numbed by the clumsy haggling of sweaty tourists. Head to Rachadaphisek Market at the Lad Phrao MRT station for a real Thai shopping excursion. Ancient typewriters, refurbished Vespa bikes, hipster clothing, and funky apartment decorations shine brightly under the bare light bulbs strung from overhead wires.
32. World’s heppest musical grandma
Doreme music shop at the back corner of Siam Square soi 11 is run by a musical-minded lady who can chat about everyone from Billie Holliday to the Clash to Green Day. Her little store is stocked with an incredibly disparate variety of western and international music, and she can help you find just the thing to spice up your library.
33. Rally an army for a few bucks
Bangkok’s trusty motorbike taxis – recognizable by their orange vests – are the under-utilized chore champs of Asia. Need a package delivered? Bill paid? Envelope dropped off? Friend picked up? Someone to lead you to your destination while you follow behind in your taxi as lost as you’ve ever been? They’re willing to help with pretty much any task you have, after a bit of haggling, of course. Best part – no waiting in traffic.
34. The disappearing school uniform
Every year around September, the same stories turn up in the press about the incredible shrinking university uniform favored by female Thai students. Dresses get shorter, blouses get tighter, conservatives get louder and the rest of us sit back and watch the brouhaha. Although, when you see students climbing stairs sideways because going straight up would mean a flashing, you have to wonder if the powers that be have a point.
35. Affordable luxuries
Maids, manicures, massages, tailors, and personal drivers can all be enlisted for a fraction of what you’d pay in any western country. Expats be warned: friends back home don’t want to hear you grouse about how you’ve forgotten how to do your own laundry or drive a stick shift.
36. Most indulgent movie theaters
Any recently-built cinema in Bangkok offers some type of Gold Class seating. For the price of a regular ol’ ticket in the west, you get a plush recliner, a pillow and blanket, and even a welcome drink. The Paragon shopping mall’s Major Cineplex venue is newer, but the EGV Grand in Siam Discovery Center has comfier chairs.
37. Escape the city without actually escaping the city
Phrapadaeng, also known as “Bangkok’s Lung,” sits amid an oxbow bend in the mighty Chao Phraya River. A bylaw stating that no building can be higher than three stories ensures that, infrastructure-wise, the place remains suspended in the 1950s. Cement pathways and densely-treed mangrove swamps cover the whole area, which is popular with bicyclists. It’s actually rather eerie to be surrounded by quiet, lush jungle, yet still be able to see skyscrapers and city lights.
38. You want fresh food? We got fresh food
The sprawling Klong Toey market is a stunning mishmash of smells, sights, sounds, and people. Runners scurry back and forth with raw food ingredients, many of which just came from the farm/sea/ranch that morning, and hawkers of all sizes yell at each other, as well as potential customers. It’s also home to the Mercy Centre, long-time resident Father Joe’s shelter/orphanage/hospice/school for the poor.
39. The most innovative way to pump iron
The outdoor gym at Lumpini Park (MRT: Lumpini) is full of ancient, rusting, laughably outdated gear, which apparently doesn’t bother the hugely-muscled dudes sweating buckets in the mid-day heat. To your muscles, 50 pounds is 50 pounds. Try your hand at the bench-press station with tractor tires on the bar instead of weights.
40. No walking allowed at 8:00 am or 6:00 pm
Many an unwitting tourist has been caught outside at the aforementioned hours and experienced a slight Twilight Zone twitch when everyone else around them simply stops moving. Have no fear, they’re just paying respect to the national anthem, which is played twice per day. Continuing to move isn’t illegal – but you’ll get the frowning of a lifetime from the people around you.
41. Best crab curry in all of Asia
At Somboon Seafood on Surawong Road, you’ll find a plate of their famous crab curry on every table in the joint. Surrounded by a thick, sweet sauce, the juicy chunks of crab ensure there’s hardly anything for the waitress to clean up. According to legend, one fan from Singapore actually jets up to Bangkok just to get his monthly fix.
42. We worship football – literally
On Rama III soi 30 there’s a temple called Wat Pariwat, whose abbot was such a fan of football that he agreed to the placement of a David Beckham statue alongside the usual divine effigies during the 1998 World Cup. No word on any plans to add Posh to the altar.
43. World’s Creepiest Museum
Think you’ve seen it all? Bangkok’s Forensics Museum at Siriraj Hospital is filled with the freaky, grisly stuff you hear about, but rarely see. Some of the highlights: a scrotum with a diameter of 30 inches taken from a victim of elephantitis; the wax-filled body of infamous Thai child-eater Si Quey; and various victims of gunfire, road accidents, and industrial mishaps. It’s kind of like the anti-Disneyland.
44. Double-take t-shirts
From brilliant non-PC slogans and cuss-heavy diatribes to rhymes that don’t make sense, the young and trendy sport a variety of shirts for every taste. Many of them are juvenile and silly, but once in a while you’ll find one that borders on brilliant(ly out of place).
45. Hippest monks
Many people think that monks spend all day sitting on the ground praying, but in Thailand they’re significantly cooler than that. While always remaining true to their spiritual calling, the perpetually saffron-robed holy men can be seen at various spots around the city riding the subway, chatting on iPhones or updating blogs in internet cafes.
46. The police are actually Boy Scouts
“Be prepared” is a motto many of us know, and the Bangkok police live it every day. An example: because of the city’s legendarily bad traffic, being stuck in a car while, oh, say, giving birth, can really put a damper on things. That’s why many of the police are equipped with special clippers that they can use to cut an umbilical cord. Back-seat births happen more often than you’d think.
47. The world’s most beautiful pain
Traditional Thai massage is renowned the world over and for good reason: it’s painful, but you’ll never sleep sounder once you get back to your room, and you’ll be bounding with energy the next day. The well-known HealthLand Spa offers many types of massage from quick finger rubs to two-hour full body oil marathons that will leave your muscles wondering what just happened.
It may not be Jurassic Park, but Bangkok’s version of Central Park – Lumpini – has reptiles big enough to give you a fright if you’re not expecting to see one. The Varanus salvator (water monitor), which can grow up to nine feet in length, usually just ambles along the mud and grass around the water, but sometimes scrambles across a pathway to another pond. Don’t worry, most of them are only about three feet long. Most of them…
Sexual orientation in Bangkok is often a rather… elastic classification. “Oh, they turned gay” is often heard when talking about an ex. But the amazing thing is, no one cares. Many Thai celebrities are openly gay, bisexual, or even full-on transvestites. Gay, straight, transgendered, stuck in the closet, or flamboyantly out of it, most Thais consider one’s sexuality a personal decision and leave it at that.
50. Color-coding of… everything
In Bangkok, colors help define and separate everything from ideas and zones to political movements. In fact, each day is assigned its own color; you’ll likely see a lot more blue shirts on a Friday, pink on Tuesday, yellow on Monday, and so on. It’s even spilled over into politics, with the disparate factions turning up to mass rallies in “their” color. After the recent political turmoil in the capital, a popular joke suggested changing the traditional Thai greeting from “Have you eaten yet?” to “What color are you?”