An Insider's Travel Guide
At Butterfield & Robinson, we pride ourselves on scouting out the best places in the world to walk, bike and immerse ourselves in local culture, no matter how far flung. Along the way, our journey often takes us through some of the world’s most famous and culturally rich cities. Never ones to squander an opportunity, we’ve asked our seasoned (and extremely well-travelled) trip designers to apply their expert eyes to some of the world’s best playgrounds. Below, trip designer and Slow Road columnist Tyler Dillon provides a B&R-inspired guide to Bangkok.
Bangkok Sights: What to See + Do
Bangkok is huge, and it has one major problem: traffic. Plan your excursions to avoid rush hour, and the mid-afternoon heat.
Grand Palace Complex
No visit to Bangkok is complete without touring the walled complex, pictured above. The city began here, on Rattanakosin Island and the palace includes several temples, pavilions and museums. Count on large crowds and aim to visit early in the morning. There is a dress code: no shorts, no sleeveless tops and no sandals. You absolutely need to see the nearby Wat Po (“wat” means temple), where a gigantic gold-plated reclining Buddha is housed. Interestingly, Wat Po is the main centre where Thai and Westerners come to learn Thai massage techniques; the course takes a full week.
Jim Thompson House
Yes, there is shopping and yes it’s a store. In fact, it’s a combination museum, art gallery and store. But Thailand means silk, and Mr. Thompson has been recognized as the architect who revived the country’s silk industry. The Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons and some of the best Thai designers get their silk from the Thompson House.
Also called the Castle in the Clouds, the palace was built in 1900 following King Rama V’s trip to Europe and is the largest teak building in the world, featuring three stories and more than 80 rooms. Located behind the National Assembly and formerly a royal palace, today it commemorates Rama V and houses an impressive collection of paintings, objets d’art and royal jewelry. Keep in mind it closes at 3:30 p.m.
The perfect day
The trick to enjoying the sights in Bangkok? Do it in early in the morning. Plan some rest in the middle of the afternoon, then head back out in the early evening. The United Nations estimates Bangkok’s population at more than nine million and the city has serious traffic issues spread over 60 square kilometres. That’s why we recommend starting your perfect day with a four-hour bike ride. (Nope, we’re not kidding.)
Hop on a bike and tour local Buddhist temples, parks, residential areas and the large-scale construction projects whose scope will wow you. After the ride, plan for a Thai massage at the Mandarin Oriental spa and a one-hour nap. By early evening, take a taxi to the State Tower and take the elevator to the 63rd floor, where you’ll be greeted by several hostesses at Sky Bar. Have a drink as the whole of Bangkok spreads out beneath you, then head back downstairs and grab a cab on Silom Road and direct it to Face for a Thai dinner. By the way, cab rides in Bangkok are all metered and very inexpensive—a 30-minute drive will cost you just three or four dollars in the downtown area.
Only have a half day?
If you’ve only got half a day in Bangkok, how you spend it will depend on your energy level. If you’re buzzing with excitement, the must-see is the Grand Palace, where you can book a two-hour tour. Not up for the tour? Get some local flavour by booking lunch or dinner in a local restaurant and experience Thai food at its best.
Try something close to the downtown area, like Sala Rim Naam. If you’re there for dinner, book early when they open at 7 pm and ask for a river-view table inside the restaurant, where there’s a mix of buffet and a la carte menus. There is also a classical Thai dancing performance on some nights. If you’re there for lunch, get a terrace table, perfect for watching the boat traffic on the river.
Bangkok Hotels: Where to Rest Your Head
Located in downtown Bangkok, this hotel has a very boutique feel. Designed by Kerry Hill Architects and Ed Tuttle, who works with Aman resorts and the new Oriental Dhara Devi in Chiang Mai, the building appears nondescript from the outside, concealing the beauty of the gardens and the rooms inside. The staff is amazing and there is a superb (and very busy) spa. There are 180 rooms, two restaurants, a pool and a gym. We recommend the deluxe suites—the bathrooms are gigantic, outfitted with beautiful teak floors and stocked with fabrics from the Jim Thompson House (see below). The hotel is located on Sathorn Road, a 10-minute cab ride to Silom Road and the downtown area.
The Mandarin Hotel
The “Grande Dame” of South East Asia, the Oriental consistently ranks among the top-five hotels in Asia. The hotel is a mix of old and new: the original building, dating back to 1878, started as a seaman’s lodge. Its patrons have included the likes of Joseph Conrad, Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling and Ernest Hemingway, along with royalty and other celebrities. Over the years, new wings were added housing boutiques and restaurants, but its great location along the Chao Phraya River (The River of Kings) remains a huge draw. Representing the pique of luxury, each floor is tended to by a butler and the hotel features one of the best spas in Thailand—we recommend the Garden Wing Rooms.
Unique in architecture and style, the Peninsula combines great service and location, facing the Mandarin Oriental across the Chao Phraya. The “Pen” is much more modern in its approach, a tall high-rise building with all modern décor and amenities. Home to 370 rooms, we recommend the River Balcony Rooms. It features four restaurants, several bars and an excellent spa. A nonstop boat shuttle is available to bring you across the river (it takes about three minutes to cross) to the nearby shopping districts of Silom Road.
Bangkok Restaurants: Where to Eat + Drink
In the late ‘80s, twin brothers set the French culinary world aflame when they won a 3-star Michelin rating in the first year after opening Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier, France. The Pourcel brothers have since expanded and opened a restaurant in Bangkok, at the top of the Dusit Thani hotel, pictured above. The food is French, with a Thai twist, very fine, very chic and trés “cutting edge.”
Sala Rim Naam
Across the river from the Mandarin Oriental, this is a very classical Thai restaurant, which combines buffet and a la carte and has maintained its reputation as one of the top Thai restaurants in the city. Opt for the a la carte dinner at night on the outside terrace and take in the river traffic.
With a mix of Moorish and Thai interior décor, this restaurant serves outstanding blend of South East Asian and European food, in a quiet courtyard of an old Thai residence. This is one of the new in places, members of the Royal Family come in unannounced.
Sky Bar, The Dome at LeBua
Want to see something utterly amazing? Go for a drink and watch the sunset at Sky Bar, on the terrace of the State Tower’s 63rd floor. Home to an assortment of posh restaurants and bars, the chic terrace features a beautiful teak deck with views over the whole city and river. The bar is next to Sirocco, the world’s highest al fresco restaurant, a separate oyster bar that flies in Fine de Clair oysters from France daily.