Bangkok travel tips: Where to go and what to see in 48 hours

Easy to get to and bursting with culture, Thailand's capital deserves attention, says Nick Boulos

Travel essentials

Why go now?

In a turbulent year which saw a military coup in May, anti-government protests, and then martial law, peace has returned to the Thai capital. Thailand has long been a popular spot for winter sun, but sultry Bangkok was always seen more as a gateway to the picture-perfect southern islands. That perception is changing, however. Some 16 million visitors now come to shop, stay in great-value hotels, explore glittering royal and Buddhist monuments and eat some of the finest food around. And this is a great time to go.

The monsoon rains have passed and on 6 November (coinciding with the Full Moon) you can see one of the most magical nights of the year: the annual Loi Krathong festival, at which thousands of candles and decorative baskets are floated down the Chao Phraya (River of Kings) in homage to the water spirits.

Touch down

Bangkok is served non-stop from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com), Eva Air (020 7380 8300; evaair.com) and Thai Airways (0844 561 0911; thaiairways.co.uk). Flights land at Suvarnabhumi airport, 20km east of the centre. Express trains (6am-midnight; 90 baht/£1.80 one-way) are the fastest option into town. They leave from the basement level of the airport, reaching Makkasan (1) and Phaya Thai (2) in around 15 minutes. A taxi will cost around 400 baht (£8) and take at least 45 minutes – rush hour traffic can be painfully slow.

Get your bearings

Bangkok is a large and complicated city of around 10 million souls, but most places of interest to tourists are within a fairly manageable area on the east side of the Chao Phraya River. The Old City occupies a bulge of land, with Chinatown to the south and Dusit to the north. Many of the leading hotels are to the south-east in the Silom area. The main traffic-clogged arteries are the spines to which numbered lanes, or sois, are attached. Transport options include tuk-tuks (motorised three-wheelers, for which you negotiate a fare) and metered taxis. In the morning and evening rush (7-10am and 4-7pm) streets are gridlocked and motorcycle taxis come into their own, though it is safer to rely on the excellent SkyTrain (bts.co.th) and the MRT (bangkokmetro.co.th).

The main tourist office (3) is at 1600 New Phetchaburi Road (00 66 2 250 5500; tourismthailand.org; 8.30am-4.30pm daily).

Check in

The oldest hotel in Bangkok is the riverfront Mandarin Oriental (4) at 48 Oriental Avenue (00 66 2 659 9000; mandarinoriental.com/bangkok). It has welcomed prime ministers and authors, including Noël Coward and Joseph Conrad, since 1865. Today, most of the 393 rooms and suites are in the modern wings, though some remain in the original colonial building. The spa, housed in a century-old teak house, is reached by boat. Doubles start at 14,850 baht (£295), including breakfast.

Sala Arun (5) at 47-49 Soi Ta-tein (00 66 2 622 2932; salaarun.com), is a charming B&B with friendly staff and nine rooms furnished with art and trinkets from around the world. The rooftop bar overlooks the river. Doubles start at 3,800 baht (£75), with breakfast.

The 45 rooms at the Bhiman Inn (6) at 55 Phra Sumen Road (00 66 2282 6171; bhimaninn.com), may be a bit on the small side but they come with televisions and air conditioning. There's also an outdoor pool. Doubles start at 1,200 baht (£23), room only.

bangkok map

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Day one

Take a view

Start the day with a bracing climb: up the 344 steps to the top of Wat Saket (7) on Boriphrat Road (00 66 2 621 2280; open 7.30am-5.30pm daily, 20 baht/40p). This Buddhist temple has views of Bang-kok's skyscrapers, temples and canals, often accompanied by the sound of chanting monks.

Take a hike

Begin at the dazzling Grand Palace (8) on Na Phra Lan Road (00 66 2 623 5500; palaces.thai.net; 8.30am-4.30pm daily; 500 baht/£10), a royal residence until 1925. Tour the throne halls and catch a glimpse of the tiny but revered Emerald Buddha, draped in majestic robes, before exiting the complex and turning left on Tha Na Phra Lan. Follow the palace's high white walls until the end of the block, passing the Silpakorn University on the opposite side, and turn left on to Tha Maharat. Cross the road and head south browsing the Buddha amulets, old coins and other wares on offer along the street market. Escape the heat at number 77 with a refreshing cantaloupe smoothie (55 baht/£1) at Navy Café (9).

Further down is Tha Ratchaworadit (10), the ornate pier used exclusively for royal barges since the 1700s. Continue on this road until you reach Wat Pho (11) at 2 Sanamchai Road (00 66 2 226 0335; watpho.com; 8.30am-6.30pm; 100 baht/ £2) famed for its 43m-long reclining Buddha and Thai massage school (watpomassage.com; from 260 baht/£5).

Lunch on the run

Enjoy a bowl of tom yum koong (soup with river prawns and herbs) at The Deck (12) at 36-38 Soi Pratoo Nok Yoong (00 66 2 221 9158; arunresidence.com). Mains are from 240 baht (£5) and the views of Wat Arun (13), the Temple of Dawn, inspired by Khmer architecture, are just as tasty.

Cultural afternoon

The National Museum (14) at 4 Tha Na Phra That (00 66 2 224 1333; 9.30am-3.30pm Wednesday to Sunday, closed Monday and Tuesday; 200 baht/£4) , exhibits Thai antiques, religious sculptures and archaeological finds. Nearby, is the National Gallery (15) at 4 Tha Chao Fa (00 66 2 282 2224; 9am-4pm Wednesday to Sunday, closed Monday and Tuesday; 200 baht/£4), formerly the Royal Mint. Among the works on display are oil paintings by the King.

An aperitif

Octave, on the 48th and 49th floors of the Marriott (16) at 2 Sukhumvit Soi 57 (00 66 2797 0400; myclubmarriott.com) is the newest of Bangkok's rooftop bars. Lit in neon shades of blue and pink, it has a distinct New York vibe. Sip a Thai mojito (350 baht/£7) while savouring Bangkok twinkling below.

Dining with the locals

Chef Ian Kittichai's restaurant, Issaya Siamese Club (17), is in a converted 1920s house at 4 Soi Sri Aksorn (00 66 2672 9040; issaya.com). Dishes such as Surat Thani crab with a spicy egg sauce are inspired by Bangkok's markets. Mains from 580 baht (£12).

For pad thai, head for the food stalls (18) on Sukhumvit Soi 38. The simple green restaurant, on the right at the very end, is a good bet. Mains from 50 baht (£1).

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Green lung: Lumphini Park (Getty)

Day two

Sunday morning: out to brunch

Local produce and "nose-to-tail" dining are on the menu at industrial restaurant Smith (19) at 1/8 Sukhumvit Soi 49 (00 66 2261 0515; smith-restaurant.com). Request a table on the large terrace and tuck into eggs benedict with pork belly. The brunch buffet is 1,400 baht (£28).

Window shopping

At Chatuchak Weekend Market (20) (chatuchak.org) on Tha Phahonyothin, more than 15,000 stalls offer everything from the latest fashions to Thai handicrafts and instruments. Catch the metro to Mochit station, arrive early with plenty of bottled water and be prepared to haggle hard.

Take a ride

Bangkok may not seem bike-friendly, but cycling is a thrilling way to explore the city's hidden corners. Spice Roads (00 66 2 381 7490; spiceroads.com) leads various tours, including one to the nearby car-free and jungle-clad island of Bang Kra Jao (21), home to exotic birds and old temples (half-day tours from 1,150 baht/£23).

A walk in the park

Built upon land once owned by King Rama VI, Lumphini Park (22) on Tha Phra Ram IV has open lawns, pavilions, pagodas and waterways where scaly water lizards lurk. It's a favourite spot for joggers and tai chi enthusiasts but everything comes to an abrupt stop twice a day, at 8am and 6pm, when the national anthem is played on loudspeakers.

Icing on the cake

Layered with a perfect balance of sweet, salty, spicy and sour flavours, Thai cuisine has become a favourite worldwide. Learn the secrets of making your own Thai food at the Amita Cookery School (23) at 162/17 Soi Wutthakat 14 (00 66 2 466 8966; amitathaicooking.com). The four-hour classes (3,000 baht/£60) are led by Tam Piyawadi Jantrupon, who teaches family recipes in her home on the banks of the Bangkok Yai canal.

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