Lara Dunston, The Guardian, September 18, 2013
Bangkok can be as bewildering as it is bewitching. In the first of a new series on holiday itineraries, we tell you how to make the most of Thailand's exuberant capital, filling your days with street food, impressive temples and lively bars.
Where to stay
For old town charm, check into canalside B&B The Asadang (+66 8 5180 7100, B&B from £66); in Chinatown, Shanghai Mansion (+66 2221 2121, B&B from £50) has a courtyard dripping with coloured lanterns and nightly Thai jazz; while in hip Thong Lor, Salil Hotels (doubles from £35) is handy for getting anywhere on Sukhumvit Road. Or see our Top 10 budget hotels, hostels and apartments in Bangkok.
Day one: old Bangkok
Bangkok was "the Venice of the east" for a reason. Built upon water, its river and canals (khlongs) formed the thoroughfares until roads were constructed in 1851.
Morning: hire a longtail boat (900 baht/£18, two hours) from any of the busy tourist piers for an early morning cruise on Thonburi's tranquil canals to see ramshackle wooden stilted houses, shimmering temples and floating food stalls. A public longtail zips from Tha Chang pier to Bang Yai (30 baht/60p) along busier Bangkok Noi canal.
Bangkok's old city boasts sparkling must-see temples (wats), including Wat Pho (2 Sanamchai Road), with its enormous reclining gold Buddha, and the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha (both on Na Phra Lan Rd). Less known are Wat Ratchapradit, opposite the rear entrance to the Grand Palace but secreted down a lane behind Saranrom Park, and decorated with intricate murals; majestic Wat Ratchabophit nearby on Asadang Road, covered in ceramic mosaics; and on Bamrung Muang Road, Wat Suthat, with hundreds of gilt Buddhas, a monumental ordination hall and, outside, a giant swing used for Brahman ceremonies.
Afternoon: nearby, hidden behind high walls, Romaneenart Park is perfect for a rest. Off Boriphat Road, on Soi Ban Bat (aka Monk's Bowl Village), artisans hammer out metal alms bowls. Boriphat Road, home to carpentry workshops and soup stalls, leads to Wat Saket (Temple on Golden Mount) and sweeping city views.
Evening: dine nearby at Jay Fai (327 Mahachai Road, +66 2 223 9384), famous for drunken noodles and crab omelettes, then cab it to bustling 24-hour flower market Pak Khlong Talat, where, among the chrysanthemum and jasmine garlands, stalls sell Thai sweets. Up for shopping? Browse nearby Saphun Phut market beside Memorial Bridge for vintage clothes, or have a nightcap at waterfront Sala Rattanakosin's (39 Maharat Road, +66 2 622 1388 ) rooftop bar for views of Wat Arun, across the river, which is spectacularly illuminated at night.
Day two: Chinatown and Bangrak
Chinatown and Bangrak are Bangkok's next oldest and most atmospheric neighbourhoods. Chinatown's neon-lit Yaowarat Road is lined with Chinese herbalists and gold shops. Both are home to some of the city's best street food.
Morning: rise early for Chinatown's chaotic centuries-old wet markets, tucked down alleys. Talaat Mai is off atmospheric Itsaranuphap Lane, crammed with condiment, pickle and spice stalls, while Talaat Kao is by anarchic haberdashery and Hello Kitty street, Sampeng Lane. Recover with some noh kaw yua (hot coffee and tea) at retro Eah Sae cafe (103 Phat Sai Lane, off Yaowarat Road), before visiting Wat Mangkon Kamalawat (Dragon Lotus Temple) in an incense-filled courtyard off Charoen Krung Road.
Take a public ferry (12 baht/24p) from Rachawongse pier to Saphan Taksin pier for Bangkok Food Tours' Historic Bangrak Tour (1,000 baht/£20) to take in off-the-beaten-track sights while gorging on local specialities, such as green curry with roti.
Afternoon: near lively Sri Maha Mariamman, Bangkok's oldest Hindu temple, Kathmandu Gallery (87 Pan Road) shows Thai photography. Grab a Bangkok Art Map for more neighbourhood galleries, such as Rotunda Gallery in the 1869 Neilson Hays Library (195 Suriwongse Road) with photography tours and a garden café, and H Gallery (201 Sathorn Soi 12) in a colonial villa. Close by on Sathorn Rd, Healthland Spa offers budget-priced massages in a serene spa setting (two-hour massage, £9).
Evening: drop into leafy courtyard-bar Bite Me, below Eat Me (2 Pipat Lane, off Convent Road, +66 2 238 0931) to cool down with cold craft beers and refuel on Asian-inspired tapas, such as devilled duck eggs with crispy pig ear. Around the corner, Convent Road's food stalls offer spicy Isaan chicken and fiery papaya salad. Back in Chinatown, Yaowarat Road loses its outer lanes after dark to countless food stalls serving stir-fried seafood, roast duck and soups.
Day three: new Bangkok
Modern Bangkok is centred along Rama 1 Road, which becomes Phloen Chit Road, before transforming into seemingly never-ending Sukhumvit Road. This is the city's retail and entertainment heart and the superb BTS Skytrain runs overhead along much of this route.
Morning: BTS Siam brings you to shopping central: posh Siam Paragon, colossal Central World and budget MBK. Revamped Siam Centre showcases Thai fashion brands, including FLYNOW and Greyhound. Opposite, warren-like Siam Square is home to local designers creating dirt-cheap disposable fashion.
Afternoon: at BTS National Stadium, Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre (939 Rama 1 Road, +66 2 214 6630) shows photography, art and experimental films. For a quirky diversion, cab it to the Museum of Counterfeit Goods (Supalai Grand Tower, 26th Floor, 1011 Rama 3 Road, +66 2 653 5555 ; book your visit 24 hours ahead) for slick displays of 4,000 items infringing copyrights, from fake handbags to copy watches.
Alternatively, explore Bangkok's most cosmopolitan neighbourhoods around Sukhumvit Road. Off BTS Nana, Soi Arab (soi means "lane") bubbles over with sheesha cafes, sandal shops and Arabic restaurants; Soi 12 is home to Sukhumvit Plaza's tasty Koreatown; and BTS Phrom Phong takes you to the Japanese enclave and the finest Japanese food outside Tokyo.
Evening: on Sukhumvit Soi 51, near BTS Thong Lo, laidback WTF (7/1 Sukhumvit Soi 51 +66 02 662 6246) attracts Thais, expats and in-the-know travellers for great cocktails, photography exhibitions and live local bands. Next door, ZudRangMa sells vintage vinyl records. Across the lane, buzzy Opposite Mess Hall (27/1 Sukhumvit Soi 51, +66 662 6330) has a loud soundtrack, delicious sharing dishes, and original cocktails.
Interesting bars, pubs and clubs abound in the hip Thong Lo-Ekkamai area, around Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thong Lo) and Sukhumvit Soi 63 (Ekkamai): laidback drinking spots Tuba (34 Ekamai Soi 21, +66 2 711 5500) and Shades of Retro (808/12 Soi Tararom 2, Sukhumvit 55 Road, +66 2 714 9450) have vintage décor and cheap drinks. Owned by Thai indie band Modern Dog, Happy Monday (Ekkamai Shopping Mall, Ekamai Soi 10, +66 2 714 3935) has nightly DJs. New venues Moose (Ekamai Soi 21, +61 02 108 9550) and Sonic (90 Ekkamai Road, beside Ekkamai Soi 10, +61 2 382 3956) offer good food, live music, DJs, and friendly crowds.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk