Thailand’s capital is at its most evocative in the narrow lanes and streets of Old Bangkok, where a renaissance of small, owner-restored guesthouses is making it easy for visitors to experience the rich culture of everyday Thai life.
“Every traveler has a special place, a home away from home,” says Traveler editor at large Daisann McLane. ”Old Bangkok is mine.”
Here’s her insider’s guide to preparing for your trip and what you should do and see once you’re on the ground.
> Where to Stay:
- Samsen 5 Lodge offers three rooms, all en suite, and high ceilings and teak floors mark Baan Dinso guesthouse’s nine rooms.
- Guests at the SSIP Boutique Dhevej Bangkok, a new 20-room boutique hotel founded by a descendant of Thai royalty, sleep in four-poster beds; amenities include Thann aromatherapy toiletries—and a fortune-teller.
- Phranakorn Nornlen’s 30 guest rooms occupy a former hotel close to Thewet Market and the river; quirky touches include an antiques exhibit and workshops in bookbinding.
- Feung Nakorn Balcony, a 38-room hotel built around a quiet courtyard, has something for everyone, from suites to dorm beds.
- Thai antiques and textiles distinguish the ten floral-themed guest rooms at the Old Bangkok Inn, a luxe option in Old Bangkok. The inn’s gracious owners are descendants of an old princely Thai family.
> Where to Eat:
- It’s Bangkok, so we’re talking street food. Walk down Soi 2 and Soi 4, just off Samsen Road, and you’ll find a feast of regional Thai cuisines, especially Isan, known for its meat salads and sticky rice.
- On Samsen Soi 4, watch the vendor pummel the papaya for your som tum in a mortar while you wait for your barbecue fish from the lady on the other side of the street.
- Feeling adventurous? Hop a bus going north and get off at Nakhon Chaisi Road, in the Sri Yan neighborhood, to graze from an array of food carts and popular noodle shops. Look Chin Sri Yan is just one of many famous eateries here.
- Phra Athit and Phra Sumen roads remain the “restaurant row” of Old Bangkok. Try Hemlock for a terrific sit-down feast of “ancient Thai cuisine” and Roti Mataba for a taste of Thai Muslim breads and curry.
> What to Buy:
- Few travelers leave Bangkok without a souvenir of Thai silk, jewelry, or artisanal apparel. For traditional silk textiles, jewelry, and gifts, stop in Taekee Taekon (118 Phra Artit Road).
- Affordable museum-quality antique silks are the prize at Loom & Reed (275/28 Samsen Road).
- On weekends, visit Chatuchak Market for an amazing array of items, from housewares to works by young Thai designers.
- As the sun sets, head south to the Thieves Market for remarkable secondhand bargains.
> What to Read:
- Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture (2013), by Philip Cornwel-Smith and John Goss, decodes the exuberant visual language of Bangkok’s streets.
- Bangkok’s full name is Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.
- The head is sacred in Thai culture, and shouldn’t be touched by others.
- The world’s largest solid gold Buddha is in Bangkok’s Wat Traimit temple.
This piece, which first appeared in the August/September issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine, was reported by Daisann McLane to accompany a feature story she wrote for the same issue, entitled “Saving Old Bangkok.” Follow her on Twitter at @Daisann_McLane.