An ever-evolving metropolis, Bangkok is a city to visit again and again. Beyond the flocks of travellers at its most famous sights are an assortment of places and experiences still largely off the tourist trail.
Here is an alternative guide to the Thai capital:
1. KO KRET ISLAND, INSTEAD OF THE DOWNTOWN RIVER CRUISE
Cruising in a traditional wooden long-tail boat along the mighty Chao Phraya River through downtown Bangkok may be an essential Thai experience, but it defies the perception that river cruises are relaxing and tranquil.
The Chao Phraya in central Bangkok is crowded and noisy, and the cruise operators tend to drive a hard bargain.
That is why I take friends and family instead on a boat trip around Bangkok’s sleepy island, Ko Kret.
About an hour’s drive from the city centre, in Bangkok’s northern outskirts, this is perhaps the city’s greatest hidden gem. This 4 sq km island looks and feels as if it has been transplanted from the remote Thai countryside.
Farmers tend to tiny rice fields, fishermen dangle their rods in the Chao Phraya, monks gather inside ornate temples, artists hand-mould beautiful pottery and traditional wooden homes sit on stilts on the river’s edge.
It is an authentic place that provides an insight into rural Thai lifestyles not available anywhere else in Bangkok.
The best way to explore it is to catch a one-hour taxi from Bangkok to Chon Thip Village, hire a private long-tail boat – 500 baht (S$20) for up to four hours – and hop off and on at jetties around the island.
Be sure to ask your boat operator to stop at Wat Poramaiyikawat, a stunning, ancient Buddhist monastery marked by a gleaming white stupa.
This temple stands next to the charming weekend market – a long series of stalls and shops by the river, which sell clothes, handicrafts, snacks and the renowned and locally made ceramic products.
2. SOI RAMBUTTRI, INSTEAD OF KHAO SAN ROAD
photo by: Ryan O’Connell
Khao San Road is Bangkok at its weirdest. A long, narrow street lined with bars, nightclubs, hostels and market stalls, it is a magnet for low-cost travellers.
Khao San attracts odd travellers from all over the world as well as some of the most unscrupulous vendors in the nation.
In the space of a five-minute stroll along Khao San, you are likely to be offered illicit products by whispering men, see shirtless revellers dancing in the street and watch tourists eating fried insects sold by grinning vendors.
But Khao San is also undeniably fun. The same jovial atmosphere can be enjoyed in the nearby street of Soi Rambuttri, which is far safer and less seedy than Khao San.
If Khao San is like a rambunctious teenager chasing cheap thrills, Rambuttri is its cultured older brother, who savours a slower, quieter life. The southern end of Rambuttri runs adjacent to Khao San and offers more sedate and upmarket dining and nightlife alternatives.
The nicest part of the street, however, curls around the sprawling temple complex Wat Chana Songkhram.
Embellished by low-hanging trees, the soft calls of birds and prayer chants from the temple grounds, this stretch of Soi Rambuttri has a bohemian vibe and attracts tourists seeking a low-key, relaxed environment.
Where Khao San is all about wild partying, in Rambuttri, you are more likely to find people enjoying a drum circle or half-asleep in a hammock.
The market vendors here do not haggle with the same force as in Khao San, which makes it a more pleasant experience to shop for sunglasses, shorts and skirts.
Rambuttri is also an agreeable place to have dinner. As the sun slides from view, grab a table at one of its sleek restaurants and sip on a cocktail as you listen to live music.
3. WAT BENCHAMABOPHIT, INSTEAD OF WAT PHO
Bangkok has such a plethora of striking temples that many are unknown to outsiders.
One such religious complex is the Wat Benchamabophit in the stately district of Dusit. While visitors at famous temples such as Wat Pho and Wat Arun will jostle for space amid swarms of tourists, Wat Benchamabophit is serene.
Each time I have visited it, there has been just a smattering of travellers wandering through the pretty grounds of this century-old temple.
The meticulously landscaped complex is pierced by a canal, which can be crossed via one of three attractive bridges. Friendly young monks-in-training often congregate by the canal in their flowing saffron robes.
The heart of this complex is the gorgeous Ordination Hall, its white marble facade contrasting against the orange tiles and gold accents of its multi-tiered roof.
The hall’s interior is even more remarkable, boasting layer upon layer of intricate designs.
Crimson carpet and colourful tiles cover the floor, delicate motifs and stained-glass windows adorn the walls and opulent red-and-gold trimmings decorate the ceiling. All of this makes Wat Benchamabophit one of the most photogenic temples in Thailand.
Wat Benchamabophit is at 69 Nakhon Phathom Road, Dusit, Bangkok. The closest skytrain station is Victory Monument BTS.
4. BANG KRACHAO, INSTEAD OF LUMPINI PARK
photo by: Ryan O’Connell
Sandwiched between the financial district of Silom and the shopping mecca of Siam, Lumpini Park is one of the few attractive green spaces in downtown Bangkok. With its dense canopy of trees and lovely lakes, Lumpini offers respite from the ceaseless energy and noise of the streets.
Few tourists, however, venture into the city’s green lung, Bang Krachao. Just 5km south of Lumpini, this jungle-draped area is enchanting and can be reached from downtown Bangkok by taxi in about 40 minutes. Amid the thick forest and mangroves of Bang Krachao are many quaint villages, temples and markets.
Similar to Lumpini, Bang Krachao offers great opportunities for exercise. A network of concrete pathways, perfect for cycling and walking, weaves through the lush space.
The mangroves, home to exotic birds, are a gem for bird-watchers. Bicycles are available for hire from $5 a day at many locations all over Bang Krachao, including at its floating market, Bang Nam Phueng.
Open from about 8am till the late afternoon, this weekend market is one of the most relaxed places to shop in all of Bangkok.
This market is frequented mainly by locals, so there are no high- pressure sales tactics and the prices for clothes, handicrafts, mobile phone accessories and delicious Thai sweets are reasonable.
5. ZOOM ROOFTOP BAR, INSTEAD OF SIROCCO SKYBAR
photo by: Zoom Sky Bar & Restaurant/Facebook
Bangkok has become renowned for its array of skybars – open-air drinking venues perched high among the city’s forest of skyscrapers.
They have spread like wildfire over the past five years, with more than 20 skybars now scattered over downtown Bangkok.
The highest of them all also happens to be the place that ignited the city’s skybar craze – Sirocco at the Lebua Hotel.
Located on the 63rd floor, Sirocco became known worldwide after it was featured prominently in the 2011 Hollywood comedy, The Hangover Part II.
Travellers who want the same glitzy skybar experience and incredible city views, minus the crowds seen at Sirocco, need venture only just over 1km east to the Zoom Bar (bit.ly/2s1Gcyx) at Anantara Sathorn Bangkok hotel.
Unlike most skybars in Bangkok, Zoom has full 360-degree views from its 40th-floor rooftop area.
And because it is not situated amid a cluster of skyscrapers, the vistas of the city’s skyline and river are unobstructed.
Zoom specialises in cocktails and has an enormous range of these alcoholic concoctions, which start at$14. Its food caters to a variety of tastes. There are fancy Western options such as ribeye steak ($47) and seared Scottish salmon ($29), as well as local dishes such as chilli king prawns ($31).
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The writer is an Australian photojournalist who splits his time between Ireland and Thailand.
This story was first published on The Straits Times.