If you are coming to Asia and going anywhere near Bangkok, it would be a huge shame to miss seeing it. A great number of people who come to Phuket for an annual sunshine holiday will stop in Bangkok for a few days on the way in or the way out, and many of them do it every year. Bangkok is modern and friendly so it’s the kind of city where there is always something new to do each time you come back.
One minor downside to Bangkok is that it’s huge and sprawling, so figuring out where to stay can be a challenge, even for those who’ve visited before. Seriously, the city just goes and goes almost like Los Angeles, and there are actually several different central areas that aren’t in any way within walking distance of each other. If you stay in an inconvenient part of the city you might spend half your day going back and forth to the things you want to see.
The 3 main Bangkok neighborhoods perfect for short stays
Bangkok has over 1,000 hotels spread over a huge area, but the general areas below are the best for most visitors who want to see a lot in a short time.
1 – Grand Palace, sightseeing area, and backpacker area
If this is your first visit to Bangkok and you want to concentrate on sightseeing then the area around the Grand Palace and to its north is perfect. There are hundreds of hotels ranging from simple 1-stars to luxurious 5-stars, and they are all within walking distance of the most important temples (known as Wats, as in Wat Pho and Wat Phrakaew) on both sides of the Chao Phraya River. If you stay in one of the other two areas, you’ll spend 30 to 60 minutes each way getting here in a tax to see the sights. The subway and metro train don’t come to this area at all.
Since the area is so popular with sightseeing tourists, it’s also loaded with bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. It’s also home to the infamous Khaosan Road backpacker area, which is certainly fun to experience at least once, even if it’s only an hour or two.
2 – Siam Square shopping district
About 5 kilometers east of the Grand Palace area, there lies Siam Square. This area is ideal for those who are coming to Bangkok to experience its mind-blowing shopping scene. There are literally about 20 large indoor shopping malls that are within walking distance of each other, and of the dozens of mid-scale and up-scale hotels around them. Some shopping malls are huge (up to 8 stories high) while others are smaller and more specialized. Pantip Plaza is a 6-level mall completely filled with electronics and media.
If you stay in this area you’ll be about 30 minutes by taxi from the Grand Palace area, and about a 15-minute metro ride from the expat area mentioned below. If you want to see the sights but also do quite a bit of shopping and sample some fine restaurants and upscale nightlife, this is the place to be.
3 – Sukhumvit Road expat area
Continuing several kilometers east from Siam Square, you enter the area known as Sukhumvit. It’s a very long and busy road that is the main artery in the district where most expats live. On your first visit to Bangkok it’s probably better to stay in one of the two areas mentioned above because communiting between all of them is very time consuming.
The Sukhumvit area also has several upscale shopping malls, but it’s far less touristy. There are a handful of mid-price hotels to go along with a great number of luxury and boutique hotels frequented by business travelers and repeat visitors. Taxis are easy to find (avoid the tuk-tuks though) and they are cheap. The BTS metro system runs above Sukhumvit Road, going directly to Siam Square, so it’s fast and easy to go between the two districts.
Which district is best for you?
One way to explain it would be that on your first visit to Bangkok it’s probably best to stay near the tourist attractions, unless you have little or no interest in the magnificent temples in that area.
On your second trip you’ll want to experience more of the ‘east meets west big city fun’ of Bangkok, as well as the many shopping malls and culture spots near Siam Square.
On your third trip and from then on you might prefer to stay in the Sukhumvit area since it has everything you need without the tourist crowds and general craziness of the Siam Square area.