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Insider Guide: Best of Bangkok
By CNN Travel staff
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Ah, Bangkok. Beauty, modernity, chaos and decay. We wouldn't want it any other way.
CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN)So, you're in Thailand on a mission to cram the best of Bangkok into a weekend?
It's a big task -- there's no city in the world like this one -- but it can be done.
With incredible street food, world-class hotels, killer nightlife, packed markets and temples so sparkly they make your eyes water, there's almost too much to choose from.
But you're in luck. This quick guide ensures you can at least hit the highlights on your quest for the best of Bangkok.
It's worth keeping in mind that hotel prices vary dramatically depending on the time of year.
High season runs from October to April, so the best bargains can be had May to September.
This stunning, antique-laced property on the Chao Praya River recalls the time of King Rama V (1853-1910), a period when Bangkok was a tranquil, smog-free riverside idyll.
Since opening in 2012 the accolades have been rolling in from travel rags around the world.
With great restaurants, a poolside bar, muay Thai gym and spa, this 39-room resort set on three acres is almost a vacation unto itself.
Though a bit of a hike from the city center, there's a regular hotel-operated ferry that shuttles guests to the Taksin pier, where they can jump on the BTS Skytrain.
Mandarin Oriental Bangkok
This Bangkok institution is a step back to a time when luggage was carried in trunks, dinner dress was de rigueur (tropics or not) and tea on the veranda was served with a stiff G&T to ward off mosquitoes.
More than 100 years old, the Oriental's Author's Wing retains its magical aura with its picturesque parlors, each named for a scribe they once hosted, including the likes of Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway.
The Garden Wing offers similar heights of nostalgic luxury, while the modern River Wing and Tower have a more contemporary design.
And if it weren't patently obvious from the never-ending stream of awards rained upon this five-star, best of Bangkok landmark, high tea in the Mandarin Oriental's library is simply too civilized for the mere words of us regrettably non-famous authors.
St. Regis Bangkok
So Sofitel's Wood element rooms were designed by Thai architect Nithi Sthapitanonda.
Nearly a quarter of the 227 guest rooms at this elegant property are suites -- this should give an idea of the level of comfort to which the St. Regis aspires and generally attains.
A specialty is off-site activities geared toward "the artistic visionary, the epicurean voyager, the passionate connoisseur."
Care for a deep-sea fishing trip with one of the hotel's celebrated chefs?
A private Fendi shopping trip?
The hotel will arrange it.
W Hotel Bangkok
Wonderful guest room.
The stylish W concept remains intact at this 407-room hotel ("chili-hot nightlife" is advertised) located on Bangkok's Embassy Row near a vibrant commercial district.
Rooms are basic but fully wired and come with good robes and a Munchie Box.
Bathrooms come with rainforest showers.
City-view room views are nice.
With the opening of Mode Sathorn, Siam@Siam gets the second design hotel in its Bangkok portfolio, which the brand is somewhat predictably characterizing as "fashionable lifestyle."
The property has 201 rooms and suites in five categories, each featuring a different design concept, plus a presidential suite on the 36th floor.
F&B offerings come in the form of three restaurants and three bars.
Theatre Bar is the standout thanks to a circular TV screen and three areas segregated by your poison of choice, be it wine, beer or cocktails.
As with its sister hotel, Mode Sathorn features a rooftop bar.
If live DJs in al fresco vogue settings aren't your thing, Secret M has a private indoor dining cove one floor below.
Galleria 10 Hotel Bangkok
Formerly the Ramada Encore, the Galleria 10 is a 188-room, chrome-and-glass hotel with modern furnishings.
It's geared toward "always-on-the-go" business travelers, with high-speed Internet access included in the room rate, 40-inch LCD TV with satellite channels, good-sized working areas, direct dial telephones and HDMI easy plug-in.
There are some nice outdoor spaces for drinks around the pool.
Bangkok Treehouse's "View with a Room."
Inspired by Henry David Thoreau's "Walden," the 12-suite Bangkok Treehouse allows guests to get back to nature in Bang Krajao, the "green lungs of Bangkok."
Guests arrive via a dedicated shuttle boat across the Chao Phraya, disembarking onto a floating pontoon overlooked by the hotel's gourmet organic restaurant.
Each standard suite is divided into three levels (living room, bedroom and roof deck), offering views of the surrounding river, mangroves and coconut plantations.
Inside, the rooms are comfortable and cozy, with all the expected features (TV, DVD, Wi-Fi) and optional air-conditioning.
Loy La Long
Quirky and comfy, the seven color-coded rooms at this two-story wood property on the edge of Chinatown range from a four-bedroom family dorm (guests pay per bed) to the river-view suite that allows you to wake up to the sight of barges floating past -- along with the occasional roaring longtail engine.
There's a fantastic "living room," where guests can park on a floor cushion and watch the life on the river pass by.
Near Tha Tien Pier, Loy La Long is hidden behind a temple complex right on the edge of Chinatown.
Not easy to find, but the payoff is worth it.
Lub D proves that being on a budget doesn't have to mean losing out on style or location.
There are two Lub D "hostels" in Bangkok, both rocking an industrial chic design.
The original is on Decho Road, off Silom.
The newer Siam location is opposite National Stadium, close to the BTS SkyTrain and a short walk to Siam Square and the malls of Rajaprasong.
It has four-bed dorms, economy twin rooms, doubles and, our favorite, a queen-bed suite with a private bathroom and LCD TV.
The Wi-Fi is free and the beer cheap.
You won't find those attributes in too many five-star establishments.
Offering Thai fine dining with exquisite attention to detail, the best ingredients and authenticity, Nahm provides the best of Bangkok culinary experiences.
Head Chef David Thompson, who received a Michelin star for his London-based Thai restaurant of the same name, opened this branch in the Metropolitan Hotel in 2010.
If that doesn't sell you, perhaps the fact it's the only Thai restaurant to crack the top 10 of the world's 50 best restaurants list will.
Through recipes based on archaic Siamese cookbooks and other dishes passed down in "funeral books," you'll receive both perfect renditions of Thai classics such as tom yum goong, as well as fresh surprises difficult to find outside the Thai home.
Issaya Siamese Club
Issaya Siamese Club is set in a beautifully restored Thai colonial house.
Issaya Siamese Club is internationally acclaimed Thai chef Ian Kittichai's first flagship Bangkok restaurant.
The menu in this beautifully restored colonial house features traditional Thai cuisine combined with modern cooking methods.
There a few misses but for the most part everything on the menu is unique, delicious and oh-so-pretty.
We recommend the banana blossom Thai salad, chili-glazed baby back ribs and massaman lamb.
Bo.Lan has been making waves in Bangkok's culinary scene since it opened in 2009.
Serving hard-to-find Thai dishes in an upscale, hip atmosphere, the restaurant is true to Thai cuisine's roots, yet still manages to add a special twist.
Located on Sukhumvit Soi 24, Bo.Lan stars include the smoked Chiang Mai river trout salad, green curry stuffed egg yolks and stir-fried beef with dried shrimp paste.
This place is good for a romantic dinner or a work meeting with colleagues who appreciate fine food.
For the especially ravenous, there's a large set menu
Earning first place on the latest "Asia's 50 best restaurants" list, progressive Indian restaurant Gaggan is one of the most exciting venues to arrive in Bangkok in recent years.
But don't go into this place thinking you're going to be enjoying the usual Indian dishes like butter chicken or mutton biryani.
El-Bulli-trained chef Gaggan Anand uses molecular technology to put a funky twist on classic dishes from his native India, rendering many of them unrecognizable while giving you that "a-ha!" moment as the connection hits your taste buds.
The best table in this two-story colonial Thai home offers a window right into the kitchen, where you can see Gaggan and his staff in action.
Culinary theater at its best.
Supanniga Eating Room
If you want more from Thai cuisine than green curry, pad Thai and papaya salad Supanniga Eating Room is a great new Bangkok option.
It's located in a narrow, three-story Thonglor shophouse, decked out with raw cement walls, yellow booths and outdoor sofas on the top floor.
Inspired by Trat province on Thailand's southeastern coast and the northeast Isaan region, the menu has rewards for the uninitiated.
Highlights include yam pla salid thod krob (sweet and sour salad with crispy fish) and sweet and herbal moo chor muang (fatty chunks of pork in an earthy curry of sour leaves).
Almost every dish here is colorful -- yes, you'll be taking pictures of it before you eat -- and the mood is casual.
At this little eatery you get personal service and authentic Isaan-style street food without the street.
The restaurant is air-conditioned, which is a good thing since dishes have plenty of spice.
Chicken, pork and seafood are grilled nicely and come with sticky rice. Veggies are fresh and crisp.
A great quick, flip-flop-friendly pit stop.
Soul Food Mahanakorn
An expat favorite, low-key lighting and wood finishing define the cozy interior of this three-floor shop house.
Soul Food Mahanakorn's kitchen revolves around what's fresh in the markets -- seafood from Sam Yan one day or meat from Or Tor Kor another.
Healthy organic foods, such as rice, meats and some vegetables, are sourced from organic farmers in the northeast.
Recommended dishes: everything. It's all good here.
The cocktails are fantastic, too, especially the "Bangkok Bastard," a mojito-like drink with a Thai-style twist.
Shop houses and street food
Stir-fried pork and basil topped with a fried egg. So simple, so wonderful.
Bangkok is famous for its street food and shop-house restaurants, which makes picking just one vendor difficult.
To experience the best of Bangkok street food, we advise hitting some of the more famous eating neighborhoods and start sampling.
Most shop houses or street vendors specialize in one dish, whether it's duck noodles, pad Thai or red pork on rice.
Some of the best Bangkok street food zones to hit include Bang Rak (between Taksin BTS station and the junction of Charoen Krung and Silom Road), Victory Monument (BTS: Victory Monument), Soi Ari (BTS: Ari), Chinatown, Wongwian Yai and Ratchawat.
An upmarket bar with great views, The Speakeasy at Hotel Muse is set in a beautiful space on the 24th and 25th floors.
Designed to bring back some Prohibition Era nostalgia, it consists of two bars, a cigar lounge, private salas and a boardroo.
Sukhumvit Soi 11
In recent years, this busy Bangkok street in the city's Nana area has been pumped full of hotels, tourist-friendly pubs, nightclubs and restaurants.
Soi 11 newcomers worth checking out include Apoteka -- great live music, stiff drinks and craft beer -- and Levels, an enormous, high-ceilinged room whose centerpiece is a circular, glowing bar with a jazzy LED chandelier overhead.
The latter has house-heavy DJs every night, with the occasional visiting big deal international act.
Another great place for bar hopping -- if you don't mind hanging with the under-25 set -- the numerous clubs and pubs that line Royal City Avenue (taxi drivers all know it as RCA) provide a congregation point for youngsters looking to chill out.
Named for the historic American highway, Route 66 is the mother of all clubs here, where the ghetto riche and urban fab descend in throngs to dance to a variety of music.
For live music, there's Cosmic Café.
Curious name aside, WTF on Sukhumvit Soi 51 lives up to its multi-faceted concept of food-drink-art-friendship, attracting the city's intellectual and creative class.
WTF is comfortably tiny, with a few tables scattered around on the first floor near a well-stocked bar, while the second floor serves as a gallery space.
It may be located in the basement of a hotel (accessed via a separate, dark entrance), but this speakeasy-like bar with a Shanghai opium den vibe comes with the solid pedigree of nightlife mogul Ashley Sutton.
Sutton is behind several of the city's time warping establishments, such as Iron Fairies and Fat Gutz.
At Maggie Choo's, you get live jazz, leather armchairs, bank vaults and Queen Victoria busts juxtaposed with cocktails, tile work, lattice and heavy wooden doors.
Beautiful women clad in cheongsams hang from swings and drape themselves across the bar.
Thai fashion designers
Beyond the city's many Louis Vuitton, Hermès and other big-brand boutiques at high-end malls are some talented local designers earning global praise as well.
So where to find Thailand's hottest young designers?
Gaysorn Plaza has popular brands like Sretsis and Issue, while celeb favorite Kloset has shops at Siam Center, Siam Paragon and CentralWorld.
To check out the designs of up-and-comer k and i, head to Zen at CentralWorld.
Jatujak Weekend Market
Bangkok's Jatujak (or Chatuchak) Weekend Market -- JJ for short -- is one of the biggest in Asia. Covering 35 acres, it has thousands of vendors and attracts as many as 200,000 shoppers on weekends,
It's the place to go for Thai handicrafts, artwork, clothing, household goods and even pets.
The downside? It's hot. It's crowded. And it's easy to get lost amid the labyrinthine network of stalls.
Yet that's why some people love it.
The rest of us avoid the madness by going early in the morning, before 9 a.m., or later in the day, at about 4 p.m.
Jatujak Weekend Market, BTS, Mo Chit station; MRT: Chatuchak Park Station
Asiatique The Riverfront
Asiatique The Riverfront is a huge shopping and entertainment complex beside Bangkok's Chao Phraya river.
Inspired by the city's days as a riverside trading post in the early 1900s, it resembles a traditional pier with rows of warehouses.
The restaurants and bars include a mixture of upscale bistro-style restaurants serving Thai, Japanese, French and Italian, as well as an Irish pub and a wine bar.
There's also an outdoor, covered food court.
The best way to get there is to hop on the free shuttle boat that runs regularly from the BTS Thaksin pier.
Ancient City features dozens of scale versions of Thailand's most significant landmarks.
This is the only way to tour Thailand's most significant historical sites in a day.
About a 45-minute drive from the city, this Samut Prakan attraction features replicas of dozens of major Thai landmarks, from the Grand Palace in Bangkok to the contested Preah Vihear temple on the border with Cambodia.
Given Ancient City's size, walking isn't recommended.
Better to rent a golf cart or a bike to cruise around the park.
A well-designed stage production featuring more than 100 performers, Siam Niramit crams seven centuries of Thai culture into a fantastic 80-minute show that's heavy on special effects.
Shows start daily at 8 p.m. and there's an onsite restaurant offering a fairly standard Thai buffet dinner from 5:30 p.m.
After the show, families can check out onsite attractions like elephant rides, a recreation of a traditional Thai village and other cultural displays.
Jim Thompson House
Visit Jim Thompson House to see where the legend hung his hat. And silk.
The legend of Jim Thompson is outlined in every Thailand guidebook, while the iconic brand's products are in 13 shops around Bangkok and two factory outlets.
For the true experience, head for the historic Jim Thompson House and learn about the brand's mysterious namesake, an American who gained worldwide recognition for rebuilding the Thai silk industry before disappearing in the Malaysian jungle in 1967.
The traditional Thai-style teak house, surrounded by plants and trees, is filled with Southeast Asian antiques that he acquired through his travels.
But don't let us convince you of its quality.
Somerset Maugham, who dined with Thompson at this house in 1959, summed it up best: "You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare, you have arranged them with faultless taste."
Museum of Contemporary Art
For a look at Thailand's modern art scene, you'll need to head out of the downtown core to Bangkok's new Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).
A five-story space owned by a Thai telecommunications magnate who wanted to share his huge Thai modern art collection with the masses, MOCA offers a great introduction to those who want a primer on Thailand's art scene.
Most of the country's leading artists of the last 50 years are represented, as well as some lesser-known greats.
Museum of Floral Culture
This is one of Bangkok's gorgeous surprises.
The creation of Thai floral artist Sakul Intakul, the museum is for flower and nature lovers and those with an interest in Thai flower culture.
It features exhibits of important floral cultures from civilizations across Asia such as India, China, Japan, Laos and Bali/Indonesia.
It's housed in a beautifully preserved, 100-year-old teak mansion with colonial architecture.
Lush grounds have been transformed into an impeccably landscaped Thai-meets-Zen-style garden.
As Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist, there are of course hundreds of Bangkok temples -- known in Thai as "wats."
For a look at how locals worship, head to any one of the glittering neighborhood wats, often located far down tiny sois and well out of the way of tourist traffic.
Some are actually in massive complexes filled with halls, schools and revered statues.
The three big ones on the tourist trail -- the Grand Palace, Wat Po and Wat Arun -- should be a best of Bangkok stop on any first-timer's itinerary, as they are genuinely impressive and loaded with historical significance.