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Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
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BTS tracks and traffic crisscross through Siam Square.
BTS tracks and traffic crisscross through Siam Square.
CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to Bangkok

BTS tracks and traffic crisscross through Siam Square.
BTS tracks and traffic crisscross through Siam Square.
  • By Jinda Wedel
  • Photos by Andre Malerba
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Bangkok is a city of contrasts. It can be brutal and easy, rich and poor, cutthroat and philanthropic all at the same time. It’s the center of industry, finance, government, retail and education for all of Thailand, so everything comes together in fascinating, and often creative, ways.

The result is a never-ending cycle of ideas born and extinguished, so if you live here long enough, you’ll see a parade of restaurants, films, events, galleries and activities rise and fall, should they not satisfy the tastes of picky locals. Bangkok’s blend of on-the-edge boldness can be addictive and inspiring, especially set against the backdrop of a country still making its way politically and economically.

Meet Jinda Wedel

Jinda is a half-American and half-Thai journalist who has lived in Bangkok, off and on, for over two decades. She’s also lived in various parts of the United States, India, Singapore and Australia. Her usual obsession with salsa dancing has recently given way to kizomba.

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IN THE ACTION
Sukhumvit Soi 16
Sukhumvit Soi 16 is a slice of Bangkok realness. In this neighborhood, the slums are steps from private residential compounds with their own exotic gardens. Head to streetside dining, like at Talad Pla Wan market, or higher-end restaurants, such as PizzaZo or Bacchus & Co. A large park and lake are just across the road. It also lies at the intersection of two train lines that dissect the city, making this the literal and figurative center of the action. Find this neighborhood.
LOW-KEY
Lat Phrao-Wang Hin
Lat Phrao-Wang Hin, the huge home of Bangkok’s middle class, was largely inaccessible until several years ago because of gridlocked traffic. Nowadays, a train line running through a small corner of it has somewhat eased the congestion, although you’ll still have to navigate the rest in open-air “songthaew” taxis. The neighborhood is emblematic of Bangkok writ large: not quite skyscrapers but not quite suburbs, with lots of hidden gems, such as the Golden Axe Throw Club, or night markets that serve up beer and cheap clothes. Find this neighborhood.
Neighborhoods

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Eat

BREAKFAST
El Mercado
This French-Spanish deli-cum-restaurant reinvents itself almost daily with frequent chef pop-ups, theme nights and a changing menu on the blackboard outside. Evenings are always booked, so opt instead for a late breakfast (try the croissants), or brunch, when you don’t have to call days in advance. The crowds are thinner, and service is quick. And if breakfast isn’t too early for wine for you — no judgment — check out El Mercado’s extensive list.
BTW: Head inside to the cheese deli, where you can customize your own cheese plate.
El Mercado, 490 Soi Phaisingto, Khlong Toei, Bangkok, Thailand 10110
BREAKFAST
Little Home Bakery Thonglor
Founded in 1951, this Filipino-Thai institution is known for its soothing, home-style Thai and Western food, including delicate silver-dollar pancakes that never disappoint. The interior at this location used to be a bit kitsch (see: faux logs), but in the past few years, everything (including the menu) has been updated. A luxury version of Little Home has spread to shopping malls, but the charm doesn’t match that of the original. Some of the waitstaff have worked here for decades, and it’s just not the same without them.
BTW: This is less of a foodie destination and more of a hangover/flu salve if you want something quick, simple and healing. The best dish is the green curry with roti: rich, flavorful and delicious.
413/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55, Khlong Tan Nuea, Wattana, Bangkok, Thailand 10110
LUNCH
May Veggie
May Veggie is vegan, and therefore a love-it-or-hate-it kind of deal. This homey restaurant feels like a community space thanks to its ever-changing charity artwork and bulletin board of events. Its dishes may be polarizing, but the herbal drinks, desserts, fries and anything with avocado are a unifying hit. Sitting down to a fresh coconut juice (served in the husk) is one of the most refreshing things you can do. Vegan ice cream, yogurt and confections sell quickly because they’re simply delicious.
BTW: This place gets packed around 7:30 p.m., so making it a lunch stop is ideal.
May Veggie, 8/3 Ratchadaphisek Rd., Khlong Toei. Bangkok, Thailand 10110
LUNCH
Som Tam Nua (Siam Square)
Som Tam Nua was on-trend before Northeastern Thai food caught on with the international culinary world. This franchise features both traditional (salted crab and fermented fish paste) and innovative versions (sweet corn shavings) of som tam, the pounded papaya salad. Fatty slices of grilled pork neck, marinated beef strips and pork crackling round out the menu. Intense flavors, fast-food-style service and the cheap prices make this a perennial favorite among teenagers, as well as workers from neighboring offices. It’s a perfect break from people-watching in Siam Square.
BTW: It’s particularly busy at noon and on weekends.
Som Tam Nua, 392/14 Soi Siam Square 5, Rama 1 Rd., Pathum Wan. Bangkok, Thailand 10330
DINNER
Barcelona Gaudí
Ask Bangkok’s Spanish crowd where they go for dinner, and you can bet they’ll mention Barcelona Gaudí, named after the iconic architect. The Catalonian eatery has that melty Gaudí-style facade and, true to its name, serves up authentic croquetas and other tapas dishes. The decor is always interesting: A video on Antoni Gaudí plays on repeat on one wall, and odds and ends are placed on shelves for mysterious purposes. If you’re an architect or history buff, you might be able to find their connection.
BTW: Head to the second floor if you’re a large group, and you’ll nearly always get the whole floor to yourself as long as you eat dinner “early” by Spanish standards — before 9 p.m.
Barcelona Gaudí, 13/1 Soi Sukhumvit 23, Khlong Toei Nuea, Watthana, Bangkok, Thailand 10110
DINNER
Baan Ice
Baan Ice is Southern Thai food for lovers of intense flavors. It’s been a food destination for years, thanks to its dedication to authenticity (read: spiciness) and full-on approach to Southern flavors. This is your chance to discover Thai food’s next darling. Think turmeric, bitter and spicy vegetables, spicy yellow curries, the mouth-burning jungle curry and soy-sauce-glazed pork belly.
BTW: Beware: The southern vegetable sator can be addictive when you’re eating it, but its pungent aroma sticks around for at least a day afterward.
Baan Ice, 115 Soi Sukhumvit 55, Khlong Tan Nuea, Watthana, Bangkok, Thailand 10110
LATE-NIGHT
Took Lae Dee
If you want a real local experience, head to any of these cheap and cheery 24-hour diners, renowned for great service and dependable dishes, thanks in no small part to the personal attention of their 70-something owner. The outposts sit inside some branches of Foodland, a 24-hour grocery store. Stick to Thai dishes and you won’t be disappointed — anything with duck tends to be a hit, and they’re happy to tone down the spice level for you. At 2 a.m., you’ll see salsa dancers resting their feet, business executives still discussing deals and tired parents doing some last-minute grocery shopping.
BTW: When the restaurant is packed (as it is every lunchtime), the waitstaff is sometimes overwhelmed. If you’re in a hurry, though, they offer table service, just pay your bill at the till.
Took Lae Dee, 62 Column Tower Soi Sukhumvit 16, Khlong Toei. Bangkok, Thailand 10110
LATE-NIGHT
After You (J Avenue)
Bangkok’s iconic dessert cafe dishes out addictive treats that are Willy Wonka-levels of imaginative and delightful. The sweets range from various flavors of authentic Thai milk tea to the iconic Shibuya-style honey toast, which rivals Tokyo’s. Well-trained staff whip through the orders at the till, so if the line seems long, don’t despair — the system here works, whether you get a number for a table or not. The branches in Siam Paragon, CentralWorld and at J Avenue have never gone wrong. The J Avenue branch stays open the latest (until midnight).
BTW: The free, lightly steeped tea is actually delicious and addictive, so if you’re thirsty, opt for that instead and sip it with their latest offering: a warm, sticky toffee pudding.
After You, J Avenue Thonglor 13, Khet Watthana, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10110, Thailand
(Bangkok illustrator Orawan Siripin for The Washington Post)
LOCALS THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
  1. Most people in Bangkok speak some English, especially if they’re middle- or upper-class or work in the service industry. Those who don’t speak it would happily help you if you request it; they just might not know how to approach, because they’re shy about their ability. Reach out!
  2. Speak softly and smile more. A respectful “wai” — head bowed with your hands together — will defuse most tense situations.
  3. Bangkok isn’t all glitzy skyscrapers, bars and traffic-packed roads. Most of it is city sprawl and suburbs, and Bangkokians take hours to commute into the city center.
(Bangkok illustrator Orawan Siripin for The Washington Post)

Do

Take in Thai film culture
In 2018, Bangkok’s historic, nostalgia-filled Lido movie theater was closed to make way for modern development. That makes Scala the last stand-alone single-screen theater in Thailand, and there are rumblings that this, too, will not last much longer. The theater is Bangkok during a simpler time: Art Deco architecture and retro interiors (think dramatic chandeliers and outrageous ceiling sconces); old-fashioned service uniforms (staff in gloves, waiting like butlers behind velvet ropes); and a neon red Thai and Chinese “Scala” sign. Around the corner you’ll find another gem: A tiny shop where film buff Santi Tuntipantarux sells rare and classic movie posters. Make both stops if you’re a real film geek.
BTW: Head to Scala during annual film festivals — late May is the Silent Film Festival — for a real retro cinemagoer experience.
Scala theater, 184 216 Rama I Rd., Khwaeng Pathum Wan, Khet Pathum Wan, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10330, Thailand
Nong Bon Water Sports Center
Head to tranquil Nong Bon Water Sports Center and spend an afternoon taking a sailing lesson, for the membership fee of 40 baht ($1.26) a year. It’s always a welcome break from the concrete skyline. The expansive park also offers kayaking and windsurfing, along with basketball, soccer, tennis and bicycle (with free bike rental). Twice a day, at 2 and 4 p.m., you can take a class on wind direction, piloting and various equipment before they put you on the water. It’s an activity close to many Thais’ hearts, since it was one of the late king’s favorite pastimes.
BTW: Choose the 4 p.m. slot, when the sun is gentler. Get there 20 minutes ahead to pay your membership fee and borrow essential equipment.
Nong Bon Water Sports Center, Chalerm Phrakiat Rama IX Soi 43, Nong Bon, Prawet, Bangkok, Thailand 10250
Rooftop bar at Escape
If it’s not the rainy season (July to late October), the ubiquitous rooftop bars are a must. The trendy spot of the moment is Escape, which is perched on a mezzanine level at EmQuartier shopping mall. It’s got all the basics: live music, tapas-style dishes, strong cocktails, easy location (right off the Phrom Phong BTS Skytrain station) and hipster-ish decor. Expect to pay a bit more for the luxury of kicking back among the skyscrapers and English-speaking servers. At least you’re not headed to that expensive, Hollywood-movie-famous rooftop bar that has locals rolling their eyes.
BTW: If it’s not dark enough for drinks, take a quiet stroll around EmQuartier’s Sky Garden, a green space that winds around the Helix tower.
Escape, EmQuartier fifth floor, Khlong Tan Nuea, Watthana, Bangkok, Thailand 10110
Chatuchak Market and JJ Plaza
Chatuchak Market, one of the world’s largest outdoor markets, has updated itself and maintained its relevance. It’s still a great place to find knickknacks, clothes by local designers and secondhand treasures, but it also boasts quirky experiences. Think paella with a DJ-ing chef, a pet section with couture dog clothes (and exotic animals) and a new extension of the outdoor section called JJ Plaza. The latter is a nice contrast to the main market hub; with narrow and mazelike alleys, it’s more art gallery than bazaar.
BTW: The official map showing designated zones is more fiction than fact, so don’t be shy about asking for directions.
Chatuchak Market and JJ Plaza, 587/10 Kamphaeng Phet 2 Rd., Lat Yao, Chatuchak, Bangkok, Thailand 10900
Bike around Bang Kachao
Across the Chao Phraya River, you’ll find a leafy Bangkok “village” that seems to have been snatched from the 1950s. This is Bang Kachao, where life, like architectural development, goes at a much slower pace. Rent a bike so you can navigate the sometimes treacherous elevated platforms that locals use to traverse swampy areas. The best part is the modest but serene Sri Nakhon Khuen Khan Park. It features wooden bridges and platforms whose conditions range from disrepair to well maintained. At one section, at the edges, the park and homes bear no sign of maintenance work, so you’ll feel as if you’re discovering something secret as you wind your way through. No wonder it’s a favorite of birdwatchers.
BTW: Time it so you’re back on the boat to Khlong Toei pier around 5:30 or 6 p.m., to watch the sun set behind the lush forest of Bang Kachao.
Bang Kachao, Phrapadaeng, Bangkok, Thailand 10130
Swing dance at the Hop
Bangkok’s swing dancers gather here multiple times a week for free lessons, dance courses, performances and social events. You’ll see the Lindy hop, jazz routines, Balboa and more, and it’s one of the few social dances where Thais outnumber the non-Thais. The Hop is outfitted in warm wood panels, and the bar seems straight out of the 1920s. It’s a neat way to get to know a different side of Bangkok, since you’ll meet professionals from all ages and walks of life.
BTW: Wear shoes and clothes you’ll be comfortable hopping, wiggling and turning around in. That means sneakers or flats that won’t fall off, with slacks or jeans (or a skirt that won’t flip up).
The Hop, 252/8 Silom Rd, Suriyawong, Bang Rak, Bangkok, Thailand 10500
Jinda Wedel
Jinda is a half-American and half-Thai journalist who has lived in Bangkok, off and on, for over two decades. She’s also lived in various parts of the United States, India, Singapore and Australia. Her usual obsession with salsa dancing has recently given way to kizomba.
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jindaella
Andre Malerba
Andre is a contributing photographer for The Washington Post based in Bangkok. He spent three years in Myanmar from 2013 and has since worked throughout the region, from Sri Lanka to Mongolia. Of the many amazing aspects of Bangkok, Andre most appreciates the care that Thai people bring to their food, whether it be a simple plate of khao man gai or specialty coffee at an upscale cafe. This level of attention to detail spills over into everyday life, and even the most humble living spaces show signs of love and caring.
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amcaptures

CITY GUIDES