I have enjoyed my three trips to Bangkok in the past 15 years. I find that Bangkok is a great place to recover from the jet lag from your long flight for one or two days before venturing out into other areas of the region. There are nonstop flights to Yangon, Siem Riep and Luang Prabang and other flights to Bhutan sometimes with stops.
It is a huge city, and not very walking-friendly due to many expressways and the river, but there are several things you definitely need to see:
Take a long boat tour of the Chao River and the smaller canals or khlongs. It is a great way to see the city. You will see small Thai bungalows on stilts, beautiful flowers, floating restaurants and markets and morning baths.
Wat Arun: This is a famous Bangkok temple, named after Aruna, the Indian god of dawn. It is located in the area of Bangkok known as Thon Buri which was where the capital was moved between 1767 and 1782. The decorations are really incredible. You will see rows of demons, decorated with pieces of porcelain, line the exterior. Check out the Royal Barge Museum if you have time.
Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaco: This is an amazing site with color everywhere. The Bot, hall where new monks take their vows, of the Emerald Buddha is a highlight along with the golden Chedi, which sparkles in the sun, the decorative gilt figures and wonderful wall paintings. You will see the Royal Guest House, Audience Hall, Dressing Hall, Reception Hall and many other buildings.
Wat Pho: This is one of the oldest temples in the capital dating from the 16th century. It is famous for its institute of Thai Massage.
Jim Thompson House: This is one of the best-preserved traditional Thai houses in the capital and a wonderful museum. It was the home of Jim Thompson, the American entrepreneur, who after World War II revived the art of Thai silk weaving. His collection of antiquities and artworks, from all over Southeast Asia, is really great.
Vimanmek Palace: Located in Dusit Park, this is the palace built by King Chulalongkorn who was determined to Westernize Bangkok. Vimanmek is a three story Victorian type mansion built of golden teak.
Loy Krathong: This is one of the best of Thailand’s National festivals. It occurs at the November full moon along the river and canals where people pay homage to the goddess of the rivers and waterways. In the evening people float krathongs or bowls fashioned out of banana leaves and flowers holding lighted candles on the water after dark. I have seen it twice and it is really wonderful. I was at the Oriental the first time and the Shangri-La the second. Both have lavish buffet celebrations, with music, folk dancing and fireworks. I have not been able to see it in the local neighborhoods which I understand is much more understated and meaningful.
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market: I really enjoyed the trip to the market 62 miles south of Bangkok. I understand that the floating markets in Bangkok are more for tourists, but this one is more unspoiled. The small wooden boats are paddled mainly by female traders who sell fresh produce and spices. Some do sell souvenir straw hats and refreshments.
Ayutthaya: If you have time try to visit the city that was founded in 1350 and which became a major power until being destroyed by the Burmese. There are several Wats but Wat Phra Si Sanphet, with its three Chedis, was the Royal Palace. Others to visit include Wat Mahathat and Wat Ratchaburana across the road. I also liked the the Prang or decorated tower of Wat Phra Ram which was beautiful at sunset. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bang Pa-in Palace: This is the summer palace with its buildings dating from the mid-1800’s. The Golden Pavilion, which sits in the middle of the water, is the Phra Thinang Aisawan Thipha-at Pavilion which is really lovely.
For eating in Bangkok, I have typically enjoyed my hotel restaurants or the restaurant at the Jim Thompson store. Other suggestions that I have recently read about include Vesper Cocktail Bar & Restaurant and Opposite Mess Hall. Nahm restaurant at the Metropolitan Hotel is on the list of the Top 50 Restaurants in Asia. Sirocco, at the Lebua Hotel, is known for its rooftop dining. You might also try Bo Jan, Eat Me Restaurant, Feuang Nara, Gaggan for Indian Food, Green Garden and Le Vendome. Gaggan was recently listed as the Top Restaurant in Asia in Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Eat Me Restaurant was #25.