This blog post was updated on October 15, 2019.

Thailand is a millennial mecca, a tourist hub for the young and old, rich and broke.  A gateway to the rest of Southeast Asia, Bangkok has become the hub of the hub – a city bustling with energy unlike any other in the world. Its old-world qualities tell a story of devotion, history and royalty. Its exotic aspects such as its unrivaled street food scene, cheap pleasures and social-media-worthy stops assure there’s something for everyone.

If you’re taking flights to Thailand, and it’s on your way to some of Thailand’s other destinations (party beaches, mountains, animal sanctuaries) it’s worthy of more than a pass through. You could easily spend a month, but 36 hours is enough time to catch the highlight reel of Asia’s “City of Angels”.

Day 1

No matter what time you arrive in Bangkok, do your best to fight the jet lag and plow through the first day. With limited time to explore, you’ll need every spare minute.

Getting from the airport to your destination is the first obstacle. Grab (Thailand’s version of Uber), taxis and buses are the best way to travel from the airport, but be prepared with local currency if you take a taxi. When my husband and I visited we hadn’t traded for Thai currency and our taxi driver was less than enthused when we couldn’t pay the tolls. Grab typically accounts for tolls in your fare.

Haven’t booked your trip yet? Get your flights to Thailand now! 

Temple Time

Grand Palace, Bangkok

Bangkok’s temples are the must-see sites, which is why I recommend you see them first.

Start with The Grand Palace. It opens at 8 am, and since crowds here can rival Disneyland, you’ll want to be as prompt as possible, (plus it gets very hot as the day goes on)! The architecture, mosaic tiling, statues and landscaping are jaw-dropping and so unique to Thailand. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is located in the same complex, if you arrive early, go here first since it tends to get the most crowded.

Note that The Grand Palace has a very strict dress code. Both women and men must have their elbows and ankles covered. If you’re not dressed appropriately you can rent sarongs at the entrance. When we went we beat the rush, but as we left a few hours later the line for the sarongs was insane, so come prepared if possible.

Other must-see temples include the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (not far from The Grand Palace) and Wat Arun.

Getting around Thailand is very affordable. You can always take the aforementioned taxi or Grab. There are boats as well, which offer a different view of the city. But before you leave, you absolutely must take a ride in the charming (and sometimes terrifying) Tuk-tuk’s. They’re cheap, they’re fun, and you’ll have no problem getting one since the drivers are eager, assertive, and everywhere.

Take a Nightwalk

Wandering cities at night is a great way to explore a new culture, and Bangkok does not disappoint. On nearly every corner of the city are religious shrines, where people visit to give prayers and offerings. Food, money, and candles are often left at the sites. If you visit some of the larger shrines (such as Erawan and Ganesha), you’ll see dancers. The religious devotion of the Thai people juxtaposed with the urban backdrop was a beautiful surprise to me. And somehow seeing them perform at night was even more moving.

Day 2

Get a Massage

If you have been in Thailand for more than 48 hours and failed to get a massage yet, start your morning off right.

Thai massages focus on pressure points, beginning with the feet and moving upwards towards the head. The idea is to relax and realign energies in the body. The massages are amazing, and for westerners, it is cheap. Prices range from around $7-25 USD per hour and please be sure to tip well! We loved our first massage so much that we indulged in one nearly every other day of our 10-day trip.

Shop at the Market

Floating Market in Bangkok

If you’re visiting on a weekend, plan one of your days around the Chatuchak Weekend Market. There are over 15,000 stalls in the sprawling market, selling everything from art, antiques, housewares, clothing, and more. Try the Thai coconut ice-cream, barter with the shopkeepers, and plan to get a reflexology foot massage when you get too hot. If you see something, buy it, since finding your way back to a particular stall is risky.

If you’re tired of the bartering scene, skip over to Siam Square. The shops are beautiful, designer, and it’s air-conditioned.

And if neither of these markets appeal, take a day trip to one of the floating markets. Damnoen Saduak is the biggest, but we found Taling Chan much more charming.

Park Play

If you still have time and energy, visit Lumpini Park (Bangkok’s answer to New York City’s Central Park.) Some people find it a waste of time, but we always try to visit parks when traveling to new cities, because it gives such good insight into the culture. Here, you’ll see groups practicing tai chi, massive monitor lizards (honestly a little terrifying at first) and locals picnicking. Pick up some of Bangkok’s delectable street food and find a spot in the shade. It’s a wonderful way to rest your legs and still enjoy the city.

You may also like: Heading to Bangkok? Here are Some Sustainable Travel Tips for While You’re There!

 Day 3

Don’t Fall for the Tourist Traps

Our third day in Thailand began with a casual visit to Wat Traimit, the Temple of the Golden Buddha. While there, we began speaking with what we thought was a local university student. He turned out to be part of an elaborate scheme to get tourists to fall for a custom-suit tuk-tuk tour through the city. And, we fell for it.

After my husband adamantly explained on the third leg of the tour (when we realized we’d been had,) that he did not want or need a custom suit, we finally hailed a taxi and went back to our hotel, frustrated that our morning had been wasted.

Tourist traps are a real thing, not a cliche. We learned to say no once and move on. Time is valuable when traveling, and while we are always eager to support the local economy, our time was wasted because we were not clear enough and also – the scheme was pretty well thought out.

Still, visit the temple. It’s lovely.

Visit the Jim Thompson House

The Jim Thompson House is polarizing. Some feel it’s underwhelming and a touristy, others find it charming and informative. I’m in the second camp. The home is beautifully restored and tucked away in a quiet part of the city. I loved the old-world charm and the details about the American Jim Thompson, who started the Thai silk industry after World War II. The home is filled with Asian art and most of all – silk.

You’ll need to purchase tickets and take a tour, which they offer in many different languages.

Note: We also ate the best mango sticky rice of our trip at the charming cafe.

Eat, Eat, Eat! 

Thai Food

Listen, you don’t go to Thailand and leave hungry, and if you do, it’s your own fault. I still dream about the crispy, eggy bowls of Pad Thai, that first bite of green curry, and the Nutella and banana roti served hot from the food stall outside our hotel.

I did not expect to love Thai food as much as I did. Here are some must-have dishes that I have regularly cooked at home (with rare success) in order to satisfy my Thai cravings:

  • Som Tam (papaya salad that is spicy, not sweet)
  • Tom Yum Goom (spicy shrimp soup)
  • Laab (very spicy meat and mint salad)
  • Pad See Eiw (wide noodles, a good change from Pad Thai)

If you have any time left over in your 36 hours in Bangkok, spend them eating. There’s no better use of your time in my opinion. Food memories are the best memories!

Embrace the Chaos

Thailand Tourist

I’ll never forget our last night in Thailand. We sat on our hotel balcony, the city below us blaring with light, traffic, people, worship. I remarked to my husband how earlier in the day I watched a mother nurse her baby while her husband drove them on a scooter in rush hour traffic. It was crazy to me since I am fully immersed in American suburbia. But she was a mom, and so was I, and we were both doing the same thing in our own way.

I had that strange feeling of connection that comes from visiting a place that is so foreign, and discovering that you belong there – because you, like the city’s occupants, are human. All of us, sharing the same sky, living, working, praying. 36 hours in Bangkok was quick, but enough time for that.


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About The Author

Hey I'm Mandy. Writer, traveler, wife, mother, author, woman, over-sharer. I like to talk about the grit of travel, the beautiful, and the people that I meet. Oh yeah - and traveling with kids.