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Bangkok on the Cheap: Budget travel that doesn't feel that way

If you're traveling on a budget, Southeast Asia is a great place to visit. Once you get here, it's easy to keep the cost of living very low, and have an amazing time on just a few bucks.

Take your pick from our recommendations to build your itinerary for a great and cheap day in Bangkok.

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Buddhas, Buddhas Everywhere

Start the day with a visit to one of many incredible temples in Bangkok, one of the city's biggest draws. It's best to begin in the morning, before the day steams up in Thailand's famously muggy heat.

Wat Pho

This royal monastery from the days of King Rama I of the Chakri Dynasty (1782-1809) is located in the heart of Bangkok, where the ancient city once stood. While there are literally hundreds of Buddha statues around the sprawling Wat Pho complex -- rows and rows of them aligning the courtyard walls and many more in freestanding temples -- the big draw is the huge, golden Reclining Buddha. The site of this serene Buddha at the moment of Enlightenment is truly awe-inspiring, and perhaps the most magnificent Buddha I have ever seen. Ashes of King Rama I are kept underneath the reclining statue. You can even get a massage at the famous massage clinic, located at the back of the compound.

Wat Arun

Just across the river from Wat Pho lies this distinctively different site, translated in English as the Temple of Dawn. This is the site of the first building of the new Thai capital of Bangkok, after the sacking of the original capital at Ayutthaya by the Burmese. Wat Arun was then erected by King Rama II in 1809, and completed by Rama III about two decades later. Much smaller in scope than Wat Pho, it is impressive for its imposing stone structure adorned with mosaics, and the steep steps that let you climb about halfway up. An enchanting surprise is the golden bells that dangle from the edges of the spires and cast a gentle melody onto the breeze. You can get to Wat Arun by taking the ferry across the river (4 baht); a great view and photo opportunity of this temple is from the opposite side of the water.

Street Eats for Lunch

After gazing in wonder at the temples, ease your feet and stomach with the gastronomical delight that is Thai food. Bangkok is one of the best cities in the world for delicious, cheap street food -- from tiny one-person carts to little sidewalk restaurants offering shaded tables.

Pick your offering of grilled meats on a stick, salted fish, squid, or all kinds of soups and noodle dishes. The ferry landing area near Wat Pho (Water Taxi stop 10) is full of terrific food shops popular with both locals and tourists; we had an incredible meal of stir-fried eggplant, chicken with saffron rice, eggrolls and Thai iced-tea.

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Take in a Traditional Thai Dance

Dancing is a national pastime, and seeing the authentic thing (rather than a packaged show put on for tourists) shouldn't be missed. Fortunately, there are a couple of spots in Bangkok where you can not only see the real deal, but it can also free.

The Vimanmek Palace is the world's largest golden teak mansion, built by King Rama V in 1900. The dances are held on the grounds and are completely free. You don't even have to have a museum entrance ticket to see them. If you want to enter the Vivanmek Palace itself, the ticket costs 100 baht. However, if you've already bought a ticket to see Wat Phra Kaew/Grand Palace, you can also explore the Vivanmek Palace on the same ticket.

You can also see an interesting form of dance at the Erawan Shrine, located incongruously at the busy intersection of Ratchadamri and Ratchaprasong Roads in the midst of upscale malls and office buildings. Erawan Shrine became popular after it was reputed to have protective powers, and locals drop by daily for prayers and to commission dances from the traditional costumed dancers there, accompanied by live musicians. Dances are impromptu and the commissioner gets to sit on the pillow at the dancing platform and pray while his or her dance is performed. This is the real, local insight into Thai dancing.

Jim Thompson House

Although the admission ticket is slightly higher than other attractions I've highlighted for a cheap day in Bangkok, it's well worth a visit. This peaceful enclave holds an incredible traditional Thai teakwood home that belonged to American entrepreneur Jim Thompson, who fell in love with Thailand during WWII and returned after the war to make his home here. And what a home it is -- Thompson salvaged six houses to put together is this one beautiful building full of an incredible collection of antiquities and artwork, some as old as the 7th century Buddha that graces the entrance courtyard. Thompson was responsible for reviving the handwoven Thai silk industry and creating huge interest through worldwide exportation; he mysteriously disappeared on a hike into the Malaysian jungle in 1967, but his Bangkok home is a cool respite in the bustling city, and a glimpse into bygone Thailand.

Chao Phraya River Taxi Ride

As with virtually any city along the water, Bangkok has no shortage of tourist boats to take you along the Chao Phraya River, sometimes including dinner or a show -- and all for a steep tourist price. But you can cruise the entire length of the river within the city for about fifty cents, by taking the Chao Phraya public water taxi.

Along the way, you can glimpse amazing temples such as Wat Arun and Wat Pho, as well as see a lot of local happenings. The public taxis are comfortable and easy to use, although keep in mind that locals use them for commuting, and so toward 5-6 pm they can get crowded.

I recommend starting about 45 minutes before sunset for the most spectacular views, possibly at the northern end of the river at the Krung Thon Bridge (landing #16), to the Memorial Bridge landing (#6) at the southern end. To get back to your hotel or destination, you can simply ride the water taxi back up to the nearest stop, or hop off and catch a taxi or rickshaw. The taxis are also a great way to simply get around, along with the Skytrain, in this city known for gridlock traffic.

Browse Khao San Road, Chatuchak Market or Chinatown

Both of these areas make for great people-watching and shopping. Khao San Road is the original hippie backpacker heaven for Western tourists from the 1960s and 70s. Although it is pretty cheesy and overly touristy now, it's worth a visit and is a fun place to have a beer and pick up fun (although overpriced) souvenirs. There are also lots of traveler-friendly services such as internet cafes, tourist offices, and inexpensive guesthouses in this area, as well as a few spots for nightlife if you want more of a party scene.

Chinatown is sprawling, and much like Chinatowns in other big cities around the world it is full of unrecognizable foods and tiny shops where you can buy everything from ancient Chinese curing herbs to plastic blingy trinkets. There are also some cool temples tucked into the meandering alleys, and Soi Texas enjoys a lively seafood stall scene that pops up in the late afternoon and evening.

If your trip to Bangkok includes a Saturday or Sunday, head to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. As a huge farmer /artisan/flea market fan, this is one of the best markets I've been to anywhere in the world. The massive labyrinth includes loosely organized sections for clothing, housewares, pottery and china, handicrafts, even modern art and incredible antique shops. There are also big pockets of covered restaurant stalls and tables, as well as endless quick drink or snack carts. There are bargains to be had if you fancy shopping, but it's completely free to enter and be entertained by the myriad sights and sounds. To get there, take the Skytrain to the Mo Chit station -- the market is visible from the platform and just outside the Skytrain exit.

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photo by Keith Hajovsky

Shelley Seale is a freelance writer by trade, but a vagabond by nature. Her absolute favorite thing to do is travel, and she loves exploring - and even getting lost in - new and foreign places. She has written for National Geographic, Andrew Harper Traveler, Go Nomad, BootsnAll Travel, Just Cause magazine and many others. She has written several books, including The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India and the Insiders Guide to Seattle. You can visit her website HowToTravelForFree.net
Photo of Shelley Seale by Keith Hajovsky. All other photos by Shelley Seale.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: October 7, 2016



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