At a certain point in recent history, the first word that came to mind with the mention of Bangkok was “sex.” For worse rather than for better, Thailand’s capital had achieved a reputation as a destination for (often underage) prostitute-seeking tourists eager to cash in at the city’s many brothels and “happy ending” massage parlors. To say that that Bangkok has completely faded is naive and false; however, this less savory side of the city is being quickly edged out by an appropriately more savory aspect, its culinary culture.

“Food” is rightfully becoming the object most associated with Bangkok, and specifically, street food. Indeed, the best food arguably in Bangkok almost never appears on a plate. Or arrives with silverware. Or often delivered within 10 feet of table and chair. It’s searing hot pork and chicken satay handed to you directly off the grill, oyster omelets made to order and served over sticky rice in a Styrofoam container, and pomegranate juice freshly squeezed and dumped rather unceremoniously in a bag with a straw (who cares–it’s still delicious).

The concept of “street food” unfortunately is often dismissed as greasy, uncomplicated fare that compares negatively to a country’s “real” or serious cuisine. Nothing in farther from the truth in Bangkok, and while Thai classics such as kaphrao mu rat khao (minced pork with basil, chiles, and garlic), tom yam soup, and kaeng khiao wan (green curry) should definitely be on any foodie’s “to eat” list, it’s the esoteric bites (taro dumplings, roasted chestnuts, isaan sausage, and banana roti) served from carts, make-shift stands, and wagons that embody the nation’s sophisticated palate due to diverse influences from different ethnic groups and indirect colonization.

There is plenty to do in Bangkok, of course, besides eat and drink. In between meals and snacks, visitors should check out the city’s many spectacular temples such as wat arun, landmarks like the stunning Emerald Buddha and the Grand Palace, and markets vending electronics, handicrafts, vibrant fabrics, spices, tea. Spa aficionados will be overwhelmed by the abundance of inexpensive yet high-quality, upstanding (i.e., non-happy ending) massage parlors where a one-hour foot rub ($7-10) is so relaxing that you’re drooling by the end. Those looking to wind up rather than wind down are advised to take a fast and furious tuk-tuk ride through the labyrinthine streets where traffic lanes seem more a suggestion than a rule or an equally thrilling but bouncier trip on a water taxi.

Or, just roam. Ditch the map and the navigation apps and make your way through the city’s different districts and neighborhood pockets. Venturing off the tourist path may mean fewer opportunities for cheap spa treatments and souvenirs, but the reward is a chance to observe the ordinary but no less interesting aspects of native Bangkok life: schoolchildren in crisp uniform spilling gleefully out of school, restaurant vendors haggling over equipment, up-and-coming designers and painters displaying their wares in Chinatown’s burgeoning art district.

Wherever you go in Bangkok, one thing is for certain: you will find yourself hungry…and perhaps just a wee frustrated that there’s so much to try and your stomach can only stretch so far.

Urban Swank Quick Tip Travel Guide

STAY at the Sheraton Orchid Hotel, whose rooftop pool and central location make it an ideal place to rest your head when you’re not scurrying through the city.

SHOP in Chinatown, Klong Toey Market, and Wang Lang market for foodstuffs, fashion, and funky collectibles (7-Eleven earrings, anyone?).

SEE the Victory Monument, wat arun, Grand Palace, and wat prakeaw.

Joanna O'Leary

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