the urbanist: bangkok

Bangkok’s Best Day Trips: Wild Elephants, Jungle Biking, and a Siamese Theme Park

Khao Yai National Park, in Thailand.

Even the city’s most ardent supporters sometimes need a break. From Bangkok’s “green lung” getaway to a triple-waterfall national park, this is where the locals go to escape.

Climb Central
30 minutes from city center
“Every week or two, I go here to do some indoor rock climbing. It’s a good day off after a rough weekend shift. The best part is a nearby traditional Thai restaurant called ครัวกาญจน์ (Kitchen Kan). The food is crazy-good and features a variety of fish dishes like chu-chee pla kang (catfish cooked in red curry sauce). I also like a dish called pad ped keng, which literally translates to ‘spicy stir-fried deer.’” —Niks Anuman-Rajadhon, co-owner of cocktail bars Teens of Thailand and Asia Today

Bang Krachao. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images

Bang Krachao
One hour from city center
“Bangkok’s ‘green lung’ is a protected wetlands area in Phra Pradaeng, on the other side of the Chao Phraya river from the glitzy malls of Sukhumvit. You can take your own bike across on the ferry from the Bangkok Port — where the cargo ships come in — or just rent a bike from the pier on the other side. Be sure to explore the botanical park and old banana and coconut orchards lining the narrow wood walkways. Parts of it look like the Amazon, and yet you’re literally a ten-minute bike ride and five-minute ferry ride from the Emporium mall. The market there is touristy, but it’s for Thai tourists. They’re super fussy about good food, so everything is excellent, especially the old-fashioned Thai puddings, which are usually made from coconut, palm sugar, and rice flour, with a floral scent and natural coloring from pandan leaves or flowers. Ta go is very good, too; it’s pandan jelly with coconut cream on top in a pandan leaf cup.” —Ing Kanjanavanit, director of the controversial film Shakespeare Must Die and co-founder of gallery/movie theater Cinema Oasis

Ancient Siam
One hour from city center
“Another good day-trip option is the Ancient Siam theme park in Samut Prakan province. Park your car nearby, pay a small admission fee to enter (or a big one if you insist on taking your car inside the park), and rent a bicycle. The first thing you see is a movie set–like ancient street with a beautiful brothel and an old-fashioned Thai ice-cream cart parked at what looks like the entrance to a floating market. You can get a solid noodle lunch there, and then climb up the miniature Preah Vihear temple. It may sound tacky, but the park was funded by a Chinese immigrant [Lek Viriyaphant] who adored Thailand and had it built as a gift to the country that gave him refuge and wealth. He was very big on authenticity. The James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun shot its martial-arts fight scene here in a beautiful, old Thai house. Lots of other lesser-known movies have also been shot here and in the floating market.” —Ing Kanjanavanit

Wat Phra Si Sanphet at Ayutthaya. Photo: Jean-Francois Peron/Getty Images

Ayutthaya Historical Park
Ninety minutes from city center
“See the Siamese ruins at Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This magnificent golden city was dubbed the ‘Venice of the East,’ but it was burned down by the Burmese almost 300 years ago. (The gold from Ayutthaya now covers the great Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.) Bangkok was founded after that; we exchanged our golden city for a practical port near the sea. The ruins of Ayutthaya are really atmospheric. There are many good boutique hotels and guesthouses around there, plus fish and river prawn restaurants good for long, lazy, boozy lunches. Ayutthaya has become a big craze lately among costume-wearing Thai daytrippers because a hit soap opera, Bupphesaniwat, a.k.a. Love Destiny, is set there. [To avoid the throngs], get there right after sunset. That way you can walk around the lit-up ruins without all the pestilential tour buses.” —Ing Kanjanavanit

Lopburi
Two hours from city center
“I always choose Lopburi over Ayutthaya because it’s so small and quiet. You can explore the area by bike or by foot within a day, and catch the sunset train back to BKK. It includes Phra Prang Sam Yod, one of Thailand’s most iconic Khmer temples — the one with all the monkeys. Other attractions include Baan Wichayen’s mix of Ayutthaya-style and French classical architecture and King Narai’s Palace, whose throne hall features 17th-century French engravings. Wat Sao Thong Thong is interesting as well because it’s in perfect condition and was not destroyed by the Burmese like Ayutthaya’s temples; there’s an amazing U Thong Style Buddha there. Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat isn’t as well preserved, but it’s a nice blend of late-Khmer and early-Sukhothai architecture. In other words, Lopburi is what people think they will find in Thailand but rarely ever see.” —Romain Dupuy, creative director at the architecture and interior design firm AvroKO, and co-founder of live music venue SoulBar and multilevel eating emporium FooJohn

Haew Narok waterfall in Khao Yai National Park. Photo: Geax/Getty Images

Khao Yai National Park
Three hours from city center
“This park is massive: It spans over 770 square miles across three provinces. I go up here whenever I get the chance, because it’s one of the best areas in the country for fresh air. There are many things to check out, including three different waterfalls (Haew Narok, Haew Suwat, and Pha Kluai Mai), a viewpoint overlooking an epic valley (Pha Diao Dai), and an animal observation tower near a natural lake that is famous for its wild elephants. I’ve seen them about five times, but deer and monkeys are more common, along with porcupines, snakes, and all sorts of birds. Don’t expect to see a hornbill, though; they’re even rarer than the elephants. Weekdays are the best time to go to Khao Yai because there’s hardly anyone around. Paradise!” —Piyatat Hemmatat, photographer and founder of the RMA Institute

The Best Day Trips From Bangkok