Bangkok was the city we arrived in for the Southeast Asia leg of our RTW trip. We were admittedly nervous before our arrival, as we had heard conflicting reports of this major metropolis. Seasoned travelers we had met on the road hated it. Prominent bloggers and travelers had found it overwhelming and chose to get out as soon as possible.
We didn’t know what to think as we touched down for the first time at Suvarnabhumi Airport at 2am. Our initial view of the city was not favorable as our cab ride cost double what we were told it would. Being immediately screwed by a taxi driver didn’t leave a good taste in our mouths, especially after a series of long flights and arriving in the middle of the night.
After a good night’s sleep and a fantastic breakfast at our guesthouse (Suk 11 in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok), we were ready to hit the town and give Bangkok a second chance. It didn’t take long for our views to change, and over the course of the next three and a half months, Bangkok become our safe haven, our home away from home, our place of familiarity.
A great hub for exploring the rest of Southeast Asia, if you are traveling around this region for any length of time, chances are you will find yourself in Bangkok several times. Air Asia is a fantastic low cost carrier for the region, and cheap flights abound out of Bangkok. Many long bus and train trips also originate from Bangkok so by default, tourists and travelers seem to be in and out of Thailand’s capital if traveling around Southeast Asia.
Travelers seem to have a love/hate relationship with Bangkok. While it is huge, crowded, dirty, and sometimes overwhelming, it is also exciting, full of life, and pulsing with an unexplainable energy that only certain cities in the world possess. If you enjoy big, bustling metropolises and do your homework, Bangkok can become one of your favorite cities as well. What’s not to love about a city that has it all? If you’ve never visited or have had some bad experiences in Bangkok, try these 9 tips for surviving and getting the most out of this amazing city.
1. Eat the street food- Perhaps the best part about Southeast Asia is the street food, and Bangkok is the leader. It is everywhere you turn, and the variety of options is astounding. Street carts are everywhere, selling everything from freshly made to order pad thai, bags full of fresh pineapple, various meats on a stick, doner kabob, and any form of delicious Thai food you can think of. Turn down almost any street or alleyway, and chances are the aroma of something delicious will lead you to the right place.
2. Go to the markets- Markets are the lifeblood of Southeast Asia, and Bangkok leads the way again with some of the most amazing markets in the world. If you are wandering around any part of the city, the chances are high that you will stumble across an amazing market of some sort. They are literally everywhere. A great place to find some amazing street food and buy some souvenirs or gifts for the cheap, markets in Bangkok are amazing. Check out the following more prominent markets that are popular with both Thais and travelers.
- Chatuchak Market- The mother of all markets, Chatuchak weekend market is the largest I’ve ever seen. Encompassing an area with over 15,000 stalls that draws near a quarter of a million visitors a day, you can literally find anything you would ever want or need here. It’s a labyrinth of stalls that could take days to navigate, and it’s one of the truly can’t miss areas of Bangkok.
- Suan Lum Night Bazaar- This night market next to Lumphini Park takes place 7 days a week and has it all. Cheap shopping can be done here, and the food court here is second to none. I had perhaps the hottest dish I’ve ever eaten in this bazaar, the choices are endless, and they even have live musical entertainment. A great place to spend an evening or two.
- Khao San Road Night Market- This backpacker haven transforms into an open-air market every night, selling those touristy t-shirts, artwork, and souvenirs to bring home.
3. Don’t stay on Khao San Road- If you’re in your early 20′s, ignore this advice and stay near Khao San Road. You will have a blast. If you’re a bit older, look into other areas of the city to stay in. We loved Sukhumvit and stayed there during all our stays in Bangkok. It’s an expat area of the city (and also a big red light district-the one negative of the area, but I guess it could be a positive depending on what you’re looking for) that is near the Skytrain that can get you anywhere you need to go.
4. Don’t believe the tuk-tuk drivers- I hate to be a jaded traveler, but if you simply don’t trust anything a tuk-tuk driver says to you, you’ll probably be better off for it. If visiting some of the city’s more popular attractions like the Grand Palace, chances are a tuk-tuk driver will tell you it’s closed. It’s not. Insist he takes you there anyway. Don’t go on the better tour he will offer you (you will end up in his buddies’ gem shops at some point of your tour).
5. Use the public transport- Yes, it’s easy to just hop in a tuk-tuk or cab, but you’ll have to deal with lies and deception much of the time. Taxi drivers usually refuse to turn their meters on, instead wanting to bargain on a fixed price (which will most likely be twice as much as it should be). The Skytrain, subway, and river taxis are instead a much better way to get around, and with the crazy traffic, you’ll probably get to where you want to go faster and cheaper.
6. Get a massage- Massage parlors are everywhere, and they are fantastic. Where else can you get a 1 hour massage for less than $10US? Most are of very high quality, and if for some reason it’s not good, you aren’t out very much money.
7. Get your hard to find western items here- If your ipod broke, your computer is going to shit, or you are just craving a good old fashioned American pizza, you can get them all in Bangkok. Sometimes you just need or want something familiar from home, and if that’s the case, Bangkok is your place. There’s nothing in Bangkok that you can’t get in New York or London.
8. Smile a lot- Thailand is known as the land of smiles, and while Bangkok is a little rougher around the edges than other cities in the country, the people by and large are super friendly. A big, warm smile goes a long way, and even if you are frustrated with a some shady person trying to rip you off, a smile goes further than anger. Thai people typically don’t respond well to conflict, and yelling, being loud, and aggressive doesn’t do much to help your situation.
9. Learn the language and how to wai properly- Learning a few Thai words and phrases (hello and thank you at the very least) goes a long way into how you’re perceived by the locals. Showing a willingness to learn parts of their culture, like speaking the language and learning how to greet with the wai (slight bow with hands pressed together in a prayer-like manner) will garner you much respect by the local community.
Cities like Bangkok sometimes get a bad reputation. While I understand how someone can be put off by this crazy, chaotic city. But most of the time, travelers negative perceptions of Bangkok can be prevented by simply doing a bit of homework. Knowing what to see, understanding the culture, and learning about the scams prevalent can go a long way into how you view this city.
Have you been to Bangkok? What were your thoughts about the city? Do you have any tips for surviving this sometimes crazy city and getting the most out of it? Comment below to share your thoughts.