Bangkok definitely gets mixed reviews from a lot of travelers. I’ve heard many backpackers say they didn’t really love the city, and that other places like the Southern islands and Chiang Mai are much better. But personally I really freaking love Bangkok. It’s a city of contrasts, and it’s full of surprises. But in order to appreciate the city for yourself, you should definitely check out these tips first.
1) Don’t spend all of your time in the Old City.
The standard things “to see” in Bangkok for tourists are the Grand Palace, Temple of the Reclining, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Jim Thompson House, etc. etc. etc. These are almost all located in the old city, far from the Skytrain and the metropolis that is growing up around it.
There are a million different neighborhoods in Bangkok. My personal favorites are Thong Lo and Asok, off the Sukhumvit line of the BTS(Skytrain). These are where trendy bars, restaurants, and shopping malls can be found. The charm of Bangkok is that it’s where old meets new, poverty meets, wealth, and modern meets ancient. You best get the feel for that in this neighborhood, where you can get amazing Khao Men Gai(chicken with rice and ginger sauce) from a woman on one corner, and shop at Louis Vuitton on the next.
Many backpackers that I’ve met don’t really love Bangkok. That’s because you can’t really learn to love the city if all you’re seeing are temples and Khao San Road. Bangkok isn’t a walking city because of the heat, so the best way to get the closest to walking around and getting the lay of the land is by Skytrain.
2) Don’t try pad thai on Khao San Road and decide that Thai food isn’t as good as you thought it was going to be.
This should be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised. The street food on Khao San is going to be both more expensive and of lower quality than anywhere else in the city. Khao San Pad Thai serves its purpose well – when you’re drunk and starving, it hits the spot because you can’t taste the difference. For better street food, I’d recommend checking out Patpoong Night Market in the Sala Daeng neighborhood.
Also – there’s SO much more to Thai food that Pad Thai. Pad Thai is so boring when you put it next to things like Pad Kra Pow Gai(basil chicken) and Som Tam(spicy papaya salad). Branch out a bit.
3) Go shopping on the street.
I’m a big shopper. Cute clothes are my weakness – even when I was broke studying in Italy I couldn’t resist a stop at Zara or H&M on my walk home from class. Dangerous. And I can honestly say that the shopping in Bangkok is the best that I’ve seen in the world.
Why is it the best? It’s cute, it’s trendy, it’s CHEAP. I’d say a standard on-trend off-the-shoulder blouse costs about 200 baht, or $6. Of course, this is at street vendors, not at places like Zara, H&M, and Forever21, which are actually kind of expensive here. They’re the same prices as in the states plus import tax, which is a LOT in baht.
Before New Year’s Eve, I was backpacking in Cambodia for a week, so I didn’t really have NYE-style clothes with me. So I went to Chatuchak and picked up a dress for 200 baht, no sweat.
For quality street shopping I’d recommend:
- Chatuchak weekend market – Note: either go early or late, it gets hot here. Best place to find foreigner-friendly sizes.
- Victory Monument shopping center
- Patpong Night Market
- Ratchada Train Night Market (Roht Fai)
- Also good for a beer & live music
4) Live like royalty and get a million cheap spa treatments.
Standard 1-hour massages in Bangkok cost 200 baht, and I’ve seen facials ranging from 400 baht to 1000 baht. Get your nails done, get your ears cleaned on the side of Khao San road, treat yoself.
5) For transportation, try to avoid taking cabs during rush-hour.
Try to avoid rush-hour period if at all possible. My hell is going to be getting stuck in traffic on a Friday at 7PM for years on end. Due to the fact that Bangkok’s public transit is still developing, you unfortunately can’t get the MRT(subway) or BTS to most parts of the city. That being said…
6) If it’s not rush hour and you’re with a friend, take a cab.
They’re so cheap if you’re splitting that they end up costing the same at the BTS or MRT anyways. Just make sure they use a meter and clarify this BEFORE you get in the taxi(which can sometimes a challenge late at night when they know you’re desperate).
HACK – you also can split a motorbike taxi with a friend. If a driver tries to charge you double instead of letting you split the fare, he’s ripping you off. I’ve mostly had this problem when trying to leave Mochit bus station and in Pattaya.
7) If you need help with anything, POLITELY ask a Thai person.
Thai people are beyond extremely super ridiculously helpful, so if you look lost chances are someone is going to try to help you. This doesn’t always hold true in touristy areas, where people tend to get a little jaded by rude foreigners, but most of the time it is. I’ve accepted rides from random Thai people when I was by myself multiple times without blinking, something I would never even consider in the U.S.
And please do it politely. Nothing makes me cringe more than watching a rude foreigner yell at a Thai person for not speaking English, even though we’re in THEIR country. I hate humans sometimes.
8) If you hear the Thai National Anthem, stop moving.
This holds true for all of Thailand. Whenever the National Anthem comes on, everyone stops. Even cars and motorbikes. If you’re not sure if you’re hearing the national anthem, you can probably tell by everyone around you freezing up.
9) Don’t touch the little spirit houses that are everywhere, and don’t talk about the government or king.
The fact that I even have to put this in here is absurd. All over Thailand, there are little Buddhist spirit-houses at every building where people leave offerings for the spirits of the house, including random soft drinks, sticky rice, incense, etc.
While in Hua Hin, not only did I see a guy touch the offerings, he SIPPED ONE OF THE SODAS. EW. Would you drink a pop off the street? No? Okay good, I’m glad we’re all aware of things like germs and disease here. It was a) disrespectful b) disgusting and c) embarrassing because my friends & I all watched him no it. Gross.
Don’t talk about the government or king because it’s a) rude and b) illegal.
10) Eat street food!
I’m biased because I’ve been here for so long, but it still surprises me when people are scared to eat street food. That’s where you find the best food at the lowest prices. Especially in Thailand. What I’ve learned since getting to Asia is that you’re just as likely to get sick on the street as you are in a restaurant. My own personal round with food poisoning happened from a restaurant in Bali.
It is intimidating if you don’t know the ropes. My advice would be to go somewhere that looks busy and point at what someone else is eating. If you don’t know the price, street food usually costs around 30-50 baht, so handing the vendor a 100 and letting them give you change should be fine. Again, Thai people don’t usually rip people off unless they’re sick of tourists. This pricing doesn’t hold true for streets that foreigners frequent like Soi 11 in Sukhumvit.
11) Don’t let a tuk-tuk driver bamboozle you.
This hasn’t happened to me since my first attempt to go to Khao San Road back in June. While Thailand definitely does not try to scam you as much as other countries I’ve been to, there are some of the standard tourist traps. Like tuk-tuk drivers that try to take you to a hotel or tailor for a fee.
If you’re feeling festive & decide you want to get a tuk- make sure you bargain for the price BEFORE you get in, and don’t let them bring you to any extra stops.
12) If you’re leaving a major bus terminal and looking for a cab, walk the extra 200 meters out to the street to find one yourself.
This is only relevant if you’re a peasant like me, but most cab stands charge an extra 50 baht fee. If you’re solo that adds up, and it’s not that difficult to walk out to the street. Plus you don’t have to wait in line.
13) If you’re in a rush or solo, ALWAYS take a motorbike taxi.
Like I said, Bangkok traffic SUCKS. But motorbike can easily and quickly weave through cars. Just negotiate the price ahead of time. You’re welcome.
14) If you’re trying to get anywhere else in Thailand, the cheapest way will be by government van.
This is how I get around. This is how Thai people get around. There’s these great little Toyota vans that used to all go to Victory Monument. Now they go to Mochit(Northern), Sai Tai Mai(Southern), Ekkamai(Eastern), and Sai Tai Gow(old Southern). You can’t find vans listed online, but they usually leave about every half hour-hour until from 5AM around 7 at night(unless it’s a holiday weekend).
You can’t find the info on these online, so you can try to guess and check by region, or ask a Thai person to call the bus station for you. When I say by region I mean North, South, and East(there’s not much west of Bangkok) like I mentioned above. They’re DIRT cheap, like a few hundred to less than a hundred baht to get around Thailand.
14) Give Bangkok a little love & it’ll love you back
If you expect to spend 24 hours poking around Bangkok in between flights you’re probably not going to love it. But if you give yourself a couple days to get to know the city, you might have a chance.
- Fun Wan – Asok neighborhood, by the Nana BTS stop
- Great location(Soi 11, a lot of bars/clubs) & cheap, around 180 baht/night depending what site you book on. Close to nightlife & Terminal 21 mall. The owner is weird and a stickler for bringing in outside alcohol (I actually gave them a salty review or 3 on hostel world oops) but the comfy beds make up for it. Far from Khao San road and the Old City.
- Saphaipae – Silom neighborhood, closest to Surasak BTS stop
- Great location for nightlife(close to Maggie Choo’s & Whiteline), far from Khao San and the Old City. Around 350 baht/night with the best free breakfast spread I’ve seen in all of Asia.
- Bodega – Asok neighborhood, closest to Asok BTS stop
- Another great location for nightlife and also a very social hostel, this one’s definitely a Bangkok staple. There’s a nice bar here, the staff is really friendly, and it’s one of the only hostels I’ve stayed at where there are a lot of Americans(the owner is American). I’d recommend staying here if you’re solo & not staying near Khao San Road. Runs around 300 baht/night.
- Flying Cow – The Old City, far from public transit
- This one is on the list just because I feel the need to recommend something by Khao San. Runs around 250/night, it’s clean, there’s a cute cafe downstairs, and the beds are comfy. Other than that it’s nothing super special.
So there you have it. My amateur tips for visiting Bangkok. Enjoy!