When it comes to Bangkok, the verdict seems to be clear: The country’s capital is one of the least desirable places to visit in Thailand. Most people come here for two or three nights taking advantage of the cheap flights in and out of the two (inter)national airports in town. They will hit a few temples, the markets, and maybe get some shopping done. I recently spent three weeks in Bangkok and would like you to see the city from a different perspective: as a chilled metropolis with plenty of culture and character.
That is why I have compiled a list of six tips for you to not only not hate but maybe even start loving Bangkok.
Stay away from Khaosan Road
The most important piece of advice I can give you is to stay away from infamous Khaosan Road with its bars, expensive restaurants, the cheap overpriced shopping, and the ping-pong bars. I’m not saying don’t have a look, and if you’re up for a night on the town, this one will hit the spot. But Khaosan Road is not Bangkok; it’s as exemplary of Thailand as Las Vegas is of the US.
And it’s not like the city was short of alternatives. For example:
- If you’re looking for shopping, head to the weekend market in Chatuchak. The prices are lower, the choice is greater, and you will see that a visit to the market with its adjacent park is also a favorite weekend activity for the locals.
- If you’re looking for restaurants, bars, and live music, have a look at the southeastern end of Phra Sumen Road. It’s also in the old town but a lot less tacky.
There is one excellent reason to go near Khaosan: At the eastern end of Rambuttri Alley, by the roundabout, there is a group of ladies selling all the brilliant Thai desserts, from sticky rice to grilled pumpkin to green noodles with coconut sauce.
Sleep in the right place
Needless to say, that you also want to stay away from the hostels, guesthouses, and, increasingly, hotels on Khaosan and in the vicinity. It’s noisy. It’s overpriced or shabby. And it’s not a way to experience Bangkok.
Another factor in finding the perfect accommodation is avoiding street noise — of which there is, make no mistake, an abundance in this city of more than 8 million. One option is the plethora of fresh, modern places downtown with better noise insulation (around Putham Wan und Lumphini). But I like to be near the old town. After some trial and error with other hostels, I fell for the Baan Nai Trok: Located in a traditional wooden house tucked away in an alley by the channels, the hostel is rather new and minimalist. There are four 4-bed dorms and a room with only one bunk bed. All beds are huge and soft (by Thai standards). The owner cooks a mean choice of traditional Thai breakfasts. The Baan Nai Trok even comes with a small garden (and plenty of seating). But best of all, there is no traffic noise!
Get the hang of Bangkok’s public transport
First of all, I refuse to understand why anyone would use a tuk-tuk in Bangkok: As somebody who doesn’t know the distances and rates, you are bound to end up paying too much for spending a lot of time in the smog of Bangkok’s traffic jams without air condition.
So, if you want your personal ride, get a cab and get a cab that uses the meter as long as you don’t know the prices. BTW: The different taxi colors in Bangkok indicate only different companies with the yellow-green cabs being driven by their owners.
However, rather than getting frustrated with haggling cab and tuk-tuk drivers and getting stuck in traffic, I recommend getting to know the dense network of public transport services available in Bangkok.
- The metro/train network in Bangkok runs overground and currently only in the new parts of town (among other places to Chatuchak market and Suvarnabhumi Airport) but continues to grow and is the fastest way to get anywhere.
- Several boat lines are running across the river and along some of the channels. This is also a very fast way to move around and cheap at that. The stops have signs in English, with ticket prices and next/prior stops indicated. Just make sure you don’t fall into the water or get it splashed into your mouth. These waterways are about as filthy as water can get.
- For rides to and within the old town, get a bus. You’ll not be much slower that the tuk-tuk as you’ll get stuck in the same traffic jams. But you’ll be sitting above the traffic for a better view and a better connection to local life. To boot: Some of the red buses are completely free to use.
One word of warning, though: Sometimes the buses will change their route or boats won’t stop at your stop. Stay alerted and make sure the conductor is aware of your destination.
There are multiple online resources for the various public transport providers in town. I find the best way to plot a route is either a knowledgeable local at your hostel or hotel or Google Maps.
To stay connected to your whereabouts when offline, I recommend downloading the maps.me app (the Google Maps offline maps feature does not work in Thailand). It can’t give you public transport routes, but it will tell you where you are and you can search locations (streets, hotels, etc.) offline.
Eat local (really local)
What would Thailand be without its cuisine? And since every cook seems to have a slightly different take on classics such as Pad Thai, noodle soup, skewers, or omelet, it’s my greatest pleasure to roam the streets and sample. There is food along the channels, in the markets, and literally at every corner. Sometimes, a group of ladies cooks up a storm and sells bags full of single servings until they run out (check out the offer in 13°45’34.9″N 100°30’11.9″E — I had four courses for less than $2.50, supplies usually run out by 6:30). All you have to do is point and enjoy.
To anybody concerned about food poisoning I say two things: A) These people cook openly visible to their customers, and they sell to locals, their neighbors, daily commuters — do you think they could afford to sell bad food without losing their reputation and all their customers? B) The cart vendors can only buy so many ingredients before they run out of money and storage space on their cart. So the chances of your food coming fresh from the market are bigger here than they are in a restaurant where nasty things might hide behind kitchen doors…
Get the right sightseeing dosage
I always recommend taking sightseeing slowly. And Bangkok is no exception from the rule. With temperatures above 30°C and a burning sun, you might even take it another notch down. See the Top Ten but weave them into a walk along the quaint channels where you can discover small potted gardens and monitor lizards with beautiful patterns sunbathing. Walk around the back alleys: The old town has plenty of the old quarters left with small wooden houses and plenty of character (not to mention food…).
The new town of Bangkok can get hectic and noisy and seems to be buzzing at all times of the day. But then there the parks that are dotted around the city, which are oases of quiet with people, who are meeting for a picnic or to practice Tai Chi. Join in and be enchanted by real life in Bangkok.
Another way to get some quiet is to be an early bird: Did you know that many of the smaller temples in Bangkok open their doors at 5 or 6 in the morning? Beat the crowds (and the heat) by getting up early. Plus, photos you take in the morning light (and the afternoon light) — known as the golden hour — usually come out much nicer without having to put in too much effort.
For the big’ones like Golden Mount or Wat Pho, which open later, it still pays to arrive before opening hours to avoid long queues and get a little bit of that golden morning light.
When it gets too hot check out the city’s smaller and quirkier museums like the Batcat Toy Museum or the Queen’s Gallery. There are dozens of museums in this town. So there’s bound to be one sparking your interest.
Shopping is a hobby in Bangkok
Just like you’ll always see people with some small snack or drink they’ve just bought from the gazillions of small vendors around town you’ll also see a whole load of shopping opportunities.
It would be a shame never to have seen Chatuchak market, never to have gotten lost in the endless maze that’s the Chinatown market or never to have seen a floating market, and you have to at least once have entered the maze of malls around Siam Square.
But try and change your view: instead of getting stressed by the pace and the flashy colors and everybody having something to sell, turn the experience into a game. Take your time and don’t let anyone rush you. Appreciate the art of wrapping everything imaginable into plastic. And if you’re on a longer journey: Bangkok is the perfect place to renew your gear — regardless of whether you are looking for a budget solution or the big brand names, you’ll find it in one of the malls along Sukhumvit. In fact, the reason I ended up staying for three weeks in this beautiful town was my camera, which was broken. The Olympus Bangkok branch serviced the camera not only well but also for free.
Have you stayed in Bangkok? Did you enjoy it or couldn’t you get out fast enough? Sound off in the comments!