On our second visit to Thailand we spent time in Bangkok, the country’s most populous city. Our first visit to Thailand was earlier this year to Koh Lanta, a small laid back island in the south, a far cry from the busy metropolis that is the country’s capital. Over our 6 nights in Bangkok in September, here’s the practical information we observed.
Setting the Scene
Bangkok is a large metropolis with many pockets of neighborhoods, street food everywhere and tons of traffic. It’s in central Thailand in the Chao Phraya River Delta, which feeds into the Gulf of Thailand. The city was once known as the “Venice of the East” and still has several canals cutting through it, although many are not well taken care of while the rest have been built over during Bangkok’s incredible growth the past century. The city has quickly grown into an international hub and a major tourist destination, with skyscrapers and high-rise luxury condos towering over street food vendors and centuries-old Buddhist temples.
Bangkok isn't a particularly pretty city; it isn't very well planned or orderly and grew rather haphazardly. Places on the smaller sois (side streets) that appear close on the map involve long detours to get to thanks to randomly placed one-ways, and traffic signals are long and seem to be reserved for only the most major of intersections. Sprouting amongst the high-rises are spires from the wats (temples) and upward pointing eaves. Amidst the apparent chaos on the streets, scattered all over are khrueang ratchasakkaras, decorative altars and signs in reverence to the king (who recently passed away after a reign of 70 years) and queen. Any time of day the traffic is guaranteed to be obscenely bad, yet you won't hear much honking. Yes, the ubiquitous Thai smile is everywhere, and it may seem like a façade, but there is a gentleness to everyday interactions that is genuine. The Thai idea of sanuk (roughly, fun) brings a lightness of attitude in life that pervades the city, and is encapsulated by the Thai expression mai pen rai: roughly, “it is what it is”. Beneath the surface of the grit and glamour that is Bangkok lies a tenderness that makes Bangkok so seductive.
Specific to our experience visiting Thailand, US citizens do not need a visa but Indian citizens do, which you receive and pay for upon landing at the airport for 2,000 baht or about $56 (this increase went into effect September 2016).
Money & Tipping
The Thai currency is called baht (THB) and currently $1 is about 35 baht. Coins are in 1, 5 and 10 baht and bills are in 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1,000 baht. Many places we frequented (street food, coffee shops, casual restaurants) only take cash. Some businesses that do accept cards (cocktail bars, nicer restaurants) may have a minimum.
We always travel with a Charles Schwab debit card, which reimburses ATM fees. This leaves us free to withdrawal when we need to and not carry around unnecessary extra money or hunt down currency exchange offices. ATM fees in Bangkok are a hefty 200 baht (just under $6!) per transaction, so having an account with Charles Schwab saves us a lot of money.
Tipping in Bangkok is not the same as in the States, that is to say it is not customary or expected; however, it is appreciated although probably mainly practiced by tourists. There’s no need to tip at street food vendors, but in restaurants, especially the nicer they get, leaving a few baht behind is welcomed. Make sure to check if service charge is already included, which it may be at some pricier bars and restaurants. As for taxis, giving the exact amount due is just fine but if you pay with 100 baht on a 96 baht fair, for example, don’t wait for change.
You can buy international stamps at any store that sells postcards. At the post office they cost 15 baht per stamp, but these shops will upcharge to 17 baht. Mailboxes can be found on the streets.
It’s much appreciated by locals if you can speak a word or two of Thai. Always begin your interactions with a greeting, whether when getting into a tuk tuk or entering a restaurant, lest you risk coming off as brusque.
Note that the end of a sentence changes whether you are a man or a woman speaking:
- krab if you are a man speaking (pronounced kap)
- ka if you are a woman speaking (pronounced k-ah, sometimes enunciated with a long aahhh, as if you’re getting your throat checked with a tongue compressor at the doctor’s office)
The two words that got us around everywhere are:
- Sawatdee* (pronounced sa-wa-dee) krab/ka: hello/general greeting as well as goodbye
- Khorb khun (pronounced cob-koon) krab/ka: thank you. You can also shorten it to “Khorb”.
*Fun fact: The word sawatdee is not originally Thai and has its origin in the Sanskrit svasti (meaning “well-being”). The word sawatdee was heavily promoted during the dictatorial regime of Phibubsongkhram during the 40s as part of a wider set of cultural edicts. Today, along with the wai, the bow you may see accompanying a verbal greeting, it is synonymous with Thai culture.
We visited Bangkok in September, which is during rainy season (July - October). It was hot and humid all day and cooled only slightly at night. Rain was always in the forecast, but for the most part it only rained for a short period in the evening, as if on a schedule, ranging from a drizzle to a thunderstorm. It did pour nonstop our last two days, but that didn’t stop anyone from getting around or food vendors to keep serving, if they had a cover to their stall. Carry an umbrella just in case.
The other two seasons are hot (March - June) and cool (November - February), when we understand it's still pretty warm.
Day to Day
It’s hot and humid in Bangkok, so dress for it! After some research on how conservative the city is, I felt comfortable packing shorts, tank tops (similar) and lightweight summer dresses, without concern of whether they covered my knees or shoulders (unless visiting temples, more below), and am glad I did considering the 100-degree fahrenheit weather. We noticed many fashionable men and women, even though some sacrifice being cool for long sleeves and pants, but during the day I didn’t feel out of place in casual, lightweight clothing. Comfortable walking shoes were a must for both me and Prem, especially as the heat wore us down.
For the Ladies
- Something I implemented on this trip, which I’ve read many other female travelers do, was to pack a sports bra (similar) for day to day exploring - so much more comfortable in the heat than a regular bra!
- At every street market you will find cute dresses, tops, skirts and pants for only a few USD each. Save some room in your suitcase!
More conservative attire is required for visiting temples. On these days I wore skirts (similar) or dresses that covered my knees, and if my shoulders were exposed I carried a scarf that I could easily drape on and off. If you’re a female and not covered, temples will lend or rent you robes or shawls, so it’s up to you whether you prefer to come prepared or wear a shared coverup. Some temples in Bangkok claim to require men wear pants, which Prem did, but shorts were worn by most other men and no one was turned away. When entering temples you are asked to remove your shoes, so ones that slip on and off easily are best.
If you’re stopping in Bangkok to or from more casual destinations, such as Krabi or Chiang Mai, you may not be packing more than flip-flops and sneakers, which are a no at most nicer bars for both men and women, so make sure to check the dress code in advance. One local woman was renting shoes on the sidewalk outside the entrance to a rooftop bar, so, if you’re in a bind, that could be an option.
In Asia I’ve found that you’re lucky if a bathroom has toilet paper and/or soap, even in some nice cafes or bars, and forget about paper towels, which are viewed as wasteful. At tourist attractions, such as markets and temples, you can usually buy tissues at the bathroom entrance for 2 - 5 baht (a few cents in USD). I always grab extra napkins from restaurant tables and throw them in my bag in case I have to BYOTP. The antibacterial gel comes in handy when a bathroom has no soap or when you’re eating street food, where there is surely not a sink nearby.
As for water, you never want to be stuck without it, especially given the heat and all the exploring and eating. No one drinks the tap water here, so in Bangkok we popped into a 7-11 (they’re as frequent as Starbucks in New York City) every couple of days for a big jug of Nestle Pure Life (about 40 - 50 baht or $1.20 - 1.40, while a 16 ounce bottle will cost 7 baht) to ensure a full supply in our Airbnb for both drinking and brushing teeth. We always carried a smaller bottle or two while walking around, refilled from the big jug at home. Many Ubers have water bottles in the back for their customers, so make sure to grab them. Most coffee shops we stopped in offer self serve filtered water, which we also took advantage of.
Bangkok is a massive city and traffic is horrendous, especially during the week. Keep these factors in mind when making decisions on how to get around! Remember that cars drive on the left side of the road in Thailand.
The above ground metro system, the BTS Skytrain, is easy to use, which is why we rode it often, especially to avoid traffic. We bought a Rabbit Card for 180 baht ($5.20) each that included a 100 baht fee and 80 baht value. The Rabbit Cards are easier to scan at the turnstile and more durable than a paper card. Keep your card handy because you’ll have to swipe it again on your way out, which determines the cost of your ride. We paid between 28 and 48 baht ($0.81 - $1.39) for each one-way ride.
The stations are clean and easy to navigate, especially with clear signs for directions of the train and for which exit to take. When you first go through the turnstile you may be randomly stopped to have your beg checked; just normal procedure.
Some stations have food stalls and shopping in them but no food or drink is allowed on the trains, which is probably how they stay so clean. Arrows at the platform edge direct waiting passengers where to stand and show where departing passengers will exit, which avoids shoving past each other when the doors open. The trains themselves have maps of the line you’re on, announcements stating the next stop and TVs, which scroll the station information along the bottom.
Buses and the underground MRT are other public transportation options that we didn’t take.
We took Uber often but it wasn’t the fastest way to get around Bangkok; it offers all the usual safety and convenience benefits, but it never saved us time (more below). We appreciate that with Uber you are provided with the driver’s picture, license plate number and car type and that there is no exchanging of cash. Every move is recorded in the Uber app so you can contact the company if there is a problem.
As for timing, if the app estimates your driver will arrive in 5 minutes, give it 15 and watch the driver make all sorts of wrong turns on their way to you. This might happen once you’re in the car also, despite the possibility of Uber connecting to Google Maps. We noticed that rather than following Google Map’s verbal navigation, drivers swipe through the route in the Uber app trying to determine on their own where the next turn is, which inevitably results in getting lost. If you end up paying over the estimated fare due to this, you can let Uber know and they’ll usually refund you.
Tuk tuks are in abundance, but since the city is so big, we recommend only using these for short distances as they don’t go as fast as cabs. Make sure to negotiate your fare before the driver takes off, and don’t take a ride with anyone who wants to show you his aunt’s silk shop that’s the best in the city, or anything similar - could be a scam and not worth the risk.
Hailing a meter cab will take less time than hailing an Uber, as they’re everywhere, but if wrong turns are made or you’re scammed, there’s no safety net. Before the driver takes off, make sure the meter is running - just say “meter” when you get in. The meter will start at 35 baht (about $1) and go up from there.
If these fit 2 passengers we would have taken them during rush hour instead of a car or tuk tuk, as they easily bypass traffic. One day we sat in traffic in an Uber for so long that we ended up walking the last mile to our destination, while scooters were zooming past all the cars. Like tuk tuks, it’s probably best to negotiate the fare before you take off.
Motorcycle taxis, or motoesai rap chang, can be found at stands at various sois. Look for the drivers wearing orange vests.
Sidewalks can be narrow or blocked, so take precaution when you inevitably have to step into the street. Main roads have overpasses to cross to the other side as part of, or separate from, BTS stations. We recommend using these on very busy roads as crossing the street is near impossible when there are no pedestrian or traffic signals.
Take BTS when you can and avoid taking cars during rush hour.
See a full list of the foods we ate in Bangkok and where we ate them here.
While there are some denser pockets of street food in Bangkok, you can find vendors pretty much everywhere and at all hours selling savory foods, sweet foods, drinks such as coconut water and Thai tea, and fruit such as durian, bananas and mangoes.
As when eating street food anywhere, look for a busy place with high turnover and try to avoid ordering food that has been sitting out (which there is actually a lot of in Bangkok) but instead opt for woks, grills and hot broths where your food is made to order.
Most street food signs are in Thai, so take a look at the cooking station, other customers’ tables or food pictures, if they’re part of the menu, to get an idea of what’s being served.
Thai people like their food sweet, so don’t be surprised to see locals add a spoonful of sugar to their savory soup! Sugar is almost always on the table as a condiment.
There are many temples to visit in Bangkok, but since the city is so spread out you kind of have to pick and choose and plan your route in advance. Wat Pho was our personal favorite, as it is just stunning to walk through and the massive reclining buddha is very impressive. Wat Saket was a close second, offering a great view of the city. The latter was the least expensive one we visited, at 20 baht each, while Wat Pho was 100 baht each and included a bottle of water.
If your body is aching from all the walking around in the heat, or you need an hour to separate and unwind from the traffic outside, you’re in the right country. You can walk into an inexpensive Thai massage place on almost every block, with a list of services posted outside and massage therapists ready to bend and stretch your limbs, or you can make an appointment for a more luxurious option that may cost a little more but is probably more hygienic.
Thai massages are very different from Western massages; expect a lot of pulling, pushing and stretching your body into positions you didn’t know they could go into. This isn’t for everyone, and if it’s not for you, you can opt for just feet or just head and shoulders. In Bangkok we walked into a low-key massage spot, Lanna Thai Spa, in our neighborhood and although they only offered one-hour foot massages, at 250 baht ($7.20), we managed to negotiate a half hour for less money. The front of the small shop had 2 chairs for foot massages, while a number of mats were lined up along the wall behind a room separator for full body massages. We quickly learned foot massage also includes legs, but it still felt more relaxing than a full body since we could recline back and close our eyes or even read. This shop was very casual; the owner and massage therapists were chatting half the time, and definitely talking about us since they kept looking over and laughing, but we didn’t mind. Afterwards, they served us tea.
Thong Lor is another great neighborhood offering similar options, but an even more happening nightlife. Next time we visit Bangkok we’ll stick to one of these neighborhoods, which are good starting points to get around from. If we stay in Aree again we will look for a rental on one of the sois west of Phaholyothin 7, which is the busy main road.
As for the Airbnb options, in our search on the site it seemed almost all rentals are in high rise luxury buildings. This is fine, especially as it usually means a gym and pool in the building, but ours ended up feeling sterile, much like a hotel, so pay attention to the photos.