Monks at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Obviously they knew big celebrity Alan Stock was coming…
First time in Bangkok or Asia? Tips, advice and recommendations for Thailand’s most crazy city.
“HELLO WELCOME KAA… YOU WANT MASSAAAAAGE?” Bangkok: a madhouse city of temples, street food, tuk tuks, ladyboys, and, look – wandering around like a little lost flea – it’s you! If you want to skip to the most essential tips, check out “Bangkok First Impressions”, airport taxis in the “Getting In” section, and “Scams” to avoid dirty horrible scammers (it happens). Everyone else, stick on your grandmas reading glasses and get your eyes stuck into this! Do you have any other good tips or suggestions for Bangkok – leave a comment below!
I’ve been to Bangkok many times and wanted to make this guide to ease you into the madness – learn from my mistakes and maximise your enjoyment. Whether you’re starting a backpacking adventure, its your first time in Asia or taking a few weeks off to party in or explore Thailand, you will arrive at the airport and then – what? It’s ok, a ladyboy won’t immediately jump on you (unless you like that sort of thing), but Bangkok is a pretty crazy city for first timers and there’s lots of things that are useful to know, from how to get around to how to avoid the common scams (dollar signs appearing in Thai peoples eyes is usually a bad sign). Sawat de kap! (Hello!)
Most backpackers stay around the famous travellers mecca of Khao San road in Bangkok (the slightly dented but well-oiled hub of travelling in SE Asia) and this guide is based on the assumption that you are heading there. Khao San road is a fun but tiring mix of everything that a traveller could need, but thankfully its surrounded by some chilled streets to get away from it all, ideal when you are about to punch the next person who shouts Tuk Tuk or Ping Pong Show! at you. You can still find backpackers scattered throughout Bangkok – if you want to stay away from the Khao San area (some people do hate it!) then do some research – but Khao San is where you’ll find the things you need to get started, and also the most travellers, from fresh-off-the plane wide-eyed 18 year olds chewing scorpions for dares with a grimace on their face, to dreadlocked veteran backpackers in hippy clothes who haven’t bathed for years, to fat 60 year old ex-pats with their Chang vests waddling along with a Thai girl on each arm – PS if in the future I become that guy… just shoot me.
Thai market stall girl on Khao San Road. The fake Diesel flip flops I bought off her broke after two weeks, but that’s to be expected when you spend two quid!
Bangkok First Impressions
Be prepared for a *lot* of heat and humidity outside of Nov/Dec especially if you are from the UK where a reward is offered for the return of the sun, last seen many summers ago. You will sweat like an obese pig who has just done a triathlon. It gets very tiring. Take your time! Stop for breaks at places with fans or air-con. Drink lots and lots of water or you will get weak and tired with heat exhaustion. Add hydration sachets or salt or look for other hydrating drinks like coconut water. Trust Doctor Al, it helps a lot to enjoy things to stay hydrated. Buy bottled water, tap water is not safe to drink here. Don’t worry, most of the rest of Thailand isn’t like being in an oven, more like a family BBQ.
Khao San Road. This guy is thinking – What is happening? How did I get here? Why did that guy buy that stupid hat?
Bangkok is crazy, especially if its the first Asian city you’ve visited. Traffic is everywhere, tuk tuks and motorbikes rush past and ambush you even on footpaths, it’s noisy, its full of hordes of people and everywhere there is something new and weirdly Thai going on. It can be overwhelming for first-time travellers and you may feel your head will explode. It may be your first time from home and culture shock can happen. Instead of becoming a gibbering wreck hiding in the supermarket just for a taste of normality, once again I say – take your time! There’s no hurry. Take it all in, walk slowly, stop for breaks, drink your water, retreat to your room or a park if you need to give your brain a rest. Get on the wi-fi or to an internet cafe and contact home if you need to touch base. Head to Rambuttri parallel to Khao San to the quieter lanes there and get a fruit shake and sit in front of a fan. Get a dirt cheap massage! Just because the rest of Bangkok goes at breakneck pace doesn’t mean you have to to. Don’t get pressurised by salespeople or drivers. You get used to it and soon you will be click stepping along Khao San Road with a smile on your face, bantering and haggling with the hard sellers, exploring and making your plans for seeing the rest of this great country.
Please take the time to read the “Safety and Scams” section at the end, especially to avoid common scams which are easy to fall for and rife in this area. It’s ok, not everyone’s out to get you but you need to be aware of them.
Most people swoop into Thailand via Bangkok International Airport (BKK). Otherwise you are probably on an international tourist bus from elsewhere in SE Asia (see “arriving by bus” below).
- Arrival/Departure Card: On your flight, your sexy flight attendant should give you an Arrival/Departure card in two pieces. If your flight attendant isn’t sexy, spend more money on the flight next time. Keep the two card pieces together. Don’t panic if you forget to get one – you can find these on the desks just before immigration, or ask a staff member there. You need to fill both of these out, including the Departure section. If you have a one-way flight to Bangkok, just make a rough estimate of departure date and country destination, and you can just make up a flight number if necessary. If you don’t have accommodation booked, just write Khao San Road. No worries.
- Tourist Visa: Easy peasy – Most western countries are able to enter Thailand if flying in by visa exemption – basically you get 1 month automatically that you can spend in Thailand – they put a stamp with your departure date on a separate bit of paper which you should keep with your passport. If you want to stay longer, you can also extend your visa by a month at a time by just leaving the country by plane or land, officially they are cracking down on this for long term “offenders” but in reality it seems most people can still do it – you can book Visa Runs at travel agents around the country specifically to do this. I met one guy in his 50s who has been living in Thailand for 20 years by doing a visa run every month! You can see a list of countries that are eligible here: http://www.thaiembassy.com/thailand/changes-visa-exempt.php – however Thai visa rules change often and its best to do your research beforehand and if you aren’t in the visa exemption list you will need to get hold of a tourist visa before you travel, and possibly proof of onward travel to show when you board your flight to Thailand.
- Address of Accommodation: if you have booked accommodation in advance, its a good idea to have the address written down, and in Thai too if possible – useful for immigration card, taxis and if you get lost!
Coins in offering bowl at Wat Pho temple. Be prepared to have lots of annoying 1 Baht coins in every orifice. Where do they all come from?
For travel money tips check out my article here. First thing you need when you arrive is to get some dosh. You’re going to need cash to get transport at the very least unless your plan is to teleport (in which case why did you fly?). If you haven’t already got Thai Baht (the currency) – the cheapest way is to withdraw it at ATMs in the airport or there are expensive money exchange desks in there too. I wouldn’t get out more than 5000 Baht to begin with (around 100 pounds). Bet you feel rich now! If everything’s written in Thai, look for a button to change the language to English, they all have them. At ATMs, you will be charged a small amount to withdraw cash – accept this when it asks you. When asked if you want to do a conversion to your own currency, pick No – it will save you money. Keep your money in your bra, up your bum, or my favourite, in my wallet like normal people do.
If you are planning on carrying large amounts of cash around or going to be backpacking around Asia, a money belt to wear is wise especially for crowded places or transport you will be sleeping in. Travellers cheques are another, probably safer option to get access to cash and add extra security, if you can be bothered with the hassle of organising it – might be good for emergencies and you get a better exchange rate. The majority of Thai banks accept them. Most people I know use credit cards though. Don’t forget to let your bank know that you are going to Thailand. It sucks to arrive and then get locked out of your account because they think there’s something fishy going on leaving you high and dry in the airport!
Getting from the airport to the city
Congratulations, you have arrived in Thailand! Unless you fancy a half day walk along a highway, I recommend finding some transport. If you are staying around Khao San, then get a taxi – trains don’t stop nearby and buses are hard and stressful to deal with when you have just arrived.
- The easiest and fastest way is by taxi to get into town is by taxi. By western standards the taxis are cheap. Bangkok traffic can be terrible, so allow between 40 minutes to an hour (longer at rush hour) to get into town whilst watching motorbikes carrying 3 people, mental Thai drivers probably whilst some awful Thai music is pumped out of the stereo. At least there’s aircon!
- To get a taxi *always go to the public taxi rank*. It’s easy these days! Its down on the 1st floor of the airport just outside the doors and well signposted throughout. Ignore the other transport desks and people, they will overcharge you.
- In front of the taxi parking bays there are a number of terminals and queue barriers and sometimes helpful staff to make life easier. Just hit the button on the terminal touchscreen to print a ticket. This is your receipt – do NOT give it to the taxi driver, even if they ask for it. It is your insurance and contains the details of the taxi that is assigned to you, protecting you from scams and so on. The ticket has a bay number printed on it – just walk to the corresponding bay and if a taxi is not there already, just wait and it will come – Thai taxi black magic, I say. Other organising staff may ask to see your ticket, that’s fine, but don’t give it to the driver.
Tuk Tuk Rank in the Old City. Tuk Tuk drivers seem to have only 3 states: Annoying, Asleep, and Not There
- Your driver may not speak English. Oh no! You don’t speak Thai! MELTDOWN. Breathe. No problem. If you have your acommodation booked, tell or show him your address. Otherwise just ask for Khao San Road which most of them will understand and you can find your way from there. If you have problems you can just go back to the machine and get another number, or get someone to translate for you.
- These are meter taxis – do not agree a price in advance – when you set off, the meter should be at around 35 baht or zero. Be aware you also need to pay cash seperately during the drive for toll booths (see below). Don’t worry about needing small change.
- Costs to Khao San Road vary depending on traffic but you shouldn’t be paying more than about 700/800 Baht plus the road tolls and 50 baht extra for the driver which is complusary from the airport. The majority of drivers are fine but occasionally some naughty drivers try to con tourists with rigged meters – just keep an eye on it. If it seems to be jumping up way too quickly or going over the amount you expect, point it out to the driver. Any problems – make a note of the driver ID in the left of the windscreen and make it obvious you are doing this. There are authorities which can be complained to so a driver will think twice about scamming you if you do this. Eat that, dirty driver!
- Toll booths – taxis will use the highways and will usually pass through one or two toll booths. You give the driver cash to pay for the toll when you arrive at these and he will give you the change back directly. Don’t worry if you only have 1000 baht notes, they should still be able to get change. Occasionally a driver may want the toll fare in advance when you leave the airport, its up to you. Personally I would hold onto your money until you need to give it to them to be on the safe side.
- At your destination, pay the driver whatever it says on the meter plus 50 baht. The 50 baht is an airport charge that is paid to drivers directly by you (it tells you this at the taxi rank there) and is not negotiable . Tipping is not expected in Thailand for metered taxis, 50 baht or less would be a nice little tip if you have had a good experience. Welcome to the city! How many near-fatal accidents did you witness on the way? Only 3? Good going!
A public meter taxi – I have been told the green and yellow ones are the most trustworthy as they are an older firm. Sometimes I never want to leave a taxi – I see them as portable aircon machines!
From Airport By Bus
There are classic old Bangkok public buses that you can get that will take you around the city and also to a road near Khao San. If you really need to save money this is really cheap, but allow around 2 hours and be aware in rush hour you may struggle with fitting in your luggage. There is usually a conductor who will come to collect your fare when you sit down. It will likely be very hot, too. Google for info on these buses. Also I recommend having the name of the street or area you need to get off at written down and even a map so you can show the conductor as most don’t speak Engish. Make sure you get off where you intended and check the bus is going in the right direction before you get on it! I have met travellers sat on Bangkok local buses who have no idea where they are because they didn’t get off at the right spot and noone talks English! For the stop near Khao San, a good landmark you will pass on the bus is the Democracy Monument, its not far after that.
From Airport by Skytrain
The Skytrain rail service is quite fast and friendly, and fairly easy to use. I recommend it if your accommodation is easy walking distance from a Skytrain terminal. If you want to get to Khao San by train, I have been reliably informed that you can take the city line from the airport to Makkasan station and then catch the 556 bus to the Democracy Monument (or get a taxi from the station).
It’s worth walking down to the big park in front of the Grand Palace in the late afternoon/early evening, especially on Sundays. Thai people hang out here and you can often see cool stuff like this! Who needs Tuk Tuks to get around?
Arriving in Bangkok via Bus (long distance)
International or domestic tourist buses will usually drop you in the Khao San area. Check with your travel agent/driver exactly where you will be dropped in Bangkok. Often the big buses drop you about a block away from Khao San. Ask the driver or locals for directions if you are confused about where you have been dropped off instead of playing the random direction game – its easy to get lost in Bangkok!
Public buses and some “VIP” (VIP meaning you paid like 50 Baht more than the other guy… ) buses arrive at one of the two city bus terminals, which are right on the outskirts. From there you can get public buses into town but its usually easier just to take a taxi from the taxi ranks. The cost will be similar to the aiport transfer price and it will take up to an hour or more to get in. Both bus stations now have information points or at least counter staff who speak English, so its worth asking what your options are – sometimes there are minibus shuttles available for example.
Budget hotel room in Bangkok. Does the job, nothing more!
The Khao San area is packed with accommodation for all budgets. It’s not hard to find decent rooms. Just be aware that you are in Thailand, standards may not be as high as you are used to, but remember you are paying a fraction of the price! Most places accept walk-ins and are used to sweaty tired backpackers rocking up any time of the day looking for refuge.
For your first night or two, I highly recommend booking in advance either online (Booking.com, Tripadvisor, Agoda, Hostelworld, Hostelbookers are a good start) or by phone – it saves you so much time and energy to have everything arranged and to know you are getting somewhere decent too. Expect to pay between 200-600 baht for your own room or dorm. Why not splurge out a bit for your first few nights, after all you are probably quite rich by Thai standards! There are quite a few hostels in the area, which is a great way to meet people if you’re travelling solo, however most of them are pretty low quality and dingy, if you can live with that its the best social option.
Accommodation quality varies massively for the same price, some places are nasty, dirty and cockroach infested, others are more like cheap hotels – clean and with aircon. Its fine (and recommended) to ask to see a room before you pay. If you don’t like it, ask for a different room or haggle the price down – or just go elsewhere. If you arrive at midnight though, your options will be more limited – I have stayed in some rancid hovels because nothing else was available. Suck it up, at least you’ll have a nice travel horror story about cockroaches crawling over your bed to tell your friends!
If your room doesn’t have a safe inside, its a good idea to leave your essential valuables such as your passport at the front desk safety deposit box. Security can be lax in some guesthouses so its wise to play it safe. Treat your passport like solid gold, its the most important thing you own (even more important than your little teddy bear you just couldn’t leave at home).
A bar on Rambuttri street. If you stay above one of these, don’t expect to get an early night till the live music in the area stops around midnight.
Staying on Khao San road itself is going to be noisy, with the party continuing to the wee hours. Of course if you are out in the party all night, every night, or enjoy sleeping to the thud of bass drums, by all means go ahead. In general the better acommodation (and I recommend for first timers) is found on Rambuttri street which runs parallel to Khao San. Here its much quieter and relaxing assuming you don’t stay right next to the bars. If you want an even quieter stay, follow Rambuttri around the back of the temple and try the guest houses down there. Other options include Trok Mayom – an alleyway running parallel to Khao San just to the south which is packed with cheap little guest houses which I have heard is nice and quiet. Another quiet alley with accommodation runs between Khao San and Rambuttri Soi just after Buddy Lodge on Khao San road. Another option is to follow Samsen road over the canal away from Khao San for about 5-10 minutes – there is tons of cheap accommodation hidden down the Sois (side streets) there.
It’s hot and tiring walking around Bangkok with all your luggage. If you haven’t booked in advance, don’t waste hours and precious energy looking around. Just pick somewhere half-decent, you can always use earplugs if its noisy or look for a better place the next day without dragging your 100 kilo luggage behind you!
Street food trolley on Rambuttri street. These are probably seafood balls, quite good actually.
One of my favourite things to do in Thailand is stuff my fat little belly full of as much food as I can fit in there. Restaurants and food stalls are everywhere serving Thai and Western food. The little Thai restaurants with stools and tables outside generally have better and cheaper food than the restaurants. Don’t be afraid to try the street food from stalls and trolleys. If its well-frequented and there aren’t flies over everything it’ll be fine. If you think the food (especially meat) has been sitting out in the heat then be wary. Most vendors speak some English, if they don’t just point. Cheap and yummy! Don’t miss out on nighttime snacks like roti pancakes. The bugs and scorpions are generally safe to eat too and not too bad (they are deep fried to a crisp in oil so quite tasteless) – personally I won’t go any bigger than grubs or grasshoppers as I don’t like crunching through shells into oily bodies, it triggers my inner “urgh” switch.
At the “proper” restaurants you can get an approximation of Western food and an easy introduction to Thai food, though the quality is usually average. Thai food will usually be less spicy. You are in Thailand, get involved in Thai food!
Personal recommendations for Thai food are Tom Yum Soup (spicy prawn+veg soup – ask for less spicy if you can’t handle chillies), Red, Green or Massaman Curry (green and red again ask for less spicy at first), Pad Thai (noodles with prawns, egg, lime and peanuts – not spicy), Pad See Ew (flat noodles with meat, really tasty and not spicy). I’m drooling right now thinking about them.
Tom Yum Soup – one of my favourites. This was a particularly lethal one full of chilies, the crying began pretty quickly!
If its all too much and you are craving familiar food – there are a few pizza places and a Burger King and Macdonalds in the area and its pretty much the same as home. You wimp. However even I admit to occasionally crumbling when I get a hangover burger craving!
Another easy option is the 7/11 supermarkets you’ll find everywhere. They sell sandwiches, microwave food (which they will usually heat for you at the counter), crisps/chips, hot asian buns and hot dogs etc at the counter. Also be sure to check out the toasties in the fridge for amazing post-drinking food (they’ll heat them at the counter). The staff usually speak English.
Where: Khao San Road for the big party, Rambuttri for good beats and live music, Rambuttri behind the temple for chilling.
What: For beer, Chang is the traveller favourite but try Leo and Singha too. Spirits give good old Sangsom a go with coke or red bull, it tastes a bit like dark rum but is a whiskey. Cheap and strong cocktails can be found everywhere. But if you want to go partying or are sharing, get a bucket!
When: Every night, though Friday and Saturday is busier and everywhere opens later.
Sangsom and Red Bull bucket – this will keep you up all night dancing!
Khao San road is where the mad drinking is, full of party bars and street bars, Rambuttri also has a bunch of nice bars and street bars, many with live music. The little thai stool restaurants also sell much cheaper drinks than the big bars, and you can usually meet people more easily there with their close table proximity. For the cheap cheap option, buy beer at 7/11 or the little coolers on the street and walk around, its acceptable in this area. Check Trip Advisor for some other good chilled bars nearby particulary for live music. Outside of the weekend most of the area closes down by 1am, so get drinking early, but there are a few clubs on Khao San you can migrate to.
Ping Pong Shows and Go Go Bars
Many tourists end up going to see the notorious Ping Pong shows (pop pop! Look it up) or go and check out the red light district which is full of bars and strip clubs. You will find a bunch of tourists of different backgrounds, groups and couples all enjoying (or being gobsmacked by) the various “entertainment” on offer at these places. However – if you are interested in doing this – be wary of offers from tuk tuk drivers offering you it around Khao San, especially if you are a group of guys. A lot of these guys will take you to expensive private places way out in the city and charge you a fortune. Do a bit of research before hand, ask other travellers who have done it or just take a meter taxi to the red light area – its quite commercial and relitavely safe. If you are in a large group and go from Khao San road to a Ping Pong show even if you get ripped off a bit it will still probably be a laugh. Most of the main bars on the red light drag will have hostesses who may come and join you – nothing is expected by this, although its nice to buy them a drink. Of course most are available for other “services” but they are also employed to just give customers social company out for a drink and are usually a good laugh to hang out no matter your group composition.
The big party bars at Khao San road are always a riot – if only they stayed open later!
What to do around Khao San?
Time to be a tourist! There are quite a few things nearby to see. Khao San is a short distance from Bangkok’s two most famous temples – the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, which are both great. If you only want to do one (they are pretty similar) I would suggest Wat Pho with its massive reclining golden Buddah and its many spires and statues. Its about a half hour walk from Khao San, but be warned that you will be crossing some big roads and it will probably be super hot. You can get a metered taxi for really cheap to these locations. Don’t take a tuk tuk unless you want to get ripped off or scammed!
The massive reclining Buddah at Wat Pho
Another good option is to head down to the docks opposite the big tower temple of Wat Arun which has a good view of the temple particularly at sunset (unfortunately it is currently in scaffolding – August 2015). The docks are full of colourful stalls and markets. If you make your way back along the river street towards Khao San, you will come to a road full of stalls where people buy holy amulets and its common to see monks around here.
Wat Arun – taken from the docks opposite
You could ride the ferry down the river (there are stops near to Khao San) and see some of Bangkok’s sights, Chinatown is only one stop away and full of cool markets and a big flower market.
If you have a bit longer and you like temples then there some interesting ones beyond the Demcracy monument which is a long walk but worth it, and you will see very few tourists there. There’s also the quaint and quiet old town to explore there with wooden buildings and craft workshops.
Don’t miss your chance to get a super cheap massage around Rambuttri street – Thai massage is awesome, although if you don’t want bits of your body wrenched around then go for a foot or head and shoulders massage. Buy a one hour massage for pure relaxing bliss and they are open late into the evening, perfect to unwind after a busy day in the city. Don’t worry, these are professional establishments and they shouldn’t be asking you for happy endings… you should feel happy enough already!
Thai Foot Massage – I hadn’t realised it was a reflexology massage, which resulted in mega pain as the guy scraped a metal rod along my nerves – I suggest a normal foot massage instead!
Tours and Activities
For tours and activities around the city expect to pay quite a bit more, but some are pretty good:
- Cooking schools around Khao San are good fun and highly rated, you get to make a bunch of Thai dishes and visit local markets to buy ingredients. Check Trip Advisor for reviews. I ate so much on mine with Lee’s cooking school (recommended) that I fell asleep for 5 hours straight afterwards!
- Bicycle tours are a great way to see the real Bangkok and really get away from the tourists, again check Trip Advisor. Be prepared for a hot ride in the day but there are late afternoon and night rides also available. Try not to get flattened by crazy Thai motorists or fall in the canals, whether they contain actual water in that liquid is debatable…
- The floating markets are interesting but exist just for tourists and will have a lot of hard sell. There are “real” floating markets around Bangkok that you can visit that will be more hassle to arrange but will be more authentic.
Chef Lees Cooking School near Khao San Road
For shopping, prepare your mind and wallet and get a taxi or bus to the Siam Square area which is full of huge malls and cheap prices compared to home. Allow half an hour to an hour for the journey as the traffic is awful around there. Around Khao San there are loads of stalls where you can buy everything a backpacker could need from bags to beachware to souvenirs, but remember to haggle and with a smile! Remember that most things you can find everywhere here, so if you don’t like the price, try somewhere else. For more expensive things check out a few places to get a feel for the going price. It’s quite annoying to realise you paid triple what its worth because you were too lazy to check around. At least you only probably “lost” a few hundred Baht.
Safety and Scams
Do not drink water from the tap in Thailand, its generally not considered safe. You can buy bottled water cheaply and sometimes you can find water bottle refill services. Brush your teeth with bottled water and don’t swallow water when you take a shower. Some people are paranoid about ice for drinks in Asia, in my experience it’s not a problem at least in Thailand, if you have a particularly sensitive stomach do a bit of research about what to look out for. The accepted “safe” ice in drinks is blocks like a cylinder with a hole punched through – fragmented ice less so, but don’t worry too much.
Check out Magic Thaifood – a little street restaurant on Rambuttri, you can get cheap food and drink listening to live music from other bars and in the evening Max does tricks for customers – he is pretty good!
The Khao San area attracts a lot of scammers who love to try and take tourists’ money. It is quite common to end up on the receiving end of a scam but they are easy to avoid once you know what to watch out for. These people see Farangs (westerners) as a walking ATM, which is often true! As a general rule, use your head. If an offer sounds too good, something is dodgy. Never buckle to pressure to buy things or do or go places that you don’t want to. You are your own boss. Sometimes the scams are quite believable so here are things to look out for:
- Tuk tuk drivers are terrible for scams of various kinds. Cheap tuk tuk tours are anything but. If they try to take you to tailor shops or gem stores or “shopping” firmly refuse and continually do so if they persist. If you do end up in any of these shops on a tuk tuk tour, they will pressurise you to buy things. Just stand firm, if you aren’t spending money they are wasting their time anyway and they will take you back. Worst case scenario just leave and flag down a taxi.
- I have also heard first hand reports of travellers being asked by tuk tuk drivers (or other individuals) if they want to buy drugs, particularly weed, or that they are getting weed for a friend. These are scam tactics which will end up with you trying to be framed for buying weed by a convienient police raid. Basically, be extremely careful if you want to buy drugs in Bangkok – I wouldn’t recommend it. Places where weed is relitavely safe to buy is on the chilled out islands in the south full of rasta bars. In the city, take the risk if you dare…
- Strangers, usually Thais, may approach you in the streets around Khao San being friendly or asking questions. Unless they are other backpackers, beware. They may ask you about your family, where you are from, claim to be working for the tourist department, a teacher, whatever and they may look completely respectable. At the end of the day their main aim will be to scam you in some way. Its happened to me and its easy to be taken in by their “hospitality”. Normal Thai people will never randomly approach you like this except in the non-touristy areas. You can just ignore them and they will soon leave you alone.
- Sellers will always be trying to make sales or strike up conversation with you around Khao San, it gets annoying. Just ignore them completely or say no thank you and then ignore them. Its the fastest way to get rid of them, if they think there is any chance of a sale they will follow you like a little lost puppy. Aww.
This little temple opposite the entrance to Khao San is worth a look. Remember in temples to show respect for the culture – no short shorts, no vest tops/bikinis, take off hats and take off your shoes at the entrance to buildings. Busier temples have long sleeved clothes you can borrow.
Thailand is generally very safe for travellers. The recent bombings are an isolated event – are you really going to let one terrorist and a few isolated attacks scare you out of the city? Be aware that it seems religiously motivated and not targeted at tourists, especially not backpackers. Sadly though, it has massively hit tourism and I have seen a lot of businesses affected by rich tourists cancelling their holidays and scared to go to the country. Its had a devastating impact on a country which relies heavily on tourism. Don’t let it stop you having a good time!
Muggings and violent crime against tourists in the country are rare. I feel far safer walking around Bangkok at night than I would in a city in the UK! The main crime to be aware of is general theft. Like any tourist destination, it can happen, although don’t let paranoia ruin your holiday, just be sensible. Don’t leave valuables lying around screaming “free money!” especially if you are popping to the toilet in a restaurant for example. Keep your passport and other valuables on your person, in a safe or at your accommodation front desk. For larger expensive things you can put them in your main bag and lock it with a padlock – combo locks are good because if you lose those annoying little keys, you are screwed! Can you tell its happened to me? Of course it is just a deterrent but unless you want to take a Fort Knox with you then it’ll do the job. I love those ridiculous cage meshes you can buy for backpacks, which most people ditch after two weeks of lugging the stupid heavy thing around!
An important thing to do is bring two credit cards which let you withdraw cash from ATMs. Keep one in your main bag and one with you, or in a safe. That way if something happens to one you have a backup and won’t go broke. ATMs occasionally eat cards in Asia, its happened to me before, and if you have any PIN or lose one, no worries, you have a spare! I have met naive backpackers who travel with one card and then have a massive nightmare when something happens to it. Don’t walk around with hundreds of pounds worth of Baht, a few thousand Baht should be enough. As a last resort, if you need money, head to a Western Union which you can find in the major towns and cities and get money sent from home to you.
The awesome tourist police of Surat Thani who helped me out a few years ago. Very nice people!
Many local Thai police may not speak good or any English and there can be problems with corruption and shakedowns. If you have any problems with crime or local police, always use the Tourist Police who speak English and are usually very helpful. They have branches in most cities in Thailand and you can call them on 1155. I had a great experience with them in Surat Thani when I lost my bag and the tourist police guy looked after me for two days, and actually managed to track down my bag which had somehow ended up in Bangkok!
Crossing The Road!
Why did the backpacker cross the road? Actually they didn’t cross the road because they were too scared!
Look for white stripey lines on the road if it is busy, these are crossing points. If there are pedestrian lights, use them. But be aware that just because the light says green doesn’t stop some drivers for going for it anyway leaving a wake of flattened tourists. If there are no lights, a good tip when you are learning is to follow in the footsteps of a Thai person or group, I love doing this with little old ladies or monks because noone wants to run them over, haha! When they go, you go. If you are alone, pick a gap in the traffic (the gap doesn’t have to be all the way across) and move forward with purpose. Don’t stop and don’t turn around (unless you are definitely about to get flattened!). Hold out your hand towards oncoming traffic. Thai drivers are used to this and will adjust speed or drive around you. It takes faith and practice. Use your judgement and watch how other people do it. Be extra careful on the fast main dual carriageways – its better to wait for a while for a good gap across the whole road than risk your life! Also watch out for motorbikes on narrow streets, I have met people who have had their feet ran over because they weren’t careful enough. That hurts quite a lot!
You’ll probably have to cross this busy road to Khao San a number of times. This is quite gappy compared to normal!
Almost all ATMs charge you to withdraw with a foreign card, usually about 150 baht. Take out a couple of thousand at a time or watch your costs rack up. There are ATMs everywhere around Khao San. There are money exchange places all over too. You can pay by credit card for many things.
When you can’t take any more of Bangkok, its not too hard to just do like the locals and head to the bus terminals or train stations and make your own way to your destination. At the bus terminals on the outskirts of the city you can take buses anywhere in the country and the staff generally speak English and you will be travelling with Thai people in a safe bus for locals.
Flights are a good option to major cities in the country, cheap, fast and pretty easy. For flights you can just book online and make your own way to the airports. It’s often only marginally more expensive to take internal flights than long bus/boat journeys and you will save a lot of time. Try Skyscanner, AirAsia, Lion Air and Kayak.
Trains are more difficult, staff don’t always speak English but they are usually happy to help and its a great experience on the old Thai trains, mingling with the locals, buying food off vendors and you’ll usually run into a few other backpackers doing the same thing. Definitely try it once – the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai or night trains from Bangkok to the south are good options. If you book in advance you can even get private booths for a bit more money.
Siranee – awesome travel agent at Roof Garden on Rambuttri
For anything else, including buses to other countries and island transfers, Khao San area has travel agents in abundance and most tourist specific transport leaves from the Khao San area. Be warned that there are a lot of dodgy and rip-off agents in this area. I always use Siranee at Roof Garden (see below) who I can trust. Do take the time to do a bit of research or get recommendations from other travellers for reputable travel agents here, there are a lot of horror stories out there.
I personally use Siranee’s travel desk at the Tree House accommodation on Rambuttri, who I met through a tour guide. She is great, she knows her stuff, she is honest and she is a traveller too and wants you to have a good, safe time – and prices are good. I have used her many times and never had a problem. I do not get commission for recommending her, she is genuinely great!
Siranee’s business card. Follow Rambuttri behind the temple all the way round and keep an eye out for the Roof Garden sign
Useful Thai Words
The Thais, like any other country, appreciate it when you try to speak a bit of their language. At least try to learn Hello and Thank You and you will often get a smile! The wording may depend if you are a guy or a girl speaking, (m) for male, (f) for female.
- Hello – Sawat Dee Kap (m), Sawat Dee Kaa (f)
- Thank You – Khop Khoon Kap (m), Khop Khoon Kaa (f)
- Goodbye – Lah Gorn
- Good – Dee
- How are you? – Sabai Dee Mai?
- I am good – Sabai Dee Kap (m), Sabai Dee Kaa (f)
- Toilet – Hong Naam
- It is very hot! – Rorn Mak Ma!
Now you know what to expect, you can concentrate on enjoying Bangkok’s melting pot! Nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of entering a new city in a foreign land and a different culture – that’s something you can look forward to! After Bangkok, everything gets easier and you can escape to the other great places Thailand has to offer, relax and go on your adventures!
Railay Beach near Krabi – paradise, if you can ignore the hordes of tourists and chugging of longboats all day! Tip – go further along the beach to avoid them!
Personal Thailand Highlights
Here are some of my favourite places in Thailand:
- Koh Tao – Great diving and snorkeling, lovely chilled beaches but you can still party in town.
- Railay Beach – Beautiful beach surrounded by limestone formations everywhere where you can rock climb or just enjoy the views.
- Khao Sok National Park – Stay in floating huts on a huge lake in the jungle full of limestone formations, kayak around the lake, see wildlife and trek in the forest in isolation.
- Chiang Mai – Relaxed city full of temples, monks, and loads of things to do such as trekking, elephant camps, cooking classes, rafting, Thai boxing shows and night markets with a great coffee shop and arts scene.
- Pai – Chilled out town in the hills near Chiang Mai with a hippy arts vibe and awesome caves and landscapes reachable by scooter, with cool bonfire bars at night.
- Koh Phi Phi – Horribly touristy but still beautiful and good beach parties for the young at heart.
- Sankhlaburi – Little town up near Kanchanaburi on a lake. A floating village, hardly any tourists, relaxed atmosphere and lots of friendly locals, fishermen and boat trips on the lake available. Super chill. Check it out on my blog.
Floating accommodation in beautiful Khao Sok National Park
- Wikitravel – great for Asia, lots of insider knowledge although remember not all info may be up to date
- Travelfish – particularly good for Thailand, similar to Wikitravel
- Trip Advisor – Particulary useful in Asia for finding decent accommodion and restaurants if you don’t have the energy to go hunting around yourself – although be aware of course not all accommodation is in here, you may miss some gems. Also good for learning about activities and tours available in the area.
- Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forums – If you have any questions head to the Thailand forum, it’s quite well used by other travellers and you often get a reply within a day. Do a forum search for what you are looking for, usually someone’s asked the same question already.
Enjoy your time in Thailand! Lah Gorn! (Goodbye!)
I would love to hear your own tips and recommendations for Bangkok – please leave a comment!
Monks I met at one of the quieter temples in Bangkok. Monks tend to be quite friendly, don’t be afraid to approach them and have a chat, many speak English in the cities. In some temples “Monk Chat” is available, its an interesting experience.