I’d just finished two months in South America, trekking in the Peruvian mountains, enjoying the incredible scenery of Bolivia’s salt flats and partying in Brazil. In some ways I was sad I didn’t have longer to explore that incredible continent, and I’m sure I’ll have to return there time and time again in order to see all the things I want to. The first countries on my travel wish list when I do will be Argentina and Chile. However, it was time to take my three-day trip from Rio to Bangkok, via two long layovers in Sao Paulo and Abu Dhabi.
I’d been to Bangkok twice before, so I knew what to expect: a sweltering, manic city that can sometimes become overwhelming. Weaving your way down the packed streets can be an intense experience, with tuk-tuk drivers, street food sellers and miscellaneous others constantly shouting at you, but you’re also guaranteed a surprise around every corner: whether it be one of the city’s many expansive markets or a hidden cafe serving delicious pad Thai.
Travellers tend to spend just three or four days in Thailand’s capital before moving on to the islands or heading up north for trekking adventures. This is because it can become overwhelming if you spend too long there, but make no mistake, it remains a fantastic introduction to Thailand. However, I would be spending over a week in the city as I waited for my friends to join me, and indeed, my time in Bangkok turned out to be busy and fun, but also slightly frustrating.
Whether you are spending 3 weeks in Thailand or just a weekend stop-over in Bangkok, there’s plenty here to keep you busy. For however long you are in Bangkok you’ll never see it all and will soon be planning your return! Check out the Ultimate 3 weeks in Thailand Itinerary.
Khao San Road (Pronounced Cow Saarn Road)
Upon arrival I headed to Khao San Road, which is the city’s seedy backpacker district, and very different from the rest of Bangkok. So why hadn’t I plunged headfirst into authentic Thai life instead of going to a place I would be surrounded by other tourists clad in Chang t-shirts and headbands? The reason was simply that I knew Khao San well from my previous visits, and as my journey to Thailand had taken almost three days, I was incredibly jet lagged and just wanted somewhere easy and Western to recuperate for a few days. In addition, this would be my first time on the trip travelling completely solo, and I wanted to be somewhere I felt comfortable while I gathered my bearings. However, my weariness from never staying anywhere for more than two days in South America meant I was too lazy to move to a different part of Bangkok for the duration of my time there, and this decision ending up giving me a bit of a headache!
After spending a couple of days in the hotel just sleeping, eating and swimming in the rooftop pool, I decided to venture out onto Khao San Road for a few Changs, and subsequently a rather awful Chang-over. The road is colourful, intense and a lot of people absolutely hate it. So notorious is the area among travellers that it got a name check in The Beach, where one of the characters debates its supposed reputation for loneliness. If you are visiting Bangkok I would not recommend staying here, but it is worth visiting for a day or a night.
On Khao San Road you can buy all the usual tourist fare, from elephant pants and tie-dye dresses to sunglasses and manicures. It’s also a great place for massages, and I got one most days, with Swedish oil massages and head, shoulder and back ones on offer if you’re a bit too scared for the vigorous Thai option that will see your back cracked in (hopefully) all the right places. In my experience Thai massages do hurt quite a bit at points, but they also leave you feeling wonderfully refreshed and the next day you’ll wake up feeling a million baht. So be brave.
However, the price of buying goods around Khao San are for the most part much higher than you’ll get in less touristy parts of the city, although you can still haggle your way right down. One of my favourite things to do on Khao San is to buy one of the trademark extremely strong cocktails (they do some crazy things with white wine) and a plate of pad Thai, and to settle back for a bit of entertaining people-watching. You can watch the tourists wander up and down the famous street, attempting to avoid the numerous people selling offensively-embroidered bracelets, suits, tarot readings, jewellery, scorpion kebabs and wooden ornaments that inexplicably make frog noises. You’re also bound to get talking to someone – and if you make friends you can even invest in one of the giant pitchers of beer they sell in the street bars.
At night the bars and restaurants on the road light up, blast Western music (or more accurately covers of Western music) and offer drinks deals – attracting hoards of young backpackers ready to party. If this is your scene then great, but if it’s not, there are plenty of streets in the area – the nearby Soi Rambuttri where I tended to head being a good example – that still have plenty of atmosphere, but offer quieter, prettier bars with fewer raucous 18-year-olds enjoying their first taste of freedom.
Transport: Taxis, tuk-tuks and motorbikes
One important thing I learned during my time there is that you should never get a taxi or tuk-tuk from Khao San Road or the surrounding areas, or you will be seriously ripped off. The drivers there will name an extremely high starting price, and they are also loathe to haggle – a process which can often turn unfriendly in this area – as many people who have just arrived will just accept their sky high prices at face value. The cheapest way to travel in Bangkok is by motorbike taxi, which can be a lot of fun, but also isn’t very safe as drivers often won’t provide helmets. With that in mind, the best way to get around is probably metered taxi: you just have to ensure the driver has the meter on when you get in the car or they’ll just make up a price of their own choosing.
Often, drivers from this part of town will offer you a cheaper price if you agree to ‘one stop’ at a friend’s shop, or try to take you somewhere different to the place you want to go. At one point I paid 300 baht (£5.50) in a tuk-tuk from Khao San road to go shopping, only to return in a metered taxi for 70 baht (£1.30). This obviously doesn’t sound like a lot at home, but when you’re on a shoestring budget, prices like this really add up.
Another example of the sometimes nightmare transport from Khao San is that when I needed to go to the Vietnam Embassy to secure my visa, I was told by a tuk-tuk driver that it was closed, but he could take me to his friend’s shop (a travel agent) who would do a visa run for me. Not only do these visa runs cost more, but there is also no guarantee that your visa will be legitimate. After arguing with him for some time, I told him I just wanted to go to Wireless Road (where the embassy is situated) for a walk, so I got there in the end, despite the fact no-one would ever go to the corporate area of Wireless Road just for a walk. And obviously the embassy was in fact open, but this didn’t stop the driver calling me “crazy” before he zoomed away.
Public buses are another option for getting around – and they are extremely cheap, and quite the experience. Although the timetable can be confusing, it’s worth getting at least one of these during your time in the city – if just to experience the craziness on board!
Don’t lose face
As described above, interactions with some of the people in Bangkok can be extremely frustrating, but it is of the utmost importance not to get angry or ‘lose face’. This is seen as a very embarrassing thing to do in Thai culture, meaning they will lose any respect they may have for you, and you will get absolutely nowhere by being aggressive.
This means that even if someone has done something very wrong, you need to keep it together and simply extract yourself from the situation, rather than being drawn into an altercation. Every traveller will at some point feel like they are being taken advantage of or laughed at, but how you handle the situation from there can either make it much, much worse, or allow you to leave with some dignity still intact. It sounds corny, but a smile will take you a really long way in a lot of situations.
Visiting the temples
Most people visiting Bangkok will make an effort to go to the city’s three main temples: Wat Arun, Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew. While these can be crowded, they remain some of the most impressive temples you’ll see during your time in Asia, containing treasures such as the Emerald Buddha and the Reclining Buddha, and are seriously worth a look.
Due to the temples’ popularity however, there are a number of scams that you can get caught up in when simply attempting a visit – one of which almost happened to me during my time in the city.
I decided to take a trip to Wat Pho to see the majestic Reclining Buddha that resides there – one of my favourites among Bangkok’s attractions. After being dropped off in a tuk-tuk across the road from the temple, I was approached by a smartly dressed Thai man with exceptional English. He asked me where I was from (Leeds) and told me his brother had gone to university there.
Obviously I was sceptical, but he came across as very well educated, so there were no huge red flags at this point. He then told me that Wat Pho was closed due to a Buddhist holiday (cleaning is another common excuse that is used) but would reopen later in the day. He then explained that he had a tuk-tuk and could take me to a number of other temples and attractions and then bring me back to Wat Pho when it was open. However, as I had to catch my flight to Ko Samui later in the day, I declined and decided just to head back to my hotel – and the man chased me down the street with a map, shouting.
What made this extra confusing is that I knew the next day was indeed the biggest Buddhist holiday of the year, so his claim did not seem all that outlandish. However, after checking when I got back, I learned that it was indeed open. On a bus on my way out of Bangkok I met a Dutch girl who told me that she had been taken in by the same scam, but had actually got in the tuk-tuk, at which point the man took her to a number of his friends’ shops. She was understandably annoyed, and told him she wanted to go back to her hotel, at which point he said he would charge her double if she left now, but just half if she remained for the rest of his ‘tour’.
The Floating markets
The floating markets around Bangkok are a great opportunity for a day trip out of the city. Driving through more rural areas on roads lined with paddy fields and greenery gives you the chance to glimpse life outside the city until you get to the floating markets.
There are a number of options: Taling Chan Market, Bang Ku Wiang Market, Tha Kha, Ampawa and Damnoen Saduak. At some of these you have the chance to sail up the river, stopping at various stalls along the way, while at others you can wander up and down the riverbank at your leisure, enjoying the markets that line the waterway and watching the activity on the waterway. Admittedly, these markets are now more concerned with catering to tourists than local trading activity, but it’s still worth a visit.
On this trip I decided to venture six hours out of Bangkok to visit Ampawa floating market, which also encompassed a magical firefly spotting tour once the sun went down. It was a really beautiful experience, and the perfect antidote to a day of shoving my way through the crowds on the banks of the river.
These tours are readily available from the many travel agents in Bangkok, and it’s worth shopping around a bit to find the one you want.
Bangkok is a shopper’s paradise, whether you have money to burn or not.
As the city has become increasingly developed, a myriad of malls have sprung up all over the city, boasting Western brands and many designer shops too. These high-end malls are beautifully decorated, sublimely air conditioned, a world away from the experience of shopping on Bangkok’s streets, although a day spent in these will no doubt result in a hefty dent in your bank balance.
If you want to experience an authentic Thai shopping experience you don’t have to look far. Stalls selling clothes, electronic goods and food are in abundance to cater to all your shopping needs.
Eating and drinking: Street food, yay or nay?
Bangkok is unsurprisingly a paradise for Thai food fans, boasting everything from bustling roadside cafes to high-end restaurants. For those who want a break from noodles and rice, there are also plenty of Western options to choose from.
In fact, food is so readily available in Bangkok that most of the people who live there don’t even have kitchens!
The dining experience you’re most likely to remember in the city is the street food stalls, which sell food that is completely unrecognisable to Western eyes. After feasting on a number of snacks purchased from the side of the road, I was still completely baffled as to what any of them actually were. It’s worth asking the cooks, but often their English is not good enough to explain, so it is left for you to decide whether you want to play street food roulette or not.
When deciding which place to buy from, it is important to use your common sense: look at the hygiene levels of the stall and at how things are cooked before purchasing. While I didn’t get ill from eating street food, that’s not to say no-one will, so if you’re nervous it could be worth sticking to veggie options. But definitely don’t miss out on this experience and always pick a busy stall where locals are eating.
Partying in Bangkok
It is impossible to ignore the lure of Khao San Road when it comes to letting your hair down once the sun has disappeared, but there are plenty of other fun options too.
Bangkok is notorious for its ‘adult-themed’ nightlife, which can be found in Pat Pong, Nana and Soi Cowboy, but if this is not your thing – like many travellers – you’ll be pleased to hear that as Bangkok has evolved, so has its nightlife. Now, places like Sukhumvit and Silom are dotted with rooftop bars and clubs with plenty of drinks deals.
In the past I’ve had very memorable nights at some of Sukhumvit’s clubs, but this time I opted for the quieter option of enjoying its quirky street bars which are run from VW camper vans, complete with DJs.
If you’re in the mood for something a little bit different and VERY Thai, you can also catch a ladyboy show while in the city.
Bangkok: The best and worst
There is plenty to like about Bangkok – it is lively, has fantastic nightlife, delicious cuisine, great shopping opportunities, beautiful temples and provides you with the chance to immerse yourself in Thai culture if you know where to look.
However, more than in my previous two visits – perhaps because the novelty had worn off, I found myself getting frustrated with the constant scamming and all the hassle you’re subject to, particularly when traversing the city by yourself, as well as the stress of simply trying to get from A to B. This was likely my own fault for staying on Khao San Road, where the hassle tends to be at its peak, and when I’m next in Bangkok I’ll certainly stay in a different district.
So where to next?
Once you’ve tired of Bangkok, you have two real options: jump on a bus going north, or opt for a break on some of the beautiful Thai islands. And it would be to the Thai islands I would be heading first via plane and then high-speed catamaran: to Ko Samui, Ko Tao and Ko Phangnan for two weeks relaxing on beaches and in infinity pools. I couldn’t wait!