My Personal Guide to Bangkok
I wrote this for a friend that asked for some advice but it got so long that I decided to make it into a proper article. I’ve been in Bangkok for a few months while I’m in school so I have had the unique experience of living like a local with a normal 9–5 schedule and also needing to live very frugally.
My weekday budget is $10/day for food and housing but I recommend budgeting a lot more than that. $10 is totally possible if you eat only cheap food, drink no alcohol, walk a lot, and get the cheapest airbnb possible with no A/C. People reading this are likely on vacation so budgeting more should be no big deal.
The first thing to know is that the King died about a month ago (October 2016). I was here when it happened and shift was subtle. For a couple of days people were visibly sad/crying and carrying around framed photos. Most of daily life hasn’t changed much. The biggest thing is all the Thai people are wearing only black and white and bars and clubs close at midnight instead of late. They are mourning for three months. This should be over by Christmas though people are possibly wearing black for up to a year. Talking about the King or the Royal Family in any critical way is illegal so I recommend not talking to anyone about it at all.
Now the fun stuff, things to see and do.
Getting around Bangkok isn’t too hard though it’s not very quick due to congestion. I recommend picking up a sim card at a 7/11 or at a mall. Don’t get one from the airport because they are incredibly overpriced. You can get a month card for about $10 with internet. Then you will always have a map. The typical Bangkok way to get around is to take a train to the stop closest to your destination and then either take a motorcycle taxi (for 1 person) or a cab (for many). General rule of thumb for a taxi in fast traffic is a 15 min ride cost about 60baht. You usually have to negotiate the price before you get in as they rarely want to turn on the meter. Also, cab drivers rarely know where anything is so having a gps map to show them usually works. Otherwise I tell them the closest place with a Thai name, like a train station or temple, and they understand that. Then walk a bit.
Tuk Tuk’s are always a bad deal but it’s worth it one time to see what it’s like. They usually say 200baht for a ride and never come down in price. There are also busses but if you don’t know the traffic I wouldn’t recommend them because they are slow, get stuck in traffic a lot, and are hot. They are very cheap though and go to some places that trains don’t. Maybe you want to try it out? I ride them every once in a while if I need to. Jump on and sit down and a lady will come and shake a change box at you. Tell here where you want to go. She probably won’t understand where you mean but give her 20 baht and it will likely be ok.
The trains in Bangkok are great and easy to use. They also provide a nice moment of A/C if you’ve been out all day. I recommend figuring out which train is by your residency and then buying a reloadable card so that you don’t have to stand in line for a ticket everytime you get on. I live by the underground MRT line so I have a reloadable card for that and then if I need to transfer to the above ground BTS line, I will wait in line for that. Sometimes the lines for tickets are really long so having money on a reloadable card lets you skip that. Otherwise, wait in line to get coins and then wait in line to put the coins in the machine. Price is based on distance but the the range is 15baht to 45 baht so it’s really cheap and is the fastest way to get around. Google maps makes figuring your route very easy.
Be sure to take River Taxi’s while you’re here. The orange flag boats go to every stop and cost 14baht which is less than 50 cents. You can take the river taxi to the Palace or to the Amulet Market or anywhere around the Old City. This is another moment when google maps is helpful because it’s really hard to determine which stop you’re at without GPS. If you don’t get a ticket before you get on (sometimes you can’t) then pay the woman who shakes the change box at you and she will give you a paper ticket.
Bangkok is a city designed around shopping so if you like to shop, you will be very happy. The BTS train goes to many mall districts, but the biggest and brightest of them called Siam. It’s worth having a look even if you aren’t into shopping because the sheer decadence is a spectacle to witness: Themed multi-million dollar shopping centers that have footbridges to other shopping centers. Luxury shopping isn’t what drives my soul but I’ve browsed them a bit for a view into that world. Most of Bangkok is set up into districts so as you explore it you might notice themes, such as a neighborhood full of car parts, a neighborhood full of bathroom showrooms, a neighborhood full of gems and jewelry, a neighborhood full of disposable plastic bags. Shopping and commerce seems to be what makes Bangkok move so you will see it everywhere you go. Bangkok’s industry is not hidden from public view the way it is in other places. It’s usually right on the sidewalk and street with everything else.
If you are into gems and jewelry, make sure you visit Si Lom road and the Jewelry Trade Center. It’s like a mall full of gems and the neighborhood around the JTC is all gem shops. Bangkok is the heart of the world gem trade so I recommend checking it out. When else can you see huge rubies and sapphires in piles in shop windows?
Chinatown (Yaowarat Road) is the neighborhood for gold and Chinese food. They have an annual vegetarian fest which is great. It was in October and I caught the last few days of it. Well worth a look as it also has some interesting architecture and the whole neighborhood has a more old fashioned feel than a lot of the more renovated parts of Bangkok.
The Amulet Market is an interesting place to visit. It’s a sort of micro-neighborhood containing lots of little and big statues, coins, and other lucky things. Get there in the morning because it closes around 4. Worth a look and maybe a good place to get an inexpensive but authentic souvenir.
I would also recommend the Little India neighborhood which is also the fabric district. Phahurat Market is the name of the fabric center. About a block from there is the Indian Emporium which is a 4 story mall of fabric. Just to the left of the entrance of Indian Emporium is a soi (alley) that has about 30 Indian food stands and is really cheap. The food is good. Phahurat is interesting but totally claustrophobic. A site to see.
Not too far from Phahurat is the Flower Market which is also spectacle to see. It’s huge, it’s open about 24 hours, and if you’ve never seen a flower market, this is a bustling one. I’ve heard that 2am is the best time to witness it because it’s so busy but I saw it during the day and it was still impressive.
Chatuchak Market, also called JJ Market, is the thing to do on Saturday morning. It’s a huge market that sells just about everything you can imagine from art, to housewares, to food, to animals, to clothes and clothes and clothes. It’s claustrophobic, hot, crowded, and well worth a visit. Words can’t truly describe this place. It’s vast and almost unbelievable.
Inside the Paragon mall there is a movie theater that I highly recommend visiting. There is a thing called 4DX which means that during your normal Hollywood flick, the seats move according to the action, there are fans to blow you when the wind in the movies goes, there are little things by your ear that replicate actions like bullets whizzing by and they also say that they use scents, too. I went to one for about $12 or so and it was pretty cool. Also, the same theater has a 3D IMAX theater which is the biggest in Thailand. I saw a movie there for about $12 and it was a great movie experience. If you like movies, I highly recommend seeing a few in BKK.
After you’ve made you pilgrimage to the sacred centers of money, get out of there and see other stuff.
There are so many temples in Bangkok. They are all awesome and beautiful and ornate. I recommend the Golden Mount which is a temple on a tall hill. It cost 20baht which is less than a dollar and the view is great. It’s different than most temples and has a 360 degree view of the city. Definitely worth a visit and a view. Wat Pho is right next door to the Royal Palace and is where the famous reclining Buddha is.
Sri Maha Mariamman Temple is a different from most temples in that it’s a Hindu temple. It’s near the Jewelry Trade Temple and it’s incredibly beautiful and free to enter. You need to wear respectful clothing which means cover the arms and legs.
Bangkok is a fashionable city and the natives are accustomed to the hot and humid weather that Thailand experiences all year. If you want to show up looking like a tourist, wear a t-shirt, khaki shorts, a money belt, and sandals. If you want to blend in to the local fashion scene, you’ll need to up your game. No shorts. Thai people do wear shorts but it seems like hardly ever. Skinny jeans. Skinny shirts. Skinny everything. Fashionable lightweight dresses. That’s the Thai way because they’re skinny I guess. Sneaker fashion is popular so if you have a collection of rarities, they will be appreciated here. For men, button up shirts are the way. Look sharp with a slim, tailored cut. Sandals are great for everyone. Make sure they are something you can walk all day in. Skinny jeans with sandals is a regular trend for men and women here. One warning I will give you is don’t come to Thailand with one outfit and assume you can buy all new clothes. I did that once and I met a girl recently that tried that and it’s a bad idea. Thai people are tiny and I couldn’t find anything at all that I could fit into. Also the dirt cheap clothes are very poor quality. Better just to bring well fitting clothes and maybe you will get lucky and find some choice garments while shopping.
If you are into art, there are several good things to see. The Bangkok Arts and Cultural Center is free and has lot of stuff to see and really good ice cream on the 2nd floor. It’s very big and modern and has a circular design that slightly reminded me of the Guggenheim. It’s right off the BTS train and very easy to get to.
The National Gallery is free or near free depending on the day. It’s more traditional and worth a look though. It’s not huge though it has several rooms and a sculpture garden. A nice thing to see if you don’t want to spend all day looking at art.
On a totally different scale is Gallery VER. It’s run by local Thai artists and has the freshest and “on the pulse” vibe of all the art I’ve seen. It’s off the beaten path and requires a cab ride to get out there but it’s well worth it.
When you are tired of being around chaos and concrete, head to Lumphini Park. It’s the biggest park in Bangkok. There you will see lots of runners, walkers, and sports people. There is a pool and a basketball court. There are big ponds that you can take swan boats out on and benches to enjoy the view. There are also huge dragon looking lizards that live wild in the park.
Food is abundant in Bangkok and comes in all shapes and sizes. I am usually looking for good deals. At the cheapest end, food starts at 40baht (which is about a dollar) and goes up infinitely. The only things you can usually find for 40 baht is Thai food and mostly that price gets you Pad Thai. A usual cheap dinner for one might be 200baht and a decadent dinner gets into the thousands. Chinatown is known for food though I don’t eat meat so it can be hard to tell whats what. Food in the malls is obviously much more expensive. Food on street carts is cheap and tends to be some of the best food. I eat from a food stall for lunch 5 days a week and its cheap and provides some of my favorite meals.
For veg food, I recommend:
Mai Kaidee near Khaosan Road, is probably the best place but I find the location too far to be a regular.
Suki Jeh Ru Yi has great veg Thai food with interesting meat imitations.
Phahurat Little India for lots of veg Indian food.
Definitely try Fried Morning Glories in a Thai place. So good and you rarely see that dish in the States.
Try all kinds of fruit. If you’ve never had it, try a durian. It’s a mix between melon and garlic. Try lychee, try mango, try any fruit because they are all good and unusual!
Alcohol is not nearly as cheap as you would hope. To me it seems like midwestern US prices. Cheaper than a western big city but not nearly as cheap as the food is. If you buy a can of beer in a 7/11 or grocery it can be around $1.5 but in a bar or restaurant it’s much more. I went to a great bar the other night called the Havana Club and mixed rum drinks were around $10 each. By the way, I highly recommend Havana Club. It has a really cool Cuban vibe, very mellow with good music, and nice plush couches and chairs.
Other things to know. Don’t put toilet paper in the toilet. Get good at the “Bum Gun” because it’s awesome and a lot of public places don’t have toilet paper. (Watch a youtube video if you need instructions). Always have cash in your pocket because credit cards are not how Thai’s do business. Don’t drink the water though you can brush your teeth and rinse with it. 7/11’s are everywhere and have cheap water and snacks. The really touristy street is called Khaosan Road. Every tourist seems to want to go there but I always avoid it. If you want to hang out with a bunch of western people with backpacks and get harassed to buy things every 5 min, go there. I guess if you want to party and club and everything, go there. You will meet people. That’s not my thing and I never go there. I prefer to meet people other ways. Bangkok is pretty friendly either way. Drugs are really really illegal here. Night markets are awesome and you should seek them out. Night markets in other Thai towns and villages are usually the only things that are going on at night and they usually have great food and interesting wares for sale. If you are going to have clothes made, go to one of the best tailors. A good suit cost $500 so don’t even consider getting a $99 one. Bring your own sunscreen as all the sunscreen here has skin whitener in it. Good luck. Have fun. Talk to people. Eat weird food. Smile a lot. Learn some Thai. Experience the wildness that is Bangkok.