Pulling out of the Bangkok bus station towards Ayutthaya I couldn’t help but wonder what I could’ve done differently to make my stay there better. I pondered over this as the driver made a straight shot toward my next destination in quick fashion. I was mentally and physically tired, the tattoo and jet lag pain rearing their ugly heads respectively. The further away the bus got from the capital the clearer the answers to my questions became, funny how that works.
If you want to survive your first stint in Bangkok then take it from me and these tips:
1. TRANSPORTATION MUST-KNOWS
Bangkok is a LARGE metropolis consisting of the Old City and the more modern new city. Currently it sits at 605 sq. miles, large enough to squeeze in almost six Taipei City within its boundaries. With such a large city you need to get familiar with their transit systems right off the bat.
Directly fresh off the plane you’ll be greeted with the newish BTS Skytrain. The air-con skytrain service a majority of the new city as well as ever expanding into the old city, albeit slowly. Easy to navigate with how straightforward it is, but be warned the machines take only coins and SMALL BILLS. Pick the stop, pay the fare, use the token/card to get on, and deposit token/card when you leave the station. Easy as pie. Don’t mess it up.
You’ll find these littered all over the place and coming in two varieties of colors: pink and green. The colors only mean different companies while retaining the same services. If you’re going to be hailing a taxi MAKE SURE IT’S METERED AND RUNNING! Plenty of scammers out there trying to rip you off. If there is no meter then negotiate a PRICE BEFORE ENTERING or just leave. Not worth the hassle of being ripped off no matter how far the distance.
If you insist on being in a taxi then download the app Grab. Basically their version of Uber out in these parts. The price is set in the app so you can see what you will be paying. They have choices from the basic to the upscale, like Uber, but also a motorbike option, unlike Uber, that is my favorite for that afternoon rush. The latter is a lot cheaper, but come with restrictions if say you’re a family of five on holiday.
TIP: They have various forms of ferries working the same as taxis all over the city. You also have the option of a hop on hop off ferry, think tour bus in major cities.
The ever so colorful, loud, and rambunctious group of drivers on three-wheeled people carriers. Quite possibly one of the big draws of coming to Bangkok is hopping in these monstrosities and hitting the streets. I don’t actually mean that in a negative way as I do enjoy how cool they look. The drivers will hassle you with “Hey friend where you going?” or “I take you to all the must see around Bangkok for X amount of baht,” if you make the mistake of eye contact while walking past them.
Each tuktuk is not like the last. The drivers take it upon themselves to peacock, if you will, their ride to attract potential riders. Flamboyant color schemes, obnoxiously loud exhaust systems, or a bumping stereo blasting the latest Top 40. Whatever floats your boat they got you covered.
Unless you HAVE TO TAKE THE BUS I would forget about them altogether to be honest. It was insanely confusing to navigate where the stops were, which to get off and make a transfer, and how much this colored bus’s fare was compared to that one. Yes, your fare will vary depending on the condition (new versus old, AC versus non) of the bus even if it’s going the same route. Another kicker is that the buses TAKES AN ETERNITY to get to your destination. Many times GoogleMaps have shown me that walking, instead of taking the bus, would get me there in half the time. You guessed it, I walked.
2. SURVIVING THE HEAT
This is not a surprise considering IT’S SOUTHEAST ASIA after all. At the time of writing I was told by the locals that it was a rather cool spring and they were ramping up for the summer season. Cool spring? Were they f***ing serious? When I stepped outside on day one it was already 95 degrees with 65% humidity and this was COOL?
I felt as if I didn’t do a good job on this front as I would have liked to. What sweating through every pore on my body has taught me so far is to pack LIGHT. This means less amount of fabric the clothing has (shorts for the win!), bright colors to reflect all of the sun, and linen over cotton! Trust me on this as I have the laundry bill list to prove how much sweat one can procure.
PACK SUNSCREEN! Extra strength at that. If you have been burnt in the past you know how horrible the results can be. Do yourself a favor and not writhe in agony. Pack yourself a tube and apply it whenever you go outside even if it’s just for a little bit. I sat on a balcony to read my book for less than fifteen minutes and was sunburnt on my thigh in no time flat. Bring some calamine lotion if you’re prone to heat rash as I sadly found out that I am.
Do what the Europeans do during hot summer months: go home at noontime and take a nap. This practice, widely known as siesta, has been my envy ever since my first travels to Europe. Here in SE Asia it is also practiced widely and for good reason. Around 12:30PM to 3PM you can find a lot of cart stalls, shops, and marts a lot less busy than the morning or evening time. The temperatures during midday is JUST TO EXCRUCIATING to be out frolicking in it. Go back to your hotel, crank the AC, and take a short nap.
TIP: Things really start to ramp up at night time when the weather is much cooler!
3. LEARN SIMPLE PHRASES!
A lot of people in Thailand know simple English phrases, that is to say if you stay a majority of your time in the old quarter as I did. Hello, this X amount, beef, chicken or shrimp, and thank you is most of what you’ll hear on the streets, nothing more. I found myself in sticky situations when not knowing the native tongue. Perfect example is ordering street food as I revert to using my hands to act out words I knew not of. Lesson here? Learn some BASIC Thai phrases to get you by on the streets, the people would definitely appreciate the effort as well.
Here are some of the ones I think will be MOST helpful:
- Hello = Sawatdii
- Thank you = Khop kun
- How much? = Taorai
- Can you reduce the price? = Lod noi dai mai (HAGGLE AWAY!)
- Bathroom = Hongnaam
- Skytrain = Rodfai faa
- I’m lost = Long tahng
- May I have the menu = Aow meenuu noi
- 1 more please = Khor iik nung
- I like spicy = Chan/Pom chawp pet
- Beer = Beer
If you couldn’t tell the last 3 phrases are my favorite, ha.
4. BAHT RULES EVERYTHING AROUND ME!
CREAM is still relevant today as it was back when Wu-Tang first coined the pop phrase and is no different in Bangkok. The smaller establishments i.e. mom and pop restaurants, corner street meat stick stand or side street noodle cart will ONLY take cash. Why not eat somewhere else you ask? But why would you do that when the food at those places are sometimes revered as THE SPOT? Bigger places, like strip malls and chain eateries will take cards, so if you fancy med-upscale options you will be perfectly fine. Still I ask why though.
Pulling out cash from ATM has been my go-to ever since I started traveling. I avoid currency exchange kiosk in any form in any country like the plague. But in Bangkok I noticed that the ATM, even though having my card’s bank logos, would charge a hefty $7 (220 baht) transaction fee on top of the minuscule conversion fee my bank charges. There are banks, like Charles Schwab, that will reimburse you for those fees. If you’re pulling out cash then pull out enough for a week or two’s worth to offset that fee. I ended up pulling out 10,000 baht, about $320, more than enough for 2 weeks.
5. DON’T GET BURNT OUT ON TEMPLES!
Easier said than done! Aside from the street food culture, tuktuk rides, and Muay Thai matches you’re basically trekking halfway around the world for to see temples. And a plethora of temples at that. My first two days here I must have seen about ten Wats and sadly this is not an exaggeration.
Golden Mountain Temple:
You’ve landed in a heavily Buddhist nation so what else is to be expected? Everywhere you turn is a pagoda, a temple, a giant golden statue of Buddha or a Monk taking a selfie or two (yes this happens.) One’s senses can really get overwhelmed and quickly.
My tip is simple: slow down your run. Pick one or two temple a day, the ones worth going to (all of them are worth it in my opinion but to each his own), set a time, either early in the morning or just after that tourist rush, and go explore. I love it when it’s not as busy so you can feel as if you have the whole place to yourself, but who am I kidding they’re always packed.
The Grand Palace:
I really enjoyed the Grand Palace, Wat Arun, and the Golden Mountain out of all the ones I visited. Of the three I think Wat Arun may be the LEAST busiest in the evening. It’s across the river and would make for a killer sunset location. Keep the itinerary of temples light! Remember quality over quantity.
6. EAT OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE
We’ve come to my favorite tip of all where I encourage each and everyone of you to throw away your dietary caution! Visiting a new land the first thing I am always excited about is eating their cuisine, and in Thailand street food is king. In Bangkok you can hit one within any stone’s throw, not even kidding.
You can find anything anywhere in the city be it shark fin soup on Yarowat Road in Chinatown, various chicken gizzards being grilled up near Khao San Road or a refreshing, freshly ripened pineapple on the pier from Wat Arun. From ordinary to the outlandish Bangkok’s street food scene is immense, bountiful, and always running (except on Mondays where they clean them dirty streets so options ARE limited.)
I dare you let your tastebuds run amuck in your mouth and I will guarantee you won’t be disappointed with the offerings in this land. I haven’t had a bad meal since I have been here and I pretty much eat everything! Not to mention one can line their stomach with various meats from a cornucopia of animals for less than five dollars. And five is on the HIGH SIDE!
There you go peeps my six simple tips to ensure you have a better stay in Bangkok than you I would have. Oh I have to mention I did not once set foot into the new city for several reasons. I am on a budget backpacking trip to see as much of SE Asia as possible so spending on big ticket items is a no go for this ombre. Secondly big cities just aren’t my thing. Too big and too much going on. If I wanted that I would have stayed stateside for sure!