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Bangkok won’t charm you…at least not right away.
It’s massive, intimidating, busy, hot, humid and really kind of ugly. Chances are you may get ripped off by a tuk tuk or taxi driver and you’ll definitely get stuck in traffic at some point. But, give it a little time, and you’ll start to notice how the different neighborhoods each have their own character, how small family dwellings and communities are still tucked in between major roads and skyscrapers, how there’s mouth-watering food everywhere, how the city offers a little something for everyone and how there’s always more to discover.
There’s an energy that’s inescapable – sometimes it’s exhilarating, other times it’s oppressive – but it’s always intense.
I was not a Bangkok fan the first time I visited. Or the second. Or probably the third. (Starting out being dropped off on a side road close to Khao San at 4:00 a.m. by myself without a hotel room probably had something to do with it.) I was certainly a little uneasy and uncomfortable. I spent two days wandering around in circles on my own and wasn’t really sure what to do in Bangkok. I couldn’t understand how the city was laid out, was paranoid about being scammed, and seemed to walk forever in the direction of a destination never actually reaching it.
I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it like I had other parts of the country and didn’t feel the need to spend much more time there – it was just a necessary passing through point for several trips.
Five years and ten visits later, I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate Bangkok much more than I ever expected and my to-do list for the city keeps growing. As I’ve become more comfortable in the capital, I’ve started to take advantage of what the city has to offer instead of being run over by it. I also have a standard set of suggestions, directions and and advice for friends and family visiting Bangkok for the first time.
Simply put, Bangkok is very big, very busy and very hot. Most people that I know usually spend 2-3 days in Bangkok on their first visit. Usually they want to see a couple of the islands, head up north to Chiang Mai for 3-4 days and stay in Bangkok either at the beginning or end of their trip.
You won’t see much in one day but, for some reason, three to four days starts to feel exhausting — 2-3 days will allow you time to see the major sites without getting too frustrated by the crowds, traffic or heat. You can always come back!
It took me a while to figure out how to get around Bangkok but, though I’m still not exactly sure how everything fits together, it’s relatively easy – plus you can always just hop in a cab. There are four main modes of transportation for people visiting:
The city also has a complex bus system and motorbike taxis line the streets. While the local buses are incredibly cheap, under a dollar, I have no idea how you’re supposed to actually know where or when to get on a bus and where it’s going. Motorbike taxis are an option if you’re on your own and need to get somewhere fast(er) during heavy traffic. (If you’re squeamish about the traffic, you’ll probably hate riding on the back of a motorbike with a guy you don’t know as he tightly weaves in between cars and buses. Personally, I usually don’t have a problem with it. I know it looks crazy, but you also have to figure these guys know what they’re doing and have some impressive – and creative – driving skills.)
Two airports are located north and west of the city center. Suvarnabhumi (pronounced su-wa-na-poom – I know, it makes no sense…) is the main international airport while Don Muang flies more domestic flights as well as international flights to nearby countries. (Note that the budget carriers Air Asia and Nok Air operate solely out of Don Muang).
You can use the Skytrain or MRT to connect to an airport rail link that goes to Suvarnabhumi. For Don Muang it’s easiest just to get a taxi.
Bangkok doesn’t have one city center or ‘downtown’, which makes it a little difficult to get your bearings. Several areas have clusters of activities, sites and accommodation, so think about what style of accomodation and price range you want along with whether or not you want to be located close to a public transit system.
If you’re visiting for the first time, I recommend staying around Pathumwan and Sukhumvit, or Bangalamphu around Khao San Road. The Pathumwan/Siam Square/Sukhmuvit area allows you to be close to the main shopping and entertainment centers as well as both BTS lines and the MRT – it’s a great location for transportation options. It’s also very busy and smack in the middle of the big city.
Khao San Road is the (in)famous backpacker street in Bangalamphu. It is close to the river, Royal Palace complex and temples, and several well-known markets. Some people love Khao San…some people hate it. It just depends on the atmosphere you want and room budget. It also is a little more difficult to get around since the area isn’t serviced by one of the mass transit lines. That said, there’s a ton of accommodation – ranging from $6 prison cell-like rooms to 5 star hotels – and you’re certain to meet up with other travelers.
Recently, I’ve been turned onto Bangkok’s boutique hotel offerings that have a bit more style and character – and are more affordable than you’d expect! You can read more about my stays and suggestions here, here and here.
Like much of the rest of Thailand, many noteworthy sites center around temples.
If you like temples and have more time, I’d also recommend visiting:
You can do just about anything you can think of in Bangkok…and I’m not going to mention a lot of them here…
Still not sure what to do in Bangkok? Ask your hotel or guest house for some recommendations of things located close by.
I used to envision Bangkok as a huge city surrounded by…nothing. Not true, it turns out.
Many people also take a day trip out to some popular floating markets…I haven’t been and have heard mixed reviews since the traditional markets have turned into complete tourists affairs. I’d say it’s still worth looking into though, you can’t see floating markets just anywhere!
Also, it’s not a day trip in the sense that you can’t go then head back to the city in the afternoon, but Sukhothai is a great stopping spot if you want to break up travel time between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The ancient city and UNESCO site is about five hours away from both Bangkok and Chiang Mai and worth staying for a couple nights to check out the ruins. You can read more about Sukhothai here and here.
Traveling from Bangkok, you’ll often use one of the two airports listed above or one of the three major bus terminals.
There are so many public and private companies running different levels of buses 24/7 that you don’t need to book ahead – except on major holidays, the day before New Year’s Eve is a nightmare, for example – just head to the station and then shop around for a trip that works for you.
Plan about an hour from central Bangkok to reach the bus stations and check with your accommodation about the best time to leave/how long it will take when heading to either of the airports.
What other tips would you give to people visiting Bangkok for the first time? Would you back me up on the Jim Thompson House recommendation?