Bangkok is one of my favorite cities in Asia. It’s is full of great street food, has amazing and cheap public transportation, beautiful temples, world class shopping malls, and incredible markets selling more than just tourist trinkets.
To get it out of the way early: Bangkok has a bad reputation, but there’s a lot more to Bangkok than its sex industry. As with any major city in Asia many of the cheap hotels, bars, and brothels end up clustering together close to each other. That means that if you stay somewhere cheap in Bangkok you’ll almost certainly see prostitutes in the street.
Walk a few blocks away though and it all disappears. It’s just there for the tourists. A few blocks away and you’re left with city of stark contrasts. The entire second floor of Bangkok’s Siam Paragon mall is full of Louis Vuitton, Coach, Hermes, Prada and other luxury brands. The fourth floor sells Lamborginis. But walk a mile away toward [Sukhumvit]() and you can find a small market setup alongside the railroad tracks.
I don’t think that Bangkok is strong enough to anchor an entire trip to Southeast Asia. So why would you go to Bangkok? Because to reach most places in Asia it’s often cheaper to fly from Europe or the United States into Bangkok’s main airport (BKK) and then take a budget flight out of the other airport (DMK) than it would be to fly directly. So book a flight in, rest in the big city for a day, and then head onwards to a quieter destination. If you’re coming to Thailand you’ll probably want to head north to the temples in Chiang Mai or south to islands and beaches.
As far as I can tell most of the tuktuks in Bangkok are used by tourists, not locals. It’s an excellent and interesting way to see the city but be prepared to pay more than you need to and bring small bills — they often conveniently can’t make change. If you’re going to be in Asia for a while save the tuktuk riding for smaller cities where there is less traffic and you will be a bit safer.
Taxis in Bangkok are reasonable, just walk a block or two away from a hotel and flag one down in the street. Ask for them to use the meter. They know what the word “meter” means. If they agree to use the meter I generally tip nicely. If they don’t agree to use the meter I wait for another taxi.
A cheaper option that also puts you close to locals is public transit. Bangkok’s Sky Train is fast, air conditioned, and at most maybe $3 for a ride across the city. Like most of Asia, Bangkok puts major US city public transit infrastructure to shame.
A air conditioned train into the city from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is about 90 baht ($3) and takes maybe 40 minutes. If I have to get to Don Muang Airport (DMK) I normally take a taxi, ask them not to take the highway, and pay about $10. In general the cheaper short haul flights go through DMK and the cheaper long haul flights through BKK.
In Bangkok there are two excellent budget options for food. The first is obviously street food, and you’re not going to have a hard time finding it. On any major street someone will selling barbecue meats, fruit, or rice dishes. If you walk down a side street, and you don’t have to go too far, you’ll often find whole restaurants on the street with menus and plastic tables.
A single entrée can be about 30 baht ($1) but it often costs me two or three times as much for a filling dinner and a water.
I try to be careful with street food hygiene but I’m not too pedantic about it. For about $4 you can get some Azithromycin at any of the local pharmacies (look for green signs). It’s also worth bookmarking ToiletFinder and packing some toilet paper.
If you ever need to use the bathroom in Bangkok check out Terminal 21 shopping mall. Each floor is decorated like a different international city and they have Japanese Toto toilets with heated seats.
The Bangkok Chatuchak market is a fascinating place to any kind of craft you imagine. My favorite was a $10,000 Elephant made of driftwood. My favorite sight was the exotic animals, but they really don’t like you taking pictures of them. I saw an owl for $30, a koi fish for over $1,000, and other strange animals I didn’t even know people kept in captivity (lemurs, monkeys, and flying squirrels). Obviously I don’t recommend that you buy any of these animals, but they are fascinating to see.
Bangkok has many lesser markets on the sides of the streets. Mostly these are selling clothes, sandals, knives, sex toys, and counterfeit electronics. I stay away unless I need gifts or a cheap power adapter.
The touts at these markets are famous for pushing Viagra. Dealing with touts can get annoying, and to keep myself from getting frustrated I like to have different responses teasing about whatever they’re offering. For Viagra I prefer to smile and ask “Why would I need that?” Taxis are famous for asking “Where are you going?”. If you just ask them the same question, at the same time, it blows their minds. I would really caution against using Viagra you find in the streets.
Often when I get to Bangkok I’ve just spent a few weeks in a less developed city in Cambodia or Vietnam. In this case I like to go to the big shopping malls called Central World and Siam Paragon to eat and enjoy air conditioning.
On the top floor of Central World you can find excellent restaurants offering Japanese Ramen for about $5 per bowl. There’s an amazing aquarium in the basement for about $30 that lets you walk through a tunnel under swimming sharks and sting rays. If the rest of your trip to Thailand involves scuba diving you can easily miss it, but it’s the most impressive aquarium I’ve seen other than Boston, Massachusetts and Monterey, California.
For buying any electronics, bags, or clothes you will save a lot of money going to the MBK mall instead. It’s a bit hard to navigate but the prices are low and they sell western goods (I bought a Think Tank camera bag there once).
If you want to see temples in Bangkok I’d go to Rattanakosin to see Wat Pho and the reclining Buddha. He’s 140 feet long.
I hope some of this article convinced you to give Bangkok a shot on your next trip. This blog now has comments. If you have any questions ask them below and I can answer them or add them to the article later.
Camera note: The square format photos in this article were shot with a Mamiya 6 on Fuji Provia 100F slide film. The 35mm photos were shot on a Leica M9.