What city has the world’s most notorious red-light district yet the cleanest public transportation system? If you guessed Bangkok (you probably read the title to this article haha, and…) you’re right!
Bangkok is a fascinating amalgam of the pre-war city it used to be, and the thriving economic city it’s turning into with a reputation that stops some from visiting, and compels other to buy their ticket. Here we’ve compiled our best tips for surviving public transportation, river travel, food and language barrier in Bangkok and where to set your expectations.
- UPON LANDING: Neither of us had ever been to Bangkok before, knew what to expect, nor spoke a lick of Thai. Thankfully many of the signs throughout all of Thailand also appear in English. From the time we stepped off the airplane until we got to our hotel we felt completely confident navigating the streets of Bangkok alone, and it was 1am! We recommend using the free airport wifi to map your trip to your hostel or hotel, and using the public train system. It was fast, super easy to figure out, clean and comfortable. We were at our hostel within an hour and had spent less than $2 getting there! WORTH IT!
- PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: There is almost no reason ever to take a taxi in Bangkok. They happen to be plentiful, the drivers are extremely nice, and they’re not incredibly expensive, but Bangkok’s impeccably comprehensive public transportation makes them almost completely unnecessary. The metro system (Sky Train) in Bangkok is very new and provides service to nearly every part of the city on clean, quiet and fast trains. Again, most of the signs also appear in English so grab a route map and travel around!
- RIVER TRAVEL: If you’re planning on going to tourist sites such as The Grand Palace or Wat Pho expect to travel via river. It’s possible to take a taxi or tuk-tuk to these sites, but the traffic is often awful, there is frequently no air-conditioning in cars, and the route via road is much longer than just sailing down the river. Getting on a river boat can be a little tricky however. If you’re tentative best recommendation is to find someone who speaks English at the dock and ask them where to board the local boat to your destination, but expect to be led to a paid boat. If you’re confident, walk straight down to the dock and wait for a large boat to arrive that is going in your direction. The local boats that ferry locals are free, but because of that they’re subject to over-crowding (and yes, over-crowding on boats can lead to sinking). We used a local boat while there and our biggest issue was standing in the heat surrounded by other sweaty river travelers and their own body heat (queue faintness and weak knees). If you can handle a NYC subway car with broken AC easily, you’ll probably be fine, but if you need some space and a breeze for about 50+ Baht (less than 2 USD) we were able to get on a smaller boat with seats and a breeze (these are the boats your English speaking helpers will lead you to)!
- RIVER TRAVEL EXPECTATION: For those of you who are most familiar with river travel being evening cocktail cruises – this is NOT the same experience. The river was plenty dirty, littered with trash, sewage, and yes – even dead animals. We would not recommend touching the water, and should some splash in your face, wash it off. We carry hand sanitizer for these reasons. And while the river may not be your quintessential romantic ride in Bangkok, it is an interesting view of commerce, trade and life in Bangkok.
- CROSSING THE STREET: Pray for your life. Just kidding… sort of. Except for the newest parts of town there were NO crosswalks nor crossing lights for pedestrians in Bangkok. After spectating some locals we bit the bullet and went for it, but it sure was not easy – and that’s coming from a couple of New Yorkers. A local told us tourists get killed every month crossing the streets around The Grand Palace, and whether or not that statistic is on-point, it sure is believable after our experience! Watch for traffic. Just because you step into the street does NOT mean the traffic will slow down or try to go around you, so do the best you can to pay CLOSE attention. Try and cross with a group or at the same time locals are crossing for better visibility to drivers. If you need help ask a local, they’ve seen it go down before and most are pretty nice about helping you out or pointing you to a safer crosswalk a little further away that will get you to your destination.
- FOOD COURTS: We asked a local where some of the best places to eat were, and their response was: the mall. It seems strange to us since in the United States generally all we have in the mall is the least favorable chain-food to offer, but sure enough when we visited the food courts they were inundated with not only various options for local cuisine, but also loads of locals eating it! We recommend visiting the information booth first to speak to someone in English about how the food court works since the system isn’t quite the same as it is in the states, and then enjoy. We found lots of good stuff there!
- OUTDOOR MARKETS & STREET VENDORS: Some outdoor markets change depending on the time of year, and some are around on certain days of the week, so we recommend looking some up when you land to be sure of what’s going on (Bangkok.com is a great resource), but these markets ended up being our FAVORITE places to eat in Bangkok. There are endless vendors with different types of food to choose from, and each serves a bite sized portion so you can grab a taste and move on – perfect for those of us who are unsure what they like, or those of us who want to try so many options in so little time, just make sure you have cash on you. A word of advice to our soft-stomached friends: if you’re choosing to eat meat or seafood only buy from vendors you can see heat the food in front of your face. Most vendors will have an open flame with pans and you can watch them cook, but if someone hands you something prepared and you didn’t see it cooked in front of your face don’t be afraid to politely say no. The heat from the flame can kill many stomach irritating bacteria so for your own sake keep an eye on the heat!
- REPUTATION: Bangkok has a reputation for being a seedy city with a well known red-light district. When a friend’s mom found out we were going to Thailand her first response was “please don’t get sold into sex slavery” and she wasn’t the only one with this attitude. So, how was Bangkok as women traveling alone? As an experienced traveler, Bangkok would not make my list of “worst places for women”. I didn’t have a hard time being taken seriously nor experience any unwanted attention that I wouldn’t receive in any other major city. At no point did I feel I was in grave danger. That being said, we are aware of the danger of traveling to many foreign cities, including Bangkok (and even NYC) that struggle with trafficking networks and that reality, no matter how far-fetched it may seem, should never be ignored. Having a knowledge of how to behave in major cities is a must before traveling to Bangkok as with any major city in the world. Be aware of your surroundings, keep your money in a safe non-visible spot, and travel in groups or with a buddy whenever possible. Keep your wits about you, avoid dark or poorly lit areas, and trust your gut and you will do just fine in Bangkok!