Bangkok (Thai: กรุงเทพฯ Krung Thep) is the capital of Thailand and by far its largest city with an estimated population of over 10 million.
Most of Bangkok’s sights are concentrated in the “Old City” on Rattanakosin Island. Out of Bangkok’s many temples, the following usually make the top 3:
* Wat Arun (The Temple of Dawn)
* The Grand Palace, featuring Wat Phra Kaew (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha)
* Wat Pho, home of the world’s largest reclining Buddha
and a famed massage school
Bangkok’s many markets are an experience in themselves .
According to the World Meteorological Organization, Bangkok is one of the hottest cities in the world. Located just 14 degrees north of the Equator, Bangkok is sunny at any time of the year with temperatures over 30°C (86°F).
The most pleasant time to visit is the cool season that lasts from November till February. It is both the coolest and driest period — the Emerald Buddha statue in Wat Phra Kaew even wears a scarf during this period! Don’t think that’s necessary though — daytime temperatures still hover around 30°C (86°F), but it does cool down into the lower 20’s as it gets dark (lower 70’s °F). March and April represent the hot season, and hot it is — 35°C (95°F) on average, but don’t be surprised to see temperatures rising towards 40 degrees Celsius (around 100°F+). This is the worst season to visit Bangkok, so plan a lot of air-conditioned shopping mall visits and get a hotel with a swimming pool. Then there’s the wet season that runs from May till October. Expect massive downpours resulting in floods all over the city, and spells of thunder at times. It’s not all bad though — the afternoon showers are actually a pleasant way to cool down from the heat, and while they may last all day, usually they’re over within an hour. Extreme rainfall happens in September and October, so these months are best avoided.
Whatever season you’re visiting, don’t take the weather lightly — temple-tramping in the scorching afternoon sun can be a challenge, so come well-prepared. Dress lightly for the weather, but keep in mind that some palaces and all temples (notably the Grand Palace) have a strict dress code. Also be sure, and this cannot be said enough, drink enough fluids! You don’t have a reason not to, as 7-Elevens and other convenience stores are abundant in Bangkok and they sell cooled beverages for as little as 10 baht. Locals get their water from “reverse osmosis” purified water machines that fill up a one litre bottle for one baht.
Bangkok has a vast range of accommodation, including some of the best hotels in the world — and some of the worst dives too. Broadly speaking, Khao San Road is backpacker city (note that if you are traveling with a Thai citizen, they will be unable to stay anywhere on Khao San Road); the riverside by Rattanakosin is home to The Oriental and The Peninsula, often ranked among the best in the world (and priced to match); and Sukhumvit Road has hotels for almost all budgets from five-star to one-star.
When choosing your digs, pay careful attention to Skytrain and Metro access — a well-placed station will make your stay in Bangkok much more comfortable
Given its size and poverty level Bangkok is surprisingly safe, with violent crimes like mugging and robbery highly unusual. However, Bangkok does have more than its fair share of touting and scams. Some common scam and guidelines for avoiding them:
* If an English-speaking Thai approaches you out of the blue and strikes up a conversation, be wary: they are almost certainly selling something.
* Beware of tuk-tuk drivers offering all-day tours for prices as low as 20 baht. You may indeed be taken on a full-day tour, but you will only end up visiting one gem and souvenir shop after another; the driver will get a commission if you buy something and gas coupons even if you don’t.
* Likewise, be skeptical if a tuk-tuk driver tells you that your chosen destination is “closed” and offers to take you to a “special Buddha temple” (etc) instead.
* Be particularly wary of any offers to sell you gems at a “discount”, especially large quantities for resale back home at vast profits. These operations can be surprisingly convincing, with some even hiring down-and-out foreigners to act as happy customers.
See: Scams in Bangkok
* Make a photocopy of your passport and keep it with you at all times, especially at night. It is the law and police may check it at night if they setup a checkpoint to look for drunk drivers. Many night clubs will also insist on a passport (and ONLY a passport) as proof of age.
Also note that cameras are not welcome in go-go bars. Attempting to take pictures of the girls, even with your camera phone, is likely to result in your camera being taken and/or you getting beat up for good measure.
Bangkok is served by two airports: Suvarnabhumi Airport and Don Muang Airport. Suvarnabhumi Airport is used by all airlines in Thailand except for Nok Air, Orient Thai and Air Asia, which use the old Don Muang Airport. Both these airports are about 30 km (19 mi) from the city centre, so be prepared for a long ride to get into the city. Also allow at least three hours to connect between them, as they are far away from each other and there is heavy congestion on the roads.
Located 30km (19 mi) to the east of Bangkok (in the Samut Prakan province), space-age Suvarnabhumi Airport (สุวรรณภูมิ, pronounced “soo-wanna-poom”) (IATA: BKK) started operations in Sep 2006 and is now Bangkok’s main airport and the busiest airport in Southeast Asia. It is used for almost all international and domestic flights to Bangkok. There is only one terminal building, which covers both domestic and international flights, but it is huge (by some measures the world’s largest), so allow time for getting around. There are two immigration sections, but processing time can be lengthy — 30 minutes and more.
Suvarnabhumi offers all facilities you would expect from a major international airport. There’s a transit hotel, ATMs, money exchange, restaurants, tax-free shops, an observation lounge and even a “redemption booth”, very reassuring for karmically challenged passengers. There are about 50 dining venues spread over the terminal building. The one that sounds most interesting probably is Panda Ready To Eat, but the cheapest place for a meal is Magic Food Point on level 1, near gate 8. There are a few stores in the check-in area, including a convenience store and a post office; however, the real shopping experience awaits visitors on the other side of immigration in the departure area, where the number of shops and duty free outlets leaves you wondering whether you are in an airport or a mall. There is not much to see at the observation deck on the seventh floor, since the steel structure of the roof blocks most of the view.
The duty free shops offer a wide range of almost every international brand. The prices are competitive.
Beware of buying at airport convenience stores, located before security, if you are to bring those items inside. All cans and bottles (even containing food) are confiscated by security at check-in.
Currency exchange options are abundant, but virtually all offer a dearer exchange rate than downtown. A much better rate is normally available from the red booth near the coin ticket kiosks for the Airport Express Line (right after entrance to the Airport Express Line).
Free Wi-Fi for up to one hour is available in the departure lounge, after security and passport control; the login details can be obtained from the Information point. Access can be frustratingly unstable and unreliable.
If you need a hard copy of maps and brochures you can go to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) booth at Suvarnabhumi Airport: Arrival Floor, International Tel: (66)2134 0041 Open 24 hours Suvarnabhumi Airport Arrival Floor, Domestic Tel: (66)2134 0040 Open 24 hours
The first phase of Bangkok’s ambitious public transport system is now complete, the city’s public transport system is fairly efficient and convenient, but there is still a fair amount of room for improvement to the system’s integration.
The city, like many developing cities, suffers from paralytic traffic jams periodically throughout the day. In rush hours, it may be worthwhile combining public transport by different means. For example: soar over traffic jams by skytrain to the station closest to your destination and thereafter take a taxi for the final leg.
Bangkok is one of the most interesting cities in the world and is known to be number one for scenery. Perhaps you would like to know how to move around the city. There are many different ways to move around Bangkok. For example, using buses or Taxis, or maybe even on the water with a Ferry, or the public transit systems of BTS and MRT.
The BTS Skytrain (รถไฟฟ้าบีทีเอส rot fai fa BTS, pronounced bee-tee-et) deserves a visit simply for the Disneyland space-ageness of it. Built in a desperate effort to ease Bangkok’s insane traffic and pollution, the Skytrain covers most of downtown and is especially convenient for visiting Siam Square. There are two lines: the light green Sukhumvit Line travels along Sukhumvit Road, Siam Square and then follows Phahonyothin Road up north, where it terminates at Mo Chit (N8), near the Chatuchak Weekend Market. The dark green Silom Line starts in Thonburi, passes the Express Boat pier at Saphan Taksin (S6), goes through the Silom area and ends at National Stadium (W1), right next to MBK Center. Both lines come together at Siam (CEN), where you can interchange between them. Unfortunately, there is no station near Khao San Road, but you can take the Express Boat from Phra Arthit Pier to Sathorn Pier, where you can switch onto the Skytrain.
You must have 5 or 10 baht coins to purchase Skytrain tickets from vending machines, so hold on to them. At most stations there is a single touchscreen machine that will accept 20, 50 and 100 baht notes, but there is often a queue to use it. Some stations have ticket counters which will change your large bills so you can purchase tickets from the vending machines. Fares range from 15 to 52 baht depending upon how many zones you are travelling. Consult the map (in English) near each ticket machine. If you do not have coins, queue for change from the staff at the booth. If you are in town for several days (or going to make several visits during the next 30 days), weigh your options and consider a rechargeable stored-value card (from 100 baht, with a 30 baht refundable deposit and a 30 baht non-refundable card cost), a “ride all you like” tourist pass (130 baht per day) or a multiple ride pass of 20 trips or more to any zone (15 trips cost 345 baht, 25 trips cost 550 baht; plus a 30 baht refundable deposit for a rechargeable card that is valid for 5 years). They will certainly save you time, scrambling for coins, and maybe even money. Check for information with the English speaking staff.
In 2013 the Silom Line was extended westward from Talat Phul (S10) to Bang Wa (S12).
The MRT (รถไฟฟ้ามหานคร rot fai tai din, pronounced em-ar-tee) finally opened in July 2004. For now there is only one line, the Blue Line that connects the central Hualamphong Train Station to the northern Bang Sue Train Station, running through Silom, Sukhumvit, Ratchadaphisek and area around Chatuchak Weekend Market in Phahonyothin. There are interchanges to the Skytrain at Si Lom, Sukhumvit and Chatuchak Park stations.
Tourists do not use the metro as much as the Skytrain, but there are some useful stops. The terminus at Hua Lamphong provides a good access to Yaowarat. If you’re going to the Chatuchak Weekend Market, don’t get out at Chatuchak Park, but go one stop further to Kamphaeng Phet as it drops you right inside the market.
Metro tickets are not interchangeable with Skytrain tickets. Rides start from 16 baht and are based on distance; pre-paid cards of up to 1,000 baht are also available. For single ride fares, a round plastic token is used. It is electronic: simply wave it by the scanner to enter; deposit it in a slot by the exit gate leave.
Bag-checks take place at the entrance to each station. It’s usually nothing more than a quick peek inside, unless you are looking particularly suspicious.
Airport Rail Link
Finally opened in August 2010, Bangkok’s newest public transport system is the Airport Rail Link (รถไฟฟ้าเชื่อมท่าอากาศยานสุวรรณภูมิ). The Express Line is only useful for getting into the city, as it starts at the airport, skips all stations and brings you directly to either Makkasan or Phaya Thai. This ride takes about 15 min and costs 190 baht.
If you want to use it to get around the city, take the City Line as it is cheaper and it stops at all stations. Many Thais in Eastern Bangkok use the link to commute to the city centre. It starts at Suvarnabhumi Airport and terminates at Phaya Thai, with some interesting stops in between (such as Ramkhamhaeng and Ratchapraropfor Pratunam). A ride costs 15-45 baht, depending on distance. Trains run every 15min 06:00-23:59.
From Makkasan, you can continue your way by metro at Phetchaburi MRT station. The transfer can be made via the pedestrian bridge which was opened in June 2013. From Phaya Thai, you can transfer onto the Skytrain, but be aware that there are not enough lifts yet, and those available are too small for large pieces of luggage. New lifts will be installed in Ramkhamhaeng, Ratchaprarop and Phaya Thai stations in the following months.
Chao Phraya Express Boat
A ride on the Chao Phraya River should be high on any tourist’s agenda. The cheapest and most popular option is the Chao Phraya Express Boat, basically an aquatic bus plying up and down the river. The basic service plies from Wat Rajsingkorn(S4) all the way north to Nonthaburi (N30), with stops at most of Rattanakosin’s major attractions including the Grand Palace (atTha Chang) and Wat Pho (at Tha Tien). The closest pier to Khao San Road is Phra Arthit. Enter the express boat at the numerous piers and pay for the trip at ticket collector, who will approach you bearing a long metal cylinder. At some bigger piers you can buy the ticket before boarding. When the metal cylinder lady approaches you, just show her the ticket you bought on the pier.
Saen Saep Express Boat
The Saen Saep Express Boat serves the long Saen Saep Canal, one of the remaining canals (khlong) that used to flow through Bangkok. Mostly used by locals to commute to work, the service is cheap and you get to see the ‘backside’ of the neighbourhoods, so to speak. Also, It is immune to Bangkok’s notorious traffic jams. The total distance is 18 km, and the service operates from 05:30-20:30.
Finally, for trips outside set routes, you can hire a long-tail river taxi at any major pier. These are fairly expensive and will attempt to charge as much as 500 baht/h for foreigners, but with some haggling they may be suitable for small groups. To circumvent the Mafia-like touts who attempt to get a large cut for every ride, agree for the price of the shortest possible ride (30 min), then negotiate directly with the captain when on board.
Metered taxis are a quick and comfortable way to get around town, at least if the traffic is flowing your way, but be warned that Bangkok taxi drivers are notorious for finding ways to run up the fare for foreigners; insist that the meter is used, and if the driver claims that your destination is closed, that he doesn’t know where it is, or if he tries to take you elsewhere, just get out of the taxi. All taxis are now metered and air-conditioned: the hailing fee is 35 baht and most trips within the city centre cost less than 100 baht. There are no surcharges (except from the airport), even at night; don’t believe drivers who try to tell you otherwise. A red sign on the front window, if lit, means that the taxi is available.
When traffic slows to a crawl and there are no mass-transit alternatives for your destination, by far the fastest mode of transport is a motorbike taxi (มอเตอร์ไซค์รับจ้างmotosai lapjang). The people in the coloured tabards are motosai cabbies. They typically wear colourful fluorescent yellow-orange or red vests and wait for passengers at busy places. Prices are negotiable before you ride but is the best way when the traffic is not flowing as well as usual in Bangkok.
Local buses, operated by the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (องค์การขนส่งมวลชนกรุงเทพ) or just BMTA (ขสมก), are the cheapest but also the most challenging way of getting around. There is a bewildering plethora of routes, usually marked only in Thai. Even Thais have a hard time with these, but at least they can call the 1384 Bus Route Hotline, which is in Thai only. However you can also use Google’s transit planner function on Google Maps to plan your bus journeys. Please note, however, that the bus arrival times on Google Maps may not actually correlate to the actual bus arrival time. Bus stops list only the bus numbers that stop there and nothing more. They are also subject to Bangkok’s notorious traffic, often terribly crowded, and many are not air-conditioned. If you want to get somewhere quickly and are not prepared to get lost, the buses should be avoided (remember that taxis are cheaper than most local buses in the West). However, they make for a good adventure if you’re not in a rush and you don’t mind being the centre of attention.
Bangkok has good quality roads, but driving in the city can be a nightmare with massive traffic jams, a convoluted web of expressways and oft-confusing road signs. If driving, be especially aware of sudden lane changes by cars and reckless motorcyclists who tend to weave in and out of traffic. On busy roads you will often find vehicles moving slowly into the traffic from car parks and side streets, those already on the road are expected to give way.
Do not park on the road in busy districts such as Siam because other cars might lock you in by parking next to you in the 2nd or 3rd lane. Use covered car parks or park a bit off the beaten path, and then walk back. If using a car park and there are no marked bays available, you can park in front of other cars, but make sure you leave the car in neutral with the parking brake off so you can be rolled out of the way if required. Similarly, if you’ve parked in a marked bay and are blocked by another car, simply push it out of the way – carefully.
Renting a car is an option for travelling in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. Always get the optional insurance – the basic rental charge usually doesn’t have any insurance at all, and your travel insurance is only likely to cover an excess or deductible where there is some basic level of insurance. Check the policy carefully for exclusions, at least some policies exclude speeding and advise that this is monitored by GPS.
All pictures by the author
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