I have just returned from a short trip to Bangkok and it’s with confidence that I say that having been there 5 times now, I am somewhat more familiar with the capital city of Thailand than those who have gone to Bangkok only for a quick stopover before heading to other destinations in Southeast Asia.
I have always wanted to go to Bangkok but it was only in 2015 I have made it happen. Like many other backpackers, I was there only for a few days to visit famous temples and palaces near Chao Phraya River, witness the carnage but fun nightlife that Khao San Road is infamous for, and go shopping and dining in one of its floating markets. Of course, I knew there was more to Bangkok than those, but I had only been granted 3 weeks off from my job and I wanted to visit Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia too. I knew it was not ideal to visit many countries one after another in a short period of time, but I had to make a compromise if I want to save on airfare by going the Indochina route in one go and still have a job to return to.
Fortunately, it turned out that I would be returning to Bangkok many times to do more than the usual touristy stuff. This quick guide to Bangkok, however, is not about going the off-the-beaten path. As the title suggests, this is intended for first-time visitors. Bangkok, twice the size of Singapore, is the world’s 12th largest city, so it is not very hard to stumble on what is true, non-touristy Bangkok if you allow yourself to get lost.
Most international flights arrive at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, but if you’re coming from a nearby Asian country and flying in with a low-cost airline, chances are you are arriving at Don Mueang International Airport.
From Suvarnabhumi International Airport, the fastest way to get to your hotel is riding the Airport Rail Link (ARL). The ticket offices are located at the Basement 1 of the airport terminal. ARL’s last station is Phaya Thai, which is also an interchange with BTS Siam Line.
From Don Mueang International Airport, instead of taking the cab, you might want to ride the airport bus A1 to directly get to the nearest BTS station, Mo Chit, or the nearest MRT station, Chatuchak Park, and ride the train to your destination from there.
WHERE TO STAY
As always, this is the golden question. Making the mistake of choosing the wrong location could cost you time and money, especially in a city as big as Bangkok. Ultimately of course, location is dependent on what you want to accomplish, but as a general rule for travelers in Bangkok, the closer to a BTS/MRT/ARL station, the better.
It is important to note that like all other big cities in the world with excellent passenger rail transportation system, many areas still remain indirectly reachable so more often than not, you would still have to ride a tuk-tuk or cab from the nearest station. To work around that issue, I suggest booking accommodation that is within 500 meter radius from a BTS/MRT/ARL station.
The only thing better than that is staying in an interchange area. It’s possibly the BEST decision you will ever make when booking accommodation in Bangkok.
Here is the map with the routes of BTS, MRT, and ARL:
As you can see, a number of stations are interchange stations where you can transfer from/to BRL to/from MRT to/from ARL or vice versa. It’s not rocket science. Staying in a location where there’s an interchange station instantly allows you to easily reach more areas.
From the map above, you can see that there’s only a few interchange stations, namely:
- BTS Mo Chit and MRT Chatuchak Park (best if you’re arriving to Don Mueang International Airport and you definitely would like to try the street food while shopping in a weekend market)
- ARL Phaya Thai and BTS Phaya Thai (best if you’re arriving to Suvarnabhumi International Airport and you’d like to be as close to the shopping district as possible)
- ARL Makkasan and BTS Phetchaburi (if you like to be quite close to the action but remain relatively close to the airport)
- BTS Asok and MRT Sukhumvit (if you like to be close to the red light district at night but you have wholesome things to do during the day)
- BTS Sala Daeng and MRT Silom (if you’re taking the Chao Phraya River boat to visit the famous temples and palaces and if you intend to squeeze in quick workouts in a park once in a while; also if you like to “party” and you belong to LGBTQ)
- BTS Siam station is an interchange between BTS Siam Line and Silom Line (perfect if you’d like to stay right in the middle of modern Bangkok)
If you can find accommodation within your budget close to any of these interchange stations, book it. They do get fully booked quickly.
I have stayed in a 5-star hotel, a 3-star hotel and 3 hostels in Bangkok, and here’s my advice: If you’re only in Bangkok for less than 3 days and there’s a lot you would like to accomplish, then you might want to just stay in a hostel. You will be out for the most of the day anyway, so why don’t you just stay in a clean, comfortable hostel with free breakfast and free luggage storage and use the saved money in memorable experiences like, let’s say, your very first authentic Thai massage?
My favorite is The Posh in Phaya Thai. Location-wise, it’s perfect as it’s literally a stone’s throw away from BTS Phaya Thai and ARL Phaya Thai interchange stations. It is ideal for me as I usually want to get in and out of Bangkok without any hassle whilst still being central. Getting there is as simple as riding the ARL train from the airport til the end of the line, exiting ARL Phaya Thai, and following the signs to Exit 2 of BTS Phaya Thai station. The hostel is just 20 meters from the exit. 20 meters!
What I liked about The Posh other than the location is its poshness (duh). The interior is so classy, you would easily forget that you’re in a hostel and not a hotel. Wood furnishing make the whole place very cozy.
All guests get free PROPER breakfast daily at the deck. It’s not just your regular cold cut deli, toast, butter, and jam kind of hostel breakfast. It is that and much more to get you through the day – make-your-own fresh salad, congee, noodles, bacon, hash browns, mixed fruits, and several others. And oh, there’s a station for eggs cooked the way exactly how you want them! There’s free unlimited access to a coffee vending machine and jars of biscuits, too.
Free wifi all throughout the hostel, but there’s also access to iMac and printer at the deck. Self-service washing machines. And also, a billiard table and jacuzzi. No big deal, right? All for just few additional hundred bahts than a basic hostel in Silom or Khao San Road.
There are dorm rooms for the social travelers, and cabins for those who prefer a bit more privacy. There are private ensuite double and private rooms as well. I have stayed in a dorm room and a cabin and personally, I prefer the dorm room as I don’t feel as claustrophobic as in a cabin, even though it is less private.
Recently, I stayed at the new, very Instagrammable Silom Space Hostel near BTS Sala Daeng and MRT Silom interchange. It is a little less posh than The Posh – the feel is industrial and utilitarian but that is NOT to say that this hostel is any worse. I absolutely loved my stay there – the staff were friendly, the dorm rooms were not crowded like others, and the location could not get any better for my agenda. The location is perfect if you wish to sample the local food on the sidewalk or one of the many food courts in the area. Also, it is very close to Patpong Night Market and Soi Twilight, while DJ Station is right downstairs. Silom Space Hostel is value for money and I swear, I did not ride a cab or a tuk-tuk even once. I took the BTS and MRT all the time and quite a number of famous places were within walking distance. It is THAT central, but then again, as mentioned earlier, central is subjective.
Depending on which side of the hostel your room is (best to check before booking) and what time your bedtime is, the thumping sound of the bass from DJ station downstairs may bother you every single night. Honestly, it did not bother me at all, but that’s maybe because I went to sleep after the party ended at 2 AM.
Saphai Pae Backpacker Hostel is the least posh among the 3 hostels I’ve stayed in Bangkok. It is close to the picturesque Chao Phraya River and it’s also quite near a BTS station (Surasak), so if you only have a few days to spend in Bangkok and your itinerary includes a river cruise and a visit to Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and Grand Palace, the tallest hostel in Bangkok is not bad at all.
WHAT TO DO AND WHERE TO GO
There are so many articles online with information on what to do and where to go in Bangkok. I could do the same, but I prefer sharing with you a list of my personal recommendation with links to the websites (official and otherwise) that will give you more information. Of course, the list does not include experiences and places I haven’t done or visited even if it is popular among travelers to Bangkok, so expect that some travel-guide staples may not be in the list:
Shopping, Dining, Family Entertainment
- Learn a few commonly used Thai phrases and sentences. Thank You (Kap Khun Ka/Kap) and Hello (Sawadee Ka/Kap) in any local language go a long, long way.
- When shopping, haggle. Start with half the proposed price and negotiate from there. Haggling is acceptable anywhere outside of high-end malls. Same when riding tuk-tuks. Just haggle nicely, please.
- Get a Tourist SIM Card. It only costs somewhere between 200 and 300 THB and it usually includes unlimited mobile internet access for a week and more. DTAC and AIS are the preferred mobile networks. Tourist SIM Cards are available at the airport, most shopping malls, and even 7-eleven stores. Get one and thank me later when you realize that access to Google Maps on your phone alone is worth the few hundred bahts.
- Dress appropriately. Bangkok’s vibe, in general, is very casual and the people do tolerate the tourists most of the time. It is however not an excuse to being insensitive. There is a dress code in religious/cultural sites like temples and palaces, so check before you go to avoid non-admission or having to buy/rent wardrobe.
- In escalators, keep right. The left side is always reserved for those who prefer to walk past you – it’s the overtake lane. This needs to be said because it’s not a norm in many other countries, like where I originally came from.
- BTS, MRT, and ARL service hours start at 6 AM and end at midnight. Depending on where station you are, the last train may depart as early as 11:30 PM. It’s always best to check the schedule online particularly if you intend to use the train close to midnight.
- Eat local. If the restaurant’s name sign is in Thai language only, it’s a good sign (pun intended).
- There’s VAT (Value Added Tax) Refund for Tourists. There’s a minimum of 5,000 THB worth of purchases for VAT refund and a minimum total amount per receipt, though. Big C, Tesco Lotus, and other big supermarkets offer VAT refund. The refund is not a big percentage but if you’re on a shopping spree and spending way more than the minimum amount eligible for VAT refund anyway, then it is definitely worth the extra time and effort.
- Never let your guard down. I feel way safer in Bangkok than in other big cities like Sao Paulo or even my hometown Manila, but it is best to always be vigilant. This is a tip that I would give not just to travelers to Bangkok, because I have witnessed pickpocketing and have been a victim of a petty crime myself (not in Bangkok). It is just the reality in big, crowded cities that people needs to be constantly reminded of.
- Best way to get local currency is by withdrawing cash from an international bank with presence in Thailand. Luckily for me, Citibank has, so all I have to do when I go to Bangkok is ride the BTS/MRT to Asok or Sukhumvit and withdraw cash from one of the ATMS at the Citibank branch. I get better rates than from exchange houses and I don’t pay a transaction fee. If you have no account with an international bank with presence in Thailand, the exchange house that offers the best rate for USD to THB is Super Rich. Just avoid the branches in the airport, malls, or major tourist destinations. The one in BTS Phaya Thai station offers a very good rate.
- Finally, enjoy Bangkok to the fullest, but always stay away from danger. Yes, I mean stay safe. You know what I mean. It is easy to get carried away and do foolish things in a place where nobody knows you and almost everybody tolerates you.
Again, enjoy Bangkok to the fullest. Not everyone is like me who gets multiple chances to revisit again and again. It can be overwhelming at first, but give it just a day and you will soon find out why this sublime Asian capital is one of the most visited cities in the world.
If after reading this, you still have questions I may be able to answer, please drop me a comment below!