You know the sort. “Don’t talk to strangers’”, “look both ways when crossing the road”, “always wear clean underwear”. When you’re starting out in life – or a new city – there are a whole heap of tips it pays to remember. Written in a manner that aims to enlighten, not spoon feed, here are our top 10 useful tips for mastering this exciting, but potentially aggravating metropolis.
1) Buy a good map
Bangkok can be confusing. The shifting street names, the winding river, the expressways to who-knows-where, the lack of clearly distinguishable neighborhoods. Sometimes it all seems like the work of a sadistic urban planner, one who derives particular pleasure from thwarting tourists. The solution? Arm yourself with a decent map with street names in English and Thai. If Bangkok is a mean-spirited labyrinth, consider this your faithful compass.
2) Barter, but nicely
The first rule of Bangkok shopping: if there’s no barcode or set price, get haggling. It’s expected. However, instead of adopting a confrontational “give me it for this price, now!” attitude, try the gracious, smiley “what’s your best price, my friend?” approach. Why? If not because you’re polite, then do it because a smile here goes further than a sneer. Aim to chip anything from 10-40% off the quoted price. And by all means, walk away if the price is disagreeable – more often than not you’ll be called back for last ditch negotiations!
3) Beware scammers
It begins with a polite stranger: “the Grand Palace is closed this afternoon”. You thank them and tell them where you’re from. Then, before you’ve even had a chance to shake their hand, you’re gripping the sides of a tuk-tuk as it whizzes towards temples your guidebook has never heard of, and (drum roll) pushy gem stores. The morale of this all-too-common scam? Savour contact with the locals but, please please, beware the shysters. The general, but by no means universal, rule of thumb: a Thai who approaches you in the street is after more than a chat.
4) Drink lots of water
This tip, of course, applies even to the Antarctic. But packing a supply of the wet stuff in Bangkok’s sticky, stifling heat is even more crucial to your well-being. Our unscientific rule of thumb: drink more than you sweat. Fortunately you are never more than a few paving stones from a ubiquitous 7/11. Always make sure bottled water is sealed. For a change, take your chosen tipple modern Thai-style, in a small plastic bag with handle and straw. Its quirky but, as you’ll find when rummaging around markets, also convenient.
5) Organised tours
A tour reaches the parts that other ways of seeing Bangkok cannot. Yes, pounding the streets with just a trusty Lonely Planet in hand, does appeal to the intrepid in us. And, admittedly, a road trip around Bangkok’s bordering provinces does demonstrate a plucky buccaneering spirit. But ask yourself: are you here to enjoy Bangkok or what? A tour is inexpensive and easily arranged (just book and show up). No logistical headaches, no getting lost, just a wonderful day out that peels back another exciting layer of The Big Mango. Considering taking a canal cruise, a cooking class, a rural bike ride, a museum tour, a muang thai martial arts lesson, etc.
6) Plan Ahead
Unlike Rome or Paris, Bangkok is not an eminently walkable city. Rather, making the most of this daunting sprawl of crowds, commerce and culture takes planning… Work out what you want to see, where they are, then work out a logical route. Taxis are likely to be unavoidable, as is a bit of footwork, but wherever possible use our favourites: the waterways, underground and Skytrain. Sight-wise, don’t bite off more than you can chew – Bangkok’s flavours are best savoured slowly.
7) Be cautious with taxis
Bangkok specialises in world-class traffic jams, so taxi rides are risky. However, follow these tips and your journey needn’t be temper-fraying: (1) Avoid rush hour. (2) Insist your driver switch the meter on. If he refuses, get out and find another ride. (3) Make sure you leave nothing behind. There’s nothing worse than watching your chariot whiz off into Bangkok’s haze, carrying with it your valuables.
8) Carry a passport copy
Whether it be an impromptu demand from a local policeman or a request from security at one of the city’s swanky nightspots, carrying ID is a must in Thailand. The fact that you are 25 but look like you’re pushing 40 doesn’t matter – proving who you are is a day-to-day formality, something the Thais are finicky about. Instead of dragging your precious passport around with you (along with the fear of losing it) take a photocopy.
9) Carry a card with Thai directions
It’s simple. It isn’t rocket science. But this ingenious device, little more than a piece of card with your hotel’s address written on it in Thai, will save endless how-do-we-get-home headaches. Flash it beneath the eyes of your chosen driver and watch how his shrugs of utter incomprehension instantly change to reassuring nods. Brilliant.
10) Skytrain & Subway
There are smoke-belching tuk-tuks, hair-raising motorbikes and thrilling canal boats. But when it comes to getting around, the Skytrain and underground are easily your most agreeable option. How did Bangkok ever manage without them? The first soars above traffic, as if sent from above, while the latter whizzes, mole-like, beneath it. Both offer arctic air-conditioning and are in our opinion the best inventions since the wheel – not least because they’re much quicker. Get yourself a day or week pass and hop aboard. Bangkok also now has a handy Rail Link from the airport to down-town.