Bangkok (Thai: กรุงเทพฯ Krung Thep) is the capital of Thailand and by far its largest city with an estimated population of over 10 million.
A furious assault on the senses, the first thing that hits many visitors is the heat, the congestion both on streets and sidewalks, and the squalor caused by the gaping chasm of wealth between the rich and the poor. Despite initial appearances, the city is surprisingly safe, more organized than you'd think, and full of hidden gems waiting to be discovered.
Bangkok is a large, sprawling city, but its districts are not very clearly defined.
Addresses in Bangkok use the Thai addressing system, which may be a little confusing to the uninitiated. Large roads such as Silom or Sukhumvit are thanon (often abbreviated Th or glossed "Road/Avenue"), while the side streets branching off from them are called soi. Sois are numbered, with even numbers on one side and odd ones on the other. Thus, an address like "25 Soi Sukhumvit 3" means the 25th building on the 3rd soi of Sukhumvit Road. The numbers will not add up - with Soi 55 being across from soi 36. Many well-known sois have an additional name, which can be used instead of the number. Soi 3 is also known as Soi Nana and the address above might thus also be expressed as "25 Soi Nana". The extension /x is used for new streets created between existing streets, as seen in Sukhumvit's soi pattern 7, 7/1, 7/2, 9, 11. Note that some short alleys are called trok instead of soi.
To make things a little more complex, some large sois like Soi Ekamai (Sukhumvit Soi 63) and Soi Ari (Phayonyothin Soi 9) have their own sois. In these cases an address like "Soi Ari 3" means "the 3rd soi off Soi Ari", and you may even spot addresses like "68/2 Soi Ekamai 4, 63 Sukhumvit Road", meaning "2nd house beside house 68, 4th soi off Ekamai, the 63rd soi of Sukhumvit".
Bangkok's Don Muang Airport, the country's largest airport, is located 20 kilometers to the north of the center. See the Northern Bangkok article for details.
Suvarnabhumi Airport, 30 kilometers to the east and Don Muang's intended successor, remains under construction and the target opening date of September 2005 looks increasingly unlikely to be met.
If you arriving by tourist bus chances are they'll drop you off outside their favorite hotel or guest-house. Arriving by public bus will plunk you down at any one of Bangkok's many bus terminals, the most likely candidates being:
For Mor Chit and the Southern terminal your best bet (especially at night) is a metered taxi directly to your final destination. If on your way out of Bangkok, be sure to confirm which terminal your bus is leaving from.
Trains pull into the huge and surprisingly nice Hualamphong station, right in the middle of downtown and the current terminus of the Bangkok Metro line. The station has a good tourist office (only listen to the people at the Info desk, anyone walking around offering to help you 'find' a hotel or taxi is just a tout).
If coming down from parts north or northeast, you can also connect to the Metro at the northern Bang Sue station, shaving the last half-hour off your train trip. This is not a very good place to board trains though, as there is practically no information or signage in English.
Bangkok has a lot to see so the sooner you brave the public transportation system, the better.
The Bangkok Skytrain (BTS, pronunced bee-tee-et in Thai) 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 the Siam Square area. There are two lines: the light green Sukhumvit line which travels along Sukhumvit road, and the dark green Silom line, which travels from the Silom area, interchanges with the Sukhumvit line at Siam Square (C) and terminates near the Chatuchak Weekend Market (N8).
There isn't, unfortunately, a station near Banglampu District (aka the Khao San Road area), but you can take a river ferry to Tha Sathorn for the Silom line terminus at Saphan Taksin (S6).
You must have 5 or 10 baht coins to purchase Skytrain tickets from the vending machines near the entrance, so hold on to them. Fares range from 10 to 45 baht depending upon how many zones you are travelling. Consult the map (in English) near each ticket machine. If you do not have coins, you may need to queue for change from the staff at the booth. If you are in town for several days, weigh your options and consider a rechargable stored-value card (200 baht), a "ride all you like" tourist pass or a multiple ride pass of 10 trips or more. They will certainly save you time, scrambling for coins, and maybe even money. Check for information with the English speaking staff.
The long-awaited Bangkok Metro finally opened in July 2004. The Blue Line connects the central Hualamphong railway station (1) to the northern Bang Sue station (18), with interchanges to the Skytrain at Silom/Sala Daeng (3/S2), Sukhumvit/Asok (7/E4) and Chatuchak/Mo Chit (15/N8). You can also transfer to north/northeast-bound SRT trains at the northern terminus Bang Sue.
Metro tickets are not interchangeable with Skytrain tickets. Rides cost from 12 to 36 baht depending on distance; a 300 baht stored value card is also available. For single ride fares, a round plastic token is used.
The metro system does have a few quirks in terms of locations — the subway stop for the Chatuchak Weekend Market is not Chatuchak Park, but one stop further at Kamphaeng Phet (16). The latter drops you right inside the market.
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 to Nonthaburi (N30) for 6 to 10 baht depending on distance, stopping at most of Rattanakosin's major attractions including the Grand Palace, the Temple of Dawn, etc. In addition to the basic service, there are express services flagged with yellow or orange flags, which stop only at major piers and should be avoided unless you're sure where you're going. The new signposting of the piers is quite clear, with numbered piers and English route maps, and the Central station offers easy interchange to the BTS Saphan Taksin station.
In addition to the workaday express boat, there is also a self-proclaimed Tourist Boat which stops at a different subset of piers, offers commentary in English and charges twice the price. The boats are slightly more comfortable and not a bad option for a hop or two, but don't get bullied into buying the overpriced day pass.
Canal boats also service some of Bangkok's many canals (khlong). They are cheap and immune to Bangkok's traffic jams, just watch your step when boarding and disembarking! One particularly useful line runs up and down Khlong Saen Saep, parallel to Petchaburi Rd, and provides the easiest access from the city center to the Golden Mount.
Finally, for trips outside the set routes, you can hire a longtail river taxi at any major pier. These are fairly expensive and will attempt to charge as much as 500 baht/hour, but with haggling 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 (half an hour etc), then negotiate directly with the captain when on board.
Local buses, mostly operated by the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA), are cheapest but also the most challenging way of getting around, as there is a bewildering plethora of routes, usually marked only in Thai. Bus stops usually 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. The hierarchy of Bangkok's buses from cheapest to best can be ranked as follows:
Buses stop only when needed, so wave them down (arm out, palm down) when you see one barreling your way. In all buses except the Microbus, pay the roaming collector after you board; on Microbuses, drop the money into a slot next to the driver as you board. In all buses, keep the ticket as there are occasional spot-checks, and press the signal buzzer (usually near the door) when you want to get off.
The best online resources for decrypting bus routes are the official BMTA homepage, which has up-to-date if slightly incomplete listings of bus routes in English but no maps, and the ThailandOnline bus route map (bus info only in Thai, the map itself is bilingual).
Taxis are a quick way to get around town, at least if the traffic is flowing your way. Almost all taxis are now metered: the hailing fee is 35 baht and most trips in Bangkok cost less than 100 baht.
If the driver refuses to use the meter after a couple of attempts, simply exit the taxi. Also try to avoid taxis that stay parked all day outside your hotel. The only two reasons that they are there: 1) To take you places where they can get their commissions (Jewelry stores, massage parlors, etc) and 2) To overcharge you by not using the meter. Your best bet is to walk to the road and catch an unoccupied metered taxi in motion (easier than it sounds, as Bangkok traffic tends to crawl the majority of the time). Be sure to either know the correct pronunciation of your destination, or have it written in Thai; taxi drivers in Bangkok are notoriously bad at reading maps.
When traffic slows to a crawl and there are no alternatives, the fastest way to your destination is to take a motorbike taxi. Bike drivers in colorful fluorescent yellow-orange vests wait for passengers at street corners and near shopping malls and prices are negotiable. That said, motorcycle taxis are suicidally dangerous and should generally be avoided except as a last resort, as accidents are far too common.
Some bikes do not travel long distances, but simply shuttle up and down long sois not serviced by other transport for a fixed 5-20 baht fare. These are marginally less dangerous, especially if you happen to travel with the flow on a one-way street.
The law requires that both driver and passenger must wear a helmet. It is the driver's responsibility to provide you with one, so if you are stopped by police, any fine is also the driver's responsibility. When riding, keep a firm grasp on the seat handle and watch out for your legs.
Finally, what would Bangkok be without the dreaded and loved tuk-tuks? You'll know them when you hear them, you'll hate them when you smell them, these three-wheeled contraptions blaze around Bangkok leaving a black cloud of smog in their wake. For anything more than a 5-10 minute jaunt they really are not worth the price, and the price will usually be 4 or 5 times what it should be anyway (which, for Thais, is around 30% less than the equivalent metered taxi fare). On the other hand, you can sometimes ride for free if you agree to visit touristy clothing or jewelry shops (which give the tuk-tuk driver gas coupons and commissions for bringing customers). The shops' salesmen are pushy, but you are free to leave after five to ten minutes of browsing.
In case you actually want to get somewhere, and you're an all-male party, be careful with the tuk-tuk drivers, they will usually just ignore your destination and start driving you to some bordello ("beautiful girls"). Insist continually on going only to your destination.
Bangkok's many markets are an experience in themselves, see Buy for some suggestions.
Bangkok is an extremely popular place for all sorts of pampering. The options available range from massages and spa treatments to haircuts and manicures and even cosmetic surgery, all at prices far lower than in the West.
Thai cuisine is a favorite of many, and many cooking schools provide half-day classes that provide a nice break from the day-to-day sightseeing monotony.
Bangkok not only has plenty of Thai restaurants, but a wide-selection of world-class international cuisine too. Prices are generally high by Thai standards, but cheap by international standards; a good meal is unlikely to cost more than 300 baht ($6), although there are a few restaurants -- primarily in hotels -- where you can easily spend 10 times this.
Bangkok is full of shopping malls and street markets of all types, especially in the Sukhumvit area; see the section for details. Prices can be ludicrously cheap by Western standards, especially for locally produced items such as clothes, although bargaining is expected and required. Dump a teenager in MBK with a few thousand baht and they'll stay occupied for the rest of the week!
A major attraction on weekends is the gigantic Chatuchak Weekend Market, in northern Bangkok but easily accessible by Skytrain and Metro. Slightly more manageable in size and open nightly is the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, covered in the Silom section.
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; 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:
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 one of the world's great gay travel destinations, primarily because (a) many western gay men find young Thai men very attractive, (b) many young Thai gay men seem to find western men, of any age, very attractive, and (c) Thailand being a relatively poor country, even those young Thai men who do not find western men attractive, or even are not gay at all, are willing to fake it for what is by western standards a very small amount of money.
There are thus two parallel gay scenes in Bangkok (and on a smaller scale in the beach resorts of Pattaya and Phuket and in Chiang Mai): a free one and a commercial one.
The free scene operates out of gay bars such as Telephone and The Balcony, and dance venues such as DJ Station, all in the Silom-Surawong area, and similar venues elsewhere. Here any reasonably presentable westerner can find very attractive Thai men more than willing to make his acquaintance. Most will speak some English. The legal age for entry to these venues is 20, but many Thais look younger than their age. These venues are extremely popular and are very crowded, especially on weekends. They close ridiculously early - at 2am at the latest. The hour before closing is called the "farang rush hour," when all the boys try to find a farang (foreigner) to go home with.
(There is a separate gay scene in Bangkok for Thai gays who don't like westerners. Its location seems to be a closely guarded secret.)
The term "free" needs to be qualified. While most of the Thai gay men in these venues are not "money boys" (prostitutes), they assume that all westerners are rich, and Thai culture expects the older partner in any transaction to be generous. The visitor will be expected to buy drinks and meals, pay taxi fares, and offer "taxi money" (perhaps 500 baht) in the morning. The westerner who wants to make a good impression will take his Thai friend shopping and pay for clothes or other consumables. All this may cost 1,000 to 2,000 baht - most western gay vistors consider it money well spent. Thai gay men are exceptionally charming, and seem to have few sexual inhibitions. Awareness of HIV/AIDS is fairly high - the visitor is expected to have condoms and use them.
The commercial gay scene operates out of "go-go bars," most of them in the Surawong Rd area. Here the bars are in effect sex-shops, where up to 20 or 30 extremely attractive young Thais pose or dance in their underwear on the bar or on stage. Most bars also have shows, in which the boys perform song and dance routines. Some have sex shows which leave nothing to the imagination. The customer selects a boy he likes, pays the bar a 500 baht "takeout fee," and takes his purchase back to his hotel, where he will be expected to pay 1,000 to 2,000 baht for services rendered, depending on the complexity of the services required - most "go-go boys" will do just about anything if paid enough.
Cheaper male prostitutes can be found in the streets outside all the gay bars after closing time. They cost about 500 baht, again depending on what they are asked to do. They are also likely to be underage, and are much more likely to rob the unwary visitor. Most Bangkok hotels have no qualms about westerners bringing visitors, including go-go boys, to their rooms, but most will want to see the boy's ID card, and will not allow him in if he is under 20. Caveat emptor applies here.