Difference between revisions of "Bangkok"
Revision as of 21:48, 24 May 2007
Bangkok is a large city, rising vertically and growing horizontally. Administratively it is split up into 50 khet (districts), but these are rarely used in practice and the visitor will find the conceptual division below more useful.
Just under 14 degrees North of the Equator, Bangkok is a tropical metropolis that is also one of the most traveller-friendly cities in Asia. A furious assault on the senses, the first things that impress many visitors are the heat, the congestion both on streets and sidewalks, the pollution inherent to rapid development, the squalor that accompanies a gaping chasm between rich and poor, and the irrepressible smiles of the Thais. Bangkok now has the fastest rate for high-rise developments in the world. (sometimes dissapoint the new comers to see the ancient architecture and a total distinct world of Asia, however, as they wander around, will find their expectations lie deeply rooted). Despite the sensationalized international news reports and first impressions, the city is surprisingly safe, more organized than it initially appears, and full of hidden gems waiting to be discovered. The high relative humidity and warm temperature favor the growth of tropical plants — you'll find exotic orchids and delicious fruit everywhere. Thai cuisine is singular, justifiably famous, varied, and affordable. Bangkok, for many, represents the quintessential Asian capital. Saffron-robed monks, garish neon signs, graceful Thai architecture, spicy dishes, colourful markets, traffic jams, and the tropical climate come together in a happy coincidence. It is difficult to leave with lukewarm impressions of the city.
Bangkok (originally Bang Makok) was a small village on the banks of the Chao Phraya river, until a new capital was founded on the west bank (present-day Thonburi) after the fall of Ayutthaya. In 1782, King Rama I built a palace on the east bank (now Rattanakosin) and renamed the city as Krung Thep, as it is now known to Thais -- the City of Angels (and much more: the full name is listed as the world's longest place name by the Guinness Book of Records; an English rendering goes like this: "Krung thep mahanakhon amorn ratanakosin mahintharayutthaya mahadilok pop noparatratchathani burirom udomratchanivetmahasathan amornpiman avatarnsathit sakkathattiyavisnukarmprasit" -- "The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn"). The original village has long since ceased to exist, but for some reason foreigners never caught on to the change.
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 (ถนน), often abbreviated Th or glossed "Road/Avenue", while the side streets branching off from them are called soi (ซอย). 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. While the soi numbers on each side will always advance upward, the numbers often do not advance evenly between sides - for example, Soi 55 could be 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", so 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 (ตรอก) instead of soi.
To make things a little more complex, some large sois like Soi Ekamai (Sukhumvit Soi 63) and Soi Ari (Phahonyothin Soi 7) 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". In many sois the house numbers are not simply increasing, but may spread around.
To further bewilder the tourist who doesn't read Thai, the renderings of Thai street names in the Latin alphabet are not consistent. The road running towards the (former) airport from the Victory Monument may be spelled Phahon Yothin or Pahon Yothin or Phahonyothin or Phaholyothin depending on which street sign or map you consult. It's all the same in Thai, of course -- only the romanisation varies.
And if that's not confusing enough, most of the larger streets tend to change names altogether every few kilometers. Sukhumvit is called Sukhumvit on one side of the tollway (roughly east), but it becomes Ploenchit just before you cross Thanon Witthayu (aka Wireless) going towards the river. Keep going just a few more streets and it becomes Thanon Rama I (usually said as just Rama I) after you pass Thanon Ratchadamri. But if you were to turn right onto Ratchadamri, in just a few blocks you'll find yourself on Thanon Ratchaprarop (past Petchaburi, aka New Phetburi, which is called Phitsanulok closer to the river). Got it?
But wait, there's logic to these name changes: most of them are neighborhoods. It wouldn't make sense to call the road Sukhumvit if it's no longer running through the Sukhumvit area, would it? Thus, Sukhumvit becomes Ploenchit where it runs though the Ploenchit area. It's when you're able to grasp the city in terms of its neighborhoods that it both becomes more navigable and more charming. Likewise, Pratunam and Chatuchak are much more than just markets; they're boroughs, each with its own distinct character.
Related to this last point, compass directions are not widely used by Thais to navigate in Bangkok. That's probably because they aren't very useful: the city's darwinistic layout, the changing street names, the winding river, and the lack of obvious landmarks all conspire to confuse your internal compass. Thus, asking for directions in terms of "is that west from here?" will probably earn you little more than a confused look from a local. You're better off to familiarize yourself with the neighborhoods and navigate to and from them. "How do I get to Thonglor?" will get you there faster than asking for directions to Sukhumvit Soi 55.
One exception: the Chao Phyra River is THE landmark in Bangkok, and many directional references can be made as "toward the river" or "away from the river". If you aren't TOO close, that is: since the river winds around the most popular tourist areas, river references tend to be most helpful when you're wandering farther afield than Banglamphoo or Sanam Luang or Rattana. And wander you should.
Bangkok now has two airports operating. Allow at least three hours to connect between them.
All the facilities you'd expect are available (transit hotel, ATMs, money exchange). The cheapest place to eat is the Magic food court on the 1st floor, while perhaps the most comfortable and relaxing of the airport's restaurants and cafes is the Sky Lounge on the 5th floor. Here you can have your latte while sitting in plush leather sofas and enjoying a panoramic view over the runways - prices are also quite reasonable with coffee around 70 baht a cup. There are a few stores in the check-in area including a convenience store and a post office; however, the real shopping experience awaits travelers on the other side of immigration in the departure lounge area where the number of shops and duty free outlets leaves you wondering if you are in a mall or an airport. Beware, though, that past security in the gate waiting area there is practically nothing except steel chairs.
Limousine taxis (which charge by distance, e.g. around 800 baht to central Sukhumvit) can be reserved at the limousine hire counter on the 2nd floor (just outside Arrivals), and a limited number of ordinary metered taxis are available outside the exit on the 1st floor (take the escalator downstairs). If there is a huge taxi queue, consider taking a free shuttle bus to the satellite terminal, which has more taxis. There is a 50 baht surcharge on the meter, meaning that trips to the city will cost 300-400 baht (plus 65 baht highway tolls) and take 40-60 minutes depending on traffic.
There is also a stop outside the 1st floor exit for airport express buses , which charge a flat 150 baht and operate hourly until midnight, covering four routes, each taking about 60 to 90 minutes:
Local (Bangkok) public buses to/from Suvarnabhumi charge a flat 35 baht. To take a public bus, you must first take a free shuttle bus ride (from the outside 2nd floor) to the separate terminal. The lines are:
These services take about 1 hour to 2 hours depending on Bangkok traffic and frequency is usually every 20 mins during daytime and night time ranges from 20 mins to 1 hour depending on route. Long-distance 1st class bus services connect Suvarnabhumi directly with Chachoengsao, Hua Hin, Nong Khai, Pattaya, Rayong, and Trat.
An airport express train to the future City Air Terminal at Makkasan (connecting to MRT Phetchaburi) and onward to Phaya Thai (connecting to BTS Phaya Thai) is under construction, but is not expected to be ready before the end of 2007 at the earliest. Die-hard rail fans with lots of time to kill can take bus 517 to Hua Takhe station (15 baht), a few km from the airport, and continue on any 3rd class train to Asok or Hualamphong (7 baht).
At present, there are only a few hotels located near Suvarnabhumi Airport, though with huge construction projects planned for the area this will change over the next few years. Day room facilities for transit passengers are now available at the 'Miracle Grand Louis Tavern' on floor 4, section G (Tel+66 6 317-2211, 2000 baht per 4-hour block, no reservations accepted). Cheapskate travelers looking for a free quiet place to doze undisturbed at night should head for the prayer rooms.
The Tourist Authority of Thailand and other hotel and tourist agencies have counters on the second floor of the main terminal. These agencies offer hotel reservation service. Check for special promotions and also whether the hotel offers airport pick up and drop off service - especially useful for late night arrivals and early morning departures.
Don Muang Airport
Don Muang Airport (IATA: DMK) (or Don Mueang), 20 km north of downtown, was Bangkok's main airport until 2006. The airport handles Nok Air, PB Air and most Thai Airways domestic flights, but the former international terminal is now limited to charters and general aviation.
The public taxi stand is located on the sidewalk outside the arrivals area (don't be fooled by all the taxi service booths in the main hall), and is probably your best bet for getting into town — it's also your only option after 11 PM. Give your destination (English is understood) and you will receive a two-part ticket at the booth. The charge into town will be the meter + 50 baht + toll if you take the expressway (recommended, 30-70 baht), for a usual total of 200-300 baht. The small part is for your driver, the large part is for you. This ticket is for complaints and is how the system is enforced: hold on to it to help avoid arguments later. The trip into town takes 30 minutes and up depending on traffic conditions.
If the line at the taxi stand is long or you need a more spacious car, you may want to book a (so-called) limousine from the desks in the terminal. This will get you a slightly nicer car at about twice the price (500-600 baht). Ignore any touts outside and do not get into any car with white license plates, as these are not licensed to carry passengers.
Across a covered overpass from the airport is the train station. Tickets to Hualamphong station cost 5 baht at the ticket booth. While taking the train is the cheapest way to get from the airport to Bangkok, it is not for the faint-of-heart: schedules are erratic, the run-down passenger cars often have beggars roaming through them, and are relatively empty late at night.
There are also a number of public transport buses going by the airport. Just take a overpass to the real road bypassing the airport and stop the bus of your choice. For example the air-con bus 504 will take you to the World Trade Center, from where you'll have access to the Skytrain as well as many other buses, or Lumpini Park, from where you get access to the subway, for 20 Baht. Note that large baggage is not allowed.
If you're flying Thai Airways, you can do a city check-in at Lad Phrao MRT station, from where free shuttle buses leave 1:50 before each Thai flight. The same buses also run in the reverse direction from the airport.
Bangkok's three official long haul bus terminals are:
when arriving in Bangkok...
The three main stations in Bangkok are:
Hualamphong Train Station
The main station and the terminus of the Bangkok Metro line. Located right in the middle of downtown Bangkok, it is a huge and surprisingly nice station, built during the reign of King Rama VI and spared bombing in world War II at the request of the Free Thai underground. 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, even if they are wearing very official looking badges).
Tickets for trains leaving the same or next day can be bought on the counters under the red/orange/green screens (see photo). The Advance Booking Office is located to the right of the platforms as you walk towards them and is quite well organised. You can select your seat/berth from a plan of the train, and payments by credit card are accepted.
The taxi pick up and drop off point is to the left of the platforms as you walk towards them, and is generally chaotic at busy periods with scant regard for any queue.
The left luggage facility is at the opposite end of the concourse, on the far right as you walk away from the platforms.
Bang Sue Train Station
If coming from the north or north-east, connecting to the Metro here can shave 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. However, this situation will doubtless improve as more and more long-distance departures are switched to here from Hualamphong.
See Phahonyothin District for more details.
Thonburi Train Station
Also known as Bangkok Noi, this station is located on the "wrong" side of the river in Thonburi District and is the starting point for services to Kanchanaburi (via Nakhon Pathom), River Kwai Bridge and Nam Tok.
There are two daily 3rd class trains: 
Note that the weekend-only 2nd class air-con Kanchanaburi/Nam Tok "tourist" trains depart from Hualamphong. 
A taxi service desk is available on the wharf, but charges extortionate prices - a whopping 2600 baht to charter a taxi (4 passengers), or about 5000 baht to charter a minibus (usually 11 passenger seats), for a trip into Bangkok. Slightly lower prices can be found by walking out to the main road (about 4000 baht for a minibus), however even these rates are almost double the typical rate in the opposite direction. Better deals may be possible for round trips (even if returning the following day).
Frequent first and second class bus services directly connect Laem Chabang with Ekamai (Bangkok's Eastern Bus Terminal, on Sukhumvit); less frequent direct services run to Moh Chit (Bangkok's Northern Bus Terminal). A first class air-con bus (blue and white) to either will usually take 90 minutes or less; the fare is around 100 baht. A good way to make the most of a quick visit is to board an Ekamai bus and then disembark early at the On Nut Skytrain Station on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok (the bus will always pause here provided a passenger requests it); in the opposite direction, use the Ekamai Skytrain Station and board the bus at the terminus. To get to or return from the Chatuchak Weekend Market, use the Moh Chit bus instead.
Buses en route to Pattaya (southbound) can be boarded at the traffic lights on Sukhumvit Road in Laem Chabang, are extremely frequent (at least 10 per hour), and charge less than 50 baht.
Bangkok has the full spectrum of public transportation methods. Buses and taxis operate everywhere in the city. The Sky Train (BTS) and metro are available only in the city centre. And vans generally operate only in more out-lying areas.
The Bangkok Skytrain (BTS, pronunced bee-tee-et in Thai but also rót fai fáa or just skytrain) 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 then goes up Phayonyothin to northern Bangkok, where it terminates near the Chatuchak Weekend Market (N8), and the dark green Silom line, which travels from the Silom area, interchanges with the Sukhumvit line at Siam Square (C) and ends at National Stadium, right next to MBK. There isn't, unfortunately, a station near Banglampu District (aka the Khao San Road area), but the river ferry connects between Tha Banglampu and Tha Sathorn, which is under 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 15 to 40 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, weigh your options and consider a rechargable stored-value card (from 100 baht, with a 30-baht refundable deposit), a "ride all you like" tourist pass (from 100 baht/day) 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.
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 15 to 39 baht depending on distance; pre-paid cards of up to 1000 baht are also available. For single ride fares, a round plastic token is used.
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) is now 13 baht, with stops at most of Rattanakosin's major attractions including the Grand Palace, the Temple of Dawn, etc. Board at piers with a sign showing the route and pay the ticket collector who will approach you bearing a long metal cylinder. 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 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 serve some of Bangkok's many canals (khlong). They're cheap and immune to Bangkok's notorious traffic jams, but mostly used locals who use these water taxis to commute to work and school and shopping, so you get to see the 'backside' of the neighborhoods, so to speak. They're also comparatively safe -- just watch your step when boarding and disembarking and be wary of the water as it can be quite polluted, do not let it get in your eyes. Pay the fare (8-20 baht) to the crazy helmet-wearing ticket collectors who hang onto the outside of the boat, ducking at bridges, as it barrels down the canal. One particularly useful line runs up and down Khlong Saen Saep, parallel to Petchaburi Road, and provides the easiest access from the city center to the Golden Mount. There's a boarding pier across from the WTC under the bridge where Ratchadamri crosses the khlong near Petchburi, and piers now even have (tiny) signs in English.
Finally, for trips outside the 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/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. If you can speak Thai you can call 184 Bus Route Hotline. 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.
Two further pitfalls are that buses of the same number may run slightly different routes depending on the color, and there are also express services (mostly indicated by yellow signs) that skip some stops and may take the expressway (2 baht extra).
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). As a printed reference, the Bus Routes & Map guide (50 baht) by Bangkok Guides is another option.
Recently they have changed the rules regarding luggage on local buses within Bangkok, with the exception of airport buses you cannot take large amounts of luggage (ie. backpacks or suitcases) on the local buses.
Useful bus lines include the following:
Taxis are a quick and comfortable way to get around town, at least if the traffic is flowing your way. All taxis are now metered and air-conditioned: the hailing fee is 35 baht and most trips within Bangkok cost less than 100 baht. There are no surcharges (except from the airport), even at night. A red lit sign on the front window means that the taxi is available.
When the meter is switched on you will see a red '35' somewhere on the dashboard or between the driver and you. Be sure to check for this at the start of the ride, as many drivers will "forget" to start the meter in order to overcharge you at the end of your trip. Most will start the meter when asked politely to do so (poet meter na khrap); if the driver refuses to use the meter after a couple of attempts, simply exit the taxi. In some cases, late at night and especially near major tourist districts like Khao San or Patpong, you will need to walk a block away to catch a meter cab. The effort can save you as much at 150 baht. This is often also the case for taxis that park all day in front of 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, and one car out of four is a taxi). 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.
If you're pinching pennies or fussy about your means of transportation, you may wish to think twice before getting into one of the (very common) yellow-green taxis. They are owner-operated and of highly variable quality, and occasionally they have rigged meters. All other colors belong to large taxi companies, which usually enforce their standards better.
From the airport and on some routes in the city the driver will ask if he should use the Tollway. You should affirm this, it will save a lot of time. You have to pay the cost (20/40 baht) immediately. Watch how much the driver really pays, they may try to keep the change.
When getting out, try to have small bills (100 baht or less) or expect problems with change. Tips are unusual, but are certainly welcome.
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 (or in Thai, "motosai lapjang"). No, those guys in the pink smocks aren't biker gangs; they're motosai cabbies. They typically wear colorful fluorescent yellow-orange vests and wait for passengers at street corners and near shopping malls. Prices are negotiable; negotiate before you ride.
For the unfaint-of-heart, a wild motosai ride can provide a fantastic rush. Imagine weaving through rows of stopped vehicles at 50km/h with mere centimetres to spare on each side, dodging pedestrians, other motorbikes, tuk-tuks, stray dogs and the occasional elephant while the driver blithely ignores all traffic laws and defies even some laws of physics. Now, do the same ride while facing backwards on the bike and balancing a large television on your lap — then you can qualify as a local.
The overwhelming majority of motorcycle taxis do not travel long distances, but simply shuttle up and down long sois (side-streets) 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. This is worth bearing in mind when you hire a motorbike or moped. Make sure that if there are two of you, the hirer provides two helmets not one. When riding, keep a firm grasp on the seat handle and watch out for your knees.
Finally, what would Bangkok be without the much-loathed and much-loved tuk-tuks? You'll know them when you hear them, and 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 or just the experience, they really are not worth the price — and, if you let them get away with it, 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. Visitors should beware though, sometimes one stop can turn in to three, and your tuk-tuk driver may not be interested in taking you where you need to go once he has his gas coupons. Also, with Bangkok's densly congested traffic it is sure to spend hours of your time.
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 and forcefully on going only to your destination.
There's also a less-heralded, less-colourful and less-touristy version of the tuk-tuk that usually serves the back sois in residential neighborhoods. They usually have four wheels instead of three and resemble a tiny truck / ute / lorry, and they run on petrol instead of LP. The maids and locals tend to use them to return home from market with loads of groceries, or for quick trips if they're available. Negotiate before you get in, but don't expect to go much beyond the edge of that particular neighborhood.
Bangkok's many markets are an experience in themselves, see Buy for some suggestions.
Go cycling! It may sound crazy, but it certainly is not. Away from the main roads there is a fast system of small streets and alleys. Cyclists are treated as pedestrians, so you can use your bicycle to explore parks, temple complexes, markets and the more quiet residential areas of eastern Bangkok. In more crowded places you can cycle on the sidewalk. Exploring the town by bicycle has all the advantages of going by foot combined with a much greater action radius and a cooling breeze when cycling.
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, although there are a few restaurants (primarily in hotels) where you can easily spend 10 times this.
Bangkok's nightlife is notorious, although recent social order campaigns have put a bit of a clamp on things: in particularly, nearly all restaurants, bars and clubs are now forced to close before 1 AM, a few are allowed to stay open till 2 AM. (Informal sidewalk bars do stay open all night, particularly in lower Sukhumvit.) You must carry your passport for ID checks and police occasionally raid bars, subjecting all customers to drug tests.
One of Bangkok's main party districts is Silom, home not only to perhaps the world's most famous go-go bar strip Patpong, but plenty of more legitimate establishments catering to all tastes. For a drink with a view, the open-air rooftop bar/restaurants of Vertigo and Sirocco are particularly impressive. Similar bars to the ones at Patpong can be found in the lower Sukhumvit area, at Nana Entertainment Plaza (soi 4) and Soi Cowboy (soi 23), while a large number of more trendy and more expensive bars and nightclubs can be found in the higher sois as well, eg. Thong Lor (soi 55), Bed superclub, Q Bar, or Met bar. Hippie hangout Khao San Road is also slowly gentrifying and there are even some Thais venturing into what were once mere backpacker bars, but most Thais still prefer to congregate around Ratchadaphisek.
Go-go and beer bars
If this sounds like a thinly veiled veneer for prostitution, it is. Though some point to the large number of American GIs during the Vietnam War as the point of origin of the Thai sex trade, others have claimed that Thai lax attitudes towards sexuality have deeper roots in Thai history. Both Go-go and Beer Bars are squarely aimed at the farang and it's fairly safe to assume that all Thais in them are on the take. That said, it's perfectly OK to check out these shows without actually partaking, and there are more and more curious couples and even the occasional tour group attending. The main areas are around Patpong, Nana Entertainment Plaza and Soi Cowboy.
See also the Stay safe|Prostitution section.
Thais are generally accepting of homosexuality and Bangkok has a very active gay nightlife scene, concentrated in Silom Sois 2 & 4 and a short strip of gay go-gos bars off nearby Th Surawong. Most of these bars, however, are aimed at gay men and the lesbian scene is much more low-key. However, there are two full-time lesbian bars (Zeta and Shela) and one Saturday-night only (Lesla) lesbian bar in Bangkok. The most popular gay bars are Balcony and Telephone bar at Silom soi 4 and for the disco club is DJ Station which located at Silom soi 2 (crowded everynight from 11 p.m.). Bring along your passport for entrance age checking (they do not allow people under 20 years old). Closing time is 2-3 a.m.
In a league of their own are Bangkok's numerous transsexuals (kathoey), both pre- and post-operative, popularly known as ladyboys. Some work in the famed transvestite cabarets and there are some dedicated kathoey bars as well, but most do their best to blend in and many have the art of deception down pat. Telltale signs to look out for include tall height, large hands and an Adam's apple.
Note that some Thai regulars in the gay nightlife scene skirt the fine line between partying and prostitution, and the Western visitor, being considered richer, is expected to pay any food and drink expenses and perhaps provide some "taxi money" in the morning. It's usually wise to ask a boy you pick up in a bar or club if he is after money, as it's not uncommon for them to start demanding money after sex.
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 cheap by Western standards, especially for locally produced items such as clothes, although bargaining is expected and required. Dump a teenager in MBK or Emporium with a few thousand baht and they'll stay occupied for the rest of the week! Most malls tend to have excellent food courts.
Weekend Market: A major attraction on weekends is the gigantic Chatuchak Weekend Market (also a.k.a. JJ Market), in northern Bangkok but easily accessible by Skytrain and Metro. Takes around an hour on the bus from Khao San Road area and has 20,000 stalls selling everything from counterfeit goods, animals, art, furniture and probably anything else you can think of. Definitely worth a visit for the sheer size of it.
Night Market: Hugely popular with tourists & locals alike is the open air Suan Lum Night Bazaar. This is a large and colourful market offering bargains on everything from clothes, bags, crockery to organic foods. There is a large food court with a live band every night. Covered in more detail in the Silom section. Note that as of March of 2007 there is a current worry that the Night Bazaar may be evicted from its premises and replaced by real estate development. The current management of the thriving bazaar, as well as the vendors in its stalls, are resisting eviction, but the owners of the land -- namely the property management company owned by Thailand's king -- is planning the eviction, which may happen as soon as April 2007.
Computer Mall: Pantip Plaza is a multi level computer mall selling everything from branded laptops to cheap VOIP phones and pirated DVDs. A must for any computer & electronics buff.
Bangkok's pharmacies (drugstores) tend to offer a very wide range of (wholly legal and legitimate) medicines and herbal remedies at a fraction of Western prices, including many drugs that would require a doctor's prescription in other countries. Thai pharmacists tend to be exceptionally helpful, and most speak excellent English. There are small, independent pharmacists on almost every corner, and you'll find bigger (and more expensive) chains on the major streets and in shopping centers. Boots is probably the most ubiquitous chain; they're also a reliable source for traveler's toiletries.
Books: B2S on the the 3rd floor of the Central World Plaza is Bangkok's largest bookstore, holding around 30,000 titles (many in English) and large selection of magazines. Japanese chain Kinokuniya also has a large outlet in Siam Paragon (Level 3 South), with a good selection of guidebooks and comics in English.
Clothing: Bangkok is well-known for it's plethora of tailors and high-quality fabric available locally. As a rule of thumb, avoid ANY tailor that you're taken to since many are frequent bribers of tuktuk drivers and others. Generally Sukhumvit-area tailors are western-oriented.
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 all budgets.
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 unusual. However, Bangkok does have more than its fair share of touting and scams, and quite a few individuals in the tourist business think nothing of overcharging visitors.
Make a photocopy of your passport and the page with your visa stamp. Always keep your passport or the photocopy with you (the law requires that you carry your actual passport at all times, however in practice a photocopy will usually suffice). Many night clubs insist on a passport (and ONLY a passport) as proof of age. It is not required that you leave your passport with a hotel when you check in.
Carrying your own padlock is a good idea, as budget rooms sometimes use them instead of (or as well as) normal door locks; carry a spare key someplace safe, like your money belt, otherwise considerable expense as well as inconvenience may result should you lose the original. Also consider some type of cable to lock your bag to something too big to fit through the door or window.
Some common scams and guidelines for avoiding them:
The age of consent is 15 but a higher minimum age of 18 applies in the case of prostitutes. Penalties for sex with minors are harsh.
All adult Thais must carry an identity card, which will state that they were born in 2531 or earlier if they were over the age of 18 on January 1st 2007 (in the Thai calendar, CE 2007 is the year 2550). Many hotels retain the ID cards of prostitutes for the duration of their visit.
Whilst most prostitutes are employed by bars or similar businesses, some are "freelancers". Petty theft and other problems are more common with "freelancers".
HIV/AIDS awareness is better than it used to be but infection statistics among entertainment industry workers remain high; "freelancers" are the highest risk group. Almost all girls insist on using condoms.
Technically, some aspects of prostitution are illegal (eg soliciting, pimping), however enforcement is liberal and brothels are commonplace. It's not illegal to pay for sex or to pay a "barfine" (a fee the bar collects if you want to take an employee away).
The novel "The Butterfly Trap" gives a realistic first-person account of Bangkok's nightlife industry.
If you want to get out of the city for a while, there are plenty of day trip options from Bangkok.