Bangkok, known as Krung Thep in Thai, 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), 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; many well-known sois have an additional name, which can be used instead of the number. Thus, an address like "25 Soi Sukhumvit 3" means the 25th building on the 3rd soi of Sukhumvit Road. Soi 3 is also known as Soi Nana and the address might thus also be expressed as "25 Soi Nana".
Arrival at Don Muang International Airport
The airport is located about 45 minutes from downtown (4 hours at rush hour). You can change money 24 hours a day and left luggage is around $1/day. Best bet for quickly and safely getting to your hotel destination is to take a taxi or use Thai Airways limousine service (which are slightly nicer taxis at a steeper price of 500-600 baht), if you land after 11pm these will be your only options.
The taxi stand is located immediately outside the arrivals area, ignore the many touts trying to sell your their limousine services -- you are better off getting in line for an official taxi. The charge into town will be the meter + 50 baht + toll if you take the expressway (recommended), for a usual total of 200-300 baht. Give your destination and you will receive a two-part ticket at the booth. 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.
Several upscale hotels (like the Grand Hyatt Erawan) offer helicopter transfer service to their hotel from the airport. This service is not for those with a light wallet!
Across a covered overpass from the airport is the train station. Tickets to Bangkok's Hualampong 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: the run-down passenger cars often have beggars roaming through them, and are relatively empty late at night.
The very convenient airport bus runs 3 time an hour from outside both terminals from 6am - 11pm. Buy a ticket (100 baht) at the booth. If you're going to Khao San Road, you'll want bus A2 (it's the 4th stop, just follow the crowd). This is a relatively safe and easy way to get into town.
Arrival by bus
If you arriving by tourist bus chances are they'll drop you off outside their favorite hotel or guest-house. Arriving by local bus will plunk you down on the outskirts of town where your best bet (especially at night) is a metered taxi.
Arrival by train
Trains pull into the huge and surprisingly nice Hualampong station, right in the middle of downtown. 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).
Bangkok has a lot to see so the sooner you brave the public transportation system, the better.
The Bangkok Skytrain (BTS) 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 Sukhumvit line which travels along Sukhumvit road, and the Silom line, which travels from the Silom area, interchanges with the Sukhumvit line at Siam Square and terminates near the Chatuchak Weekend Market.
There isn't, unfortunately, a station near Banglampu District (aka the Khao San Road area), but you can take a river ferry to within a few blocks of one of the lines (Tha Sathorn stop, under the Sathorn Bridge). The Skytrain is a particularly good way of getting to the Chatuchak Weekend Market, near the Mo Chit station. (See subway below for more info on Chatuchak stop).
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 "ride all you like" tourist pass, a stored-value card, 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 Subway finally opened in July 2004. The line connects the central Hualamphong railway station to the northern Bang Sue station, with interchanges to the Skytrain at Silom/Sala Daeng, Sukhumvit/Asok and Chatuchak/Mo Chit.
Subway tickets are not interchangeable with Skytrain tickets. The fare for the first month (until late August 2004) is 10 baht. Afterwards, rides will 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 subway 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. The latter drops you right inside the market.
A ride on the Chao Phraya River should be high on any tourist's agenda. Don't get bullied into buying a 'tourist pass'-- the local boats are relatively easy to figure out and cost 3-9 baht depending on how far you go. For some reason every map numbers the boat stops differently, so just remember the name. There are about a half dozen different types of boat-- express, direct-express, local, express-local-indirect (just kidding), and so on. Usually you can just keep asking for your stop when a boat pulls up and they'll wave you away or shove you on board. The ride itself is more than worth the price of admission. You can see (and access) most of Bangkok's major sites from the river: the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Po, Wat Arun, as well as Bangkok's many bridges and waterfront neighborhoods. The river boat's Central station offers easy interchange to the BTS Saphan Taksin station.
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.
Local buses are cheap and crowded and cover every inch of the city. It'll take some effort to figure out where to get on and off, but learning one or two routes can save a lot of walking or taxi money.
Taxis are a quick way to get around town (depending on traffic conditions). Avoid unmetered taxis, metered taxis are almost always cheaper: 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 5-10 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, and 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. 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 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 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. 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 Chatuchak Weekend Market (also spelled Jatujak), located near the BTS Mo Chit / Subway Chatuchak stations. This incomprehensibly vast outdoor market has over 8,000 vendors selling anything and everything under the sun -- to put that number in perspective, if you browsed each stall each one minute, non-stop for 8 hours on both Saturday and Sunday, it would take you over two months to visit them all! A good rule of thumb is to buy immediately if you spot something interesting, because you will never find the same stall again. The market opens at 7 AM, get there early to beat the crowds and the heat.
Slightly more manageable in size and open nightly is the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, covered in the Silom section.
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: