Bangkok’s melange of sights, sounds, smells, and intense sensory overload is made all the more crazy with the perpetual heat and humidity. While many are overwhelmed by the initial shock to the senses (usually combined with severe jet lag), there are ways to ease into Bangkok, hit its finer points, and have a pleasant stay.
First off, it really is essential to set up one’s visit based on being able to use the skytrain (known as the BTS) or the metro (known as the MRT), which are the keys to avoiding the horrific gridlock and heat that plague the city streets. Make sure your hotel is near a station, or else plan on staying along the Chao Phraya River, where you can make use of the river ferries, which are another, far more atmospheric way, to check out the city.
While Bangkok doesn’t really have a downtown proper, there are several areas that tourists tend to congregate in and can be considered central. The closest thing to downtown is the Ratchaprasong Intersection, which is home to the mega Central World Shopping Plaza, the Erawan Shrine, and Gaysorn Plaza, along with a handful of 5-star hotels. From here, Sukhumvit Road, home to hundreds of hotels and restaurants, the naughty nightlife area of Soi Cowboy, the happening bar area of Soi 11, and the uber-luxury Em Quartier and Terminal 21 shopping malls, stretches out for miles.
In the other direction, you’ll find Siam Square, home to the Siam Paragon Mall, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, and the Siam Ocean World, plus Chulalongkorn University. Not far from here is Lumpini Park, the city’s largest urban green space, and from here you head into the central business district along Sathorn and Silom roads, another area filled with fancy hotels and perhaps the greatest concentration of restaurants and bars to be found in the city, along with another infamous nightlife spot, Patpong Road.
Silom and Sathorn roads end at the Chao Phraya River, which is where you’ll get glimpses of the Bangkok of old, or “Venice of the East,” as it was called. River ferries and other boats ply the water, and historic hotels like the Mandarin Oriental can be found here. You can also access Chinatown from the river, the best part of Bangkok to stroll in, and the river also gives entry over to the Grand Palace and Wat Po, probably the most visited attractions in town, along with Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, located across the river.
If you keep heading north, you’ll get to the neighborhood of Banglamphu, home to colorful Khao San Road, where the backpackers and bohemians and budget travellers congregate. This is a cheap and popular area to stay in, but be forewarned, the skytrain and subway are miles from here, and thus staying in this area can be very impractical, unless you plan to use the river for transport. It’s also much further away from the airport than Silom or Sukhumvit.
Top tourist draws are the aforementioned Grand Palace and Wat Pho, as well as the Jim Thompson House, the Queen Saovabaha Snake Farm, the Wat Traimit temple in Chinatown, and the Museum of Siam. Make sure to leave plenty of room for restaurant and bar hopping. Bangkok street food is legendary, there is a whole wave of gourmet foodie restaurants happening these days, and the sky high rooftop bars are great for escaping the crowds and seeing the City of Angels from its best panorama.
Bangkok is hot and humid almost year round, although there is a variance of heat. Most visitors prefer to come during the “cool season” winter months, from November to February, when it gets into the 80s, days are sunny and warm, and there are even a few nights when you will need a light sweater. While this is the most pleasant time of year to visit, it is also high season and the most crowded, and hotel prices are high and often require booking, especially around Christmas or New Years.
March until May is the hot season, with temperatures soaring into the hundreds. It is not a great time to be a tourist, as the heat just saps most travellers. On the other hand, it is an opportunity to take part in Songkran, the Thai New Year, which falls in mid-April, and is the world’s largest water fight, a fun event to experience for the first time. Additionally, much of Bangkok empties out at this time, with Thais and expats going away on holiday, so it is easy to get hotel bookings at good prices, and it is one of the few times of year when the traffic is actually bearable.
June through October is the rainy season, with the brunt of it falling in the latter half, especially September. Some of the ferry piers get submerged in September and October, but other than this, there is no reason to avoid Bangkok at this time. There are low season prices on hotels, and the storms usually only last for an hour or less, with sunny breaks at times.
Overall, Bangkok can be visited year round, and as Southeast Asia’s busiest hub, it receives travellers from around the globe during every month. The Thai New Year in April and the regular New Year in December, along with the King’s Birthday on December 5th, are the only holiday periods where local businesses may close for any significant time, especially during Thai New Year, where restaurants may shut down for anywhere from three days to a week, but you will always be able to find vendors or restaurants that are open at this time as well.
Bangkok can fit just about everyone’s budget. Compared to the U.S. and most of the western world, it is very cheap, although certainly not what it used to be, and if you want western goods like craft beer or imported meat and cheese, you will pay a premium. High taxes on imported alcohol do not make it a wine connoisseur’s spot, but for those who want to eat delicious street food and travel across the country by bus and train, it is still a real bargain. Domestic airlines are cheap, especially the low cost carriers, and car rental is also a bargain by international standards.
Bangkok is a city of extreme contrasts. If you stay in a budget hotel, eat in simple restaurants, and don’t shop much, a couple can live quite well for well under $100 per day. However, if you opt for a luxury hotel on the river, and eat and drink in some of the sky bars or high end restaurants, it is easy to spend five times this.
The currency of Thailand is the baht, with notes of 20, 50, 100, 500, and 1000, and coins of 1,2, 5, and 10 baht. The baht was quite strong from 2010-2013, but the Thai economy has weakened since then, and those holding dollars will get good rates now. You can find banks in even the tiniest village in the country, and ATM’s are on practically every block, so it is easy to change money. Banks also have money changing windows outside. Several items for visitors to note: 1) All Thai ATM’s charge a 200 baht fee on any withdrawal, so it’s better to make one large withdrawal as opposed to several small ones. 2) For those changing dollars, rates are much lower for $1, 5, 10, 20, and 50 as opposed to changing $100 denominations.
Credit and debit cards are accepted in many places, certainly in any midrange hotel or restaurant, but there is usually a 3% fee added to credit card purchases.
Tipping as in the west is not the norm in Thailand, however, it has come to be expected from tourists. It is not done by a percentage though, and usually a 20 baht note given to a bellboy, taxi driver, or a waiter is more than enough. Fancier hotels and restaurants often tack on 7% tax and 10% service charge to the bill.
If you are shopping in Thailand, on purchases totalling over $100, you can get back the VAT tax, so make sure to ask for receipts on major purchases, and note that the paperwork must be filled out and goods shown at the airport before flying home in order to get the refund.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in local currencies.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than 100 baht per person
$$ => Tickets 100-300 baht per person
$$$ => Tickets 300 baht per person
$ => Rooms less than 1500 baht for a double
$$ => Rooms 1500-4000 baht for a double
$$$ => Rooms 4000 baht for a double
$ => 300 baht per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => 3-500 baht per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => 500 baht per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than 1000 baht per person
$$ => Tickets 1000-1500 baht per person
$$$ => Tickets 1500 baht per person
The only way to practically navigate Bangkok and keep your sanity is via the BTS skytrain or the MRT subway system. Bangkok has some of the worst gridlock in the world, and it can be downright unpleasant to spend half your holiday stuck in the heat and traffic. Rush hour on the major boulevards is the worst. Areas like Sukhumvit Road or Silom or Sathorn can have backups for miles and miles, and a trip that will take 15 minutes on the skytrain could take an hour by taxi, so stick to the transport off the roads.
While the subway isn’t of too much use to tourists, due to it running north to south and not hitting too many tourist zones, it is the best way of getting to Hualamphong Railway Station as well as Chinatown. Other than this, the skytrain covers much of central Bangkok, from Sukhumvit to Siam to Silom, and even up to Chatuchak for the weekend market.
The skytrain also will get you to the Chao Phraya River, from where you can take public ferries to attractions like Chinatown, the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, the Asiatique Night Market, and even up to Khao San Road. This is another great way to avoid the roads, as well as get a feel for Bangkok’s old moniker of being the “Venice of the East.” There are also public canal boats along the Saen Sab Canal, which is a good way to get from the Khao San Road area into downtown Bangkok near Central World without having to deal with taxis or tuk tuks.
Taxis are plentiful throughout the city, and are some of the cheapest fares you’ll find in the world. They are a very good deal if you use them outside of rush hour, or need to get to places not on the skytrain or subway line. Taxis are metered, although in places like Silom Road or on Sukhumvit, anywhere where tourists congregate, it can be hard to find drivers willing to use them. If a driver doesn’t want to use the meter, it is best to shut the door and walk away, perhaps walking a block away to a quieter area, as there are plenty of honest drivers trying to make a living.
Tuk tuks are popular amongst tourists, especially for that Bangkok travel selfie, but do note that as a tourist, you will always be overcharged. In almost all cases, taxis will be cheaper, not to mention being air-conditioned, and are a far preferable way to go. Do not go with any tuk tuk drivers offering free or cheap rides, they are renowned for taking tourists to gem shops or other places to make commissions, and only lead to hassle.
Motorcycle taxis are sometimes the only option during rush hour for making a short trip down a side street. While not exactly safe, they are a part of Bangkok life and a necessary evil. Make sure your purse or bag is not hanging off your shoulder if taking one, as there are bag snatchers around.
Finally, buses run throughout Bangkok, and are dirt cheap, with a choice of both air conditioned and non-air conditioned ones plying the streets. They are a good way to experience local life, but really not recommended unless you are on an extreme budget. The long travel times and traffic just are not worthwhile.