Bangkok: Destination guide for a South African traveller
For the longest time Bangkok was, in my mind, the city people in my home town in Limpopo went to import cheap clothes, and a necessary evil to get to and from other cool places in South East Asia.
After travelling the region regularly for the last decade I have managed to skip Thailand and Bangkok, because everyone seemed to go there and I “can rather go somewhere interesting”. My snobbishness led to me missing out, big time.
In August and September 2019 I embarked on an epic six week trip through Malaysia and Thailand. The moment I set foot in the hot-as-hell Bangkok traffic the energy bounced off my skin and the love affair began . . .
Imagine Bangkok: It’s like being in five Joburgs, with taller buildings, Thai food, the tropics, trains and the constant buzzing of people – all the time. If the thought of this has you overwhelmed, you’re not alone – I was too. The farm girl in me did not do nearly enough planning to make the most of the sprawling metropolis of Bangkok.
If you are like me and hate planning, but want to go experience Bangkok I have made notes for you:
First of all, get yourself a sim card (you can just buy a dirt cheap one at the airport, with data prices that will just irritate you, after paying sky-high prices in SA).
Nobody has got time to try and figure out maps or waiting for WiFi before you can search. Realtime directions make a big difference. And not to mention, it is much cheaper to buy data, than an overly expensive coffee for WiFi.
Bangkok is much bigger than you think (or the map makes it look). Identify a few key attractions you would like to see (such as the royal palace, China Town, etc. and search accordingly.
I am a fan of Booking.com for online bookings, because there are usually no surprise fees or it is clearly marked. Other booking agents such as AirBnB, Hostelword.com and Agoda.com are also good options, but really do your homework and read the reviews (and not only the top ones).
Bangkok has accommodation for each budget, and if you are travelling on a shoestring, don’t underestimate a backpackers. Off-peak times you might get dorm rooms for yourself (I did, a few times). The private rooms also offers good value for money. Whatever you do, pick a place that is ideally within walking distance from the Skytrain or Metro.
I found anywhere close to Sukhumvit is central and easy to navigate yourself from. Initially we stayed close to the airport and close to the Skytrain, but proximity to any of the airports are terrible if you want to get into the city, because it takes you hours to travel up and down.(My personal recommendation: Areas around the Asok, Ratchathewi and Siam stations)
The trains are by far the fastest and most convenient way to get by. Busses are cheaper, but complicated and it wastes a lot of time. If you are going to stay in Bangkok for longer than a week it might be sensible to buy a monthly package or one of the bundle options that you can find at any station.
The single tickets amounts to quite a hefty bill if you are not walking a lot. Play around with Google Maps’ public transport instructions and immediately download Grab – South East Asia’s answer to Uber. The prices are clearly indicated (excluding toll fees) and nobody can try and pull a fast one on you. Be aware: this especially happens when you catch a Tuk-Tuk at the mainstream tourist destination. If you are taking a metered taxi, that’s cool – but always stick to the meter and avoid set prices at all cost.
Taking a water taxi is also an adventure in Bangkok. Either take the local water taxis, or if you want to take a hop on hop off option for a whole day, the tourist boat might actually be cheaper and easier to navigate, and then you can make a day of all the riverside destinations (like the famous Wat Arun, Wat Pho or the Palace and seal the deal by visiting the Asiatique Nightmarket for a nice dinner and the river by night).
Try and challenge yourself to take each mode of transport at least once. My personal favorite is hopping on the back of a “Grab Bike” (motorcycle taxi) where you weave through the manic traffic and things really start getting hot and heavy. It’s basically an affair with the road and gets your heart racing.
I hate saying this, but plan better than I did. Make a short list of things that you have to see (keep it short), but research this. Don’t assume the internet’s information is up to date, and prepare yourself to adjust your plans, because Thailand is not fully researchable in any regard. Be open to be surprised regularly.
Decide on your budget and plan accordingly. Bangkok has the capability to bring you to your knees, or be really cheap. If you want to travel on the cheap, you need to stick to your guns and bargain vigorously.
Do a bit of research about what items generally are priced for. Be reasonable, and ask around as a lot of vendors and shops sell the same things over and over again. It might even be worth to go to a few stalls in markets and “haggle” just to gage how realistic your expectations are and remember the Thai Baht has become a more powerful currency and is no longer as cheap for South Africans a few years ago.
Have enough cash
Thailand isn’t big on card machines and you mostly have minimum spending caps where there are card machines available in grocery stores – and draw enough cash the first time round; possibly more than you think you need. ATM fees for foreign currencies creates a gaping hole in your budget.
The police and army
Don’t get freaked out when police or people in uniform are around. There’s a heavy police presence everywhere. Keep your passport close when you are travelling longer distances – even on a day trip. The police or the military routinely check busses and seems to be omnipresent in Bangkok. And remember, it’s illegal to discuss the military-run government and the king in conversation and on social media.
Malls, toilets and markets
In stark contrast to my visit to Malaysia just before coming to Bangkok, it was a total nightmare to find toilets in public space. I know it’s an uncomfortable topic, but we all need to go. A good bet is always the closest mall.
Malls are also great for food-courts. Bangkok can ruin your budget if you don’t tread carefully. Another food trick is to ask any local where the local market is. There’s always some market, and that’s pretty much almost the best deal in town and probably the nicest meal that you will find.
Bangkok is huge, and millions of people travel there. It’s also one of the biggest travel destinations in the world. Prime sites like the palace can be total chaos to go to, so buckle up, hold your breath and go super early.
It makes a huge difference if you pitch up early at a place like the palace, where an inordinate amount of people pass through daily.
Remember, what goes for Joburg, goes for Bangkok. Be alert, and you should be smarter than the occasional pickpocket. Avoid scammers by walking a few blocks down before you book your taxis.
My favourite places
1. The Grand Palace - yes, it’s busy and expensive, but it’s marvellous. I went twice.
2. Chatuchak Weekend Market - it’s only over weekends, go early and take your time.
3. Airplane graveyard - don’t plan accommodation around this, it’s a dodgy area, but it’s all for the Gram.
4. Asiatique night market for a night on the river - take the water taxi from Saphan Taksin. The orange one is one the locals use and Asiatique also has it’s own water shuttle.
5. Shop till you drop - I literally got lost in The Platinum Mall and loved Terminal21.