Love it or hate it, Bangkok is a crazy city that you have to be prepared to handle. We came in a bit blind, but thanks to other travelers were quickly able to find our way.
See and Do
We'd split up the sights into the ancient/religious and the modern culture. In the former, the most popular are the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, which has the country's largest reclining Buddha. The Grand Palace is the biggie, but at 500B/pp, the cost is a bit steep. If you've seen your share of Buddhas and temples, I would say it's skip-able, especially if you're looking to save money.
While the ticket to the Palace also lets you visit the Vimanmek Teak Mansion in Dusit Palace Park, we had a horrible experience trying to do so. The Grand Palace guards seemed to have taken the wrong part of our admission ticket leaving us with a ticket without a stub. The security at the mansion refused to let us in or acknowledge the mistake. We tried to explain to them that our visas showed we'd only been in Bangkok for three days and that there was no way we'd been to both attractions but they didn't want to listen.
That said, Wat Pho cost 100B/pp and was totally worth it. Besides the giant Buddha, the sculptures and gardens reminded us, in the best possible way, of Alice in Wonderland.
When it came to the modern, it's all about teenagers and shopping. We checked out several malls, of which the elite Paragon with its fancy stores and food court was our favorite.
Taking a suggestion from Lonely Planet, we visited Erawan Shrine. It was close to the malls and an amazing place to people watch and see how devoted regular Thais are to Buddhism. We saw several people give thanks for prayers coming to life by hiring dancers to perform in front of the Brahma statue.
Another must for Bangkok, or Thailand in general if you're staying awhile is to experience Thai massages. We figured everything by our hotel was overpriced and crappy so we headed to the numbered Soi's (streets) off Sukhomvit. Soi 5 was recommended as the place locals go and we had a decent two hour couples massage at Baan Thai for 800B, about $26. The biggest issue was the masseuses chatting to each other while they worked, reminiscent of getting your nails done in the US. We figured massages were so utilitarian here that that was the typical thing. Although you do get some cool massage clothes!
Post massage, we took a cue from Nomadic Matt, who has a nice 3-day Bangkok itinerary, and went to Cheap Charlie's for drinks. We met two ex-San Franciscans over one beer and would have met a ton more people if I didn't start getting devoured by bugs (I forgot my bug spray!). Regardless, it was a really neat place to grab a drink. Highly recommended!
The last sight in Bangkok, whether you want to see it or not, are the prostitutes. We noticed it immediately after our massages when we passed a swanky looking hotel with an open air bar. Sitting at each table was a white man who looked like a businessman and a Thai woman, varying greatly in attractiveness. Over the course of the night, we saw many more similar sights, particularly in the Patpong neighborhood, where the men were more greasy/sleazy and the women more desperate looking. I guess you can see where we fall on this issue. Prostitution is now illegal in Thailand, which makes it even more dangerous since the women don't have to register and/or get tested on a regular basis. If you choose to partake, proceed with caution. The "best" place is Soi Cowboy.
Khao San or not Khao San. That is the question and it seems like there's no middle ground. The backpacker "ghetto" of Bangkok has a lot to offer, including unlimited food options, and unending party, and easy access to top attractions and the river ferry. But the food is unauthentic, the travelers are young and often drunk, and some hotels can be downright disgusting. Since this was our first time in Bangkok, we decided to ignore the naysayers and head to Banglamphu - the area around Khao San Road.
A couple we met on the flight from Mandalay suggested a guesthouse near Khao San but not on it. At 840B/night, New Siem II offered a nice room with working AC and a fridge, plus the huge benefit of a pool. It was quiet at night but right around the corner from the "best" of the neighborhood. We also heard good things about Lamphu House, right around the corner. It was cheaper, but no pool.
Having now done Khao San, next time we'll be in Bangkok we'll probably opt for the Sukhomvit area. We heard great things about Suk 11.
Eat and Drink
We're hoping this is indicative of Bangkok and not Thailand as a whole, but food was more expensive than we anticipated. Street cart food ran between 30-60B ($1-2US), but casual restaurants were a lot more, averaging 300B/person. On top of that, most of the food we tried was a bit too tourist-safe, which often meant it wasn't as authentic as we would have liked. Still, we highly recommend trying the street food, though it is nice to sit down for dinner once in a while.
Although, you are more likely to meet interesting people at food stalls. We ran into a group of 4 young Japanese guys. They bought 2 scorpions and played rock-paper-scisors to see who wins. Rob opted out of their game, but this guy lost. Drama! It was like a Japanese game show!
We did hear great things about the food options around Soi 11, Sukhomvit, but didn't have a chance to try anything there. What we did do was mall hope around Siam. The Skytrain takes you right into Paragon, which is a fancy mall with a super fancy food court. We sampled several things there and the next day went to Mahboonkrong Food Centre in a nearby mall.
The main ways of getting around are by train (Skytrain or metro), ferry, or tuk-tuk. We took all three, plus some local buses. Skytrain was amazing, if only for its air conditioning. Taking the ferry from Banglamphu is easy and takes you right to a Skytrain station, so that's the way most people do it. The problem is that the ferries stop running around 7, which means a tuk-tuk back. Negotiate the price and agree on it before getting in.
There's actually another ferry that takes you directly from Banglamphu to Siam. It's cheap, but hard to find. Ask locals for the way to the Golden Mount. It's about a 15-20 minute walk from the main drag.
If you take a taxi, insist on a meter. If they refuse, get out (or better yet, don't get in until the issue's been resolved). We took a taxi from the airport because the one we flew into didn't have easy access into the city. It was 450B total, which we split with another couple. Well worth it, as the bus from that airport took over an hour and dropped people off about 1 mile from most guesthouses.
Buses - confusing! We were heading to Kanchanaburi after Bangkok and Lonely Planet made it seem fairly simple (and cheap) to catch the bus from the Southern Bus Terminal. The reality was a different story. Whether our hotel told us the wrong bus or the bus lady told us the wrong stop is unclear, but we got off the city bus in the middle of nowhere and were completely lost until a bilingual woman told us the right bus to get on. She was amazing, even writing down the name of the terminal in Thai so we could show the bus driver! Once we arrived at the terminal, we were in for another adventure. There didn't seem to be anyone selling tickets at the Kanchanaburi ticket counter and it took about 20 minutes before I summoned up the courage to just follow a Thai person from the ticket counter to wherever they headed to next. Turned out the tickets were being sold outside the bus, not at the counter...
Interested in seeing Khao San Road and Wat Pho without paying for a plane ticket? Check out our Bangkok photo tour!
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