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Every global tourism hotspot unwittingly harbours a few subpar spots that don’t measure up to the place as a whole, and Bangkok is no exception. To ensure you experience the real Thailand, you need to be watchful of the impostors. Here’s how.
Nothing sours the mood of a rewarding travel experience quite like having your expectations shattered as you realise the attraction you were so excited about was actually nothing but a glossy show for the tourists’ benefit. Your time on the road in Thailand is limited, so you need to make every single moment count. Here’s how to avoid giving Bangkok’s tourist traps the chance to get you, and how to rescue the situation if you do get let down.
If you’re going to avoid the tourist traps – which include anything less than close to an authentic Thai experience as well as areas with big crowds – then you need to know ahead of time what and where they are, as well as some alternatives.
Armed with this knowledge, you can make the right choices to ensure you come away with the kind of memorable experience you are looking for. Planning on a visit to a floating market? Some quick research will show you Damnoen Saduak is a meat factory with more tourist-laden boats colliding with one another than any actual vendors trading. Meanwhile, easier-to-reach Khlong Lat Mayom is a foodie paradise that is heaving come lunchtime, yes, but only because it’s hugely popular with in-the-know Bangkokians out for some weekend fresh air.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. The truth is even in the worst of Bangkok’s tourist traps, there’s likely a way to rescue the situation, meaning there’s almost always a more authentically local and enriching scene hiding in plain sight just nearby. Hunting out local food markets can be a great way to achieve this. (Perhaps the one exception is on exclusively tourism-geared islands with no local resident population whatsoever.)
If you find yourself regretting spending another day in the midst of Khao San Road, for example, then know you’re a 30-second walk from some of Bangkok’s most celebrated local Thai street food. On neighbouring Tani and Kraisi roads, there are fabulous khao mok gai chicken biryani and beef satay, amazing tom yum kung hot and sour soup of giant river prawns, and heaps more. All you need to do is get off that path you’re on and head to the one filled with hungry Thai office workers instead.
Even when it feels like you’re in the deepest, most tourist-y rabbit hole imaginable, there’s sure to be a way to turn things around. It’s often the case that what seems like a thorough tourist trap is in fact only superficial on the surface. Sometimes that means all it takes is a cursory scratch just beneath to reveal local communities waiting to be discovered.
Take the on-trend Soi Nana street of bars over in Chinatown (no, not that other rather more racy Soi Nana on Sukhumvit!). This is by no means an area that’s overrun by visitors from abroad – the best of the bars like Teens of Thailand and Asia Today have their share of expat regulars plus a handful of well-researched tourists, sure. But overall, Soi Nana’s clientele remains overwhelmingly Thai. It’s also true that the street’s transformation has been done considerately. Nevertheless, sometimes you can’t help but shake the sense that, in reinventing itself as a bar hub, it has lost a little of the local Chinatown neighbourhood vibe you imagine it had by the bucket-load before.
Thankfully, the slightest scratch at the surface really is all this takes to fix. Stepping into the unknown down an admittedly dark side alley reveals a whole second row of homes hidden along a path running behind the shophouses that face the street. Here, a few artists have studios, and an old woman alternates between washing clothes and drying herbs on a tray outside her front door. “Take it, take it!” she cries jokingly as I stop to pet her cat, “we’ve got too many anyway!” We share a moment of laughter before I continue my walk. Suddenly any notion of a tourist trap is non-existent.
This tip is admittedly more for avoiding landing in tourist traps in the first place rather than getting yourself out of one – but then, if you’re not proactively avoiding tourist traps, then that’s exactly where you’ll find yourself. Of course, whenever you can, saying ‘yes’ to new experiences and opportunities that come your way is always a good idea – but trust yourself and your instincts, and don’t hesitate to say ‘no’ when something doesn’t feel right.
Some people just give off a bad vibe. If you’re offered an opportunity for local exploration, but get the sense that it might involve something closer to trailing the same circuit that countless travellers have been dragged to before you, then now’s your chance to nip it in the bud and politely decline. You’ll save yourself the hassle and disappointment of wasting half a day being dragged around fake gemstone dealers or poor-quality tailors, or even simply being driven around Bangkok on a ‘free’ tour of attractions you had no interest in seeing.
Treating people with a healthy dose of scepticism will help you avoid potential pitfalls. There’s no need to go overboard, but applying that scepticism to everyone – until they give you a reason not to, that is – will help protect you from wasted time and bad experiences. In addition, don’t make yourself a target by, for example, walking around with a huge paper map in your hands, marking yourself out as lost and easy prey.
Nor is it wise to accept offers of help from overly forthcoming strangers, or to believe that those umpteen shops around Bangkok labelled as ‘tourist information centres’ are actually anything of the sort. If you do need to ask for directions or other advice while you’re out and about, turn to someone with no conflict of interest or reason to spin the truth – a noodle vendor, say, rather than a tuk-tuk driver or loitering tout. Even better, make friends with local, trustworthy Thais before or on arrival – whether online or by visiting places popular with locals – and use their advice to insulate yourself from the dangers of tourist traps.