You can spend a lifetime unpacking Bangkok’s secrets and surprises, navigating the endless street food stalls, traditional markets and world-famous nightlife. But it can be overwhelming to take it all in. This city has many must-visit attractions to tick off, alongside a huge roster of cuisine and a burgeoning modern cultural scene with international flair.
Save time, money and weary feet by following these local-approved tips for a hassle-free stay in Bangkok, embracing Thai culture both new and old.
There are thousands of resources out there to plan your perfect Bangkok itinerary, but avoid the temptation to schedule every minute of your stay. Just accept that it’s impossible to visit every attraction and sample every menu item. You don’t have to. Thailand’s best experiences are those least expected: that unnamed family-run kitchen where you ate the best noodles you’ve ever had, served with a smile; the whimsical amulet market a traveller from your cooking class suggested; that day you lounged away the weekend in Lumpini Park. Don’t scrap the must-see attraction, but build in plenty of time for your own exploration.
Credit cards are slowly becoming more common in Bangkok, but cash is still king. Hotels and businesses that do accept credit will often tack on a three to five percent service charge to your bill, and for day-to-day expenses you’ll want a steady stream of baht in hand. Exchange commissions and cash machine fees can add up quickly. If you plan well, you can open up a current account in your home country that repays foreign cash machine fees right back into your account. Or head right past the cash machines and into a local Thai bank with your card and passport. You can withdraw much larger amounts at a time this way, for a flat commission fee. For visitors from the USA, Western Union has a nationwide presence here, too. With its low fees for direct debit transfers into Thailand, you can send yourself money right from your account and pick up cash at one of the hundreds of local agents.
Bangkok is switched on 24 hours a day. While the city has earned a top nightlife reputation for its ‘ladyboy’ cabarets, sky bars and luxury nightclubs, action after dark is so much more than lemongrass-infused cocktails. Many markets and attractions that buzz all day explode with activity overnight. Check out the Pak Khlong Talat flower market as deliveries of thousands of exotic flowers arrive at midnight, or cruise among the fireflies in a traditional long-tail boat at Amphawa; scrap plans for a sit-down meal and sample the city’s late-night street food vendors by tuk-tuk; or explore the city’s love for wacky themed bars in the chic centres of Thonglor and Ekkamai.
Good old pen and paper – or your phone’s Notes app – can save your day. Communication in English is fairly easy throughout Bangkok, but when on the hunt for an obscure site, specific street food or an off-Google Maps address, have it written down in Thai. Hotel and hostel staff are a great resource here. Thailand’s playful ethos of sanuk (‘having a good time’) has fostered a deep culture of friendliness and hospitality, and these encounters will probably arm you with a few more surprise recommendations.
Bangkok can be daunting, but it’s easily navigable with an arsenal of well-chosen local apps. Buy a dirt-cheap tourist SIM card at any corner shop or phone shop (providers True and AIS offer the most consistent coverage, but make sure to have your passport for registration) and load your phone with the apps savvy travellers rely on. Grab is a must – Southeast Asia’s answer to Uber – as one of the most hassle-free ways to get around the city. The city’s MRT and BTS metro lines each have their own useful apps as well, complete with neighbourhood guides organised by station. LINE is handy as Thailand’s hugely popular messaging service, and for solo travellers, Viatuktuk is like a digital dorm, connecting travel buddies while also serving as a platform for first-hand recommendations on the go. Of course, the Culture Trip app should take centre stage on your home screen.
Bangkok can take a lifetime to explore and no matter how long or short your stay, the city can be exhausting. To scratch beneath the surface without sacrificing your feet, design your days by neighbourhood. Make sure to pick the best transport options so you don’t spend all day in transit, and avoid getting caught in rush hour. Pick one or two focal points for the day’s itinerary – the temples of Rattanakosin, the hip boutiques and cafés of Thonglor, the markets of Yaowarat, the boat-noodle stalls of Victory Monument, the entertainment at Charoen Krung – and then stay put. Spend the day exploring an individual neighbourhood in full, saving on energy and stumbling on surprises you could never have planned for.
Bring staple items like good walking shoes and your favourite light shirts, but leave plenty of room for souvenirs. Everything you could need is available here en masse. The city hosts some of the world’s biggest traditional markets with everything from local crafts, textiles and accessories to cheap electronics. Or stock up on Asian fashion and beauty brands at one of the city’s many megamalls, which feature plenty of familiar Western tags as well. There’s a pharmacy on nearly every corner, so don’t risk shampoo exploding in your luggage – and when it rains, every shopfront is suddenly stocked with rain jackets and umbrellas. Enjoy the freedom and ease of travelling light, leaving plenty of room to bring your Thai spoils home without having to pay for extra baggage.
Bangkok is less conservative than other areas of Thailand, but it’s still important to dress modestly. For some attractions like temples or the Grand Palace, you’ll be refused entry with exposed shoulders or knees – though Thai sarong wraps work well in a pinch and are available at market stalls near major attractions. Many of the city’s top nightclubs and restaurants will often turn away visitors in flip-flops or shorts. Check guidelines to avoid disappointment, and err on the side of modesty.
Thai cuisine is rooted in the concept of khluk, mixing together seemingly discordant ingredients to strike an intricate flavour balance. Because of this complexity, the best food is often found at the most modest-looking street stalls that specialise in one dish or just a few distinct dishes. Always defer to local recommendations; your hotel or hostel staff are likely to have their own favourite haunts nearby. And a stall with a long line is always a good sign. Worried about health and hygiene? Wash your hands before eating; they’re far filthier and more likely to get you sick than any street meal. And don’t be afraid to adjust the spice levels. Even in places where English communication is thin on the ground, street vendors definitely know phrases like “farang spicy” or even “medium” if you’re feeling frisky. They’ll give you a short laugh, a knowing nod and a dish suited to your taste.
Tempting as it may be to hit every one of Bangkok’s must-see relics, the city has been evolving rapidly over the last few decades. Its emerging, modern culture is just as vibrant and engaging as the old. There are new takes on ancient staples, like the Chang Chui Plane Night Market, as well as contemporary spots like the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. There are weekend craft fairs and zero-waste exhibitions, festivals celebrating the city’s many identities – such as its popular LGBTQ pool party circuit – and pop-up galleries and concerts with artists from all over the world. Leaving space on your itinerary to explore the new Bangkok is the best way to experience the soul of modern Thai life.