I’m Just Back From Bangkok and I’ve Got Tips for You
From the cooling wipes that will make Bangkok’s swamp-heat more bearable to the fortune teller in the Wat-Pho gift shop, our Editor shares hot-off-the-trip insights
Bangkok is a vibrant and chaotic city with amazing street food, terrible traffic, and endless things to see and do. I spent several days there on a recent trip to Thailand and I honestly cannot wait to go back and explore more. Rather than share the usual highfalutin travel tips, I thought I’d toss out some honest, practical insights from a Fodor’s Editor—like how much underwear to pack, how to say “hi” and “thanks” in Thai, what you absolutely must eat, and where to visit a nonagenarian fortune-teller who will tell you what’s what.
First Things First: Don’t Just Layover, Stay Over
For many, Bangkok is just a stop on the way to other destinations within Thailand like Phuket and Chiang Mai, or a stepping stone to other destinations in South East Asia and Australia. But know this: you are sorely missing out if your only experience of Bangkok is Suvarnabhumi Airport (as great an airport as it is). Bangkok is a lively and exciting city with friendly people, delicious street food, beautiful hotels, amazing temples, and so much to see and do. Spend at least three days here if you can. Then feel free to use this well-connected hub to spring elsewhere.
Pack Three Times the Knickers
Two words for you: Swamp ass. Sorry, but I cannot in good faith recommend that you visit Bangkok without also strongly urging that you pack triple your usual underwear allotment. You will sweat in places you didn’t know you had glands and you will need a morning, afternoon, and evening change of underwear for every day. A superficial change of T-shirt just won’t cut it. In other, less-humid parts of Thailand, you will be fine with two changes daily.
Buy These Cooling Wipes at Boots
If you love makeup, you’ll love exploring new products at Boots (or Watsons) in Bangkok, but before you get distracted by all the pretty Asian products and packaging, stock up on the essentials: cooling wipes. There are no two ways about it: Bangkok can be hot and sweaty and there are only so many showers you can take in a day. Carry a pack of Snake Brand Prickly Heat cooling body wipes and with a swipe to the back of your neck and arms (and LBH, across your back, under your bra, and down the back of your legs) you will be instantly refreshed and cooled. Positively perky, even. Snake Brand products are manufactured in Thailand by The British Dispensary Co., Ltd, one of the oldest family-owned healthcare businesses in Asia. The company began trading in 1892 as a modern drug store with a full-time pharmacist and over the years expanded to develop its own range of cosmetic and medicinal products, including their world-famous prickly heat cooling powders, shower gels, soaps, wipes, and skincare products. Buy them all if you can. The wipes are especially convenient for an on-the-go cool. Trust me: you need these. Learn from me: don’t use them near your eyes!
Learn To Say “Hello” and “Thank You”
When you visit Thailand you suddenly realize just how unfriendly—or rather, too busy for pleasantries—people are in the rest of the world (looking at you, New York). “ Hello” and “thank you” are not just good manners but essential phrases here. Almost every person you encounter in your day will smile and greet you and you really should return the pleasantries–in Thai. “Hello” is sawasdee ka if you’re a woman, sawasdee krab if you’re a man. Unlike many languages, it is your gender that matters, not the gender of the person you’re talking to. Thank you is kob khun ka if you’re a woman, and kob khun krab if you’re a man. At first, you may feel a little awkward as you stumble over these long Thai greetings, but take a minute to follow the intonation of the first few people greeting you and within a couple of hours you’ll be singing it like a local. It really does make a difference in every interaction and is key to cultural immersion. It’s also just refreshingly nice to be nice.
You will notice that when greeting you, most locals will place their palms together in a prayer pose just under the chin. This is called a “wai” and a wai can mean “Hello,” “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” or “Goodbye.” You never use a wai for children or street vendors, even if they wai to you; a simple smile or nod in return is appropriate. (Don’t worry, you’re not being snobby, you’re being proper.) Appropriate situations to wai include in a restaurant or hotel and in more formal situations like business meetings or in a private home.
Plan a Thai Massage Around a Down Day
A Thai massage will unblock energy lines, clear toxins, and restore balance to your body. It’s a must on a visit to Bangkok. If possible, try to arrange one at the beginning of your trip (it’s so good after a long flight) and at the end (because you deserve it). Just not after a red curry or before a busy day. Thai massage is amazing, but not exactly relaxing. It hurts in a good way and the day after, your body will feel like it was pulled, prodded, worked, stretched, and maybe even a little beat up. The day after your massage should be a pool day or a gentle walk day, not a walk Icon mall or climb-the-steep-steps-of Wat-Arun day.
Before you get to Bangkok, download the Grab app on your phone so that you are all set to hail a cab when you land (it’s almost half the price of more formal car service options from the airport). Bangkok is not a walking city, so you will need to hail cabs regularly to get you from one neighborhood or attraction to another. Uber Thailand ceased operations in 2018 and merged resources with Grab, and the service in Bangkok is excellent. With Grab, you can hail a car or motorbike (a much faster way to get around if you’ve got the stomach for it), pay with your card or cash, and communicate directly with your driver if you are feeling lost or need reassurance that they are on the way.
Reach for the Skytrain
Using public transportation in an unfamiliar city can be intimidating and downright terrifying, but also tremendously satisfying. Bangkok’s Skytrain is an impressive above-ground rail system that efficiently connects you to the Chao Phraya River, Chatuchak Market, all the popular malls, and just about anywhere you need to go in the city. There are just two lines, Sukhumvit and Silom, and they intersect at Siam, so it’s really not that complicated. You just need to know which stop serves the attraction you are headed to. Carriages are delightfully air-conditioned and clean (but usually crowded) and in-car maps clearly indicate upcoming stops on the route. A one-day ticket for unlimited travel costs less than $4 and zipping past stationary traffic below is priceless.
Dinner for Breakfast
I’m a big believer in breakfast for dinner (mmmmm…pancakes) but was a harder sell on the whole dinner-for-breakfast situation that is Asian breakfast. As a sworn 2-eggs-a-day breakfaster, I can understand a reluctance to mess with a proven formula, especially when you are traveling and maybe a little afraid of upsetting your constitution. But you are in Southeast Asia and you need to get with the food-program here. Swap the cereal and eggs for dim sum, skewered meats, and spicy soups, and chances are you will agree that all of those billions of people in Asia are onto something. Soup for breakfast is awesome, people. Do it.
Bangkok’s Best Soup for Lunch
As for lunch and every other meal you have in Bangkok, you should hit the street. Bangkok’s street food scene is justifiably famous and you can garner recommendations from best-of lists and friends, follow your senses and eat what looks good, or use your common sense and stop anywhere there’s a line. One of my favorite meals in Bangkok, maybe even my very favorite, was a delicious crispy pork in a peppery broth with rolled noodles at Nai Ek (find it at 442 Soi Yaowarat 9, Samphanthawong, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon). I could wax poetic about the crispiness of the pork somehow defying its brothy bath, but I will keep it short and sweet and say that if there’s a line when you go, just wait. It’s worth it. Also, there is a better chance you won’t wait as long if you go at lunch. For dessert, you will find the traditional Thai dessert of mango sticky rice (made with glutinous rice, coconut milk, and fresh, succulent mango) at every turn in Bangkok and should eat it as often as you can. Enough said.
End on a Sweet Note
Your very last treat of the day should, no—MUST—be a Toasted Bun. It might sound underwhelming, but this piece of toasted, filled bread is a culinary delight. I say “last” treat of the day not to cut you off from your culinary explorations but to warn you that you may need a shower after this one. Yaowarat Toasted Buns in Bangkok’s Chinatown is easy to find—just look for a large pink sign and millions of people lining up (or look for the Government Savings Bank if you need less wishy-washy directions). Find your way to the front and fill out an order form (take note of your order number on the form) and then wait for your number to be called. Depending on the line, you could be waiting up to 40 minutes for your order, but that will be quickly forgotten as you scarf down the lightly toasted soft bun stuffed with your choice of filling: buttermilk, butter pineapple, butter marmalade, butter egg custard, butter sugar, and butter chocolate. You can order a variety box if you’d like to try them all, or just go for the classic buttermilk, which is like a creamier sweetened condensed milk filling that, with one bite, explodes in your face, running down your chin and leaving you shamelessly trying to lick it off your own neck.
Drink at Street Level
Bangkok’s rooftop bar scene is infamous and Insta-worthy and you should definitely hit Lebua’s Sky Bar and Banyan Tree’s Moon Bar (among others), but you should also be sure to check out Bangkok’s trendy bar scene down at street level, too. Head to Soi Nana on the fringes of Chinatown and just off the main thoroughfare of Rama 4 Road, and you will find a hub of specialist bars, trendy art galleries, and Thailand’s hipster resident and expat population. Be sure to visit Teens of Thailand, Bangkok’s best gin bar and known as one of the bars to put Soi Nana on the map; Tep Bar, offering moonshine drinks, traditional live music, and food; El Chiringuito, a cute tapas bar; and Oneday Wallflowers with its secret garden.
7-Eleven Is … Awesome?
Dismiss any preconceived notions about 7-Eleven and super-size sodas; the store is not just better here, it’s the place to go. With over 10,000 stores and growing (by 700 stores a year), 7-Eleven is by far the largest convenience store chain in Thailand, said to serve over 11 million customers a day. Bangkok has over 3,000 stores and if you plan to spend any time here, you should plan to spend time in 7-Eleven. Locals and expats pay their bills in 7-Eleven, buy mobile phone credit, stock up on beauty and home supplies, and a choose from a wide variety of snack options. You can also get decent hot food (both western snack options like toasted cheese sandwiches as well as local specialties) as well as prepackaged foods to cook at your Airbnb, and unique and interesting desserts. You’ll pop in for tall cans of local beers, like Singha, Chang, and Leo, and almost anything you forgot to pack. By late 2019, 7-Eleven will extend its services into the banking sector, too. (With the popularity of online banking, Thai banks are scaling back brick-and-mortar operations, so 7-Eleven’s extensive network will offer a way for Thai banks to both serve existing customers and to reach underserved communities. For visitors, it means that where there’s a 7-Eleven, there’s a way to withdraw and deposit money.)
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Get the Cold Hard Facts at the Reclining Buddha
Hopefully, you already know that you cannot visit Bangkok without visiting Wat Pho , an easy ten-minute walk from the Grand Palace (another essential visit). If not, then you should not visit Bangkok and the Grand Palace without also visiting Wat Pho, known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. It’s the oldest temple in Bangkok and the largest Buddha in Thailand, and it’s truly magnificent and impressive. Once you have explored the rest of the complex, head to the back of the gift shop, where you will find two elderly fortune tellers who speak excellent English. Once you have provided your date of birth, your reader will consult a heavy book and your star chart and then proceed to read your face and palms. My reading lasted over twenty minutes and gave me so much to think about. I’ll spare you the juicy details but will just say that he saw right through me and gave me a little bit of a talking to about inner balance and stress. Even if you’re skeptical, you will likely walk away with something to think about. I might be reevaluating my life, that’s all. My favorite takeaway was that I will be back and that I need to spend more time in Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Yeah, I already knew that but it was nice to have the old-guy-by-the-big-Buddha say it was my destiny.