Tell a tourist in Thailand that your favourite city is Bangkok and you will get some weird looks.
“Bangkok is so busy and noisy and crowded!”
You’re god damned right it is.
I’m a city person. I grew up in a big city, I currently live in another big city. I like to travel to big cities. It’s not to say that I don’t also like to go and explore the countryside or see some small towns, but where I feel at home is in the middle of concrete, stone and steel.
Bangkok is an easy city to write off. It’s easy to go to Khao San Road or Sukhumvit, do the tourist Temple Run, buy some little bits of plastic, drink some snake blood, get shit faced, ripped off by a tuk-tuk and then call it a day. Most people I met stayed in Bangkok for 3 days, if that, and then spent the rest of their time travelling around Thailand. And you know what? That’s totally okay. If that’s your jam, go for it. There is SO much to see in Thailand and I know for a fact that I missed out on a lot of it by staying in Bangkok for so long. Part of that time was intentional, part of it was not. But I am so happy that I got the chance to get to know Bangkok a bit.
One thing I definitely enjoyed was just walking around. I’m a big walker, and to be perfectly honest Bangkok is not much of a walking city. But I managed to get around mostly on the BTS Skytrain (their gorgeous, spotless above ground metro) or walking along side streets. I managed to not take a SINGLE tuk-tuk while in Bangkok, and only two cabs (to the train station and back). One thing to note is that there are some neighbourhoods of Bangkok that are safer than others. I definitely looked up which to avoid and made sure my walks were during the day. But I never once felt unsafe, and in fact most people were incredibly friendly and curious to know what I was doing walking around.
The other mode of transportation that I used was by boat. There are multiple boats that you can take in and around the city – whether it’s the smaller boats that go through the narrow khlongs that crisscross the city, the loud long-tailed boats that you can hire, or the larger (and more comfortable) Chao Phraya Tourist Express getting around by water is quite enjoyable and often convenient.
The public bus-boats (not the real name, but the closest description) that go through the khlongs seem quite simple to use but… I never did. Oops. I heard a couple of horror stories from other tourists who described completely missing their stops, being totally crowded, and – in one memorable instance – tripping and falling on their faces as they tried to step onto the slippery docks. This isn’t why I didn’t use it, of course, but rather because the opportunity never arose. But walking alongside the khlongs themselves is a beautiful and interesting walk that lets you look – literally – into the homes of Thai people.
For the most part the boat system I used was the Chao Phraya Tourist Boat. This was the most expensive (being 40 baht/ 1.14 €) but the most comfortable and interesting boat to take. It stops at all the major tourist attractions that dot the Chao Phraya river, beginning at Saphan Taksim BTS station. This was wonderful as you could sightsee and be certain not to miss your stop, but also because they allow you, if you’re so inclined, to sit right at the very prow of the boat. It’s beautiful as the sun shines down and you get a bit of wind to cut the oppressive Thai heat. To me, it was worth the 20-30 extra baht, but to each their own.
The other option, of course, is the Chao Phraya Express boat. We took that once and it was… not very express? I think we grabbed the wrong boat as there are four different options with different flags that you have to look out for. These are significantly cheaper and do the job well, though be prepared to feel like a sardine! You can learn more about these boats, and the Chao Phraya Tourist Boat, here!
Seeing Bangkok by boat is wonderful, though I wish I could have explored the khlongs and side canals from a smaller boat. Even the bit that I did see was gorgeous. The mix between glimmering glass and steel skyscrapers, colonial relics and collapsing houses set on stilts is mesmerizing. I watched them slip by in a haze the first day, but was able to appreciate them more on further trips.
As for tuk-tuks and Taxis, the only advice I can give is to set your price upfront for tuk-tuks, and make sure the meter is on for Taxis. Either way, that doesn’t guarantee that they wont take you to the gem factory or warehouse where they get a cut of the profit and strongly encourage you to buy something before they’ll take you where you want to go. It’s a slim risk, but something to consider!
But, as always, I suggest walking (and BTS and boats).