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Ooaj Travel Guide, tourism, hotel reservation, residence, plane, cheap pension for you holidays in bangkok
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Bangkok (Thai: ???????? Krung Thep) is the capital of Thailand and by far its largest city with an estimated population of over 10 million.
Bangkok is a large, sprawling city. Administratively, it's split up into 50 khet (districts), but these are rarely used in practice and the visitor will find the conceptual division below more useful.
Just under 14 degrees North of the Equator, Bangkok is a tropical metropolis that is also one of the most traveller-friendly cities in Asia. A furious assault on the senses, the first things that impress many visitors are the heat, the congestion both on streets and sidewalks, the pollution inherent to rapid development, the squalor that accompanies a gaping chasm between rich and poor, and the irrepressible smiles of the Thais. Despite the sensationalized international news reports and first impressions, the city is surprisingly safe, more organized than it initially appears, and full of hidden gems waiting to be discovered. The high relative humidity and warm temperature favor the growth of tropical plants — you'll find exotic orchids and delicious fruit everywhere. Thai cuisine is singular, justifiably famous, varied, and affordable. Bangkok, for many, represents the quintessential Asian capital. Saffron-robed monks, garish neon signs, graceful Thai architecture, spicy dishes, colourful markets, traffic jams, and the tropical climate come together in a happy coincidence. It is difficult to leave with lukewarm impressions of the city.
Bangkok (originally Bang Makok) was a small village on the banks of the Chao Phraya river, until a new capital was founded on the west bank (present-day Thonburi) after the fall of Ayutthaya. In 1782, King Rama I built a palace on the east bank (now Rattanakosin) and renamed the city as Krung Thep, as it is now known to Thais -- the City of Angels (and much more: the full name is listed as the world's longest place name by the Guinness Book of Records; an English rendering goes like this: "Krung thep mahanakhon amorn ratanakosin mahintharayutthaya mahadilok pop noparatratchathani burirom udomratchanivetmahasathan amornpiman avatarnsathit sakkathattiyavisnukarmprasit" -- "The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn"). The original village has long since ceased to exist, but for some reason foreigners never caught on to the change.
Addresses & Navigation
Addresses in Bangkok use the Thai addressing system, which may be a little confusing to the uninitiated. Large roads such as Silom or Sukhumvit are thanon (???), often abbreviated Th or glossed "Road/Avenue", while the side streets branching off from them are called soi (???). Sois are numbered, with even numbers on one side and odd ones on the other. Thus, an address like "25 Soi Sukhumvit 3" means the 25th building on the 3rd soi of Sukhumvit Road. While the soi numbers on each side will always advance upward, the numbers often do not advance evenly between sides - for example, Soi 55 could be across from soi 36. Many well-known sois have an additional name, which can be used instead of the number. Soi 3 is also known as "Soi Nana", so the address above might thus also be expressed as "25 Soi Nana". The extension /x is used for new streets created between existing streets, as seen in Sukhumvit's soi pattern 7, 7/1, 7/2, 9, 11. Note that some short alleys are called trok (????) instead of soi.
To make things a little more complex, some large sois like Soi Ekamai (Sukhumvit Soi 63) and Soi Ari (Phahonyothin Soi 9) have their own sois. In these cases an address like "Soi Ari 3" means "the 3rd soi off Soi Ari", and you may even spot addresses like "68/2 Soi Ekamai 4, 63 Sukhumvit Road", meaning "2nd house beside house 68, 4th soi off Ekamai, the 63rd soi of Sukhumvit". In many sois the housenumbers are not simply increasing, but may spread around.
To further bewilder the tourist who doesn't read Thai, the renderings of Thai street names in the Latin alphabet are not consistent. The road running towards the airport from the Victory Monument may be spelled Phahon Yothin or Pahon Yothin or Phahonyothin or Phaholyothin depending on which street sign or map you consult. It's all the same in Thai, of course -- only the romanisation varies.
And if that's not confusing enough, most of the larger streets tend to change names altogether every few kilometers. Sukhumvit is called Sukhumvit on one side of the tollway (roughly east), but it becomes Ploenchit just before you cross Thanon Witthayu (aka Wireless) going towards the river. Keep going just a few more streets and it becomes Thanon Rama I (usually said as just Rama I) after you pass Thanon Ratchadamri. But if you were to turn right onto Ratchadamri, in just a few blocks you'll find yourself on Thanon Ratchaprarop (past Petchaburi, aka New Phetburi, which is called Phitsanulok closer to the river). Got it?
But wait, there's logic to these name changes: most of them are neighborhoods. It wouldn't make sense to call the road Sukhumvit if it's no longer running through the Sukhumvit area, would it? Thus, Sukhumvit becomes Ploenchit where it runs though the Ploenchit area. It's when you're able to grasp the city in terms of its neighborhoods that it both becomes more navigable and more charming. Likewise, Pratunam and Chatuchak are much more than just markets; they're boroughs, each with its own distinct character.
Related to this last point, compass directions are not widely used by Thais to navigate in Bangkok. That's probably because they aren't very useful: the city's darwinistic layout, the changing street names, the winding river, and the lack of obvious landmarks all conspire to confuse your internal compass. Thus, asking for directions in terms of "is that west from here?" will probably earn you little more than a confused look from a local. You're better off to familiarize yourself with the neighborhoods and navigate to and from them. "How do I get to Thonglor?" will get you there faster than asking for directions to Sukhumvit Soi 55.
One exception: the Chao Phyra River is THE landmark in Bangkok, and many directional references can be made as "toward the river" or "away from the river". If you aren't TOO close, that is: since the river winds around the most popular tourist areas, river references tend to be most helpful when you're wandering farther afield than Banglamphoo or Sanam Luang or Rattana. And wander you should.
Don Muang Airport
Located 20 kilometers to the north of the center of Bangkok, Don Muang is Thailand's largest operational airport.
See Phahonyothin District for more details.
Located 30 kilometers (19 miles) to the east of Bangkok, Suvarnabhumi (http://www.suvarnabhumiairport.com/en/index.htm) is Don Muang's intended successor. Construction was originally scheduled for completion in September 2005; it's now set to open in June 2006.
Bangkok's three official long haul bus terminals are:
Eastern Bus Terminal
Also known as Ekamai, this relatively compact terminal is located right next to Ekamai BTS station on Sukhumvit (E7).
Northern Bus Terminal
Also known as Moh Chit (or Mor Chit or Morchit), this is the largest, busiest, and most modern terminal. The upper floor serves the north-east; the ground floor serves the north, as well as sharing some destinations with Ekamai (eg Chanthaburi, Pattaya, Rayong, Trat). It's a 30-baht moto hop (or lengthy hike across Chatuchak Park) from BTS Moh Chit/Metro Chatuchak stations (N8/18).
See Phahonyothin District for more details.
Southern Bus Terminal
Also known as Sai Tai Mai, this older and relatively chaotic sprawling terminal serves all points west and south from its somewhat inconvenient location on the "wrong" side of the river.
See Thonburi District for more details.
when arriving in Bangkok...
The four main stations in Bangkok are:
Hualamphong Train Station
Currently the main station and the terminus of the Bangkok Metro line. Located right in the middle of downtown, it's a huge and surprisingly nice station, and has a good tourist office (only listen to the people at the Info desk - anyone walking around offering to help you 'find' a hotel or taxi is just a tout).
The Advance Booking Office is located to the right of the platforms as you walk towards them, and is quite well organised. You can select your seat/berth from a plan of the train, and payments by cr card are accepted.
The taxi pick up and drop off point is to the left of the platforms as you walk towards them, and is generally chaotic at busy periods with scant regard for any que.
The left luggage facility is at the opposite end of the concourse, on the far right as you walk away from the platforms.
Bang Sue Train Station
If coming from the north or north-east, connecting to the Metro here can shave the last half-hour off your train trip. This is not a very good place to board trains though, as there is practically no information or signage in English, however this situation will doubtless improve as more and more long-distance departures are switched to here from Hualamphong.
See Phahonyothin District for more details.
Don Muang Train Station
Located directly opposite Don Muang (BKK) Airport and connected directly to the main airport terminal buildings by a short enclosed footbridge, this station offers a convenient way to get into Bangkok or to Ayutthaya, and many north-bound long haul services can also be boarded here.
See Phahonyothin District for more details.
Thonburi Train Station
Also known as Bangkok Noi, this station is located on the "wrong" side of the river in Thonburi District and is the starting point for services to Kanchanaburi (via Nakhon Pathom), River Kwai Bridge and Nam Tok.
There are two daily 3rd class trains: 1 (http://www.railway.co.th/timetable/N_S.html)
Note that the weekend-only 2nd class air-con Kanchanaburi/Nam Tok "tourist" trains depart from Hualamphong. 2 (http://www.railway.co.th/Eng/travel.html)
Bangkok has a lot to see so the sooner you brave the public transportation system, the better.
The Bangkok Skytrain (BTS, pronunced bee-tee-et in Thai) deserves a visit simply for the Disneyland space-ageness of it. Built in a desperate effort to ease Bangkok's insane traffic and pollution, the Skytrain covers most of downtown and is especially convenient for visiting the Siam Square area. There are two lines: the light green Sukhumvit line which travels along Sukhumvit road, and the dark green Silom line, which travels from the Silom area, interchanges with the Sukhumvit line at Siam Square (C) and terminates near the Chatuchak Weekend Market (N8).
There isn't, unfortunately, a station near Banglampu District (aka the Khao San Road area), but you can take a river ferry to Tha Sathorn for the Silom line terminus at Saphan Taksin (S6).
You must have 5 or 10 baht coins to purchase Skytrain tickets from the vending machines near the entrance, so hold on to them. Fares range from 10 to 45 baht depending upon how many zones you are travelling. Consult the map (in English) near each ticket machine. If you do not have coins, you may need to queue for change from the staff at the booth. If you are in town for several days, weigh your options and consider a rechargable stored-value card (200 baht), a "ride all you like" tourist pass or a multiple ride pass of 10 trips or more. They will certainly save you time, scrambling for coins, and maybe even money. Check for information with the English speaking staff.
The long-awaited Bangkok Metro finally opened in July 2004. The Blue Line connects the central Hualamphong railway station (1) to the northern Bang Sue station (18), with interchanges to the Skytrain at Silom/Sala Daeng (3/S2), Sukhumvit/Asok (7/E4) and Chatuchak/Mo Chit (15/N8). You can also transfer to north/northeast-bound SRT trains at the northern terminus Bang Sue.
Metro tickets are not interchangeable with Skytrain tickets. Rides cost from 12 to 36 baht depending on distance; a 300 baht stored value card is also available. For single ride fares, a round plastic token is used.
The metro system does have a few quirks in terms of locations — the subway stop for the Chatuchak Weekend Market is not Chatuchak Park, but one stop further at Kamphaeng Phet (16). The latter drops you right inside the market.
A ride on the Chao Phraya River should be high on any tourist's agenda. The cheapest and most popular option is the Chao Phraya Express Boat (http://www.chaophrayaboat.co.th/), basically an aquatic bus plying up and down the river. The basic service plies from Wat Rajsingkorn (S4) all the way to Nonthaburi (N30) for 6 to 10 baht depending on distance, stopping at most of Rattanakosin's major attractions including the Grand Palace, the Temple of Dawn, etc. In addition to the basic service, there are express services flagged with yellow or orange flags, which stop only at major piers and should be avoided unless you're sure where you're going. The new signposting of the piers is quite clear, with numbered piers and English route maps, and the Central station offers easy interchange to the BTS Saphan Taksin station.
In addition to the workaday express boat, there is also a self-proclaimed Tourist Boat which stops at a different subset of piers, offers commentary in English and charges twice the price. The boats are slightly more comfortable and not a bad option for a hop or two, but don't get bullied into buying the overpriced day pass.
Canal boats also serve some of Bangkok's many canals (khlong). They're cheap, immune to Bangkok's notorious traffic jams, and they're VERY untouristy, unfortunately they can also smell bad: it's mostly locals who use these water taxis to commute to work and school and shopping, you get to see the 'backside' of the neighborhoods, so to speak. They're also comparatively safe -- just watch your step when boarding and disembarking, be wary of the water as it can be quite polluted, do NOT let it get in your eyes ! One particularly useful line runs up and down Khlong Saen Saep, parallel to Petchaburi Rd, and provides the easiest access from the city center to the Golden Mount. There's a boarding pier across from the WTC under the bridge where Ratchadamri crosses the khlong near Petchburi.
Finally, for trips outside the set routes, you can hire a long-tail river taxi at any major pier. These are fairly expensive and will attempt to charge as much as 500 baht/hour, but with haggling may be suitable for small groups. To circumvent the mafia-like touts who attempt to get a (large) cut for every ride, agree for the price of the shortest possible ride (half an hour etc), then negotiate directly with the captain when on board.
Local buses, mostly operated by the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA), are cheapest but also the most challenging way of getting around, as there is a bewildering plethora of routes, usually marked only in Thai. If you can speak Thai you can call 184 Bus Route Hotline. Bus stops usually list only the bus numbers that stop there and nothing more. They are also subject to Bangkok's notorious traffic, often terribly crowded, and many are not air-conditioned. The hierarchy of Bangkok's buses from cheapest to best can be ranked as follows:
Buses stop only when needed, so wave them down (arm out, palm down) when you see one barreling your way. In all buses except the Microbus, pay the roaming collector after you board; on Microbuses, drop the money into a slot next to the driver as you board. In all buses, keep the ticket as there are occasional spot-checks, and press the signal buzzer (usually near the door) when you want to get off.
Two further pitfalls are that buses of the same number may run slightly different routes depending on the color, and there are also express services (mostly indicated by yellow signs) that skip some stops and may take the expressway (2 baht extra).
The best online resources for decrypting bus routes are the official BMTA homepage (http://www.bmta.co.th/engversion/eng_version.htm), which has up-to-date if slightly incomplete listings of bus routes in English but no maps, and the ThailandOnline (http://www.thailandonline.info/) bus route map (bus info only in Thai, the map itself is bilingual). As a printed reference, the Bus Routes & Map guide (50B) by Bangkok Guides is your best option at the moment.
Taxis are a quick and comfortable way to get around town, at least if the traffic is flowing your way. All taxis are now metered and air-conditioned: the hailing fee is 35 baht and most trips in Bangkok cost less than 100 baht. Trips from (not to) the airport do have a legal 50 baht surcharge that does not show up on the meter.
If the driver refuses to use the meter after a couple of attempts, simply exit the taxi. In some cases, late at night and especially near major tourist districts like Khao San, you will need to walk a block away to catch a meter cab. The effort can save you as much at 150 baht ($3.75). This is often also the case for taxis that park all day in front of your hotel. The only two reasons that they are there: 1) To take you places where they can get their commissions (Jewelry stores, massage parlors, etc) and 2) To overcharge you by not using the meter. Your best bet is to walk to the road and catch an unoccupied metered taxi in motion (easier than it sounds, as Bangkok traffic tends to crawl the majority of the time, and one car out of four is a taxi). Be sure to either know the correct pronunciation of your destination, or have it written in Thai; taxi drivers in Bangkok are notoriously bad at reading maps.
If you're pinching pennies or fussy about your means of transportation, you may wish to avoid the (very common) yellow-green taxis, which are owner-operated and of highly variable quality, that by great exception may have rigged meters. All other colors belong to large taxi companies, which usually enforce their standards better.
When traffic slows to a crawl and there are no mass-transit alternatives for your destination, by far the fastest way means of travel is a motorbike taxi (motosai). No, those guys in the pink smocks aren't biker gangs; they're motosai drivers. They typically wear colorful fluorescent yellow-orange vests and for passengers at street corners and near shopping malls. Prices are negotiable; negotiate before you ride.
Some bikes do not travel long distances, but simply shuttle up and down long sois not serviced by other transport for a fixed 5-20 baht fare. These are marginally less dangerous, especially if you happen to travel with the flow on a one-way street.
The law requires that both driver and passenger must wear a helmet. It is the driver's responsibility to provide you with one, so if you are stopped by police, any fine is also the driver's responsibility. When riding, keep a firm grasp on the seat handle...and do watch out for your legs.
Finally, what would Bangkok be without the much-loathed and much-loved tuk-tuks? You'll know them when you hear them, and you'll hate them when you smell them -- these three-wheeled contraptions blaze around Bangkok leaving a black cloud of smog in their wake. For anything more than a 5-10 minute jaunt or just the experience, they really are not worth the price — and, if you let them get away with it, the price will usually be 4 or 5 times what it should be anyway (which, for Thais, is around 30% less than the equivalent metered taxi fare). On the other hand, you can sometimes ride for free if you agree to visit touristy clothing or jewelry shops (which give the tuk-tuk driver gas coupons and commissions for bringing customers). The shops' salesmen are pushy, but you are free to leave after five to ten minutes of browsing. Visitors should beware though, sometimes one stop can turn in to three, and your Tuk Tuk driver may not be interested in taking you where you need to go once he has his gas coupons.
In case you actually want to get somewhere, and you're an all-male party, be careful with the tuk-tuk drivers, they will usually just ignore your destination and start driving you to some bordello ("beautiful girls"). Insist continually and forcefully on going only to your destination.
There's also a less-heralded, less-colourful and less-touristy version of the tuk-tuk that usually serves the back sois in residential neighborhoods. They usually have four wheels instead of three and resemble a tiny truck / ute / lorry, and they run on petrol instead of LP. The maids and locals tend to use them to return home from market with loads of groceries, or for quick trips if they're available. Negotiate before you get in, but don't expect to go much beyond the edge of that particular neighborhood.
Most of Bangkok's sights are concentrated in the "Old City" on Rattanakosin Island. Out of Bangkok's many temples, the following usually make the top 3:
Bangkok's many markets are an experience in themselves, see Buy for some suggestions.
Bangkok is an extremely popular place for all sorts of pampering. The options available range from massages and spa treatments to haircuts and manicures and even cosmetic surgery, all at prices far lower than in the West.
Thai cuisine is a favorite of many, and many cooking schools provide half-day classes that provide a nice break from the day-to-day sightseeing monotony.
Bangkok not only has plenty of Thai restaurants, but a wide-selection of world-class international cuisine too. Prices are generally high by Thai standards, but cheap by international standards; a good meal is unlikely to cost more than 300 baht ($7.50), although there are a few restaurants -- primarily in hotels -- where you can easily spend 10 times this.
Bangkok's nightlife is notorious, although recent social order campaigns have put a bit of a clamp on things: in particularly, nearly all restaurants, bars and clubs are now forced to close before 1 AM, a few are allowed to stay open till 2 AM. You must carry your passport for ID checks and police occasionally raid bars, subjecting all customers to drug tests.
After 1 AM closing it is still possible to eat and drink at the sidewalk bars that open up. This is the Bangkok version of sidewalk dining with food and drink served all night. Available in many areas but especially in lower Sukhumvit.
Bangkok's main party district is Silom, home not only to perhaps the world's most famous go-go bar strip Patpong, but plenty of more (and less) legitimate establishments catering to all tastes. For a drink with a view, the open-air rooftop bar/restaurants of Vertigo and Sirocco are particularly impressive. Similar bars to the ones at Patpong can be found in the lower Sukhumvit area, at Nana Entertainment Plaza (soi 4) and Soi Cowboy (soi 23). A large number of more trendy and more expensive bars and nightclubs can be found in the higher sois of Sukhumvit as well (eg soi 33). Hippie hangout Khao San Road is also slowly gentrifying and there are even some Thais venturing into what were once mere backpacker bars.
bangkokrecorder.com (http://www.bangkokrecorder.com) claims to be the biggest nightlife and lifestyle magazine for Bangkok.
Thais are generally accepting of homosexuality and Bangkok has a very active gay nightlife scene, concentrated in Silom Sois 2 & 4 and a short strip of gay go-gos bars off nearby Th Surawong. Most of these bars, however, are aimed at gay men and the lesbian scene is much more low-key.
In a league of their own are Bangkok's numerous transsexuals (kathoey), both pre- and post-operative, popularly known as ladyboys. Some work in the famed transvestite cabarets and there are some dedicated kathoey bars as well, but most do their best to blend in and many have the art of deception down pat. Telltale signs to look out for include tall height, large hands and an Adam's apple.
Note that some Thai regulars in the gay nightlife scene skirt the fine line between partying and prostitution, and the Western visitor, being considered richer, is expected to pay any food and drink expenses and perhaps provide some "taxi money" in the morning.
Sex tourism is big in Bangkok, and in the beer bars and go-go bars oriented to the farang (foreigner) it's fairly safe to assume that all Thais are on the take. It is, however, perfectly OK to go check out the shows without actually partaking, and there are more and more curious couples and even the occasional tour group attending. The main areas are Patpong market, and the area around Nana Entertainment Plaza and the northern side of Sukhumvit Road to Asoke and Soi Cowboy. See the Silom article for basic guidelines on how to behave.
The age of consent is 15 11 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_consent#Asia) but a higher minimum age of 18 applies in the case of prostitutes 12 (http://www.ageofconsent.com/thailand.htm). The penalties for sex with minors are harsh.
All adult Thais must carry an identity card, which will state that they were born in 2530 or earlier if they were over the age of 18 on January 1st 2006 (in the Thai calendar, AD 2006 is the year 2549). Many hotels retain the ID cards of prostitutes for the duration of their visit.
Some prostitutes are "freelancers", but most are employed by bars or similar businesses. Petty theft and other problems are more common with "freelancers".
HIV/AIDS awareness is better than it used to be but infection statistics among entertainment industry workers remain high; "freelancers" are the highest risk group.
Technically, some aspects of prostitution are illegal (eg soliciting, pimping), however enforcement is liberal and brothels are commonplace. It's not illegal to pay for sex or to pay a "barfine".
Bangkok is full of shopping malls and street markets of all types, especially in the Sukhumvit area; see the section for details. Prices can be ludicrously cheap by Western standards, especially for locally produced items such as clothes, although bargaining is expected and required. Dump a teenager in MBK with a few thousand baht and they'll stay occupied for the rest of the week!
A major attraction on weekends is the gigantic Chatuchak Weekend Market, in northern Bangkok but easily accessible by Skytrain and Metro. Slightly more manageable in size and open nightly is the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, covered in the Silom section.
Bangkok has a vast range of accommodation, including some of the best hotels in the world — and some of the worst dives too. Broadly speaking, Khao San Road is backpacker city (note that if you are traveling with a Thai citizen, they will be unable to stay anywhere on Khao San Road); the riverside by Rattanakosin is home to The Oriental and The Peninsula, often ranked among the best in the world (and priced to match); and Sukhumvit Road has hotels for almost all budgets from five-star to one-star.
When choosing your digs, pay careful attention to Skytrain and Metro access — a well-placed station will make your stay in Bangkok much more comfortable.
Given its size and poverty level Bangkok is surprisingly safe, with violent crimes like mugging and robbery highly unusual. However, Bangkok does have more than its fair share of touting and scams. Some common scam and guidelines for avoiding them:
Also note that cameras are not welcome in go-go bars. Attempting to take pictures of the girls, even with your camera phone, is likely to result in your camera being taken and/or you getting beat up for good measure.
Carrying your own padlock is a good idea, as most budget accommodations provide a lockable latch for you to put your own padlock on. Some budget places do insist that you use theirs, as they'll have a spare key and won't need to kick the door down when you lose yours. Regardless of whose padlock you use, losing a key can result in expensive fines ? up to 1,000 baht. If you do lock your room with your own padlock, carry your spare key someplace safe, like your moneybelt. Once inside, do consider some type of cable or a PacSafe (http://www.pac-safe.com/) to lock your bags to something too big to fit through the door or window.