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Bangkok for beginners: What to know before trekking to this bucket-list destination

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Ingo Joseph / Pexels
Ingo Joseph / Pexels

Thailand is far, far away. It's a journey just getting there. With no direct or nonstop flights from anywhere in the United States to this Southeast Asian kingdom, it will take American travelers at least two flights and about 20—36 hours before they even step foot on Thai soil.

Once you arrive, however, all the planning, saving, anticipating, and trekking will have been all worth it.

If you've never been to Thailand, start in Bangkok, its capital. From there, you can easily — and rather affordably — explore other regions, such as the lush and world-famous islands down south.

Getting there and entry requirements
From Seattle, plan on taking two flights — one trans-Pacific (8—12 hours) and a shorter connecting flight (4—6 hours) — to Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK); this is Bangkok's main international airport, but it does also have a domestic/intra-Asia one named Don Meuang (DMK). A valid US passport with at least six months before its expiration is all you'll need to enter Thailand. Currently, no visas or vaccines are needed for short-term American visitors.

Thailand is 14 hours ahead of PST, a whole half day, so I suggest landing at evening or night, allowing you to retrieve your checked bags, take a shuttle to your hotel, and go straight to bed for a full overnight rest. Try to avoid early-morning arrivals (e.g., 5:00 a.m.), because they set you back two days: the day of travel and the remainder of the day you land — because your hotel room will probably not be ready until mid-afternoon, and by the time you settle into your accommodations, the exhaustion and jet lag will make you succumb to sleep until the next morning.

Look for red-eye flights departing Seattle around midnight, like EVA Air, putting you in Taipei about 5:30 a.m. with a connecting flight into Bangkok in early afternoon, or choose a later connecting flight out of Taiwan that arrives in mid- to late afternoon — perfect timing to check into your hotel room and giving you the evening to step out for dinner before retiring for the night.

Shuttles to your hotel can be prebooked through Booking.com or Viator, or by downloading a car-share app to your phone. Typical time from the airport to central Bangkok is around 30—45 minutes during slow hours (evening, night, early morning) and 90—120 minutes during daytime traffic.

I actually don't prebook a ride to my hotel; instead I go directly from baggage claim to the arrival hall and reserve a shuttle in person. AOT Limousine provides a quick transport, whisking me away just a few minutes after I approach the counter; I paid $31 USD for a private SUV transfer on my last trip in November. The arrival hall is packed with dozens of car-share employees holding up signs with passengers' names, which is chaotic and confusing, so save time by going directly to AOT Limousine and booking a ride in person.

If you don't mind lugging your bags aboard the train and through the stations, you can save money by taking the BTS (Bangkok Train System) to your hotel and back to Suvarnabumi. Personally, I prefer a shuttle because I'm an overpacker and bring back lots of goodies — and the heat is brutal.

What I appreciate about Suvarnabhumi Airport is its simplicity and efficiency; immediately behind customs and immigration is baggage claim, making it convenient to exit the terminal without going through a maze.

The Thai currency is called baht, and there are exchange booths or counters at baggage claim, but I exchange money through my local bank (with no fees) before I go. Try to use cash, as most credit card companies charge international transaction fees.

Hotels for every budget and type of traveler
There are thousands — yes, thousands — of hotels scattered across the metropolis of Bangkok, from small, independently operated resorts to brand-name skyscrapers and everything in between. It's just a matter of finding accommodations that fit your budget and preference.

I use Booking.com, because its filtering system allows me to find hotels that won't take payment until I'm there; I don't pay a penny until I check in at the reception desk. I can also filter the site to find properties that include breakfast and have a swimming pool, two must-haves on my amenities list.

I prefer staying along the Chao Phraya River, which snakes its way through the city, lined with vibrant neighborhoods on either side. I adore the New Siam Riverside, because it's very reasonably priced, about $600—700 USD for a nine-night stay (my usual vacation length), with daily breakfast included and easy access to a boat pier on the back side (riverside) of the hotel that conveniently transports you to other areas of town.

The New Siam Riverside is a no-frills hotel, nothing fancy, though it's one of the least expensive on the river, and the rooms are exceptionally clean, with modern amenities like complimentary Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs and mini refrigerators, plus an intimate outdoor pool adjacent to its on-site patio café, where breakfast is served. Another reason I love this hotel is the location, a stone's throw from Khaosan Road, where the absolute cheapest massages and restaurants are, mainly because the district caters to backpackers and student travelers, so it boasts a cluster of budget accommodations.

Another wallet-friendly hotel, also along the river, is the Ibis Riverside, with similar rates as the New Siam, but it has only one room type (standard). Ibis is bigger and visually more attractive, with better access to public transportation (BTS Kkytrain, boat pier), so it comes down to whether you prefer more or fewer fellow guests at your hotel.

On board a river boat in Bangkok, part of the city's public transportation — Albert Rodriguez  

Affordable public transportation and tuk-tuks
You only need to book a shuttle service between the airport and hotel; rely on the city's efficient and inexpensive public transportation for the remainder of your adventure.

Public transportation includes metro buses, the Skytrain, the subway, and river boats. You can purchase an all-day pass for $4.50 USD at any station information booth or from an automated kiosk; the pass pays for itself if you're exploring various parts of Bangkok on the same day.

BTS maps are posted at each station, and it's a cinch getting from point A to B; your hotel and BTS information booths can provide you with a map, too.

Tuk-tuks are relatively inexpensive as well, and you can usually negotiate for a lower rate; try to have a digital snapshot or printed copy of your destination to show the driver — and agree on a price before you depart.

A tuk-tuk — Albert Rodriguez  

LGBTQ culture is not just tolerated, it's celebrated
I've visited Bangkok and other parts of Thailand multiple times and have never had an issue traveling there as a Gay person, whether with a group or by myself. It's a nonissue. I haven't experienced a glare, or stares from locals or fellow visitors; in fact, I've met people during my travels in Thailand on the airplane, hotels, boats and restaurants — married couples and solo travelers from other countries —with whom I've enjoyed long, wonderful conversations.

The city's LGBTQ nightlife is primarily found in the Silom district, specifically the alleys called Soi 2 and Soi 4. If you're not staying remotely close to these areas, ask your driver to be dropped anywhere on Soi 2, which is littered with energetic watering holes and bars with go-go boys. Soi 4, meanwhile, is more subtle, with pub-style joints and Gay bars that are less crowded. Drinks are cheap on either street; the atmosphere is lively and almost always attitude-free.

If exploring the ladyboy scene, primarily swarmed by straight male looky-loos, head to the world-famous Nana Plaza. Open to everybody, it offers a dozen dingy bars stacked on three levels, with ladyboys galore. If you don't want to step into the clubs but seek to experience the ambiance, park yourself in the beer garden, which places you in the center of the action, literally.

And, if your curiosity gets the best of you, tuk-tuk operators are notorious for taking you directly to the red-light districts or naughty remote alleyways, where everything from ping-pong shows to other debauchery awaits.

Politically, Thailand has inched closer to Gay marriage legalization, following a bill passed in the lower house that would recognize same-sex unions; the Senate and royal stamp of approval are the next steps.

Tom Kha soup, steamed rice, Coke and banana shake for about $8.00 USD, including tax (tipping not customary)  

A land of amazing food
Do you love Thai food? Do you pay $20—25 at a Thai restaurant, or when you order takeout? Well, imagine this: thousands of authentic Thai food eateries, from upscale sit-down restaurants to modest indoor and outdoor cafés to streetside vendors, spread out across all of Bangkok and priced fairly (or downright cheap). Trust me, great food that'll barely make a dent in your pocketbook is everywhere.

For example, at one of my favorite spots, the Macaroni Club in the Khaosan district, a meal of homemade tom yum soup, steamed rice, Coke, and banana milkshake costs $8.00 USD, which included a 7% value added tax (VAT); tipping isn't customary,

The Coffee Club is a chain of modern, cool cafés that feature local favorites, like curries and noodle dishes, but also a variety of Western fare, from burgers to pasta and all-day breakfasts. Try the grilled chicken breast with truffle gravy, served with potatoes and veggies, for about $8.50 USD (easily a $25 meal back here in the States). (For more recommendations, ask the locals.)

With the exception of street food, menus with prices are printed or posted in English by the entrance. There is no star system in Thailand; everything is made spicy. But if you prefer one or two stars, simply tell the server "no spicy" and they'll lower the heat to mild.

Speaking of street food, it's safe and authentic, and in many cases it's made to order, plus it's a steal. At the perimeter of the Grand Palace, I saw signs for freshly cooked pad thai for just $1.30 USD.

Fast food is at every turn in the larger city neighborhoods, with American fare readily available, including McDonald's, Subway, Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, and KFC (where the chicken is much better quality and has a kick). Don't knock it, but on a very humid day, a cheap ice cream cone from McD's is a savior.

For snacks and refreshments to keep in your hotel room or in your mini fridge, I suggest a stop at any of the abundant 7-11 stores, which have built-in coffee stations called "All Café"; the iced honey black tea (made with real tea bags) is addictive.

I also make use of the Tops grocery store, where I stock up on fresh fruit, yogurt, milk, juice, and other essentials. Your hotel can point you to the nearest location, where you can also grab prepared food, frozen selections (if you have an in-room microwave), bottled water, and over-the-counter medications.

Malls, movies, and (floating) markets
You can find anything — even items you never knew you needed — at Bangkok's contemporary malls or outdoor flea markets. And the good news is it's all very affordable.


Iconsiam is a favorite among upscale residents and visitors, boasting multiple levels of designer-brand shops and trendy eateries. This massive mall sits on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, with a bevy of restaurants on the ground floor and in the basement, but the best views are on the upper tiers of the mall, with café terraces and a posh Starbucks facing the river.

Siam Paragon and centralwOrld are two monstrous shopping destinations within blocks of each other; you can enter either directly from the BTS platform (Siam station) via aboveground walkways without having to step foot on the street. Unlike Iconsiam, which caters to high-end customers, these two malls are chock-full of stores that you might recognize, such as Uniqlo, H&M, and Apple, to name a few. Siam Paragon includes the Sea Life Bangkok Ocean World Aquarium and an opera hall as well. Each of these shopping centers has ample food courts; Siam Paragon's is an entire lower level filled end to end with a multitude of choices, from chic bistros to a cluster of fast-food stalls.

Terminal 21 is a series of local malls designed almost identically, with several floors of moderately priced stores, spas, and coffee shops, like Starbucks and Café Amazon, but the best reason to visit is the food court on the top floor. You'll need a food card that you can load money onto, then you can order from about a dozen-plus stalls. You'll eat like a king or queen for about $5 USD.

I know it sounds odd, but as a cinephile — and to escape the brutal heat — I always sneak into a movie when I'm in Bangkok, and you'll find cinemas on the highest floor of each shopping mall I just mentioned. If money is no object, treat yourself to VIP service with a first-class ticket, which includes entry to an exclusive lounge to enjoy refreshments prior to the screening (amenities vary at each cinema). Theaters are immaculate in Bangkok, and movies are available in English, Thai, and Japanese. Don't forget to stand for the national anthem when the lights dim.

Floating markets are popular in Bangkok, though they're located on the outskirts or beyond the city proper, and they require effort and planning to get to. An alternative is markets in town, the largest and most accessible of which is Chatuchak, open on weekends. This enormous bazaar has hundreds of vendors selling new and used goods, including clothing, souvenirs, dishware, tote bags, luggage, and edible gifts (candy, cookies, spices, curry packets, etc.). You'll also come across massage stations and an array of food booths selling Thai dishes and other fare, plus ice cream and cold beverages, not to mention tiny nooks selling freshly brewed coffee.

Lastly, something unique in Bangkok is Asiatique, a riverside evening market with souvenirs at low prices and handcrafted keepsakes by local artisans, plus eateries representing every Asian cuisine. This landmark features a Ferris wheel, a carousel, and spectacular waterside views.

Wat Paknam  

Temples, rooftop bars, and massages
Temples, or wat in Thai, are some of the most visited sites in Thailand. Within the grounds of the Grand Palace, perhaps the most important landmark in the kingdom and formerly the king's residence, rests Wat Phra Kaew, or "Temple of the Emerald Buddha," viewed by thousands of tourists daily.

All guests must cover their legs, and women are required to also cover their arms (this goes for all temples). Remember to pack a pair of light trousers and/or shawl; however, you can rent appropriate clothing on-site, or buy it cheaply at the markets.

A personal favorite, because it is located riverside, is Wat Arun; I beg you to take a cheap sunset riverboat ride (about 60 cents one-way) and see this temple illuminated. You don't have to get off; just stay on the boat and admire the scenery and have your camera ready for amazing photos. Wat Pho, or "Temple of the Reclining Buddha," is another must-see for your itinerary.

Lumpini Park is the city's version of Central Park, with a man-made lake, walking and biking trails, benches, and beautiful vistas throughout. Keep an eye out for the harmless lizards roaming the grounds. This is a public park, so admission is free,

Rooftop bars are a thing in Bangkok, as you might have witnessed in Hollywood movies like The Hangover III. Many of them allow visitors even if they're not guests of the hotel. I really like Sky Bar, Lebua at State Tower's al fresco lounge perched 63 stories aboveground. Vertigo, at the Banyan Tree Bangkok, is a 61-floor ascent from street level, with equally stunning views, and Octave Rooftop Bar at the Marriott Hotel Sukhumvit is 45 floors high.

If you prefer something closer to the ground, head to Three-Sixty at the Millennium Hilton Bangkok, an enclosed riverside lounge on the 32nd floor, or drop by 342 Bar at Baan Wanglang, which is just a five-story elevator ride from the lobby.

Massage parlors are as common as coffee houses in Seattle. With one-hour massages going for about $7.00—10 USD on average, you can indulge in a foot or body treatment every day during your vacation; parlors have service menus with rates outside their doors. If your budget allows and you don't mind a short commute, I highly recommend zipping to Perception Massage, a five-minute walk from the Chong Nonsi station. Here, the therapists are blind and exceptionally skilled. I've made three trips to Perception and have left feeling revitalized each time, and I feel proud to contribute to their community. Although tips are not customary in Thailand, here's where I buck the trend and slip extra baht into my therapist's hands.

Similarly, the aforementioned Café Amazon hires baristas who are deaf. They prefer to read lips, so order your lattes, mochas, or other coffee and tea drinks slowly. The service is always kind and appreciative.

Finally, for a splurge, treat yourself to a lunch or dinner cruise up and down the Chao Phraya River. Meal service is buffet-style, with live entertainment. Your hotel can book a cruise for you, which typically depart at 5:00—5:30 p.m. and last for about 3—4 hours.