Arriving in Bangkok for the first time, the jet lag, humidity, and traffic might knock you over. But you're in luck, because this is one place where luxury and comfort can be easily acquired on almost any budget. You may have flown for 23 hours if you've arrived from the US, but modern hotels, posh spas, and high-end food can be yours for a fraction of the price you've ever paid elsewhere. New restaurants, hotels, and stores are springing up all the time, but here are my best tips to make you feel like a local while navigating the old, the new, and everything in between.
Arrival: Most long-haul international flights will arrive either in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning at Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Your first lesson in Thai is pronouncing it: soo-wana-poom. Easy.
After passport control there are plenty of ATMs and currency exchange booths open 24 hours a day, as well as counters to buy SIM cards for unlocked phones. The taxi stand is easy to find and fares will range from THB 350-500 (including a THB 50 airport surcharge) into the city depending on traffic. If you're feeling adventurous you can go to the Arrivals level on the top floor and hail a cab there, which will save you the THB 50 surcharge.
You can also take the Airport Express Train to Phaya Thai station for THB 150 from 6am to midnight. It's easy, clean, and efficient.
Taxi Tip: From the airport, make sure to tell the driver 3 important things. First, to use the meter (they'll insist on a much higher flat fare). Second to make sure they take the "tollway" (highway). And third, tell them that you'll pay the tolls (usually about THB 75). It's essential to have some small notes of 20 and 50 baht for the tolls, and as tips in your hotel. Find a bank or exchange booth at the airport that can break large bills before you head into town. If you have any problem with a driver, there's an English speaking tourist hotline number posted in every cab, and every driver knows that if you call that number, heads are gonna roll.
Orientation: Most big hotels are located along Sukhumvit, one of the city's main transport thoroughfares. This is an area of high end hotels and expat residences. New restaurants and bars are sprouting here making the food scene a destination for travelers and locals alike. Siam Square is shopping mall heaven where you're never at a loss for air conditioning, food courts the size of football fields, movie theaters, clean bathrooms, and public transportation. Silom is the financial district of Bangkok, yet unlike Wall Street, you'll also find your share of late night hedonism we know everyone has heard about. Rattanakosin is the "Old Bangkok" where palaces and pagodas illustrate a colorful history. Khao San Road is the backpacker mecca of loud bars and cheap hotels, made popular in movies, with the reality being something you may only want to check off the bucket list once. And last among the most visited area for travelers is the Chao Phraya River, with Wat Arun dominating the skyline and luxury hotels affording beautiful views from top dollar suites. If you're interested in a river cruise, you may want to hop on a local ferry which sees the same sights as the tourist boats for one tenth the cost.
Hotel Tip: Any hotel booking website will give you a plethora of options depending on which neighborhood you want to base yourself in. Those closest to a BTS or MRT stop are most convenient to save yourself sweaty walks down the "soi's" (sidestreets) after a day of sightseeing. As Bangkok is a city of spectacular views, a high rise hotel is one of the best ways to enjoy them.
Transport: The BTS (skytrain) and MRT (subway) are the best ways to get around town. Clean, fast, and inexpensive, you can purchase single ride tickets at the machines or a stored-value Rabbit Card at the kiosk.
Taxis are easy to spot (each one is a bright color) and cheap to ride. Beware of heavy traffic, as it's not uncommon to spend an hour in a taxi to go a few blocks during bad congestion. One smart tip is to take the BTS or MRT to the stop closest to your destination, and then take a taxi the rest of the way. It can save a lot of time and money on the meter.
Transport Tip: Use a metered taxi or BTS/MRT at night as opposed to hiring a tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuk scams are increasingly common and you may be taken for quite a "ride".
Local Etiquette: First things first. From the moment you arrive, you're sure to notice the customary greeting of palms pressed together in a prayer-like bow. Always return the gesture, and the higher your hands are pressed towards your face, the more respect you'll show. Wherever you're headed in a taxi or by foot, have your hotel write the name in Thai in case you need to ask for directions. Most locals won't know what you're talking about if you ask where to find the Royal Palace or massage parlor, but they'll always be willing to help.
Culture Tip: The Thais are very sweet gentle people, and making lots of noise, yelling, or showing aggression doesn't fly. And despite mouth-watering street food stalls on every block, eating on the BTS or MRT is forbidden. Other than that, enjoy the warmth of the locals, they'll be one of the best parts of your trip.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Jonathan Pozniak