Sputtering tuk-tuks, the chaotic bustle of the night markets, finger-licking street food, Buddhist temples of yore…and a heavy stream of tourists. Bangkok is the hub of Southeast Asia, maybe even all of Asia, attracting over 18 million international visitors every year.
Bangkok is a colorful city, imparted with a wide range of sights and smells, redolent of ancient times yet infused with modern culture. There’s a lot to love about Bangkok.
And, frankly, there’s a lot that’s hard to love.
It’s one of those cities—you’ve got a crush on it or you don’t. I’ve had my qualms with Bangkok, as most people probably do at some point, and despite spending a couple months there, I’ve struggled to connect with it. And though I know I’m not the only one, there are plenty of people who adore Bangkok. It’s a city you have to experience for yourself.
In a way, traveling to Bangkok is a rite of passage. If you’re going to Asia, you have to go to Bangkok. But, in its own artful way, despite Thailand being an extremely affordable destination, Bangkok has a way of sneaking away with your money, dignity, or both. She’s cheeky like that.
While you can learn about the best things to do in Bangkok from the guidebooks, there are some things you just won’t know until you visit. These are six classic mistakes to avoid on your first-time visit to Bangkok.
1. Spending All Your Time on Khao San Road
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a traveler who doesn’t know about Khao San Road. Since the 1970s, it’s been the heart of backpacking culture in Asia. It’s stuffed with cheap bars, cheap hotels, cheap tourist shops, cheap massage parlors, and cheap travelers drinking cheap beer.
But, look, you have to go to Khao San Road. It’s part of what makes Bangkok, Bangkok. That being said, it’s a bit of a grotty neighborhood—a small box of flashing lights and noise without any charm. It’s like a backpacker ghetto. Everyone should see it, and there’s no doubt that Khao San Road is one of the best places in the world to meet—and get drunk with—other travelers.
But Khao San Road is a tiny part of Bangkok and it’s been built to accommodate tourists. This is not Bangkok. There is nothing local or authentic here, including the Polo t-shirts and $3 Havaianas. Even the street food doesn’t taste as good as it does a couple neighborhoods over (note: avoid KSR pad thai at all costs).
If you spend all your time on Khao San Road, you’ll probably run into someone from your hometown. But if you wanted to party with someone from back home, why fly halfway across the world?
2. The Bangkok Tuk-Tuk Sightseeing Scam
There’s something charming about riding around the city in a tuk-tuk. If you’re not from Asia or haven’t spent a lot of time in Asia, you might find that you’re a little too eager to jump in a tuk-tuk and experience it for yourself. That’s why this scam works so well.
Full disclosure: I fell for this despite already knowing about it. And that’s because the local police were in on it, too.
When you arrive at a popular temple or attraction, you might get stopped by a local offering you some (seemingly) well-meaning advice. He’ll tell you that the attraction is closed or that it will be better later in the day. Or, they might tell you that the place you want to visit is too expensive and touristy, but fear not, because he’ll show you the local gems of the city!
Just get in his tuk-tuk he’ll take you to some free places that are off the tourist trail, like hidden temples and monuments! He might even show you a map of the route, and he promises it will be worth it!
After showing you some underwhelming sights, the driver will bring you to a tailor or jewelry shop. “They give me gas tokens in exchange for bringing them tourists,” he says. “Just five minutes! Please!”
You’re left feeling guilty, so instead of arguing, you oblige. Some drivers become annoyingly persistent in getting you to make a purchase.
When the scam route is complete, or when you’re finally fed up and you’ve walked away in a huff, you’ll realize that you’ve wasted half a day, paid way too much, and the place you wanted to go in the first place was not only open, it was just around the corner from where you got the tuk-tuk!
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3. Taking a “Black Taxi” From the Airport
When you arrive in Bangkok, you’re going to be exhausted. Public transport into the city seems like the obvious, budget-friendly option, but it’s likely a solid 90-minute journey from door-to-door. Taxis from the airport to the city are well-regulated, and it should only cost you about $10 and take 1/3 of the time.
But there is a caveat. Some taxi drivers will approach you directly in the airport. “Taxi, taxi!” they’ll say. They will be pushy, and they may even make you a reasonable offer for a ride into the city. No matter what, DO NOT GET IN THE CAR. They are hawkers—scam artists.
At the international airport, Suvarnabhumi, there is an official taxi stand on level 1. The price to the city is a fixed-rate, but if the driver takes the highway, you may have to pay an additional $5-10 for tolls.
Bangkok’s traffic can be horrendous so the other option is to take the Suvarnabhumi Airport Rail Link, which can be a quicker route into the city, depending on the time of day. Just figure out the closest MRT station to your hotel, travel there by train, then take a taxi from outside the station–the fare should only be $1 – 2 once you’re in the city.
From Don Mueang Airport (remember, there are two airports in Bangkok) there’s a cheap and regular bus service that sidesteps a lot of the traffic. Again, once you’re in Central Bangkok the taxi or tuk-tuk ride will only be a couple of dollars.
4. Spending Half Your Month’s Travel Budget in One Night of Partying
I spent $400 in one night partying in Bangkok. It’s the classic mistake.
Hotels in Bangkok are affordable and private rooms can be found for as little as $10—a four-star hotel will only cost you about $100 per night. In NYC, that same room would cost you $400. Hostels are even cheaper and many places offer dorm beds for less than 150 baht ($4.30). Food is incredibly cheap in Bangkok and a tasty meal from a street vendor won’t be more than 50 baht ($1.50).
But one beer at the club? That’s 150 baht. Have a few of those, plus factor in the door charge, some late night munchies, maybe a few other dollars spent unscrupulously, and a taxi ride home? A big night out can easily cost the same as in any other major city around the world.
It’s easy to travel in Thailand on a budget of $1,000 a month or less. A budget of $30 per day is very achievable but maybe not after a couple big nights out in Bangkok!
I’m not saying don’t have a beer or five (who would say such a thing!?) but there are better things to do in Bangkok (and Thailand, for that matter) for the same price.
5. Booking Your Entire Trip With a Bangkok Travel Agent
Bangkok makes travel easy in Southeast Asia. There are literally thousands of travel agents, selling everything from flight tickets to guided tours to full moon party packages.
The agents sell tours and accommodation all across Southeast Asia. They’ll plan three months of your trip if you let them. It’s how they get paid.
But this is a rookie mistake (and again, full disclosure, I’m not innocent here). The problem is that they’ll not only charge you a premium, but you’ll have almost zero room to maneuver when you want to change your plans. And you will want to change your plans.
What’s more, many of these agents sell subpar tours that have the highest profit margin. And frankly, there’s no need to book in advance when you’re in Southeast Asia. Booking your whole trip is overpriced, unnecessary and inflexible.
6. Getting High…and Ending Up on Locked Up Abroad
Thailand has a seedy underbelly. But remember—Thailand has been under military rule since 2014.
Many guys on the streets of Bangkok will offer you weed or other drugs if you look like a young, “down” traveler. Many of them work with local police, so as soon as it’s in your pocket you’re stopped and searched. The police give the drugs back to the dealer and you pay a huge fine (which, in reality, is a bribe) to stay out of prison.
If you want to smoke, I’m not going to tell you not to. Just save it for a remote Thai island where there’s nobody for miles!
If you’ve been to Bangkok, is there a classic mistake you wish you hadn’t made? Tell us in the comments below!
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I’m still surprised to read this… taxis from the Airport are NOT fixed rate. They are, like any other taxis in the city, supposed to (if honest, that’s the point) put the meter on. So you pay according to the distance you’re going, plus airport fee and, like mentioned indeed, paying tolls fee separately if applicable.
Just insist with putting meter otherwise simply change taxi. To give an idea, fare should not exceed 400 bahts to get to the city center, which is less than 15 $ !
Hey Romain, If you line up at the official taxi stand, indeed the rates are fixed. If you choose to take a taxi that is not in the line, you might get an honest driver or you might not.
Fact is, when you say “fixed”, I hear more like a notion of fixed price in a way that some taxi typically greet you stating, “ok going there will be 800 bahts”, while most people will think “that’s still cheap” and go for it, like I said, they have a meter, so I would rather say the fare is settled on a per kilometer basis, more than “fixed”.
I’m perfectly aware of the queue system (which now has significantly improved), but rarely take taxi from Suvarnabhumi since I prefer the train (I don’t really often get a chance to go/come back from this airport, since I travel mostly in Asia on a budget, I use more Don Muang Airport 😉
Thanks so much Jeremy really appreciate your help, have decided on Drean Hotel Sukhumvit area. Do you have pages like this re Phuket and Singapore?
I don’t, but the Dream hotel is a lot of fun! It’s a lively area–enjoy!
Hope this question is ok on this post, we are two mid 60s ( more like 50 I like to think) going to BKK for first time. Would like to no best central type location for easy travel, sightseeing, shopping and tours. We will definintly have a look at Kaho San Road. Thanks Rhonda
Hi Rhonda! Just beware that Khao San Road is typically for a very young, backpacker demographic. I’d recommend doing some Google research on the best neighborhoods in Bangkok—there are a lot to choose from! Happy travels 🙂
I visited BKK in Sept 2017 and my two pieces of advice are; always ask a taxi or Tuk Tuk if they are metered or discuss the fare before getting in. Second, book some tours in advance (we tried Viatour) and were very happy with the price and quality
This post may be a year old, but I was in Bangkok in September (2017). You’re so correct when you say you could blow $400 partying in Bangkok; we went to the SkyBar (as the common tourist does) and I unknowingly ordered a $51 scotch!! And it was right across the street from the 7/11 where you could buy a $1.50 vodka…
If you’re going to Khao San from the airport I would definitely say take the BTS to Praya Thai and get a taxi or tuktuk from there. You’ll beat loads of traffic that way 🙂
Absolutely everything you say is true and WE experienced ALL of the scams! Tuk tuks are very uncomfortable with no shocks and you can’t see out of them. Taxi drivers are scam artists too. They’ll drive you around and around to get more $ when your hotel was across the street! Bangkok is a dirty city loaded with litter everywhere including floating down the river! Thai country people are lovely but it’s survival of the fittest in the big cities. Culture regarding sex is different and simply a way for them to make $. Many men go there JUST for this aspect of Thailand and it could also be because no one would give them a second glance in their own country!
My son and family moved to Singapore some 4 years ago, making it a gateway, really, for my visiting SE Asia. After a while at my son’s, I booked a flight to Bangkok and a hostel in the Khao San area. As a lone woman of the swinging 60s era (I’m referring to my age) I thought I was pretty daring to go on my own. Luckily I met a woman from Jersey on the plane, meeting her travelling daughter and boyfriend at the airport. They were seasoned travellers and we queued at a makeshift desk where a man called out destinations and we shared a taxi to Khao San. I spent the week in 2 different hostels,maybe £5.00 a night for a double bed room. I was too nervous to hire tuck tusks and walked around Bangkok, – markets, amazing temples and the home of Jim….? Who helped along Thailand’s silk industry in the 50s before disappearing in the jungle. I had 2 mini bus trips to the Kwai bridge and elsewhere – both reasonably priced and exciting. I spent some hours – the only English woman in the carriage – on the Kwai train and shared food and conversations with so many nationalities. Back at Khao San I was even asked to mind an internet cafe while the owner we’d his dog! No hiccups, no scams – was I lucky?
The first time we were in Bangkok, we never really got accustomed to it & felt like we were out of our element. When we had left however, we felt that we missed out on trying to get confidence to get around and explore. The 2nd time, we made it a point of getting the transport system sorted, moving around etc. Once we did that, we started enjoying Bangkok. You need to force yourself out of your comfort zone.
Perfect timing for this article Jeremy as I will be heading to BKK in a week and it will be my 3rd trip there 🙂 Clearly, I am one of the people who LOVES it! I am lucky to have not made any of your mentioned mistakes and now being my 3rd trip, I would hope I wouldn’t succumb to any of them either, lol
I still have not been to Khao San Road and it was not part of my itinerary this time either but after reading this and now going into my 3rd visit, I kind of feel like I have to!
I have however visited the Grand Palace (without falling prey to the dodgy tuk tuk tour) and I will visit again on this trip as I just love wandering around the complex, especially early before the crowds hit, then heading to Wat Pho for a massage and finding some good thai food which I eat overlooking Wat Arun across the river, it’s how I spend my first day adjusting to SE Asia life 🙂
The only decision I have left to make is the old train or taxi from the airport dilemma but arriving late on Sunday afternoon I don’t think the traffic will be too bad…no, the traffic is always bad
Haha, that’s true! Traffic is always bad. I don’t think you can ever go wrong taking a taxi from the airport—just make sure you take an official one from the taxi stand outside! Have fun 🙂
Jeremy. Nice to see you’ve toned down your anti-Bangkok sentiment from a previous article you wrote (3 years ago?). No doubt you will never love Bangkok, however, you have given it a good go having spent 2 months in the ‘big mango’ and fallen for a couple of the ubiquitous ‘scams’ for yourself. So I say well done for trying! =D
You’re right in many ways, people have a love or hate relationship with Bangkok. But perhaps this is not suprising since we all travel for different reasons, seek different pleasures and have different goals for our journeys. I’ve visited Bangkok many times in the past and have to say I loved it. I find it an exciting, vibrant city, very easy to get around and there’s a wealth of opportunities to experience gourmet Thai street food, the like of which I have not found elsewhere in Asia. Not on this level anyway! I also love to shop here. If you like shopping, particularly fashion and crafts (upcoming and original not those fake brand knock offs!) then a visit to a few of the markets (Pratunam is great) and outlet shopping centers (MBK is one I always visit) will satisfy. But I guess that’s just for me and those who like food and shopping.
It’s true there’s lots of scams here. You’ll also find them in others cities where swarms of young tourists go. I fell for the tuk tuk (Rickshaw) scam in HCMC (Saigon) but wasn’t afraid to throw what I thought was fair in the seat and walk away. He actually wanted to charge me 1 Million dong for a 2 hour ride!
There’s another that I nearly fell for that you don’t mention. Timeshare / Holiday clubs. You’ll be approached in the street and given a scratchcard. You’ll always win a prize. You’ll be escorted to an office to collect your prize but first you have to suffer a grueling 2 hour hard sales pitch in which you’ll be prized out of a lot of money for 3 weeks a year in some of the finest accommodations I have ever been presented all over the world! Don’t fall for it and you may walk away with a free T-Shirt and all your money intact. If you’re lucky and strong-willed!
I haven’t visited Bangkok since 2013. These days I tend to use Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong as hubs when I travel from Europe. Remember there ARE options in Asia where you don’t have to visit Bangkok but even if you do, it doesn’t have to be for long. 3 nights maximum before heading north or south.
I hope your 2 months weren’t a complete waste of time. Were there any things / places you found in Bangkok that you loved? I’d be really interested to hear about them as I hope to visit Bangkok again in 2017.
I’m glad you’re paying attention 😉 I’ve definitely toned down my anti-Bangkok sentiment, that’s true, but I’m not sure I’d say that I love it any more than I did. I’ve just gotten used to Bangkok being what Bangkok is.
The problem I had with it, initially, was not the scams, but the superficiality that I felt in the city. It didn’t feel authentically Thai to me, but then again, maybe it’s not fair of me to expect that from any major city around the world.
That being said, Hong Kong and Beijing are two of my favorite cities in the world, and I feel they are much more culturally authentic than Bangkok is. I spent ten months living and traveling in China before going to Bangkok for the first time, and the disparity between the two countries really threw me off. I still believe that, if you’re in search of a genuine cultural experience, places like China are the real deal. Bangkok, however, feels like a city that’s compromised itself. Are there any places that stood out to me that I’d kill to return to? I’ll have to think about that one.
But you’re right, there is a lot more to do in Bangkok that I initially gave it credit for. The food is outstanding. The shopping is unparalleled. The markets are vibrant and bustling. And the next time I go, I’ll be sure to steer clear of anybody trying to sell me a timeshare!
Ha, this is why I never answer people that talk to me on the street. It’s the same thing in New York, with people offering “advice,” “discount tours,” and “free comedy tickets.” If anyone tries to talk to me in public in any major city, I usually ignore it and just keep walking. But that’s also for my safety, I feel like.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that attitude gets us very far, yet it’s something that’s bred into people, especially Westerners. If you don’t talk to strangers, you don’t open yourself up to new experiences, and you lead a life that’s essentially closed off from the rest of the world. You have to use your street smarts, of course, but there’s no harm in talking to the tuk-tuk driver or the guy who’s offering you free comedy tickets. You might have to stand your ground and decline the offer, but you might also walk away with a smile.
I do always talk to my drivers, but what I meant is that I don’t talk to people that are trying to sell me on things in popular tourist areas. Even just asking for simple directions can get people asking for money. I do talk to people a lot when I travel, way more than most of my American friends, but just not on the street. Part of this is a safety issue, because I want to appear confident and like I know where I’m going, because in moments when I have had rude comments shouted at me and even been assaulted in some cities I have visited, which makes me very cautious about stopping on the street ever when I’m traveling alone.
Great article Jeremy, even helping seasoned travelers out with your good advice.
In all the travels, we learn something!
Jeremy, this is such a great list! Guilty of one or two, but we guess that’s what happens when you are a newbie! haha
As for the scams, so far, so good…but that must be the Portuguese blood (we are very stingy and will not agree on anything BEFORE agreeing 10 times LOL).
The trick is agree on the price and destination, if the driver fails, no chance given, just walk away.
BTW is great to see you back on track! Safe travels from us.
Ha! Americans, on the other hand, might be a little bit too lenient in that regard 😉
Thanks for the well-wishes, Telma!
I hate big cities, so would if I ever get out to SEA, I’d probably give Bangkok a miss. But, a lot of people like it so a few good pointers are always welcome.
I imagine, that like European places I go, the outskirts of Bangkok are okay and you’d probably meet some good folk, have better food (if the locals don’t eat it – then it wouldn’t be available) and prices.
Quite right, Ted. A friend of mine steers clear of the city and usually heads for the hills, just a few hours outside of the city in a small village where he knows a couple people.
I love Bangkok so much. I think a lot of the things that put people off it are actually things that made me fall in love with the city! I could visit there over and over and never get bored.
These mistakes are all legit though! I listened to so many backpackers that told me all about the tuk tuk scam and I admit that I spent a little too much time on Khao San on my first trip to the city. I wish I had read this article before I had gone that first time! Thanks for sharing 🙂
I know what you mean, Kassie. I have the same kind of relationship with China—the things that people dislike about the country are the things that made me fall in love with it!
Jeremy. We are proud to say that as “rookie” backpackers & our 2nd year to Thailand, that we have just returned after a 6 week trip through Thailand & Cambodia without falling into these traps. It seems with age comes patience, as well as savvy and generally sussing things out way more than younger backpackers do. We have seen it. Our last trip was around $60 for the two of us & we generally stayed in fairly decent, 3 star hotel accommodation.
I have written about the very subject of scamming and avoiding this. Here is a link:
Enjoy your travels
That’s great! Even experienced backpackers can fall into these traps, though. I was reasonably well-traveled when I got to Bangkok but still fell victim 🙁
$60/day is a great budget for two people, though! I generally give myself about the same—$30 per day.
Very useful tips!! Actually, I made one or two mistakes like u while being in Bangkok so now it just makes me laugh haha but regarding travel agencies, u r completely right!! Moreover, guys should be careful whether they are making out with beautiful Thai ladies or LADYBOYS 😉
That’s a big one! Luckily I don’t a story like that, but some of my friends do… 😮