Thailand’s capital is a frequent stop along the backpacker route to the Full Moon parties of Ko Pha Ngan or tropical paradise of Maya Bay, but it’s worthy of greater exploration. Many choose to stay awhile: like its fun-loving people, this highly strung city has personality and charm. Bangkok may be hot and sticky, with chaotic traffic and pollution, but it also has the best street food – all spicy, salty, sour and sweet – in the world, a river plied by traditional long-tailed fishing boats and tranquil Buddhist temples and royal palaces. Discover old Siam in the winding lanes and alleys of Chinatown, explore the nightlife and buzz of Khao San Road, cool off in the air-conditioned megamalls and haggle at hidden markets. Here’s how to prepare for a trip to Bangkok.
Qantas flies directly to Bangkok from Sydney. The flight takes about 10 hours.
Most Australian passport holders don’t require a visa for stays of less than 30 days.
Landing at Bangkok International Suvarnabhumi Airport
Bangkok’s airport is located 30 kilometres east of the CBD. Metred taxis are available on the first floor. The Airport Rail Link can transport visitors to the city within half an hour stopping at six stations along with way. The train runs from 6am to midnight daily and tickets are available from the Airport Rail Link station at the airport for a flat-rate of 150 baht. There are also public buses that depart for the city centre from the airport’s Public Transport Centre.
Some laws in Thailand can seem unusual and it’s entirely possible that a visitor could breach one unknowingly. Read up on the local laws to stay on the right side of them.
- Drugs are strictly forbidden in Thailand and no matter how many wild Full Moon parties you’ve heard about, the penalty for illegal drug possession can be death. Possession of even tiny amounts of “soft drugs” could result in a lengthy jail term.
- Overstaying your visa will result in a ban from entering the country for a period of time that depends upon the length of time overstayed.
- It’s illegal to deface images of the Thai royal, which includes accidentally damaging money – even dropping it and stepping on it could result in arrest. In addition, following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016, the government announced a one-year period of mourning. Smart Traveller [http://smartraveller.gov.au/Countries/asia/south-east/Pages/thailand.aspx] recommends refraining from behaviour that could be considered “festive, disrespectful or disorderly”. A black ribbon can be worn as a mark of respect.
- There are restrictions on bringing some medications into Thailand, even if they have been prescribed to you by an Australian doctor. Some over-the-counter drugs in Australia, such as those containing codeine, are restricted in Thailand. Check with your closest Thai Embassy or Consulate to confirm if any prescription or non-prescription drugs are legal in Thailand.
- The legal drinking age is 20.
- The law requires tourist to carry their passports on them at all times.
- Littering is illegal and can land you a 2000 baht on-the-spot fine.
- It is illegal to bribe officials in Thailand… which is not to say that it doesn’t happen.
Scams and safety
- There have been a number of terrorist attacks in Thai locations frequented by tourists, including the 2015 blast that killed 20 people at the Erawan shrine in central Bangkok. Smart Traveller recommends travellers exercise a high degree of caution.
- Taxi drivers have been known to claim to passengers that their hotels have closed in order to take them to an establishment owned by their mates and score a commission.
- Drink and food-spiking can occur in tourist hotspots such as Khao San Road.
- Pickpocketing and bag-snatching does happen. Keep a good hold on your possessions and carry bags bandolier-style across your body.
- Smart Traveller advises that some Australian travellers have reported harassment and threats of violence from jet-ski operators on tourist beaches. The tourist find themselves confronted by gangs claiming they have damaged the jet ski and demanding money in compensation. Check jet skis for damage before hiring and call the Tourist Police on 1155 if an issue cannot be resolved.
- Beware of using unsecured wi-fi hotspots to do internet banking.
The language barrier
Most of the Thai population speaks little English, but anyone involved in the tourism industry generally has a basic grasp on it. Road signs and those at trains stations and monuments are written in both Thai and English.
Make sure your basic vaccinations are up to date. Travel Doctor recommends Australian visitors consider vaccinations for hepatitis A and B, typhoid and rabies. The risk of contracting malaria in Bangkok is low but does occur, so make sure you pack some insect repellent. Finally, Smart Traveller reports that up to 40 per cent of visitors experience traveller’s diarrhoea during their first week in Thailand, so pack some Gastrolyte and Imodium.
Bangkok’s notoriously heavy traffic is mitigated by a top-notch public transport system. The Sky Train (BTS) and Bangkok Metro (MRT) railway systems connect the CBD with the main shopping and entertainment districts while river taxis and buses take care of the rest. Go to Transit Bangkok to plan routes, find timetables and view fare information. Taxis are metred; a fare should always be negotiated before you hop into a tuk tuk.
- At the time of writing, the Australian dollar is buying 25.9 Thai baht (THB). Check a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date exchange rates.
- Make sure your bank won’t hit you with extra fees when you use your credit card in Bangkok. Your Australian bank and Thai ATMs will both charge you for withdrawing money from your debit card, too, so it might be worth organising a travel card (most banks have one) with low or no fees to use while you’re away. In any case, inform your bank of your travel plans, lest overseas purchases are misconstrued as fraud and your card is cancelled.
- Credit and debit cards are accepted in hotels and many shops and restaurants in tourist areas, but you’ll need cash for smaller stores, local markets and other incidentals.
- Tipping is not mandatory in Bangkok but in a place where the standard wage is low it will be much appreciated. Always give the tip directly to the porter or waitperson who served you, otherwise it may not find its way into their hand. One area in which tipping is expected is massage and spa treatments – therapists are generally low-paid, so tip 50 baht for a half-hour massage, or more for excellent service.
- Bargaining is de rigeur: at street markets in Bangkok, shoppers are expected to engage in a little haggling, but always remain polite.
- Remove your shoes before entering the home of a Thai person.
- In Thailand, meals are eaten with a spoon and fork, not chopsticks. Hold the spoon in your right hand and the fork in your left.
- Never say anything negative about the Thai royal family.
- When visiting temples, keep the shoulders and knees covered and remove your shoes before entering. When sitting, don’t point the soles of your feet at the Buddha. Don’t photograph monks without first asking permission.
- Do not touch the head of a Buddha statue; it’s considered disrespectful.
- Don’t touch people’s heads either. The head is considered sacred – even ruffling a child’s hair is not the done thing in Thailand.
- The left hand is considered less clean than the right: it’s thought the left should be used for hygiene purposes and the right for eating. Avoid handing anything, especially food, to someone using your left hand.
- The graceful Thai wai greeting should be returned if offered. Press your palms and fingers together – the higher you hold your hands, the greater the respect you are giving – and slightly nod your head and bend your shoulders. Don’t worry about getting it wrong – the locals will understand.
- Keep public displays of affection to a minimum – Thai people don’t engage in kissing or hugging in public.
Bangkok is hot and steamy all year round, with temperatures peaking in April with an average temperature of 31 degrees. The wettest month is September, with an average of 220 millimetres of rain.
When to go
It’s a great destination any time of year, but the best time to visit is from November to March when the humidity isn’t as intense.
Despite the heat and humidity, most Thais dress modestly in shoulder and chest-covering garments. Men should avoid singlets, but it’s perfectly acceptable for men to wear T-shirts and shorts; for women, skirts, shorts or capri pants and loose-fitting tops will be handy. Don’t bother with anything tight-fitting – you’ll be too hot. And stick with flat shoes and sandals for both daytime and evening outings.
The water in Bangkok is not safe to drink. Visitors should drink boiled, purified or bottled water, and make sure to order drinks without ice cubes.
Smart Traveller recommends all visitors take out comprehensive travel insurance to cover overseas medical costs, including medical evacuation.
Where to stay
Bangkok is a big, frenetic city with a population of 11 million people so it pays to research its various neighbourhoods. Khao San Road is the place to be for visitors who want to see Bangkok’s seedy side – think bars, backpacker joints and busy street markets. The riverside region offers boutique hotels and views across the Chao Praya river; it’s a great base for ferry-based tours and it’s where many of Bangkok’s high-end restaurants are. The Sukhumvit area is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood in central Bangkok, great for shopping, restaurants and spa treatments and a place many Western ex-pats call home. Silom offers green areas, authentic restaurants and it’s well connected with public transport. Chinatown is an excellent spot to soak up the atmosphere of old Bangkok. Its narrow alleys are crowded with shops, markets and street-side food stalls.
See also: Luxury Hotels to Book in Bangkok
Phone calls and mobile data
Before you land, disable data roaming on your phone and don’t answer incoming calls if you want to keep your monthly bill in check. If you need to keep in touch with people at home, invest in a prepaid travel SIM card or buy a prepaid Thai SIM card. Remember, this will only work if your phone is not locked to your Australian carrier.
The emergency numbers in Thailand are 191 for general emergencies and 1155 for the Tourist Police.
To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number (include the area code but minus the zero). So to call a Sydney landline, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code (+61) and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.
Thailand has a similar electricity frequency and the same voltage as Australia so all gadgets and chargers should work without a problem. You will need a universal adapter because there are various sockets in use.
Free wi-fi is available in many cafés and restaurants throughout the city.
Handy apps and websites
The Australian Embassy in Bangkok for emergencies.
Tourism Thailand for information on events and festivals.
TimeOut Bangkok for up-to-date information about happenings in the city.
Suvarnabhumi Airport for flight information.
Travel Doctor for pre-travel health advice.
Transit Bangkok for public transport schedules and information.
Airport Rail Link for train timetables to and from Suvarnabhumi Airport.
GrabTaxi to book taxis.
Smart Traveller for up-to-date safety information.
WeFi to find free wi-fi in Bangkok.
XE for up-to-date exchange rates.