This is day 14 – 16 of our 2017 Vietnam/Cambodia holiday. It is my second visit to this city and Pension Fund’s 5th. The reason for our short stopover is to re-do one day I messed up during our previous visit – but more about this later. So instead of sharing what we were up to for the 3 days we spent here, let me rather share our collective wisdom on how to survive Bangkok.
When to visit
- We always try to balance weather vs crowds. Thailand is busy around the year. The period between mid-November and early December is just after the monsoon, it is cooling down a bit and it is still too early for the Christmas crowds to arrive. If you are going to spend the most of your time in shopping malls, then visit whenever an airline has a special!
- The city caters for the complete spectrum. We are too fussy (and potentially too old) to stay in any backpacker or hostel style accommodation and as such do not have an opinion on any of these. If this is your thing, you are on your own. In terms of hotel choices, choose one that will serve the majority of your activities. If you are here to do sightseeing and visit places of interest, then any hotel would be good as most would include transportation. However, if you are here for a shop-athon (it is like a marathon, but includes air conditioning and loads of breaks) then pick a hotel close to your main shopping interest or even within walking distance. Commanding a tuk-tuk or metered taxi can become an annoying chore.If this is your first time in Bangkok, it is highly recommended that you visit the stretch from MBK Center to Central Embassy (vaguely an L-shape and can be done on foot … the bits outside in the heat is quite short). If you are more adventurous or a returning visitor, check out this website for a neat list of shopping opportunities. For the brave there is even the Chatuchak Weekend Market.
What to pack
- You can safely leave your heavy jackets and thermal tops at home. It is year round hot and humid in Bangkok. Think summer clothes, but this is not an opportunity to release your inner slut. Thailand is a Buddhist country and a little bit of respect goes a long way. Take your comfortable worn in walking shoes along, you will spend a lot of time on your feet. Regardless whether this is your look or not, consider investing in a pair of cargo shorts – those extra pockets (especially if zipped) comes in handy. Take a backpack along. It can double as your carry-on luggage and you can stock it with water, sweets (to boost your energy) and wet wipes on the other side.See also the planning and preparing post for additional tips and things to remember.
Fast Track your arrival
- Suvaranbhumi Airport (or ‘BKK’ for short) gets crowded very fast. They processed 60.8M passengers in 2017. The last thing you really need after a long flight is to queue with the rest of the world at Immigration, before you can start your holiday. Consider using a fast track service to whisk you through the formalities and away from the maddening crowds. You can attach this service to any other service offering as well, like combining it to your hotel’s pick-up service. A friendly face waits for you as you enter the terminal building, guides you through VIP Immigration and Customs (with no queues!), walks you straight to the correct baggage carousel, waits for your luggage and briskly walk you to your waiting vehicle (in our case). My head was still spinning when I buckled up, as we were processed and out of the building in 20 minutes flat.
- Lock you passport away in your hotel room safe. There is no need whatsoever to carry this with you! It is a good habit to have a set of certified copies of all your important travel documents/reservations and photocopies of the front/back of your cards – keep this in the safe as well. (Obviously when you fly, this is part of your carry-on luggage) Keep your wallet and your cellphone in your front pockets. Crowded spaces, like a night market, is a potential pickpocket high risk area.
Currency and daily allowance
- With modern technology, the need to purchase foreign currency in advance, is no longer needed. We travel exclusively with credit cards (and the odd debit card, as backup). Once landed, we find the closest ATM and draw local currency on the spot. (If you are concerned about exchange rates and bank charges at this point, you should seriously question whether you can afford an overseas holiday. LOL)Once in the city, purchase something. Any thing. A cold drink? It is merely to transact and to start the learning curve of the currency. How it works and what the denominations look and feel like.It is a good idea to have a daily budget – split between food/drink/transport and shopping. Soon you will have a good idea what is reasonable to allow daily for food/transport. Bearing in mind that alcohol will always be a profitable money spinner for the seller.It was for daily allowance reasons we had to come back. Last time I spent my daily budget by 10:00 one morning. The haul was to such an extent we had to return back to the hotel to drop it off first. As I was too rigid to borrow from the next day, I was forced to “window shop” for the remainder of that day and oh boy, did we hit the most wonderful shops with the most interesting things I was never going to be able to purchase. I regretted my rookie mistake ever since and wanted to return to redo the stretch of shopping malls and prove to myself I can learn from my mistakes. Such a weak excuse, but hey, it worked. Also, I like this city so much I can return yearly, if that ever becomes an option.
Finding your way back
- Take a business card from your hotel’s reception/concierge desk. Make sure it has the address in Thai. This way, you can show the card to your tuk-tuk/taxi driver to avoid any communication barriers.
Tuk-Tuk vs Metered Taxis
- OK let’s face it. They are cute and colorful and looks like a lot of fun. Use them once or twice to experience the sights and sounds of the city. They provide good on-the-fly photo opportunities or timelapse videos.Metered taxis have air conditioning and is actually cheaper, as the driver merely switches on the meter and have no means to inflate the price. The city is littered with these brightly coloured vehicles and waving one down is super easy. Keep a mental record of what a typical trip costs you, as taxi drivers at night seem reluctant to switch the meter on. In cases like this, you know more or less what would be a fair negotiated price. For example: if an average trip for you is 45Bht, at night this might jump to 60Bht and still be fair. If the driver insists on 100Bht, be prepared to climb out. This strategy has resulted in many drivers accepting the 60Bht offer as opposed to loosing the trip.Most shopping malls have a taxi rank in close proximity.Some taxis advertise on their windows what services they offer. This driver seems not to mind to much if you have a headache.
- You need to have sufficient cash on you for transportation and shopping at markets, but manage your risk by leaving some of it in your hotel room safe. Larger shops will be able to do card transactions, but the terminal is usually centrally located. Get in the habit to walk along and keep a line of sight on your card. We have never been skimmed in Bangkok, but it is always better to be safe than sorry.Shop assistants pass the time by fiddling with their hair and make-up, or eat. They are generally friendly and eager to please, but become serious when payment occurs. Department stores are the worst. We have never been able to confirm this, but it seems that the shop assistants are incentivized for each transaction, hence the administration process is long-winded. Stamps and stickers are traded and each one produce a book which needs to be signed off by someone. All this manual flurry takes place over and next to a point-of-sale terminal. I can only surmise that the staff do not trust the computer. Thus, if you shop in a department store, have some patience on standby. Six people were involved, when I wanted to pay for my shopping at Zen Department Store.
- Department/convenient stores have fixed prices, but everybody else are master entrepreneurs. Do not purchase the first thing you see at the price advertised. Shop around a bit, then sharpen your math and start haggling. The more items you purchase the bigger your negotiation power. Some people enjoy this aspect of a Bangkok holiday. We dabble with it, but refuse that it spoils our holiday. Just be mindful to the daily rush hour: 07:30-09:00 and 17:00-18:30. Stay off the roads by sleeping in and enjoying the latest breakfast your hotel offer. Most shops only open after 09:00 (or even later) anyhow. The upside, they stay open late.
- If your accommodation comes with complimentary food – capitalize on it. Most shopping centers have a food court with franchised outlets. Some centers have a food hall where you order on a card from various stalls and pay only upon exiting. Central Embassy had one on their top floor (during our 2017 visit), with excellent food at decent prices. As it was close to our hotel, we had most of our dinners there, without any disappointment.
- As a rule we do not really indulge in street food, regardless of how good it might look or smell. The risk of an upset stomach on holiday is not worth it. BUT, many tourist do engage and lived to tell the tale. We, as boring as it might sound, prefer tables and chairs with printed menus.
- Do not become a statistic. Do not accept unsolicited advice or suggestions from strangers.If the deal or offer is too good to be true, it probably is. If you are seeking sightseeing advice, rather ask your hotel concierge, or engage with fellow travelers and learn from them. Do not allow your tuk-tuk or taxi driver to offer suggestions to you as to where to go … without fail this will result in a waste of time and an inflated transport fee. Engage with your driver with confidence as to where YOU want to go, not the other way around. It sounds as if you cannot trust anybody, but sadly it is the small minority that spoils it for everyone.
- Despite how grand or fancy some of these places can look, they are really not that expensive. After a day or two of walking around, spoil yourself with a foot/leg massage. There is quite a range: some shopping centers have them open and visible and you can see the people receiving the treatment and some are more discreet with a “spa type” look and feel. If you are going to spoil yourself, you might as well get the ambiance as well.
- Free wi-fi is not very common. If you do stumble upon any (like your hotel), make the most of it.
- If you are not collecting foreign currency, leave your spare odds-and-ends currency in an envelope in your hotel room marked for the cleaning staff. Keep in mind, that you still may need to pay for the airport transfer. Start packing on your second last day. This will give you a good indication which strategy to follow: buy another suitcase/bag, or abandonment. If you are running out of luggage space (or weight allowance), start discarding toiletries and grooming products. As hard as it sound, shoes take up a lot of space as well. Start bulking up your carry-on luggage or expand to a second item – no one died yet trying to sneak more luggage on-board than prescribed.
- Leave for the airport early. The terminal is massive and busy (don’t be fooled that a 02:00 flight will be quiet!). After check-in, get processed through to duty-free as soon as possible. Once there, you can take it slow again, to spend your remaining cash. The boarding gates are spaced in such a way that you will get your daily steps in (if not reached already), before departure. At this point, there is little value in missing your flight. Visit the bathroom and leisurely make your way to the gate.
As you explore the city and what it has to offer, spend some time to admire their shop designs, interior decor and visual merchandising. I am of the belief that many countries can come and learn from the Thai how to make shopping more interesting and fun.Dubai’s theme parks?