A lot of traveler’s first impression of Thailand is Bangkok – it’s cheap and easily accessible to the rest of the region by train or cheap flights so it made sense to start my trip there.
I had heard a lot of negative things about the Thai capital – it’s dirty, smelly, and full of corruption. But I kept an open mind as I got off the plane with my backpack strapped tightly to my back and an eagerness to explore this brand new place.
Landing at the airport and navigating to my hostel on the BTS metro system was easy. I fell asleep that first night after a long travel day feeling hopeful. I only had a few days in Bangkok before I was heading to Chiang Mai for the Lantern Festival.
I stayed a little outside the city center (about 10 miles away from Khao San Road at Trica Hostel and Cafe). This ended up being a great decision because I was in an area of town frequented more by locals than tourists. It gave me a break from pushy tuk tuks and massive crowds.
I would definitely recommend staying here if you appreciate a break from the tourist heavy areas.
I got up that first morning, had breakfast at the Craft Cafe right near the hostel and then set out for a spontaneous day. Unfortunately by the time the sun set, I was chewed up and spit out more times than I realized. It left a sour taste in my mouth and uncertainty for what to expect for the rest of my time in Asia.
I wouldn’t tell anybody not to visit Bangkok. But I would advise anyone to read these reasons you might hate Bangkok on your first visit. Hopefully it will prepare you for a better first trip than mine.
AGGRESSION TOWARDS TOURISTS
This is definitely something I felt in other areas of Southeast Asia as well but it was the heaviest in Bangkok.
Now when I say aggression, I don’t mean in a violent way at all. Feeling unsafe in Asia is something I rarely experienced. While as a female traveler you should always have your guard up, I wouldn’t avoid Thailand at all out of fear of safety.
However, there is an aggressive pushiness towards tourists. Mainly by the infamous tuk tuk drivers to get you to spend money on anything and everything. It makes walking anywhere in high trafficked areas extremely annoying.
Now I live in New York City, and I have traveled to a lot of big cities, so I am not naive to the fact that many of them target tourists. I know that you can’t really avoid it most places worth traveling to.
But whatever you’re used to, Bangkok is worse.
Whenever I was in high tourist areas, I felt targeted from every direction. Asking if I needed a ride, restaurants trying to pull you in from half way down the street, people in your face about deals and discounts and special prices. I was constantly being warned that prices will go up due to “high tourist season.” (a phrase I learned you should always be wary of throughout Southeast Asia.)
It almost felt like a never ending ride of bumper cars. But everyone else behind the wheel is a slick salesperson shoving menus or other shiny objects in your face to stop you in your tracks.
It was exhausting and made leisurely strolling through the streets and markets nearly impossible. My best advice on this is to be assertive, look straight ahead, and never make eye contact. It also helps to have a plan for your day. Have restaurants researched before hand, know the best shops for what you’re looking for, etc.
My friend and I got in most of our trouble when we were just trying to be spontaneous and go with the flow. Bangkok isn’t the city for that.
I did much better on my second time around after I learned a couple valuable lessons.
It is amazing how many people I’ve encountered that fell victim to at least one Bangkok scam their first time visiting. I want to tell you exactly how mine played out to hopefully prevent it from happening to you. I can not stress how common and practically unavoidable it is to be a target for scams.
So to start with, my first attempt at a tuk tuk ride was a fail. In fact, I eventually ended up swearing off them all together.
My friend and I approached the driver, agreed on a price, and got in. Then we were asked, once we were already on the road, to go to a tailor shop. I had read about this scam and immediately said no. When I did that, he tried to say the price to get to our destination was more.
After saying that we would just get out and find another ride, we ended up agreeing to split the difference of the price increase. At this point we just wanted to get where we needed to be. We weren’t at this point in a place that we could easily see how to get another ride.
We got to our destination, got out and paid the inflated rate.
Infamous Tuk Tuk Scam
With map in hand, we started navigating our way around the Banglampu district. Soon we got lost. So a very friendly and charming local man in casual but nice clothes offered us some help. He gave us directions and some point of interest places to go. He also said that there was a government holiday, and that the official tourist office was offering great deals on tourist attractions.
It all seemed very obvious later and it’s a little embarrassing to even type the experience now. But we found ourselves on a tuk tuk with a yellow flag. We went to see the “lucky Buddha” and the “big Buddha.” Then we bought an overpriced train ticket in a shady travel agency that was in no way the official tourist agency.
It wasn’t until the following day that we actually realized it was all a scam and started reading some pretty bad stories. Some people booked a lot more than a train ticket from a similar travel agency. I was lucky that my friend and I declined most of the items they were attempting to sell us. At the end of the day we only paid about $30 more than we should have for a train ticket.
A small price to pay for the valuable lesson.
If I can offer the most important advise for a first time traveler in Bangkok, it’s to literally trust nobody. Let me say that again, trust nobody. The actors planted on the streets to try and scam you are more charming and naturally placed than you can possibly imagine. If you can remember that and be a little unafraid of offending someone, you might make it out unscathed.
Advising people to avoid friendly locals is unfortunate. Being a foreign traveler, especially on a budget, often means you have to rely on locals for help. It’s how I survive my first time in any city. I’m always happy to help anyone in New York who looks lost or asks for help.
It’s honestly the most unfortunate thing about Bangkok.
If you want to avoid getting scammed here’s what you do. Conduct more research on the city than you’ve ever done on any city before. Then have a plan everyday before you leave your hotel or hostel.
THINGS ARE VERY SPREAD OUT
Bangkok is big – like Paris or New York. Getting around to the major points of interest means you have to rely on tuk tuks or public transportation. The BTS train system isn’t quite sophisticated enough to get you to certain parts of town. Also, the buses aren’t the easiest to navigate (although they eventually became the only way I got anywhere).
One way to avoid this is using Uber or another ride app, if you are prepared to spend the money. However, I don’t travel with an international phone plan. Mostly because I like the ability to unplug from social media and notifications. I’m also always trying to save money when traveling so unless I had wifi, this wasn’t an option for me.
Another way to navigate the massive city is to use buses. This can be very difficult if you don’t speak the language. But by the time I made it through Southeast Asia and circled back to Bangkok, I was a pro at using Google Maps to navigate the buses.
Note: I often encountered people saying buses weren’t running. This especially at night and near tourist areas. But every time I stuck it out I got on a bus and eventually made it where I wanted to go. Also, the bus drivers were hands down the nicest and most helpful locals I met.
Lastly, if you are very confident in your haggling skills, and your ability to meet the assertive, sometimes aggressive tuk tuk drivers trying to pull you into tailor or gem shops or inflate the price once you’ve already gotten in, then definitely take your chances with tuk tuks. As a young female traveler, I decided to try and avoid any chances of being scammed again.
On my last day in Bangkok, I clutched tightly to my overpriced train ticket and made my way to the station. I was filled with a new found sense of anger and paranoia and had way too much time to kill in the city before the train departed.
So I regrouped at the train station (thankfully the overpriced tickets were at least real). After a minute, I strapped my backpack tightly to my back, and decided to make the best of what we could no longer change.
I hiked through Chinatown and saw a temple or two before bidding farewell to the weird smells of Bangkok. Jumping on the train as quickly as the conductor would let me, a grabbed a large Chang beers and washed down the awful taste in my mouth.
Was it worth it?
Looking back, the very worst part about Bangkok was that nothing about it ever really seemed worth all the trouble. Nothing we saw, ate or experienced was ever good enough to really make up for feeling used and taken advantage of.
Especially after traveling through other parts of the region and making my way back to Bangkok with a little more understanding of how things work. It still didn’t make the corruption in the tourist industry any easier to take.
I really think all you can do to survive your first trip in Bangkok is do your research and keep your head down. Avoid all random encounters with locals, see what you want to see and then take off to experience the rest of Thailand as quickly as you can. Because the country does have so many amazing things to offer.