There are a few things to avoid in Bangkok that trip up first-time travelers in Thailand's fast-paced capital. As with any big city, there’s a learning curve before finding a comfortable groove. The City of Angels has a way of fleecing first-timers with a wai and courteous smile.
Fortunately, despite a reputation for being boisterous, Bangkok is pretty safe when compared to other cities of the same size. Most of these potential pitfalls in Bangkok will only cost you time and money. Being prepared before arrival will help you avoid some of the most famous newbie traveler mistakes made in Bangkok.
Not Making Use of the BTS Skytrain
Bangkok’s BTS Skytrain system is excellent, but many travelers are hesitant to take advantage. Fortunately, the elevated railway is first-timer friendly and easy enough to figure out. You probably won't even have to change lines.
Maps are posted, and ticketing machines are easy to understand; stops are clearly announced on trains, although the accent may surprise you. Coverage is limited to only some parts of Bangkok, but Sukhumvit is one of them. The BTS Skytrain will not get you to the Khao San Road area, but it's especially useful for moving between popular shopping malls.
Using the BTS Skytrain costs only a few coins to move around. Not only is it cheaper than ground transportation, you'll feel good about not being stuck in the the perpetually gridlocked traffic on the boulevard below.
Getting into Transportation Without Negotiating
The number one rule of ground travel holds true for all destinations, not just Bangkok: always negotiate a fare or know the price before getting inside.
Once you’re in a tuk-tuk or taxi and on the move, the driver can ask any price they desire. Your options are pay or execute a stunt roll out of a moving vehicle.
Taxis in Bangkok usually have meters; they claim so right on the sign. But drivers would much rather pretend the meter is broken and demand a bigger fare. The drivers patrolling tourist areas for naive travelers will balk — or completely refuse — to use the meters, claiming that "traffic" or "rush hour" is the reason.
Avoid supporting the dishonest taxi drivers. Instead, hail your own taxi, insist through the window that the driver use the meter, then get inside. Be patient: you may have to stop a few taxis or walk around the corner from the tourist strip, but you'll eventually get an honest ride.
Agreeing to Let Your Tuk-Tuk Driver Stop
Taking a tuk-tuk ride in Bangkok’s chaotic traffic is an integral part of experiencing the City of Angels. You've got to taste the air, and there is no better way to sample Bangkok's pollution than sitting behind a crazed tuk-tuk driver.
The sputtering sounds and wild ride are all a part of the fun. But one of the oldest scams in the books is for your driver to ask you to stop somewhere. In exchange for quick stops at several shops, supposedly with no pressure to buy, you get a greatly discounted ride.
The shops certainly won’t be places you want to patronize; prices are inflated to pay for the drivers’ commissions. Don’t waste your time fighting off salesmen: negotiate for a real tuk-tuk ride, and make it clear that you don’t want any stops. To find an honest tuk-tuk driver, hail one yourself. Don't use the tuk-tuks parked near tourist spots.
For tourists, tuk-tuks usually aren't much cheaper than a metered taxi ride. Do it for the experience, but use taxis when you prefer air conditioning, safety, and comfort.
Buying Cheap Bucket Drinks
Backpackers in Asia love their bucket drinks, and on the surface those colorful sand buckets do seem like a good deal. For around US $5, you get a sizable bucket of ice, alcohol, and a mixer.
Although the original “Thai bucket” is Sangsom (the local rum), powerful Thai Redbull — Redbull originated in Thailand — and Coke, now your imagination is the limit for concocting oversized cocktails. But there is a catch.
Most of the buckets for sale in bars along Khao San Road offer very little bang for the buck. You’ll get enough sticky sweet mixers to send blood sugar sailing but very little alcohol. Best case scenario, they are made with very cheap spirits that have been poured into different bottles.
Wait to enjoy those buckets in the beautiful islands where they originated.
Smoking in the Wrong Places
If you smoke, you should know about a long-running police scam in Bangkok. Of all the things to avoid doing in Bangkok, don’t smoke in the wrong places!
Always look for an approved smoking area; an ashtray present is a good indicator but not always. Just because locals and taxi drivers are smoking — and dropping their cigarettes on the pavement — doesn’t mean that you won’t get fined for doing the same.
The police often set up posts on the pedways above Sukhumvit to bust tourists for dropping cigarettes. They particularly watch the Sukhumvit and Khao San Road areas.
Bins and ashtrays were purposefully removed to facilitate more fines — which go directly into pockets.
Not Taking Enough Money From the ATMs
The fees for ATM transactions in Thailand keep going up year after year.
All ATMs now charge US $6 – 7 per transaction in addition to whatever foreign exchange fees your bank charges.
Although Thailand is still a somewhat cheap destination, cash on hand tends to go quickly. Take out as much money as possible to avoid paying for multiple transactions. The ATM surcharges in Thailand add up quickly.
Even with the exorbitant fees, machines are still plagued with card skimming devices that can steal your information. Try to use cash machines inside of bank branches or at least in well-lit areas where thieves couldn't easily access the machine.
Eating at the Hotel
Bangkok has an incredible food scene — but it’s most definitely outside the doors of your hotel. Delicious Thai noodles aren't the only option: you'll find international cuisine from everywhere — even authentic sushi experiences.
Too many travelers make the mistake of eating in the hotel, either because of familiarity or convenience. Don't waste a single meal in Bangkok!
You’ll find many more interesting offerings for much better prices out on the streets. Don’t make the mistake of paying for overpriced, unauthentic food unless you have no other option.
Not Haggling for a Better Price
As with other places in Southeast Asia, Thailand has a culture of negotiating. You can ask for a discount on pretty well everything but food and water. Even your accommodation may offer a better price if you just ask.
Prices marked as “fixed” in proper shopping malls can often be negotiated. You’ll have a better shot at a discount if you buy many of your souvenirs from the same place. To get a fair price, you'll need to negotiate hard in places such as the Chatuchak weekend market.
Leaving Valuables in Luggage on a Night Bus
Bus attendants crawl into the luggage hold as the bus is moving and help themselves to small items from the luggage. Travelers don’t notice things missing the next morning until long after the bus has left.
Keep anything of value with you at your seat, and pack your stowed bags accordingly. Things such as razor blades, flashlights, USB chargers, and even sunscreen are tempting targets often left in stowed luggage.
Tip: Although you should report thefts to the tourist police, don't expect any legitimate help whatsoever. A decade of pressure on the bus companies yielded only "we are not responsible" signs.
Not Taking a River Taxi
One of the biggest mistakes travelers make in Bangkok is not taking advantage of the Chao Phraya River for getting around.
Although the taxi boats that ply the wide river are a little trickier to navigate than the Skytrain, they do reach other fascinating parts of the city — including Chinatown.
Don't let the noise and chaos intimidate you (attendants blow whistles, and passengers have a very short time to jump onto the platform); river taxis are very economical for getting around. Plus, you'll get to enjoy interesting scenery along the way!