Bangkok is the capital of Thailand and, with a population of over eleven million inhabitants, by far its largest city. Its high-rise buildings, heavy traffic congestion, intense heat and naughty nightlife may not immediately give you the best impression — but don’t let that mislead you. It is one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities with magnificent temples and palaces, authentic canals, busy markets and a vibrant nightlife that has something for everyone. For years, it was only a small trading post at the banks of the Chao Phraya River, until King Rama I, the first monarch of the present Chakri dynasty, turned it into the capital of Siam in 1782, after the burning of Ayutthaya by Burmese invaders but they did not take over Ayutthaya. Since then, Bangkok has turned into a national treasure house and functions as Thailand’s spiritual, cultural, political, commercial, educational and diplomatic centre.
Bangkok is a huge and modern city humming with nightlife and fervour. Administratively, it is split up into 50 districts, which are further split into 154 subdistricts, but these are more often used in official business and for addresses. Visitors will find the conceptual division below of the main areas more useful for getting around. Around Bangkok are the provinces of Nakhon Pathom to the west, Nonthaburi to the northwest, Pathum Thani to the north, Chachoengsao to the east, Samut Prakan to the southeast and Samut Sakhon to the southwest.
Just under 14 degrees north of the Equator, Bangkok is a tropical metropolis that is also one of the most traveller-friendly cities in Asia. A furious assault on the senses, visitors are immediately confronted by the heat, the pollution and the irrepressible smile that accompanies many Thais. Despite the sensationalised international news reports and first impressions, the city is surprisingly safe (except some petty crimes) and more organised than it initially appears, and full of hidden gems waiting to be discovered. The high relative humidity and warm temperature favour the growth of tropical plants — you’ll find orchids and delicious fruit everywhere. Bougainvillaea and frangipani bloom practically all over the city. Thai cuisine is justifiably famous, varied, and affordable. Bangkok for many represents the quintessential Asian capital. Saffron-robed monks, garish neon signs, graceful Thai architecture, spicy dishes, colourful markets, traffic jams and the tropical climate come together in a happy coincidence. It is difficult to leave with lukewarm impressions of the city.
“Bangkok” originally was a small village on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. After the fall of Ayutthaya in the late 18th century, King Taksin the Great turned that village into Siam’s new capital and renamed it Thonburi. In 1782, King Rama I moved the capital to the eastern bank of the river at Rattanakosin; originally the site of a Chinese community, who were moved outside of the new city walls to Yaowarat. King Rama, I named the city Krung Thep, as it is now known to Thais and which in English is translates as the “City of Angels”. The full name “Krung thep mahanakhon amorn ratanakosin mahintharayutthaya mahadilok popnoparat ratchathani burirom udomratchanivetmahasathan amornpiman avatarnsathit sakkathattiyavisnukarmprasit” is listed as the world’s longest location name by the Guinness Book of Records; an English rendering goes like this: “The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city of Ayutthaya of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn”. The original village of Bangkok has long since ceased to exist, but foreigners never caught on to the change. Life was taking place on the water; ordinary people lived on bamboo-rafts along the river while floating vendors roamed the water to sell fruit and vegetables. The only stone structures built on land were temples and palaces. In the 19th-century, Western powers incorporated much of Southeast Asia into their colonial empires. King Rama IV and V felt that the only way to keep Siam independent was to modernise the country along European lines. Traditional canals were filled up and turned into roads. King Rama V moved the residence of the King to Dusit and laid out that district’s grand boulevards along European lines. Bangkok really started to develop after World War II. The economic centre shifted from the orderly planned city of Rattanakosin in an eastward direction, leaving Bangkok without an obvious centre. Bangkok established itself as the driving power behind Thailand’s new role as a newly industrializing country from the 1980s onwards. Rapid economic growth has attracted migration from the countryside, with millions of Thais moving here from Isaan to make a living. This rapid expansion turned Bangkok into one of the most cosmopolitan and happening cities in Asia; but also ensured numerous problems. A wide gap has emerged between those who profit from economic activity and those who came to the city from the countryside in search of work. Bangkok’s seemingly never-ending traffic jams continue as the new Skytrain and metro systems are too expensive for the working class. Getting a break from the fumes in a park would seem to be a good idea if it wasn’t that Bangkok having the lowest amount of green space among all capitals in the world.
According to the World Meteorological Organization, Bangkok is one of the hottest cities in the world. Located just 14 degrees north of the Equator, Bangkok is sunny at any time of the year with temperatures over 30°C (86°F). The most pleasant time to visit is the cool season that lasts from November till February. It is both the coolest and driest period — the Emerald Buddha statue in Wat Phra Kaew even wears a scarf during this period! Don’t think that’s necessary though — daytime temperatures still hover around 30°C (86°F), but it does cool down into the lower 20’s as it gets dark (lower 70’s °F). March and April represent the hot season, and hot it is — 35°C (95°F) on average, but don’t be surprised to see temperatures rising towards 40 degrees Celsius (around 100°F+). This is the worst season to visit Bangkok, so plan a lot of air-conditioned shopping mall visits and get a hotel with a swimming pool. Then there’s the wet season that runs from May till October. Expect massive downpours resulting in floods all over the city, and spells of thunder at times. It’s not all bad though — the afternoon showers are actually a pleasant way to cool down from the heat, and while they may last all day, usually they’re over within an hour. Extreme rainfall happens in September and October, so these months are best avoided. Whatever season you’re visiting, don’t take the weather lightly — temple-tramping in the scorching afternoon sun can be a challenge, so come well-prepared. Dress lightly for the weather, but keep in mind that some palaces and all temples (notably the Grand Palace) have a strict dress code. Also, be sure, and this cannot be said enough, drink enough fluids! You don’t have a reason not to, as 7-Elevens and other convenience stores are abundant in Bangkok and they sell cooled beverages for as little as 10 baht. Locals get their water from “reverse osmosis” purified water machines that fill up a one-litre bottle for one baht.
Bangkok is served by two airports: Suvarnabhumi Airport and Don Muang Airport. Suvarnabhumi Airport is used by all airlines in Thailand except for Nok Air, Orient Thai and Air Asia, which use the old Don Muang Airport. Both these airports are about 30 km (19 mi) from the city centre, so be prepared for a long ride to get into the city. Also allow at least three hours to connect between them, as they are far away from each other and there is heavy congestion on the roads.
Located 30km (19 mi) to the east of Bangkok (in the Samut Prakan province), space-age Suvarnabhumi Airport (pronounced “soo-wanna-poom”) (IATA:BKK) started operations in Sep 2006 and is now Bangkok’s main airport and the busiest airport in Southeast Asia. It is used for almost all international and domestic flights to Bangkok. There is only one terminal building, which covers both domestic and international flights, but it is huge (by some measures the world’s largest), so allow time for getting around. There are two immigration sections, but processing time can be lengthy — 30 minutes and more.
There are plenty of ways to get into the city from Suvarnabhumi Airport. Most people opt for the Airport Rail Link, by far the fastest way to get into downtown, although taxis are also reasonably priced by world standards. Located on the basement level of the passenger terminal, the Airport Rail Link offers a high-speed train service to downtown Bangkok. It’s also a way of avoiding Bangkok’s horrendous rush hour traffic, particularly when it’s raining. Trains run 06:00-23:59 everyday and travel at an amazing 160km/h (100mph). Two different services are operated: The non-stop Express Line brings you directly to either Makkasan or Phaya Thai station in 15/18min for 90 baht one way, with plenty of space for luggage. As of December 2014, the express line service to Phaya Thai has been suspended indefinitely so you must take the City Line to connect directly to the BTS Sky Train.
The slightly slower City Line is a commuter rail line that stops at all stations. Trains leave every 15min, and after Makkasan station it continues to Ratchaprarop and Phaya Thai stations. The ride to Phaya Thai takes 24min from/to the airport and costs 45 baht. (the ride to or from Makkasan is 35 baht, Ratchaprarop is 40 baht, Lat Krabang is 15 baht ). Given the fact that it runs more frequently, the City Line may effectively bring you to your destination sooner than the Express Line. If you’re heading downtown, the Airport Rail Link has a good connection to the BTS Skytrain at Phaya Thai, though you will have to buy a new ticket. If Khao San Road is your final destination, you can hail taxis from the main road (around 60 baht, c. 6km distance), or hop aboard bus 15 (7 baht); this bus leaves from across Central World, BTS Siam, and BTS National Stadium and goes along Ratchadamnoen Klang Road and Chakrabongse Road serving both sides of Khao San Road. Private Airport Express buses, including backpacker favourite AE2 to Khao San Road, stopped running in Jun 2011. To take a public bus or minibus, you must first take the free shuttle bus from outside the second floor, gate 5 to the Public Transportation Center a few kilometres away. From there, The BMTA public bus lines are: 549: Suvarnabhumi to Min Buri 550: Suvarnabhumi to Bang Kapi 551: Suvarnabhumi to Victory Monument 552: Suvarnabhumi to On Nut 552A: Suvarnabhumi to Sam Rong 553: Suvarnabhumi to Samut Prakan 554: Suvarnabhumi to Don Muang Airport 555: Suvarnabhumi to Rangsit (using the expressway) 558: Suvarnabhumi to Central Rama 2 559: Suvarnabhumi to Future Park Rangsit (using the outer ring road) These services take about 1-2 hours depending on traffic; frequency is usually every 20min during daytime. At night, it ranges from 20 minutes to one hour depending on the route. To give an example, the fare between Suvarnabhumi Airport and On Nut on 552 is 32 baht, and the journey takes about 40min in mid-afternoon traffic. There are also privately-owned BMTA minibuses to many parts of Greater Bangkok, such as Don Muang Airport, Bang Kapi, Rangsit and Samut Prakan. They charge a flat rate of 50 baht and go directly to the destination, so they are faster than public buses that stop frequently along the way. To get to Khao San Road take Airport Rail Link City Line to Makkasan (35 baht) and change there to bus number 556 (13 baht), which will take you next to Democracy Monument from where it’s a short walk to Khao San Road. These buses are not very frequent so prepare for as much as 30-40 min waiting time. This is probably the cheapest possible way how to get from/to airport for 48 baht in total. (The 556 bus goes on from Democracy Monument to Southern Bus Terminal- Sai Tai.) Though you could take bus 554 to Synphaet Hospital and then public bus 60 or alternatively bus 555 to Din-Daeng Road followed by bus 171, both options will take you through heavy Bangkok traffic on normal roads with frequent stops, thus making the Airport Link the best and fastest option. Long-distance first-class bus services connect Suvarnabhumi Airport directly with Chachoengsao, Nong Khai, Pattaya, Rayong, and Trat.
Ordinary metered taxis are available on the first floor (one floor below arrivals). Follow the “public taxi” signs that lead to the outside of the airport premises, queue up and state your destination at the desk (English is understood). You’ll get a two-part slip with your destination written in Thai on it. The small part is for your driver, the large part is for you. This ticket is for complaints and is how the system is enforced: hold on to it to help avoid arguments later. There is a 50 baht surcharge on top of the meter (not per passenger!), meaning that trips to the city will cost 250-400 baht (plus possible expressway tolls of 45 and 25 baht, depending on time). Make sure you have change ready to pass to the toll operators to avoid being overcharged for the tolls later on. With very smooth traffic (which rarely occurs other than say in the wee hours), the ride takes about 30 minutes and costs under 250 baht (excluding tolls and surcharges). Otherwise, count on it taking 45-60 minutes and closer to 300 baht (excluding tolls and surcharges). During rush hour it can take much longer. No other surcharges apply, not even for going back to the airport. If there is a huge taxi queue, consider taking a limousine taxi, or take the free shuttle bus to the Public Transport Centre, which has more taxis. Go straight to the “official taxi stand” and wait there. It is rare, but there have been reports of rigged meters that make the ride cost more than 400 baht. These taxis usually appear highly modified and it is a good idea to avoid them or record the licence plate number of the taxi. You should also watch out for ‘helpful’ touts hovering nearby the main taxi desk who will lead you across the road to legitimate taxis. These drivers will refuse to use the meter by saying there is heavy traffic and will charge a phenomenal price supposedly based on distance and number of passengers – for instance, they will quite brazenly tell you it will cost 2,500 baht to take two people to the city centre. Refuse to deal with these touts on sight. However, should you make the mistake of trusting them, find out the fare before they have a chance to leave the airport? Quoting the correct metered price (250-400 baht, as above) will garner a response that you’ll need to take a bus to get that kind of price. Stand your ground and insist they take you back to the airport – provided you do this before you leave, they’ll be quite happy to take you back with no charge. So-called limousine taxis (which charge by the distance, eg, around 800 baht to Sukhumvit) can be reserved at the limousine hire counter on the second floor (just outside arrivals), and aggressive touts will try to entice you on board. If you allow yourself to be waylaid by one of these taxi touts, they might quote you more than double the fare than an ordinary metered taxi would charge (900 baht instead of 400 baht, for example). You’d be silly even acknowledging their existence — ignore and walk straight past them. There are free shuttle buses from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Don Muang Airport every hour between 05:00-23:00. You have to show them your flight ticket to board. At Suvarnabhumi Airport, get on the bus at gate 2 or 3. At Don Muang Airport, get on the bus at the ground floor arrival terminal. The shuttle bus goes directly via the expressway and does not stop during the ride.
A1 – DMK – Mochit BTS/MRT (Chatuchak) – Mochit 2 / Northeastern Bangkok Bus Station – DMK A2 – DMK – Mochit BTS/MRT (Chatuchak) – Saphan Kwai BTS – Ari BTS – Sanam Pao BTS – Victory Monument – DMK Airport bus from the Don Muang airport services routes at a frequency of 20 minutes and each route takes about 60-80min per trip. The fare for airport bus is fixed at 30 baht per person per trip.
Bus 29 – DMK – Laksi – Mochit BTS/MRT (Chatuchak) – Victory Monument – Sam Yan – Bangkok Railway Station Bus 29 (air-conditioned) – DMK – Mochit BTS/MRT (Chatuchak) – Victory Monument – Sam Yan – Bangkok Railway Station Bus 510 – DMK – Laksi – Mochit BTS/MRT (Chatuchak) – Saphan Khwai – Victory Monument Bus 555 – DMK – Laksi – Horwang – Din Deang – Praram 9 – Suvarnabhumi Airport Bus 59 – DMK – Bangkhen – Kasetsart University – Central Lad Phrao – Chatuchak – Saphan Khwai – Victory Monument – Ratchadamnern Sanamlung (Khao San Road) Bus 554 – DMK – Laksi – Ramintra – Suvarnabhumi Airport Bus 187 – DMK – Din Daeng – Ratwiti – Victory Monument – Charoenkrung – Thanam Sipraya Bus 538 – DMK – Din Daeng – Victory Monument – Rama Hospital Bus 504 – DMK – Din Daeng – Pratunam – Silom – Saphan Krung Thep The fare for City bus is charged in the range of 6.5-23 baht depending on the route and type of bus taken.