5 Mistakes You Will Probably Make on Your First Trip to Bangkok
Throwback Thursdays: Travel Memories: Bangkok, Thailand is one of those cities that sticks in your memory (and to your skin at the time) – sometimes for all the wrong reasons. But in the end that is what makes travelling so fulfilling – making mistakes and living to tell the tale. I love Bangkok and cannot wait to go there again – but I won’t make these mistakes again.
Mistake #1: Picking the Cheapest Airline
I am a budget traveller – there I said it. And my boyfriend, Adam, is whatever you would call someone even cheaper than a budget traveller. So when we decided to head to Thailand in December 2010 we of course choose the cheapest flight there – an Ethiopian Airlines ticket – a good R3,000 ($300) cheaper than the nearest competitor.
We boarded a plane in Johannesburg which gave me the distinct sense that it came straight out of the 80’s – black leather seats facing a single small screen affixed to the ceiling for each section of the plane. Yup that’s right – “The inflight entertainment for today is… whatever the f@#$ we say it is.” Oh did I mention that none of the headphones worked properly?
Then we had the pleasure of spending 4 hours in the Addis Ababa International Airport – where no one accepts credit cards or large denominations of currency and where duty free sells only cigarettes and coffee beans. Imagine drinking water from an airport tap in a third world country en route to a three week long holiday – not cool!
The second leg of our flight – a short 9 hours – involved a small run-in with an air hostess over our alternative source of inflight entertainment. But in the end WE MADE IT.
Cheaper is not always better – Thai Airways fly direct between Johannesburg and Bangkok and, for only one or two thousand Rands more, it is totally worth it. Or use Travelstart’s easy-to-use website to find cheap flights that don’t involve life-changing trauma.
Mistake #2: Having Customs Issues
Upon arrival at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok – a place 90% of South Africans have seen before – one is greeted by customs. Armed with our completed arrival cards, Adam and I picked one of the hundreds of mile long queues and joined the masses of tourists ready to get their buckets on.
Each queue ended in a desk with two customs officials – I went left, Adam went right. And that is where the drama and confusion began.
After having my arrival card checked and passport stamped – welcomed into Thailand by the warmth one can only expect from a customs official – I was left waiting for Adam. FOR AN HOUR.
Now we have all seen the Carte Blanche features on Thailand prisons and been warned about being used as a drug mule in Thailand. So when Adam didn’t make it through customs I assumed the worst. I paced up and down the airport, unable to go back through customs to look for him. Eventually, now near tears and overwhelmed by the thought of going on this holiday alone, a fellow South Africa approached me and explained what had happened.
Turns out that Adam listed Addis Ababa as his “From/ Port of Embarkation” whereas I listed Johannesburg. Fair enough – he was probably more correct, but turns out Addis is also part of a yellow fever zone and, since Adam didn’t have a yellow fever shot, he would have to be quarantined. And then not. It just took an hour to come to this conclusion. What a way to start a holiday!
(a) Don’t go through customs ahead of Adam or (b) Always complete the arrival card together or (c) Don’t tell people you flew via Addis Ababa – no one needs to know.
Now this is where I have to mentioned that my 2010 trip to Thailand was not my first visit to Bangkok – I had spent a few days there and in Phuket after my trip to Vietnam in 2009. As a result, I made some mistakes then, not least of which was the hotel I booked.
Mistake #3: Booking Accommodation
There was a time – a time before arriving in a country with only a vague plan and no hotel bookings, before shopping around for cheap accommodation with a 20kg pack on my back, before shared showers and bucket-flushing toilets – a time before Adam.
At that time I believed in booking hotels and that’s what I did with such confidence when I booked my hotel in Bangkok in 2009 – Imm Fusion Sukhumvit. I paid $60 for 2 nights and thought I had found such a bargain – I mean look at the place.
I knew something was up when my airport taxi driver had no idea where I was going. And when we finally found the hotel it was situated in a very strange area – walking distance from a Tesco and very close to being the last stop on the Skytrain.
And with that I would like to demonstrate the power of Google Maps and why googling hotels is always a great idea before booking:
I am not a believer in booking accommodation – unless you are going to a very specific location for a very short time. (Or there is a great deal on – check out Agoda).
Thailand in particular has so many guesthouses/ backpackers/ hotels that you are bound to find something upon arrival. And do have a look at the room/ bed/ shower before agreeing to stay. And haggle, haggle, haggle.
Mistake #4: Not Eating Street Food
There comes a time on every trip overseas – especially when it is to a country where the culture is very different from your own – when you crave the comforts of home. And when I say “comforts of home” I mostly mean “comfort food from America”. So then you buy MacDonalds and Starbucks…
THIS IS ALLOWED. What is not allowed, is travelling to a place like Bangkok and never trying their street food. Eating like a local in Thailand is surprisingly healthy and affordable – and definitely beats any of the faux-Western food served in restaurants with indexed menus.
Don’t take my word for it – read this: YTravel – 5 Places to Eat Thai Street Food in Bangkok for some inspiration.
Local really is lekker. When in doubt do a this quick check – if there are more locals than tourists, you are probably in for a treat for next to nothing.
Mistake #5: Falling for a Scam
Damnoen Floating Market/ Tiger Temple
In terms of day trips from Bangkok, a visit to the Damnoen Floating Market and Tiger Temple is usually pretty standard, with a stop at the Kwai River Bridge thrown in for good measure.
Trips to the market were selling for 2,000THB but we managed (based on the hand-drawn directions the guesthouse owner gave to us in broken English) to get there using the Metro and then a local bus. In total it cost us something ridiculous like 10THB each to get there. And because Adam insisted we leave before sunrise, we got to see the city wake up – sweeping its sidewalks and selling fresh breads as we drove by – and made it to the floating market long before the tour buses.
Oh but where there is a tourist, there will always be a slimy character disguised as a helpful local ready to save the day. So after spending the morning at the floating market, we were standing around discussing our next move, when we were convinced to join a tour group heading to the Tiger Temple – I mean who would not want to see this?
Unfortunately we never got to see this (other than on the glossy pamphlet used to market the tour to us). We spend the day in an air-conditioned van, first being carted to the Kwai River Bridge, then to a lunch stop complete with glorious (read: disgusting) squat toilets and finally made it to the Tiger Temple as the last (only?) tiger was being put away for the day. What a waste of time and money.
Wat Pho & Wat Arun
Temples. There are so many temples in Thailand (and even just in and around Bangkok) that making any sort of recommendation would be pointless – we visited Wat Pho and Wat Arun and loved it. But I am sure many of the other temples are just as breathtaking (and hopefully I will get around to seeing them in future).
Why Wat Pho?
- Wat Pho is one of the largest and oldest wats in Bangkok.
- It is famous for its HUGE reclining Buddha – one of the largest single Buddha images (48m length). (wiki)
- The temple has sixteen gates around the complex guarded by Chinese giants carved out of rocks. (wiki)
- There is a working Buddhist monastery with monks in residence .
- The outer cloister has images of 400 Buddhas out of the 1200 originally bought by king Rama V. (wiki)
Why Wat Arun?
- What is Thailand without the odd photo scam. Go to Phuket and friendly ladyboys will grab your camera, snap a pick with you and then demand payment. Similarly, Wat Arun has these cute cutouts to pose with (see below). I guess that usually tourists need the help of previously mentioned slimy-characters-disguised-as-helpful-locals, and they were not willing to accept that our tripod made them redundant. In the end we parted with 40THB (R10/ $1) for the “privilege” of posing with their cutouts.
- The main feature of Wat Arun is its central prang (Khmer-style tower) which is encrusted with colourful porcelain. This is interpreted as a stupa-like pagoda encrusted with coloured faience. (wiki)
- The height is reported as between 66.8 m and 86 m.
- Climbing up the steep, narrow stairs might make jumping down seem like a good idea – hence the sign (well that is my interpretation). But it is definitely worth the view of the city.
Always remember that you are the guest in someone else’s country – sometimes it really is just not worth the fight. Scams are annoying but an inevitable part of being a tourist. As long as you haven’t parted with too much cash, simply chalk it up to experience and rest assured that you have another great story to tell.