Every time I have been in Asia I have ended up in Bangkok. It is a city that has divided opinion among backpackers. Many people love riding in tuk-tuks around the busy city and the chaos of the insane Khao San Road. For some travellers, it can be overwhelming. People get really passionate about how much they hate this city, but I personally don’t understand. Repeat visits and wonderful friends have made Bangkok one of my favourite places in Asia.
What to pack?
I am in the progress of making an ultimate backpackers survival guide and packing list, but these items are just things that I wish I had during my first trip to Thailand!
- Modest clothes are essential. I never considered how many activities would require this, especially in Bangkok. This mainly applies to women, but some places (such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia) require men to also cover their knees. Shoulders and knees is the general rule. You can buy or rent shawls from most temples, but I preferred to have my own. I usually use a shawl or kimono to wear over the top of my other clothes, so that I can take it off as soon as I don’t need it anymore. Thailand is incredibly hot!
- A decent backpack can make a huge difference. It is much easier to travel with than a suitcase. Bear in mind that your hostel might only have stairs, the ground may be uneven for suitcase wheels and you might have to walk around with your luggage on travel days. My backpack actually opens up like a suitcase, so that I can avoid the buildup of things I don’t use at the bottom of my backpack.
- Tote bags are a really useful item to have. Whether you need to separate out your dirty clothes in your bag or you are heading to 7/11 for snacks (plastic bags are banned in 7/11 stores in Thailand!). It hardly takes up any space and it can be a shopping bag, beach bag or laundry bag.
- A money belt (otherwise known as a bum bag or fanny pack depending where you are from) is a really good idea. I hate carrying too much when I am exploring, so it is an easy way to be hands-free on your travels. It can be more secure and a good way to keep valuables close. Every hostel I have ever stayed in has had a victim of theft whether in Asia or Europe. I have been pick-pocketed twice in Bangkok while horrendously drunk on Khao San Road, so just be careful.
- Having a menstrual cup is a game changer. If you don’t get periods you don’t know the struggle of coming on unexpectedly while you are out and about. When I travelled the first time, I packed loads of sanitary products and still ran out. In Asia, I find that the products don’t cater for heavy flow and tampons are harder to find. Menstrual cups last longer, are better for the environment and just generally make me feel cleaner.
Let’s presume that you had a smooth journey over from your country and managed to navigate to your chosen hostel or hotel. The area near Khao San isn’t accessible by the SkyTrain system. Make sure you download the app “Grab” for your time in Asia! It is exactly like Uber, but you can also get motorbike taxis for cheaper. Save that experience for a day where you don’t have a giant backpack on! The priority when you arrive is getting a refreshing Thai meal (I always recommend Green or Massaman curry) and a good night’s sleep ready for a busy day of exploring.
The first part of the day is going to be a temple run. There are many options for you to choose from, but the most famous are The Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun. In my opinion, The Grand Palace isn’t worth the hype. It is the busiest one, so if you want to see it go as soon as it opens. It is also the most expensive temple with a £12 entrance fee (which might not seem a lot, but it is more than 5 times the others!). 500 baht can buy you a lot in Thailand. A meal in a high-end vegan restaurant in Bangkok was less than half of that.
Wat Pho and Wat Arun are luckily within walking distance of The Grand Palace. They will still be busy, but they are significantly cheaper at £2.50 per ticket. They are located on opposite sides of the river and you can take a ferry boat across for the equivalent of 25p. There is a really beautiful reclining Buddha and Wat Arun has a cool design. It is also a place with hundreds of people taking insta photos. Climbing the stairs and seeing the intricate designs hand-painted on all the walls is really cool. I find temples to be very calming places (especially when you go to less touristic ones, you can get a chance to meditate). I found this more common in the North where you could easily stumble upon local temples accidentally.
You could opt to take a boat ride along the river, but be careful of tourist scams in this area. A local taxi boat should only cost 50 baht for a single trip on the main river. Someone tried to charge us 300 baht. While you spend some time in this area, you should try to find somewhere selling mango sticky rice. It is the best dessert!
Later on, you can get a stunning view of the temple at night from across the river. There are many restaurants here, but they are often expensive. I would probably go for a drink to see the view, but would rather find a local Thai food spot on the Happy Cow app. I wasn’t vegan when I visited the restaurant with the Wat Arun view, so I am not sure if they have options besides vegetarian. Regardless, it was called The Deck if you want to visit. My only memory is that it was my last day in Thailand, I had just got a new tattoo of a sun behind my ear and I had a really good cocktail while I enjoyed the view.
Chatuchak market is only an option if this day happens to be a Friday, Saturday or a Sunday, but I would 100% recommend visiting. If you cannot manage to visit on a weekend, there are also big markets in the Chinatown area which is also worth a visit if you have longer than 3 days. The weekend market is far superior and is absolutely HUGE. It is easy to spend hours browsing and you can find anything you could possibly want.
If you are heading home soon, it is a great place to buy souvenirs or gifts. I have used this market to buy supplies as my belongings break or just cute outfits when I want to refresh my backpack selection. As a tourist, you will sometimes get charged significantly higher prices and haggling is a generally accepted part of the culture unless there is a sign stating otherwise. Just be respectful when you do.
In the afternoon, make your way to The Giant Swing. Take the opportunity for a tuk-tuk ride through the city (although I sometimes opt for a Grab-Bike which is cheaper). It isn’t actually a swing (sorry). It is a recreation of the frame from a swing from an old religious ceremony that got cancelled, because people kept dying while swinging from great heights. Now, it is a tourist attraction and a really great photo spot.
There is actually a small temple nearby called Wat Ratchapradit, which is a good example of a functioning temple that people actually use and it is free to enter. However, the main aim of this afternoon is to get to The Golden Mountain temple for sunset. This is my favourite in Bangkok with beautiful plants and fountains lining the stairs, as you climb to the top. It provides you with a birds-eye view of the city, which is perfect for a good sunset. Parts of the temple are also lined with bells, which I am told are supposed to bring good luck if you ring all of them. I don’t know if that is true, but it is a great way to annoy some strangers.
This evening, you are finally going to get to experience the Bangkok nightlife. I would personally recommend joining a hostel pub crawl, especially as a solo traveller. It is a great way to meet people and you can pre-drink in the hostel with a load of backpackers. I always stay at Slumber Party hostels in Thailand (partly because of my friends that worked there) and I have never had a bad pub crawl with them. If you aren’t a big drinker, I would still recommend visiting Khao San Road for the chaotic vibes and some street food. Realistically, I would have gone out on Khao San Road for the first night as well and every night that I was in the city. I also probably would have gotten my phone stolen again and had to waste a day in the mall finding a new one, so that doesn’t make it into the guide.
How good are you at dealing with hangovers? Thailand hangovers are rough. The buckets often have strong local red bull added, so the crash hits different. I am going to give you a few options for the day (although, I would probably take crashing on a beanbag in the hostel common area while complaining about my hangover).
There is an island in the middle of Bangkok! I didn’t know this existed until I was talking to a friend recently, but when she worked at the hostel, she took tourists on bike tours of Bang Krachao. I am not a fan of cycling (especially on thin paths with water either side and poor co-ordination), so I haven’t been. This might be your thing if you are more of an active, nature-loving traveller. Another adventurous option would be to visit The Ghost Tower. It is a big abandoned building that people like to break into and climb to the roof. I am not sure if it is physically possible anymore, but I met a guy who had done this as recently as August 2019.
My favourite of these options would be to visit Ayutthaya. The city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, because of the ancient ruins and interesting history. You can learn all about the Siam Kingdom by doing a guided tour as a day trip from Bangkok. The beheaded Buddhas in the temples are eerie and one of the large Buddha heads has been surrounded by growing tree roots. I would definitely recommend this as an option for getting out of the city, before continuing on to explore the North and South parts of Thailand.
After a lovely day out, I would recommend treating yourself to a visit of a rooftop bar. There are several around Bangkok, but they can be very expensive. One of the more affordable ones I found (and the only one I have visited) is called Above Eleven. A much classier affair than the previous night’s pub crawl. Make sure you check the dress code before going! I don’t exactly carry heels or fancy clothes in my backpack, so I did struggle to find something appropriate. I wasn’t planning on going due to my strict budget, but I luckily met a cool guy in my hostel from Dubai who wanted a huge birthday party.
I hope this is a helpful guide for you. I could have done with this when I arrived in Bangkok for the first time. Along with some specific post-it notes such as “Look after your phone better!”. I find it hard to write travel advice, because my trips are so unconventional. Some of my best days were just going shopping with my best friend (she did also take me to an epic unlimited salad buffet). I love Bangkok for the good memories and some of my favourite people! Travel should be able making those memories, rather than a checklist of things to see.