10 things I now know about Bangkok

"Carnaby Street" at Terminal 21, Bangkok
Carnaby Street, Bangkok-style

1. Bangkok is MENTAL. Everyone told us this, but everyone tells us this about a lot of places. Our attitude is always “C’mon, we’re not from Norwich – we’re used to New York and London. How crazy can it really be?”

This time, they’re telling the truth. At any given moment it’s quite typical to be dodging a motorbike ridden by a mother with her three kids on the back, waving away someone trying to sell you a sex toy, tripping over a shrine, and smelling a combination of sewage, smoke and fish sauce. There’s a lot to take in, and it’s impossible to be bored.

2. Then again, there’s peacefulness and order among the madness. You’ll see people doing Tai Chi in the parks every morning, and you’ll notice countless shrines at busy intersections where locals stop to pray. And even when you’re eating street food (of which more later) in the middle of a massive dual carriageway, there’s someone on hand to wipe down the table and refill the condiments.

Thai massage in Bangkok
The ultimate form of peacefulness: a cup of tea after a Thai massage.

3. Another thing people always tells us about any city is that “it’s huge”, at which point we’re thinking “pah!” and already planning to walk all the way across it in search of a cafe that’s been recommended. But no – Bangkok is legitimately huge: what looked like a quick hop from one street to a parallel one turned into a lengthy, sweaty, sweary trek. That means the area you stay in does actually matter – because the main areas of accommodation all make different areas of the city tricky to access by public transport.

4. Everyone speaks English. We always wondered why people who visited Thailand never mentioned the language barrier, and it turns out it’s because there isn’t one. Everyone – even down to the street food vendors in non-touristy areas – knows enough to get through a transaction with the help of pointing and smiling.

5. Everyone, that is, except taxi drivers. They don’t know any English, and they don’t seem too clued up on where anything in Bangkok actually is either. Top tips: have someone in your hotel write down the address of your destination in Thai, and if you learn just one Thai phrase, make it “meter na kaa / krup” (“please turn on the meter” – use “kaa” if you’re a girl and “krup” if you’re a boy). They’ll still probably get lost, but by using the meter (which is the law, but often ignored) the price won’t get as inflated as much as it otherwise would.

6. The taxi drivers can be slightly forgiven for getting lost, because although the street layout superficially makes sense, it has some idiosyncrasies that make it hard to tell at a glance in which direction you should be heading. Also, you can’t download Google Maps of Thailand for offline use, so if you’re an Android user download osmAnd before you go.

7. Bangkok restaurants aren’t overly cheap – you’re typically looking at at least £7-8 for a main. That’s why you need street food in your life: for under £1 you can be eating the best Thai food you’ve ever had, with waitress service (of sorts), at a rickety table on a busy street while watching very, very weird stuff going on all around you. You might not know exactly what all the dishes are, but pointing at whatever looks good worked well for us.

Bangkok street food
Just point and smile, people. Point and smile.

8. You can buy way more than just food on the street. Collections of stalls sell everything you’d expect and plenty you wouldn’t – and we’re not talking impulse buys here. We spotted TV remote controls, DVDs marked “new porno”, scissors, novelty slippers, indoor lighting and scissors. Our assumption is that they’re embracing a trend towards “serendipitous commerce”, where you have a list of what you need to buy in your mind at all times, and have faith that if you walk around for long enough you’ll spot it.

If you’ve ever been to Turkey, you’ll find the sales techniques at Bangkok markets pleasantly low-pressure. Or indeed no pressure – a stall holder might wave vaguely towards their merchandise if you’re lucky, but mostly they’re too busy watching their battery-powered TV or playing on their iPad mini.

Bangkok street market
Desperately in need of some toothbrushes? Or Viagra? How about some nail polish or towels? Don’t trawl through the shops! Far better to go on a very slow wander behind some drunk Australians in a Bangkok street market.

9. Rather shop in a mall? Do it – but make sure you eat while you’re there. Seriously – if you associate mall food with eating a greasy KFC in the depressing food court of some suburban nowhereness, it’s time to change all that. At Terminal 21, for example, you can get all manner of amazing Pho and noodle-based dishes for around 40 baht using a super-efficient and futuristic swipe card system. We recommend the mango with sticky rice.

phone box at Terminal 21, Bangkok
We don’t have any photos of Terminal 21’s food, because we used up all our photo-taking energy on the “London” floor of the mall.

10. We couldn’t write a piece about Bangkok without mentioning the legendary ping pong shows now, could we? So here’s that mention: don’t go to one. The main drag for illicit evning activity is Soi Patpong, and boy is it depressing. The nasty facts behind the Bangkok sex trade have been well covered elsewhere, but moralising aside, why watch miserable women do unpleasant things for the benefit of fat Westerners and stag parties when you could be round the corner having a banana pancake for 50p?

banana pancake from Bangkok
What we did instead of a ping-pong show (it’s a banana pancake with condensed milk). We’ve made an a priori judgement that the pancake was more enjoyable and provided better value for money.