Tips For Newcomers: Getting Around In The Bangkok Maze
Are you new to Bangkok? If you are only staying at one of the big hotels, going on guided tours, and riding in a private car with a hired driver you won't need to read this. In that situation, you will be well-taken care of, and you won't need to know how to get anywhere. But if you prefer to find your own way thru the maze of streets and lanes and alleys that is Bangkok, here are four tips from a resident of the city.
First and most important: Get a hotel card and always carry it with you.
The most important part of going out is being able to find your way back. Every person in your group should carry the hotel card. Always. If the hotel card doesn't have Thai language written on it, get reception clerk to write hotel name and street location in Thai.
Second: Get a bilingual map, and mark your hotel's location.
If necessary, you can point on the map to a taxi driver. <Bangkok taxi drivers aren't always the world's best map readers – Stick>
The best bilingual map I've found is from ThinkNet. Whenever I am out exploring Bangkok, I am sure to take along that map. And the ThinkNet maps also show the locations of all the major hotels. Web site here.
Third: Memorize the name of a landmark near your hotel.
Make it something within walking distance. Worst case, you can go to that landmark, and then make your way back to your hotel from there.
Stations on the skytrain route or subway route are the best landmarks. For example, if you are staying at the obscure, but attractive, Ascott Serviced Apartments in Sathorn Road, memorize the name of the nearby skytrain station: Chong-Nonsi. If you can get to that station, you can see your hotel from there.
Big hotels nearby are also good landmarks. For example, if you are staying at the small, but heavily-advertised, Sam's Lodge in Sukhumvit Soi 19, just remember that the Westin Grande Sukhumvit hotel is on the corner of that soi. Most every taxi driver will know the WGS hotel, and you'll be able to point out Sam's Lodge from that corner.
Fourth: Ask the local moto-cy boys for directions.
This is for the intrepid traveller who is exploring out back of the beyond in Bangkok. I will illustrate with an example:
Let's say one of your reasons in coming to Bangkok is to get dental work done. (And a good reason that would be to come to Thailand.) Further, that you were recommended to a certain dental clinic near the intersection of Praramgownamtipsaluunggong Road and Soi umpty-six. How do you get there?
Easy: Start by getting the location written in Thai language. Your hotel reception clerk or bellboy can translate from English to Thai and write it for you. Ask him to call the clinic and get the name of the nearest skytrain or subway station, big hotel or shopping mall. Get that written in Thai, also. Even if you are taking a taxi, that well-known landmark will get you into the right neighborhood. A tip to whomever helps you with this is essential. That's how they buy food for their families. 100 baht — red banknote — is appropriate for this sort of assistance.
What if, near your destination, there is no skytrain, subway, big hotel or shopping mall? Then don't go there! Really. A tourist normally wouldn't be going to any part of Bangkok that doesn't have at least one such landmark.
Okay, you use taxi, skytrain, subway or even city bus to get to the landmark. Then what? Then you ask the moto-cy boys. At every main intersection and at most smaller intersections there will be a few, or many, motorcycles parked and waiting. Nearby will be a group of men willing to take riders anywhere in the neighborhood. These are the Bangkok "moto-cy boys", but they are men, not boys. In most areas of Bangkok, these men wear orange vests. I've also seen some areas with lime green vests and blue vests, but the vest is the clue.
Most moto-cy boys look positively scruffy and somewhat menacing. They are not friendly to strangers, but I have found them consistently willing to help, if asked. Whenever I am exploring an area of Bangkok that is new and strange to me, I rely on the moto-cy boys for guidance. They know everything in their neighborhoods. If they don't know, they will know someone who does know. If you are in a taxi, and searching for some out-of-the-way location, a smart taxi driver will get to the landmark you specify, and then stop and ask the moto-cy boys for detailed directions from there.
Moto-cy boys don't speak English. If they did, they would be doing something other than driving a motorcycle. So this is where your Thai-English directions or bilingual map come in handy. Show your Thai directions and point to the location on your bilingual map.
One of two things will happen: The moto-cy boys will just point to the direction of your destination. Or, one of them might jump on his motorcycle, and drive ahead of the taxi to lead the way. Either way, you are expected to tip the moto-cy boy for his advice. If they just point, chances are there will be a group of 2, 3 or 4 of them all discussing it among themselves. Hand your tip to the one who takes charge and points the way. If one drives his motorcycle to lead your taxi, then, of course, he gets the tip. A suitable tip is 20 baht — green banknote.
Finally, a warning: If you are on foot (not in a taxi), the moto-cy boy may motion for you to get on the back of his motorcycle and he will drive you. Even if you are not religious, say a prayer first. Motorcycles in Bangkok have a notoriously high rate of accidents.
I hope these tips are helpful and encouraging to anyone who wishes to explore the nooks and crannies of Bangkok. If specific questions, you are welcome to send me email.
Some very good advice.