When you have lived in Thailand long enough that:
- it seems perfectly normal to walk past motorcycles driving on the sidewalks (not to mention to drive your own motorbike on the sidewalks)
- it seems perfectly normal to get saluted by uniformed guards when entering shopping malls, hospitals, banks and even your own neighborhood
- it seems perfectly normal to revert instantly to English with a Thai accent (once your Thai language skills fail) because you know this is more likely to get results than any other brand of English
- it becomes customary to toss t.p. it in a bin, which is always sitting beside the thrown, rather than flush it down
- it seems perfectly normal to haggle over the price of a pair of shoes, even in a shopping mall department store
- you miss som tom (green papaya salad) the most when you leave the country and make it a priority to order it first thing upon your return to The Kingdom
- you do not even blink, but instead crouch low out of respect and nimbly step around monks and your Thai co-workers when you find them composed in a semi-circle on the floor of new office space during a “new office” blessing ceremony at the start of the work day
When your stimulus responses have shifted in these ways … well then, it’s safe to say that your view of “normal” has changed from that which you left in the US.
I’m thinking about these things because I notice lately that it can be a challenge after so many years living in Bangkok to gauge what may or may not be a worthwhile experience for visitors who are stepping onto Thai soil for the first time. Every year or so my family receives such visitors, and over time I have developed a short list of experiences that I think make for an interesting trip. These are not “must see” tourist sites or museums, though you could easily incorporate some of the items on my list alongside a trip to the Grand Palace or the Sleeping Buddha. Rather, these are relatively easy (Thailand Travel 101) things one can do on their own, for the most part, that I feel provide a glimpse of how the way of life here in Bangkok, and Thailand generally, is unique from elsewhere, particularly in the Western hemisphere.
All of the below experiences require only some curiosity and a bit of initiative and a bit – though not much really – of cash.
1. GET A THAI MASSAGE. A must for the first-time visitor – Thai massage is different from other types of massage. It is like someone performing yoga on you, with lots of stretching and twisting of your body, while you lie there relatively passively. If you have never partaken in a massage before, this is the perfect opportunity because getting one is insanely affordable in Thailand; massage is considered a normal part of one’s weekly self-care routine (isn’t that awesome!?). Everyone has their favorite local place, but you, as a visiter, need not worry about getting fleeced or caught up in a dangerous or pornographic situation. There are some reliably professional massage chains in Bangkok which offer Thai massages at affordable prices. Among my favorites are Healthland and Let’s Relax. Call ahead if possible, and note that you want the 2-hour, not the 1-hour version. Trust me on this.
3. ENJOY A BEVERAGE ON A ROOFTOP BAR. If you google rooftop bars Bangkok, you will be overwhelmed. This is a good thing. Rooftop bars are awesome: city lights, sexy locations and happy hour deals make this one of the best before or after dinner experiences you can incorporate into your stay. Whatever your budget, I encourage you to go for a rooftop beverage at some point during your stay – I’m sure you can find one to suit your needs. They are cool locations away from the grime and chaos of the city streets, with fantastic city light views.
4. GET SOME TAILORED THREADS. Tailors, most run by the Sikh-Thai community here, are another incredible value. If you have never had a tailored shirt, dress or suit, now is your chance. Many moons ago, when I first moved here and became quickly frustrated by the super-small Asian sizes in department stores, I resorted to my first tailoring experience. It was so amazing that for years later I never looked back. There is something luxurious about having clothes cut to your particular body shape. And if you are uniquely tall or short in general or in places and tend to have trouble purchasing clothes off-the-rack in the West, this feature of Thailand, alone may even be worth the price of your airline ticket. The price is about the same as purchasing clothes off the rack, and much depends on the quality of the fabric (same as when you buy clothes off the rack). Nowadays, department stores in Bangkok are more likely to have Western sizes in stock. But this is also a great option for people who do not particularly love clothes shopping but also want to look good, like me, since you can go into a tailor shop once, then again for a fitting and finally pick up your goods without having to spend the entire day or several days plying the retail shops and not finding the right thing. Speaking of which, if this tailoring option sounds intriguing to you, bear in mind you will need a few days and 2-3 trips into the tailoring shop, so it is best to begin the process as early as possible during your visit. Tailors all appreciate the tight schedules visitors have and do their best to work with their customers. Including when necessary delivering the final goods to you hotel or even to the airport (!). There are many good tailors in Bangkok, but the one I frequent most often and send most of my visitors to is this one. They wholly reliable, conveniently located and work with only high quality fabrics; they are best with mens suits and office clothes for women, though I once had a lovely cashmere full length coat made from them that inspired a stranger on a train in Europe to voice a compliment.
By the way, you can and should bargain politely. It is expected. Discuss price particulars last. It need not be anything more than, after you have gone through the process of selecting the fabrics, styles and number and types of items, asking, “Would you be able to come down from that price a bit? It’s more than I am prepared to spend.”
5. EAT OFF THE STREET. There are places in Asia where this is not advisable, but Bangkok, and Thailand in general, is safe. The water is clean here (as opposed to Indonesia, for example) which makes a big difference. It is not uncommon to see presumably big-deal business folks in suits grabbing a plastic stool at their favorite humble noodle stand at the lunch hour, alongside taxi drivers and students. It also can be some of the best dining around. If you are very curious, you might even want to consider a street food tour – I recommend Bangkok Food Tours, which offer superb and very affordable street food tours in many environments, from midnight tuk tuk tours to riverside boat tours to bicycle tours. If this is of interest, consider scheduling one of these tours in the early days of your trip so that you can reap the benefits during the remainder of your stay, as you will become familiar with and capable of ordering off many street stalls after just one of tour.
6. (Bonus Experience Option!) BE A VIP AT THE MOVIES. If you’re in need of a rest day and happen to be in Bangkok, and especially if you enjoy the movies, it’s an all around better experience in Thailand, with the possibility of VIP service and seating – there are special VIP theatres in every movie house. You will note (and please participate in) the tradition of standing while a short video of Thailand and its king is played to the Thai national anthem. Each cinema company has its own video to go along with the national anthem.
That’s it. You will have many specific things to do, in all likelihood, during your first visit to Thailand. I hope these suggestions help to fill in some of the gaps and to make your visit uniquely your own.