Insider Info on a Gap Year Paradise
- If you fly into Bangkok International airport and want transport, don't go to any of the taxi booths inside the airport. Go outside and queue at the booth and it will be considerably cheaper. You will have to pay a 50 baht (about 80p) airport tax, and if you use the expressway (which is much quicker) you have to have the 20 baht fee ready to give the driver.
- When catching a taxi, only use ones with a meter - it can be up to a quarter of the price. When a taxi stops, ask if they have a meter; if they try and give you a price straight away, don't take it! Taxi drivers like to take the, uh, scenic route to increase the fare on the meter. If you're in a rush, take a map and tell them which way you want to go (this can be difficult with a language barrier, get a cab with a sign saying 'We love Farangs' (foreigners!). If you have time, sit back and enjoy the ride. The taxi may cost about 50 pence more, but you get to see some interesting back streets that you wouldn't normally have visited.
Tuck into a tuk tuk
- If you're taking a tuk tuk, only use ones with a number plate that is white and black or red and black as these are the government sponsored ones and are up to 10 times cheaper. Yellow number plates are specifically for tourists; they can cost up to 200 baht, (nearly £3) when you should pay under 50 baht for a few hours driving around, being taken to Buddhas, temples, or whatever you want to see. The tuk tuk driver will take you there and then wait in the tuk tuk whilst you go in and wander around and then drive you to the next place.
Most tuk tuk drivers have a shop or company that sponsor them. If they take tourists to the shop (normally a clothes shop) and the customers stay for more than 10 minutes, the tuk tuk drivers get a free tank of petrol. They will take you to a shop, beg you to go in and pretend to be interested and once you are in the shop you are subjected to the hard sell. We worked on the theory that as long as we weren't buying anything, we might as well go for the experience. You can say no and walk away, but the price of the tuk tuk is greatly reduced if you help the driver to get free petrol.
An offer they can't refuse
- Bartering seems to be a national sport in Thailand. There are hundreds of street stalls everywhere and you can hardly walk down a street without someone trying to flog you their goods ('Nice price for beautiful lady!'). If you are interested in buying something, don't be afraid to barter, it is all part of the fun and is not taken seriously. If they offer, say, 800 baht for a T-shirt, offer something like 50 baht. The stallholders often get out a calculator and type in their price, then hand it to you, to type your best offer. They will then lower their price by maybe half, and so on, until you both compromise. Don't be afraid to walk away and look for a better deal elsewhere, and more often than not, they will chase you down the street to agree to your price! If they let you walk away, you went too low and next time, change your offer. You will be amazed at how much you can get off something - I bought a bag for 700 baht (£10) and the starting price they asked was over 4,500 baht (£70!)
- If you are planning on travelling around Thailand, it makes sense to book once you get there. Don't go to any of the travel agents on the Khao San Road in Bangkok, they will often rip you off, and being stranded in Thai countryside without any transport is not fun! Go to the T.A.T. (Tourism Authority for Thailand) as they are government organised, very cheap, and have good deals for students. They will organise everything from transfers (which you will need a lot of!) to accommodation, and are friendly and trustworthy.
- If travelling by overnight train, a sleep sheet, an eye mask and earplugs will be your salvation! The lights are left on all night, and when you are sleeping on slightly dodgy-looking sheets on the top bunk, with a fluorescent strip light a metre away from your left ear, and other passengers having drunken mobile phone conversations at 2am, you will see why! Having said that, the overnight trains are a very cheap and practical option. You don't have to waste any time travelling, you save money on accommodation and you get to travel through countryside that you may not have seen if you'd flown.
- Thai transport never runs on time. If you thought England was bad, you're in for a shock! If your bus is supposed to turn up at twelve, expect it at two. Just sit back, have a drink and don't worry about it! A few days are enough to spend in Bangkok. Travel up north to Chang Mai, or even the Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam borders, or down South to Krabi, Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi or Phuket (about a twelve hour train journey) to see more of the real Thailand.
Some Other Hints and Tips
Don't drink tap water. Just don't do it. A day in bed/the bathroom, versus a day kayaking through mangrove swamps with wild monkeys eating pineapple out of your hand? You decide.
Keep a close eye on your possessions - a moneybelt is essential.
If travelling in a tuk tuk, put your bag in between your legs, with an arm through the strap - people on motorbikes will try to drive up and grab your bag.
Thailand has a lot of unimaginable poverty, and the temptation of a nice camera, a few hundred pounds and a state-of-the-art iPod to sell can be great.
Do try authentic Thai cuisine! There's a great restaurant on the Sukhumvit 11, off the Sukhumvit road, in Bangkok complete with rice served in banana leaves with garlands of flowers, tables where you sit cross legged, and eat really good food.
Make an effort to learn a few words of Thai. The people are so friendly, and are delighted when you try to speak their language and don't just act like a stereotypical tourist! Get your hostel or hotel to write down their address/instructions of how to get there in Thai. It will save you so much hassle when climbing into a taxi.
Don't be afraid to try any method of transport, but make sure you cling on tight! Thai driving is crazy! Driving the wrong way down a street, on the pavement and reversing down an expressway were just some of the experiences we 'enjoyed'! Motorbike taxis, tuk tuks, normal taxis, and trucks where you sit on benches and hang off the back are all easy ways of travelling around. Have fun! Despite some negative publicity, Thailand has so much to offer backpackers.
Be careful, don't trust people too fully, but at the same time remember that most people are not out to hurt you! Thais are, on the whole, friendly, very funny and genuine people, so make the effort to get to know them and you'll fall in love with Thailand too!