Hello! There's a lot of info here, but I've tried to keep it fairly light.
The below is really just a few tips on the basics.
Before you book
Make sure your passport's valid, and will remain valid for at least six more months after your visit. Them's the rules.
You don't need a visa unless you're planning to stay for more than 30 days, or arriving on a one-way ticket.
Where to go/stay
We live in the Thong Lo (sometimes written as Thong Lor/Thonglor) neighborhood, which is a little east of central Bangkok. It's become extremely trendy over the past few years though, so can be a bit more expensive than other areas.
If you don't fancy staying around here, I'd recommend staying somewhere close to public transport, either the BTS (Skytrain) or the MRT (underground). We're served by the BTS, so that's probably the easiest of the two if we're going to be meeting up, ideally on the Sukhumvit line rather than the Silom line, so that we don't need to change trains when we meet up.
Most of Bangkok is perfectly safe, but some areas are more pleasant than others. The city is less sleazy than it used to be, but there's still a few areas to be wary of.
I've put together a completely arbitrary and quite unfair map of areas you might like to stay in and/or avoid. Most hotel booking sites will show you your hotel on a map, or you should be able to just search for the hotel name on this one.
Most hotels you'd be looking at would probably fall within one of these boxes though. If not, it might be a bit out of the way. Be aware that neither airport is in the city itself. The labels and boundaries are totally unscientific, and there are certainly e.g. pockets of decency in the areas marked with "sleaze"...
Don't buy a lot of beach clothes and t-shirts before you leave, they'll be cheaper here. The only exception would be for larger sizes, as they can be difficult to find.
You can change currency on arrival, there are booths in the baggage claim hall and across the city. You'll generally get a better rate in Thailand than you would at home.
There are ATMs everywhere in Bangkok, so you don't need to bring a lot of cash. There is a fixed fee for foreign withdrawals, so if you make a small number of large withdrawals instead of lots of small ones, this minimises the fees.
You'll want to have a pen or two in your carry-on luggage as there are immigration forms to fill in on the plane.
If you're flying from Manchester, there are no direct flights to Bangkok, so you'll have to change planes somewhere. I prefer to do it somewhere around the Middle East, as it's roughly half-way which breaks up the journey nicely. Emirates are my airline of choice, their stop is in Dubai. Etihad (Abu Dhabi) are also very good.
I try to avoid European and American airlines where possible, service is usually much better on Middle Eastern or East Asian airlines. Ask me if you're not sure about a particular airline - if I haven't flown them myself, I probably know someone who has. If you just want to spend as little as possible then go ahead and book the cheapest, they'll all get you here!
On duty-free, don't try to bring more than 200 cigarettes or a litre of spirits into Thailand. There's no fixed limit on perfume - the law refers to a "reasonable" amount, for personal use...
I try to be first off the plane, or as close to it as I can. I then more or less race the other passengers to the Immigration line. It moves slowly at the best of times. Have your passports and immigration cards (from the plane) ready.
Suvarnabhumi airport is about 20 miles from central Bangkok. Personally I'd avoid the trains and buses as they're a pain with luggage. Taxis are much cheaper than you're probably used to, but can be a bit scammy - more on this later. The ones from the airport are generally better-behaved though.
Taxis operate from the ground floor, downstairs from the arrivals hall. Follow the signs and completely ignore anyone who approaches you asking if you want a "taxi" unti you're actually in the taxi queue. Anyone else is trying to trick you into taking their private car service, which would be much more expensive.
The BTS (Skytrain) and MRT (Underground) are cheap, easy and don't get stuck in traffic. You will probably need to use taxis at some point though, and they can be a bit of a pain for first time tourists.
There's an automated ticket system at the airport taxi rank - you'll get a ticket with your bay number printed on it. Keep hold of this ticket. Show it to the driver, but don't let him take it. This is essentially your insurance policy, as it proves you were in that cab, with that driver, at that time. If he does try to overcharge you, this piece of paper is your comeback.
Anywhere outside the airport, no piece of paper to save you. You can flag down a taxi on the street if the red light in the windscreen is lit. If it's not lit, the driver's off-duty, or already on a job.
Taxis hanging around parked outside/around areas popular with tourists are more likely to be scammers. Decent taxi drivers are more likely to be moving around in traffic, you know, actually driving a taxi
The driver should turn the meter on right away, and it should read "35" as a starting fare. If he doesn't, say "meter". If he refuses, get out without paying and flag down the next taxi.
A flat rate fee within Bangkok is always a rip-off. The meter will always be cheaper. The only time it's appropriate to negotiate a fee off-meter would be if you're going on a long drive well outside Bangkok, to e.g. Hua Hin or somewhere several hours drive away.
There are toll roads in and around Bangkok, which your driver may suggest taking to save time. You're responsible for paying the tolls though. For some reason, Thai taxi drivers think "highway" is the English word for toll road.
No, I don't know why either. And yes, I wish I'd known that on my first taxi ride here in 2004, when I couldn't speak any Thai and the driver kept shouting "HIGHWAY?" at me, and I kept shrugging and saying "yes this is a very nice thoroughfare, what's your point?".
There's a 50 baht surcharge for airport taxis, so the final fare from the airport will be the price on the meter, plus any tolls, plus 50 baht.
But if you didn't get your taxi from the rank at the airport, the meter price is all you have to pay. You can tip if you want to, but it's not required.
All of the above can be avoided by installing the Uber app on your phone. There's no fare negotiations, no danger of a rigged meter, and it's entirely cashless, funded by your debit or credit card.
Oh, and no good ever comes of talking to tuk-tuk drivers. I mean, take a tuk-tuk ride once if you feel the need, but a taxi will always be cheaper, and tuk-tuk drivers are renowned for overcharging, and/or trying to persuade you to visit rip-off shops/services that pay them commission for delivering unwitting tourists.
There is basically zero violent street crime, especially against tourists. You're extremely unlikely to get mugged or robbed unless you go around actively and obviously looking for trouble.
It is worth knowing that any criticism of the royal family is illegal, and it's probably safer to avoid mentioning them at all. It's unlikely to come up really.
There are a few criminal enterprises to be aware of though. Most Thais don't speak great English, and are generally quite shy around tourists, so it's a bit of a red flag if someone approaches you in public and starts up a conversation.
The US Embassy has a good run-down here.
The Wikitravel pages linked up top will list a whole bunch of ideas, but here are a few of my own personal Bangkok tips, in no particular order:
- Chatuchak weekend market - Sat/Sun only, take the BTS to Mo Chit or the MRT to Chatuchak Park. Follow the throngs. It gets very, very hot.
- Rooftop drinks/dinner - various options here, including Sirocco at Lebua as featured in The Hangover Part 2, but Octave is my pick, at the Marriott Sukhumvit.
- VIP Cinema - there are a few of these, Diplomat Screens at Central Embassy mall is probably the pick of the bunch at the moment. Expensive, but quite an experience - watch your movie from the comfort of a day bed, with cushions and blankets, a handy fridge full of drinks, and a butler.
- Ko Kret - small but charming little island in the middle of the Chao Phraya river. A bit off the beaten path, but an interesting place to spend an afternoon - there's now a microbrew pub to enjoy alongside some hard-to-find traditional Thai/Mon food
- Bangkok Art and Culture Centre - decent sized art gallery and exhibition space. Free admission.
- Cat Café - our local Purr Cat Café Club closed a while back, which was disappointing, but the Cataholic Café is worth a visit if you're in the area
- Thai massage - there are tons of options here, but the Health Land chain is a pretty safe choice. They have a big branch on Ekamai, maybe 10-15 mins walk from our place. Booking ahead is a good idea if you're planning to visit at a busy time.
- Tailors - you can get a bespoke business suit made here for probably not far off the price of a cheap off-the-rack suit back home. You'll need to be in town for a good few days, ideally a week or so as there should be two or three fittings involved. Beware of anywhere that offers to have it all done within a day or two. Rajawongse is in a seedy corner of town, but they get consistently excellent reviews.