What to Expect in Bangkok: Expectations vs Reality in the Land of Smiles

Exploring Bangkok: Expectations vs Reality

How does this backpacker favourite compare to our idea of it?

For backpackers, exploring Bangkok is practically a rite of passage. Thailand’s capital is one of the most famous cities in the world, an iconic Southeast Asian destination that’s talked endlessly about in pop culture and the travel circuit in equal parts affection and aversion. Everyone loves the food and bemoans the traffic. I’ve read all the books, watched and re-watched The Beach, and pored over countless Bangkok to-do lists. And so, when I visited the city, I thought I knew what to expect in Bangkok. 

Read on to discover where I was proven wrong — and hopefully, for your trip, you’ll be much more prepared than I was!

Also read: 10 Gorgeous Yet Budget-Friendly Bangkok Airbnbs & Vacation Rentals

Expectations vs. reality: What is Bangkok like?

Expectation: Easy and seamless railway transit

With multiple train lines cutting across the city, I thought my primary mode of transportation would be by rail. Before travelling to Bangkok, it may seem like getting from one place to another would be simple. I even bought a Rabbit Card, so I can hop on and off trains as quickly as possible.  

Reality: The railway system is quite disjointed — but there’s exceptional Grab service to make up for it

thailand train rabbit card

I only ended up using my Rabbit Card a handful of times in two weeks.

It turns out, I never needed that Rabbit Card after all. For one, it only worked on the BTS Skytrain, not on the MRT. And while many popular attractions lie along the BTS route (Chatuchak Market, Siam, Victory Monument), there are also plenty of places that are not accessible via Skytrain. This includes the Grand Palace, Khlong Bang Luang Artist House, Khao San Road, and Chinatown. In many cases, it’s much more convenient to take a taxi to your destination — although, it’s a lot pricier, of course.

The good news: Ride-hailing app Grab makes exploring Bangkok easy and seamless. There are more Grab transport options in Bangkok than expected; you can travel by motorcycle, taxi, and car. Paying by cash is available if you don’t have a credit card attached to your app. And surprisingly, the in-app translation function works pretty well!

TripZilla Tip: Going by motorbike is cheaper. But if you’re hailing a ride for two or more people, the price of one Grab car would probably be lower than getting multiple motorcycles. 

If you’re set on taking the train as much as possible, I recommend booking accommodations near the BTS Skytrain or MRT. (I personally liked Siam Eco Hostel, which had a Skytrain station right outside its doorstep.) Additionally, craft an itinerary that would allow you to maximise the Bangkok railway system.

Expectation: Fun tuk-tuk rides around Bangkok

exploring bangkok tuk-tuk

Image credit: Norbert Braun

Tuk-tuks are as much a part of Bangkok’s urban landscape as beautiful temples and tasty street food. And so, when I was planning my trip and wondering what Bangkok is like, I imagined plenty of enjoyable tuk-tuk rides from the hotel and across the whole city. 

Reality: Pricey (and slightly nerve-wracking) tuk-tuk rides


What to expect in Bangkok? Slightly manic driving. | Image credit: viewbug via Canva Pro

One of the things that really surprised me when exploring Bangkok was how expensive tuk-tuk rides are — oftentimes, it’s almost as expensive as going by taxi. At certain times of the day, it can be easier to hail a tuk-tuk, though. Additionally, a tuk-tuk ride isn’t as expensive if you’re going somewhere within a kilometre or two.

I did get one thing right: It is fun to ride a tuk-tuk. However, the speed, tenacity, and sheer fearlessness of the drivers make it quite nerve-wracking, too. Weaving through Bangkok traffic almost feels like an amusement park ride; one time, I swear we missed scraping a bus by a hair! 

To be fair, this isn’t limited to tuk-tuks. Drivers of any kind are generally very fast and aggressive on the road in Bangkok. As someone from the similarly chaotic streets of Manila, it says a lot that the breakneck speed, twists, and turns of Bangkok vehicles surprised me and made me hang on extra hard for dear life. 

Expectation: The city will be easy to navigate on foot

what to expect in bankok

Image credit: Evan Krause

Like many tourists on a budget, I love walking on vacation — not only is it free, but it also allows me to get to know the city more intimately. There are some things you’ll miss when you’re in a car, but very few will escape your notice when you’re walking the streets. With that in mind, we even chose a hotel within walking distance of Khao San Road.

Reality: What looks like a manageable walk on Google Maps isn’t always the case

Bangkok expectations vs reality: walking to places are much longer and much less enjoyable than I thought it would be — but I did enjoy this beautiful sunset.

If you’re curious about what to expect in Bangkok, know that it is huge. The city is bigger than Singapore or New York. Plus, there aren’t always sidewalks to make navigating the streets safer. On my way from Siam shopping malls to Platinum Mall, I got lost twice, asked for directions multiple times, and walked alongside cars stuck in traffic. Needless to say, not taking the train turned out to be a mistake. 

Expectation: Regular malls

iconsiam exploring bangkok

Image credit: Vitalijs Barilo

Tourists may not spare much thought for malls before travelling to Bangkok. There are palaces, temples, night markets, canal tours, and famed Bangkok nightlife to take up our time — who has time for malls, right? After all, we have shopping malls in Manila, too. 

Reality: Massive malls

siam paragon

I didn’t expect to get exhausted walking in malls, that’s for sure. | Image credit: Andrey Khrobostov via Canva Pro

First-time visitors who don’t know what to expect in Bangkok will probably be awed at the sheer size of malls in the city. Even coming from Manila where we have more than our share of massive shopping malls, I was surprised.

One can easily spend an entire day exploring just a single mall in Bangkok, and there are quite a few in the city that are worth a visit. From the extra luxe Siam Paragon to the ultra-affordable MBK Center, Bangkok malls come in all shapes and sizes — and for all budgets! Not planning to shop? I think the malls are worth visiting, even if it’s just to take a peek at the super-sized interiors. 

Also read: 15 Malls and Outlet Stores to Go Shopping in Bangkok

Expectation: Striking up conversations and asking for directions will be simple

what to expect in bangkok thailand

Image credit: Norbert Braun

It is the Land of Smiles, after all! And Thai people are well-known for being extremely friendly.

Also read: Out of Curiosity: What Do Southeast Asians Really Think of One Another?

Reality: Thai people are shy and quite timid with English


Another thing to expect in Bangkok are the crowds at Chinatown and other tourist spots. | Image credit: aluxum via Canva Pro

Don’t get me wrong; Thai people are unfailingly polite and helpful, and they do smile a lot! But it’s a little more of a challenge to communicate with locals than I thought it would be. A friendly local told us that the reason why Thailand became known as the Land of Smiles is because of how shy Thai people would simply smile at foreigners, instead of talking to them.

In general, many locals can be too shy to converse in English, while others aren’t very fluent in the language at all. People in the tourism or hospitality industry are extremely well-versed in English, so it’s not a problem when exploring Bangkok. However, there were times when we tried getting directions, only to give up because of the language barrier.  

Tip: Learn a few Thai phrases! As someone unused to super-spicy food, one of the useful things I learned to say was “not spicy” or “mai phet.”

Expectation: Spending significant money on food and shopping

thai street food

The food is just as good as I expected. | Image credit: piyaphun via Canva Pro

Bangkok is famously affordable, but a part of me thought that the reputation was a bit of an exaggeration. I figured that it was in comparison to Western prices; it just made sense that food and hotels would be cheaper in Asia. While I knew what to expect, I didn’t think prices in Bangkok would be that much more than in the Philippines.

Reality: Everything is even cheaper than I imagined!

chatuchak market exploring bangkok

When exploring Bangkok, set aside time and money for shopping. | Image credit: sambarfoto via Canva Pro

Being from the Philippines, I thought I knew what affordable meant, but the Thailand capital takes it to another level. In Bangkok, my expectations often differ vs reality, but this is one time when I’m delighted that I was proven wrong. If anything, I realised how expensive living in Manila actually is!

Delicious Thai food is served generously for super-low prices, from ฿20 pad thai to ฿40 stir-fried chicken dishes — both at portions big enough to share, by the way! And when it comes to Bangkok shopping, prepare to be pleasantly surprised. If you visit MBK Center, Platinum Mall, and Chatuchak Market, you’ll find wonderful clothes, accessories, and other souvenirs at staggeringly low prices. Haggling is expected at markets and stalls, so actual prices turn out to be even cheaper than on display.

Also read: Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur: Which Southeast Asian Capital Should You See First?

It’s safe to say that exploring Bangkok wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. But isn’t that what we love about travelling, anyway? We travel to get our expectations overturned and to discover all the ways the world is much better than we imagined. So, even if you don’t know what to expect in Bangkok or your next destination, take the leap and embrace the experience. (Although, a little more preparation than I did for my trip wouldn’t hurt.)

Featured image credit: Diversity Studio via Canva Pro

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About Author

Celia Grace Nachura
Celia Grace Nachura

There are very few things Celia won’t do for a good story, but her favourite ones always involve the beach, animals, or any type of outdoor activity. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember, and can usually be found typing away at home with her cute dogs at her feet. Away from work, she spends most of her time trying out every hobby she can get her hands on, from running to crocheting to baking (she’s pretty okay at most things that don't involve cooking).