A Guide to Living Like a Local in Bangkok

Colorful Bangkok night market from above

Have you wondered how to feel more local in Bangkok but don’t know how to do that? Don’t expect tips on how to see the best temples, you’re in the wrong place. This article is all about finding the best hidden spots, taking advice from people living there, and coming out of your comfort zone.

Dive into Street Food Culture

Bangkok’s street food is famous for its mix of flavors, influenced by many cultures. Thai cooking combines local ingredients with styles from China, India, Malaysia, and Europe. This results in dishes that are flavorful and diverse, reflecting the city’s rich food heritage. That’s why you can find a wide range of tastes at the street food markets, including spicy noodles and savory curries.

One dessert that perfectly shows this fusion of flavors is Mango Sticky Rice. This delightful dish combines ripe mangoes with sticky rice and creamy coconut milk. First, the sticky rice is cooked with coconut milk and sugar until it becomes sticky. Then, it’s served with slices of fresh mango and a drizzle of coconut cream. This dessert is a must-try for anyone with a sweet tooth.

Another must-try dish is Pad Thai, one of Thailand’s most famous dishes. This stir-fried noodle dish is known for its flavorful and satisfying taste. The dish typically consists of rice noodles stir-fried with eggs, tofu, shrimp, or chicken, and flavored with fish sauce, tamarind paste, and chili powder. It is often served with lime wedges, chopped peanuts, and bean sprouts for added texture and flavor.

I bet you haven’t heard of Som Tam, a commonly eaten dish. It consists of a green refreshing papaya salad that perfectly balances spicy, sour, sweet, and salty flavors. The dish is made out of shredded green papaya, tomatoes, green beans, peanuts, and dried shrimp, all tossed in a dressing made from lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, and chili. Som Tam is very popular among locals and tourists alike for its bold flavors and refreshing taste.

While exploring Bangkok’s street food scene, you might like to try your hand at cooking these amazing dishes yourself. However, mastering the art of Thai cooking can be challenging due to the balance of flavors and the use of ingredients you might haven’t used before. That’s why a local cooking class can give you good insights and skills so you will be able to recreate some of these dishes at home. It typically lasts for half a day and offers hands-on experience guided by local chefs. You should give it a try!

Connecting with Locals

To experience Bangkok like a local, it’s important to interact with the locals. Even if you don’t speak the same language, gestures can help you communicate. In Thai culture, smiling and nodding are common responses instead of saying “no,” even if the information isn’t completely accurate. Understanding and being patient with these cultural differences can improve your interactions and experiences for sure. 

Locals are good at business, so being confident can help when buying things. You should try bargaining, but not with food, as that’s disrespectful. However, with clothes and other items, you can suggest a very low price. So don’t hesitate to invest some time, especially when the item you want to buy is more expensive. You’ll likely end up paying less in the end.

Interestingly, you may bump into locals who speak English very well. These individuals can offer valuable insights and tips, such as recommending places to visit or eat. Being open-minded and willing to change your plans based on these recommendations can lead to unexpected and rewarding experiences.

Furthermore, Thailand is well-known for its vibrant festivals, offering a unique opportunity to connect with locals and dive even deeper into their culture.

Songkran is Thailand’s most famous festival, marking the traditional Thai New Year. Celebrated in April, it’s known for its lively water fights, where people splash water on each other as a symbol of cleansing and renewal. It is a time for family reunions, paying respect to elders, and visiting temples to make merit.

Loy Krathong, also known as the Festival of Lights, is celebrated on the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, usually in November. During this festival, people release small, decorated baskets, called krathongs, onto rivers and waterways to honor the goddess of water and to symbolize letting go of grudges and negative feelings.

Yi Peng is a lantern festival honored together with Loy Krathong, particularly in northern Thailand. It is known for the release of thousands of sky lanterns into the night sky, creating an unforgettable spectacle. The lanterns are believed to symbolize releasing misfortune and making wishes for the future.

The Vegetarian Festival, locally known as Tesagan Gin Je, spans nine days in October. During this time, many Thai people observe a strict vegetarian diet to cleanse their bodies and minds. The festival is also marked by various ceremonies, processions, and rituals at Chinese shrines and temples, particularly in Phuket, where the festival is especially lively.

Cultural Etiquette and Practical Tips

When visiting Thailand, it’s important to be mindful of cultural etiquette to show respect for the local customs. Learning basic Thai phrases can help you communicate with locals and enable meaningful interactions. For example, “sawasdee” is a common way to say hello in Thai. The traditional Thai greeting, the “wai,” is a gesture where palms are pressed together in a prayer-like gesture, accompanied by a slight bow, used to show respect in greetings and farewells. This gesture is a sign of respect and is commonly used in greetings and farewells.

When visiting temples or engaging in religious activities, it’s customary to remove your shoes before entering the sacred area. It’s also important to remain quiet and respectful, as these places hold significant spiritual importance for the local people. Additionally, when interacting with locals, especially elders or those in positions of authority, remember to use the traditional Thai greeting, the “wai,” which involves placing your palms together in a prayer-like gesture and bowing slightly. This gesture is a sign of respect and is commonly used in greetings and farewells.

It’s also important to be aware of cultural sensitivities, such as not touching someone’s head, as it is considered the most sacred part of the body in Thai culture. Additionally, avoid pointing your feet at people or sacred objects, as feet are considered the lowest part of the body in Thai culture.

While Thailand may be affordable for tourists, it’s important not to be aloof or disrespectful about the local economy. The gap between rich and poor in Thailand is significant, so it’s important to be mindful of your spending. Set and track your budget to avoid overspending on expensive items that may seem cheap compared to prices in your home country but could still stress your finances in the long run.

Use Public Transport

In Bangkok, there is an endless list of how to get around cheap. The BTS Skytrain (Bangkok Mass Transit System) is the most reliable one and covers most of the central city area, providing a fast and efficient way to get around. If you plan to use public transport frequently, it’s wise to book accommodation near a BTS station. Fares for individual trips vary based on the distance traveled, typically ranging from 50 cents to $1.90.

Complementing the BTS is the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit), an underground metro system that extends the coverage to areas not reached by the BTS. A single ride will cost around a dollar.

You should definitely take advantage of Bangkok’s extensive public bus network. However, be prepared for some unpredictability. Buses may not always stick to their schedules or planned routes. It’s helpful to check your route carefully on Google Maps but remember that the information may not always be accurate. Despite these challenges, public buses offer a budget-friendly transportation option, with fares ranging from 22 to 55 cents.

Additionally, ride-hailing apps like Grab and Bolt are widely used in Bangkok, providing a convenient way to get around the city. While Bolt is generally cheaper than Grab, there are fewer cars available, especially in outlying areas. This can result in longer waiting times, with it potentially taking up to 20 minutes for a driver to arrive at your location. Furthermore, being too far from the city center can make it difficult for Bolt drivers to accept orders. If you’re looking for faster travel within the city, you could also consider using a scooter from one of these apps, but remember to prioritize safety.

At that point, you should choose based on your destination, budget, and comfort preferences on how to get around.

Discovering Hidden Gems

Exploring Bangkok’s lively cityscape requires a balance of curiosity and patience, so make sure to not overload your itinerary. Take your time and simply allow yourself to dive into this unique culture, which requires visiting places tourists mostly don’t go to, called hidden gems. So which lesser-known spots shouldn’t you miss?

Talad Noi must be the most surprising district of Bangkok. There isn’t only a nice atmosphere because of the vintage items and great art, it was also very peaceful there and allowed to recover from all the noises of the city. What makes the artist district special is the Chinese influence which is evident as soon as you stumble upon the temples, towers, and other unexpected corners. 

Benchakiti Park is another secret spot to not miss in this city. This peaceful retreat also has a stunning view when you go onto the skywalk which covers a huge part of the park. When keeping in mind how huge this park with its lakes is, it’s actually surprising that tourists are barely coming across this oasis.

For those interested in entertainment, MBK Center is another must-visit destination. Apart from its extensive shopping options, MBK Center often hosts free events, including performances, exhibitions, and workshops. Whether you’re interested in traditional Thai dance, K-pop shows, or singing performances, you can find a variety of unique performances for free every day outside of the center on the ground floor. MBK Center is not only a shopping destination but also a cultural hub where you can experience the vibrant arts and entertainment scene of Bangkok.

Live Like a Local

Exploring Bangkok like a local can make your trip more meaningful. Consider booking an Airbnb with a kitchen to dive even deeper into the local lifestyle. You can visit markets, buy fresh ingredients, and cook traditional Thai dishes. It’s a great way to experience the culture firsthand.

While it may be tempting to stick to familiar foods and habits from your home country, sticking to the local cuisine and customs can lead to a richer experience. Keep in mind that “Western” food tends to be more expensive in Bangkok, so it makes sense to avoid that food during your trip.

Setting routines can help you adjust to the differences in time zone, climate, and lifestyle. While it may be overwhelming at first, finding a balance between exploring the city and engaging in activities like cooking or exercising can contribute to a more enjoyable and fulfilling stay.

Conclusion

Living like a local in Bangkok allows you to slow down and appreciate the city’s beauty more authentically. It’s about more than just sightseeing, it’s about feeling the pulse of the city and connecting with its people.

Uli and Anna are currently traveling around Southeast Asia. They are on their journey to becoming digital nomads and are sharing their stories on Instagram and TikTok.