Five cheap thrills in Bangkok
No, this list doesn't have anything to do with happy endings or weed (which was legalized in 2022). Bangkok is a stimulating place with plenty of other material and cultural offerings. But whether you're visiting the city for sightseeing, shopping, the culinary experience, or debauchery, it's easy to (over)indulge, and you can quickly spend more baht than you were initially planning to part with. If you're travelling on a budget or just feeling jaded by overpriced tourist attractions, these excursions are fun, cheap (or free), and leave ample room for spontaneity and surprises.
Zip across the city on a motorbike taxi
Among the various forms of transport in Bangkok—bus, songthaew, metro, SkyTrain, or cab—motorbike taxi is not only the most efficient way to get around the city but the most exhilarating. Hiring a bike from the Grab app (Thailand's equivalent of Uber) is quick, easy, and relatively economical. It's the intermediate option in terms of cost—more expensive than riding the public transport, but less expensive than hiring a car. Of course, you could rent your own motorbike, but if you don't know how to drive one or don't trust yourself to Mario Kart race through Bangkok traffic, it's a good idea to leave it to the pros. I always get a bit of an adrenaline rush as my driver narrowly swerves through the cars lined up at a red light or scoots over the railroad tracks just before the bar comes down.
Note that not all Grab drivers carry an extra helmet. If you don't want to gamble, you can message the driver who accepts your ride request to ask if they have one on hand and cancel or accept the ride at your discretion. I'm 100% a proponent of wearing a helmet, but helmet use isn't enforced in Thailand, in practice (although it's illegal to not wear one, in theory).
Walk the colorful alleys of Talat Noi
Talat Noi, an old neighborhood near Chinatown, is known for its alleyways lined with colourful murals. Although it's a popular place for tourists to pose for Instagram, it's still relatively quiet. I found the mix of modern cafés, vine-covered, rambling buildings, Thai–Chinese temples, street vendors, rusted tuk-tuks, and other roadside junk both interesting and visually appealing. This place makes for a good photo-op excursion.
Remember to always ask vendors if you can photograph their merchandise (or even better, offer small change as a courtesy).
Browse the amulet market for quirky souvenirs
This weird and wonderful market offers bang for your buck (or even less than a buck). For a mere 20 baht you can own a talisman that could potentially grant you fame, fortune, protection, or love. Among the bins of copious statues of gods, animals, and Buddhas, I wasn't expecting to find a tiny, phallic-shaped surprise (palad khik). According to Wikipedia, palad khik paraphernalia symbolize the Hindu god Shiva and can be worn in seedy places where Buddhist amulets are forbidden (i.e., bars, brothels, etc.). Men wear this amulet in the hopes to attract women, protect them from weapons, and enhance their gambling luck, while women can carry palad khik to ward off muggers and rapists (which I think is pretty apt for a solo female traveller—I was sold).
If you're a collector of weird objects or into dark tourism, Kuman Thong replicas, the controversial fetus statues, can supposedly be found here. I didn't see any obviously on display during my visit, so you might have to ask around.
Sample the street food
One of the street food meccas of the world, Bangkok's food scene runs 24/7 and is its own reason to visit. I'm not an expert on the street food, but I know someone who is––one of the co-owners of A Chef's Tour. This foodie team curated a street food tour led by local guides that's been consistently rated by Trip Advisor as the best food tour in Bangkok. They'll take you through the backstreets to some of the best-known stalls and best-kept secrets while explaining the history and cultural significance of what and where you're eating. If you'd rather explore on your own, you can check out their recommendations on what dishes to try and markets to visit. The street fare is not only cheap but much more flavorful and fulfilling than anything you'd find in an uninspiring mall food court.
Street food vendors are at risk of being weeded out owing to gentrification and rising expenses. Most of them live hand to mouth and are part of the informal economy, so you're directly supporting the vendor if you order food from them.
Go along with a tuk-tuk scam
I know this sounds suspicious, but hear me out. The first time I visited Bangkok, like most other tourists, I visited the Grand Palace. While waiting in line, I conversed with another tourist, and we ended up walking around the palace grounds together. On our way out, we were approached by a tuk-tuk driver offering to take us sightseeing around the city for a cheap fare. We had a hunch that this was a scam of sorts, but figured it was a fun way to see the city and played along with it. The driver proceeded to take us to a few shops selling expensive, blingy jewelry and fancy suits and silks. The shop owners presumed that we were a married couple, which we also went along with. This is a well-known tourist trap, but you're under no obligation to buy anything, and it was a fun way to bond with a stranger and see the city.
The tuk-tuk driver is commissioned to bring tourists to these shops (even if you only browse), so you can enjoy the ride without a guilty conscience.