Two years ago, I decided that winter in Toronto was too damned cold for too damned long, and I scratched an itch that I had long had and spent two months traveling around Southeast Asia. Of all the places I visited in those two months—and there were a lot of them—Bangkok was my favourite (I'm a city mouse, not a beach bunny, what can I say). And so I have come back every year since, and will continue to do so.
I can't count how many times I did something that made me feel (and probably look) a complete and utter fool when I first got here. So I am sharing with you here a few tips, in no particular order, for navigating this huge, smelly, dirty, cool, amazing city. To date, I have never seen any of these covered in any guide book.
1. The Bum Gun
Thai sewer systems are not capable of processing toilet paper. When you go into a toilet stall, you will not necessarily see a roll of toilet paper. What you more likely will see is a little hose with a spray nozzle next to the toilet bowl. The idea here is "pressure wash, don't wipe.". It takes a little getting used to, but trust me, you'll be fine. If by some chance you do need to wipe with a square of toilet paper, do not dispose of it into the bowl. There will be a trash bin in the stall provided for the purpose. I am not making this up.
2. Sliding Doors
This is something that I encountered more in Vietnam, but it caught me by surprise here again just yesterday. A lot of shop doors slide open. You can't really tell just from looking at them—they have a handle and you would expect to push or pull like any normal person would, but if you keep struggling with it, you will have the shop owner running over to you and politely and with such grace as to make you feel SO STUPID, show you how to open it—which is, of course, easy as pie when you know that's what you're supposed to do.
3. Crossing the (Interior) Threshold
A lot of the time (edit: most of the time) that you go into a bathroom, you will notice that the floor is a little bit lower than the floor outside it. Or, more to the point, you *won't* notice, and will miss your step, and the waitress will think you're drunk, but you're not, dammit! It always takes a while for me to get used to this, and I always seem especially likely to forget when I'm with Thai friends. Go figure. Note that this can also be the case when entering a kitchen. I think the theory is that anywhere that the floor is likely to get wet, you don't want to flood your living room.
4. Riding the BTS, MRT, and ARL
There are three rapid transit lines in Bangkok, all run by different companies. Two are above ground, one is subterranean; two issue plastic tokens, one issues paper tickets. There is no transfer system. You can change lines at certain stations, but you have to pay a second time. The crucial thing to remember in all cases is to HANG ON TO YOUR TOKEN OR TICKET. You will need it to exit the station when you have completed your journey. If you lose it, you will end up looking like a fool in front of one of the guards at the exit. (Speaking of the guards: they will want you to lift your sunglasses when you enter their security checkpoint. Don't take it personally.)
5. Last but Not Least
This is possibly the most important, because if you don't know about this, not only will you look ignorant, you will look disrespectful. Twice a day—at 8 AM and again at 6 PM—the National Anthem is played. If you are in a public space (a train station, or public park, for example) everybody comes to a complete stop and stands still until the anthem is over. Ticket sellers at BTS stations will rise to their feet at their wickets, joggers in the park will stop without warning, and then the minute the anthem is over, they will continue on with what they were doing. Some will bow their head briefly before doing so.
It is completely charming, although a little surprising, to witness a Bangkok pedestrian rush hour come to a standstill the first time you encounter it. But please do not just blunder on with what you are doing. If you see everybody standing still, please do the same. It is the Thai way of showing respect for their land, and if you had the same tradition back home, I'm sure you'd like guests in your country to observe it too. Right? Right.
And that's it—for now! If you have any specific questions for me, just holler. I will try to answer them, or if a lot of people have the same question, I can write an article about it.