A basic overview of the areas you'd go through when arriving at Suvarnabhumi
[OK, folks - another long post today. While stumbling along from arrival gate to my taxi a month ago I thought maybe I could smooth the way for those who are still planning their first trip. The veterans among you already have your own routines and favorites, so bear with me while I try to explain arriving at BKK International to the "newbies". Please feel free to add comments, as I'm sure I've forgotten more than a couple of things that would be appreciated tips.]
Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International airport is a subject worthy of its own post, so other than to say that this 8,000 acre gorilla that squats about 15 miles outside of Bangkok proper is a monster of impressive proportions I'll let it go at that for today. If you happen to land there during daylight hours you'll understand exactly what I mean - it's enormous - and making your way through it arriving or departing is quite an experience.
My first trips to Thailand brought me into Don Muang, to the North of downtown; now the somewhat ignored step-child that deals with commercial transportation and some domestic airlines. Still, it was my first introduction to the Land of Smiles around midnight one humid August night, is perhaps a quarter of the size of Suvarnabhumi and still holds fond memories for me.
When Suvarnabhumi opened and I landed there for the first time I was somewhat overwhelmed by the size of the place, and - dealing with that balance of exhaustion and excitement - I never thought to stop and take a photo while being drawn along with my fellow cattle, herding ourselves towards Passport Control, Customs and our final destinations. There isn't a great deal to see if you're not a fan of perspective, as most of the distance you travel from the gate to Immigration is through long tunnels that seem to stretch nearly to infinity - or farther, depending on how much junk you're carrying with you.
For those of you who have yet to come to Thailand, let me put your minds at ease by assuring you that there's almost no way of getting yourself lost while on your hike from the gate. Signs are both clear and plentiful, and you're surrounded by hundreds of other travelers who are almost all going to the same place you'll be going: Immigration and baggage claim. Just follow the signs - there are many of them to guide you.
One thing to mention, though: you'll probably be given an "arrival/departure" form to fill out on the plane. Do it on the plane and don't expect to be able to do it at the passport desk when your turn comes. You will be directed to a counter some distance away to fill it out and will not be allowed back to the front of the line. I've heard some people try (with raised voices, in a variety of languages) and thankfully the boorish fools were politely but firmly moved along and out of the way of we good children who'd done our homework.
One of the ramps up to passport control
Once you're lined up to have your passport stamped you can set your things down and rest a bit. Depending on the time of day, the number of flights arriving at the same time and what I can only describe as the whim of the people in charge of staffing the stations you may find (assuming you come through the area I usually do) anywhere between five and thirty attended windows. The lines can sometimes extend all the way down the ramp in the photo above, although when the stars line up just right sometimes there are 10 stations open with only ten people in each line, getting you through to your baggage in only 15 minutes. After all, this IS Thailand - rhyme and reason rarely apply.
When your turn arrives at the attendant's counter you'll be asked for your passport and the arrival/departure form. There will be a clearly marked area on the floor in front of the counter where you're expected to stand while your photo is taken and filed with your information during your stay. Your photo will also be taken when you exit the country, and this is non-negotiable - so just grin (if you wish) and bear it.
Your passport will be stamped with the date you've arrived and also with the day your visa will expire. There are several types of visas, but as this post is primarily for new visitors just trust me that it's going to be a 30-day period of time. The departure portion of your arrival/departure form will also be stamped, folded in half and stapled to a page inside your passport. Do not remove or lose this form.
I only got one blurred shot off before being reminded of something I already knew: "No photo!". You can see baggage carousel #22 just past this window.
Your passport will be returned to you, and you will be free to proceed to the baggage area, where your flight will show on one of the lit carousel board signs, but there are 23 carousels, so pay attention. Baggage carts are free, so pick one up as you walk by. Your bags should already be coming around on the metal carousels. One time it took so long to get through Immigration that my bags were sitting by themselves, looking somewhat forlorn beside carousel 22.
There will be currency conversion booths in the baggage claim area, but as there really is no verifying who picks up which suitcase(s) I suggest you claim your bags and then buy local currency afterwards. I'm sure some of you are more concerned with conversion rates than I am, so if you truly think you're getting a bad exchange rate at one bank's booth (I would say you're probably not) check another one or just change a small amount and then spend your holiday time shopping for a bank the next day for the difference. Frankly, I don't worry about it if it's within a reasonable range according to the rates I've checked online before leaving home. What I mean is - don't sweat the small stuff.
American Express Travelers are preferred, but other travelers checks are accepted by almost every exchange station (some will want to see your passport, some won't) and by all banks, but if you prefer to carry cash to exchange you will get a slightly better rate for larger bills, such as $100s. You're going to need about Bt500 out of the gate, but I tend to change at least $100US just to avoid the hassle too soon afterwards. Ask for smaller baht bills, too, as you'll need Bt20s, 50s and 100s before you flop down onto your hotel bed (for tips, tolls, etc.)
OK, so you've cleared Immigration, have your bags and some cash. Now what? Now you have one last possible stop before walking out into the Arrivals area proper: Customs. There will be information on signs and forms that will tell you if you must declare items you're bringing into Thailand, but here are a few things that are - without a doubt - not allowed:
1) Illegal drugs
2) Firearms and other illegal weapons and explosives
3) More than one liter of liquor
4) Unreported currency over Bt 50,000 (roughly $1650USD)
5) What they call "wildlife and flora"
6) Pornography in any form, and
7) "Adult" items, meaning toys. Condoms are fine.
There's more comprehensive information here. I'd suggest you read it, and don't push your luck.
If you're not carrying forbidden items, you can push your cart through any of several lanes clearly marked "Nothing to Declare", and the odds are that will be that. If for some reason the people on duty want to take a closer look at your bags they'll ask you to put them through an X-ray and perhaps open them, but I have very, very rarely see that happen. The last time I saw it happen it was with a family from Pakistan, and they were looking at foodstuffs.
Past that you're just a few yards away from entering the Arrivals Hall, where you'll be greeted by dozens of Thai with the traditional call: "Taxi? Taxi?" Keep walking. There will be a crowd of people behind the railings holding up small signs with the names of the people they're scheduled to meet, and if you have a ride arranged, look for your name. Usually a service will tell you to look for your driver near a specific exit, and if that's the case go to that exit (all 10 of them are clearly marked above the doors) and find them.
If you do not have a ride scheduled, do not allow yourself to be taken away by any of the numerous touts who will offer you a ride to your hotel. Many of them are just honest folks making an honest living, but if you don't know the ropes don't allow yourself to be tangled up in them, if you catch my drift. Knowing you're tired and vulnerable you're likely to be grossly over-charged, taken on a tour of suit shops or jewelers or other insults to your time, intelligence and wallet.
If you really don't want to hire a taxi yourself, go directly on your own (without the help of someone walking along with you, holding your elbow) to one of the legitimate transportation counters that will be backed up to the front of the building. You'll pay a premium for the service, but you'll actually get where you want to go without the potential shenanigans.
Here's what I'd recommend: since the odds are you've already booked a hotel from your home, print out the hotel's information and/or map and bring it with you. While avoiding the offers from the strangers in the Arrivals area on level 2 (which is where you'll be when you wheel your bags out away from Customs), find the elevator or sloping escalator/moving walkway down to level 1 and exit the airport. One direction or the other, depending on which exit you use, you'll see a group of folks lined up at a counter with quite a number of taxis waiting nearby. This is the legitimate taxi stand.
Get into the line and get out your hotel information, if you have it. When you reach the counter, tell the person where you're going and give them the print-out. They'll explain in Thai to the taxi driver where you're going, charge you Bt50 for their service (well worth it for a newbie, trust me) and the driver will take your bags off your hand and load it - and you - into the taxi.
They'll turn the meter on (look for the red numbers that today would say "35" - the minimum taxi charge) and away you'll go. Some speak some English, most speak very little. If it's too cold (they tend to think Westerners want the air conditioning blasting just above freezing) pantomime that it's cold or say "aircon off" - they'll laugh and adjust it for you. Some may ask if you want "fast" or "tollway" or "expressway" and if you say yes they'll expect you to hand them the baht needed at the toll booths, of which there may be two or three. It's going to add another couple of dollars to your total cost, but depending on the time of day it could save you more than an hour stuck in traffic. Pay the tolls!
Depending on traffic, time and where your hotel is in Bangkok the meter will read somewhere between Bt230 and Bt280. Tips are not expected, but I myself feel an extra Bt20 to Bt30 is worth it, depending.
This has been a long post today, but I hope it at least gives the "newbies" a point of reference. If it saves just one of you from a knot in your stomach while getting to your hotel, it's been worth it.
[There's another post about Leaving Suvarnabhumi, if you want to check it out]