This is my fourth trip to Bangkok in 21 years and I have reflected on my impressions of Bangkok- then and now (and a bit in between).
Before I first came to Bangkok at the start of 1996, I’d been given two impressions “Dirty and polluted” or “You’ll love it“. By this time I’d aligned myself with the second set – people who love to travel rather than the more conservative British tourists in the former.
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Bangkok was only the second Asian city I’d been to (the first being Singapore which was very modern and international). I soon realised I was in real Asia. All the senses are assaulted – the heat and humidity, the constant traffic punctuated regularly with car horns, the murky streetlights giving the buildings a touch of the unknown. Then in daylight you see all the colours from the vibrant gold temples, the fantastic fresh fruit on display at the street vendors. From leaving the airport, Bangkok seemed to be in a permanent state of gridlock 24/7. The vehicles were old and dirty which made the whole city very polluted. There was no mass transit system to relieve the traffic. Tuk tuks seemed incredibly dangerous as they wove between the cars.
I was struck by how dirty the canals were and I was in fear of getting any water on me from the river on the mandatory river trip for every first-time visitor. Seeing the local Bangkok life from the water is really interesting as you understand the relationship the locals have with he river. Houses back right onto it – children played in it – they washed in it. During the daytime everything seemed so bright – especially going around impressive Wat Pho and the Grand Palace. This was completely different to anything I’d experienced before with the lavish golden Buddhas and pagodas. At night it was very gloomy though as all the street lamps used low-powered bulbs which felt a bit unnerving. The seedy side of the city came to life with its go-go bars and the unpleasant shows being advertised in Phat Pong for tourists nestling alongside all the stalls selling cheap Rolex watches and designer label t-shirts.
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The one thing I’d really been looking forward to was the food… and this didn’t disappoint. At that time, Thai restaurants were few and far between in England. I soon understood the need to treat chillies with respect, after eating a bird’s eye chilli which left me gasping for about 15 minutes.
I did struggle with the very visible gap between rich and poor – there could be a slum-type settlement next to a four-star hotel. There were plenty of beggars on the street. And all the taxi drivers, street pedlars and scruffy tuk tuks were demanding my custom.
The Bangkok trip in 2000
My next trip to Bangkok, Thailand was in 2000. By this time, I overcame my fear of the tuk-tuk and realised that using canals was the quickest (and one of the cheapest) ways to get around. The Bangkok Skytrain had just been launched and offered a new way to avoid the congested streets. I stayed on the Ko San road, favoured by backpackers, and I didn’t really like it. It had its uses in that it was the best place to book travel, use Internet cafes (around the millennium these were an integral part of the traveler’ life!) and had lots of bars. It was geared up for backpackers, and the only Thais you would see, were the workers (including prostitutes and would-be brides!).
The markets had expanded their selection to include shirts from every premier league team and had a wider selection of designer labels. Haggling was still compulsory and you could find yourself arguing about an extra ten pence! At one time we even bartered for a beer or a train… because we could.
Impressions of Bangkok now: 2017
Bangkok has got higher! There are big skyscrapers – one of which we are staying in.
And they are building more and more of them. The Central Embassy shopping centre is as plush as any that I have been to, with all the designer shops (and Topshop!).
The streets are still full of cars but the cars are modern with a good specification. Taxis have overtaken tuk-tuks as the most popular mode of transport. The tuk-tuks look a lot smarter these days and almost exclusively used by tourists. We have been using Uber to get around. (Uber has aircon!)
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There are many street vendors where we have been eating from some fantastic stalls at ridiculously low prices. Going to the street markets at night has a real “buzz” – the streets are still gloomy but don’t seem threatening at all.
A trip to Banglamphu showed quite a different side to Bangkok. It has become a backpackers’ Benidorm (but without the bingo). All the cafes and shops are geared towards Westerners. (Although you can still get some good food!). I am concerned that people come all the way to Bangkok and end up seeing now more than some kind of gap-year-village. They tick the box on their “places to visit” without knowing there’s a great real Bangkok city out there. It’s such a pity to come all this way and not get the most of the experience. I fear I’m turning into a travel snob!
As I reflect on the changes to Bangkok , I’m not sure what has changed most – Bangkok or me? Certainly the city is a lot wealthier, has better transport. But when I first arrived I was a novice traveller and I too failed to get the most out of Bangkok. Since then, I have traveled like a local, seen where the locals live (albeit usually the nice areas), and eaten the food that the locals eat. It is a fascinating city but I do have a confession – much as I love parts of it, I don’t think “I love Bangkok“.
Here are some other Bangkok related posts which you may find interesting:
- Bangkok observations and interesting facts
- Bangkok food heaven
- Delighted by Bangkok Street Food
- Living like a local