NOTE – This post is based on my travel to Bangkok just over a year ago. Unfortunately Bangkok right now is under severe threat of flooding with a death toll passing 300 already. Eight million people in 60 of the country's 77 provinces have been affected by floods and mudslides since July, and 1.2 million hectares of agricultural land have been damaged. Here’s the official places where you can donate to help Thailand cope with the floods - http://www.bangkokpost.com/feature/charities/203275/information-for-flood-donation
My time in Bangkok started in the home of my friend Dev, overlooking the Chao Praya just near the Phra pin klao bridge. When you’ve been on the move for a while it’s always nice to come to a new place and have friends to stay with rather than the usual hostel. In between me working and Dev doing his MBA, we chilled out over beers, explored the illusion that is ‘social’ investment, toured the city and watched Bear Grylls be a hero in Man vs. Wild.
Having come from Singapore and Malaysia where beer is crazy expensive, the first thing we did was head to a pub, only to find it just as pricey. I quickly gave up on drinking as a way to kill time in BKK!
Bangkok does however have a lot of cool bars down small streets, but you need to be in the know to avoid ending up in shifty places. In a city as multicultural as Bangkok you can also eat pretty much anything you want. We even munched on Shawarma in “Little Middle East”, which was just like being on Edgware Road in London with its plethora of bright white lights.
Khao San Road is the tourist hotspot and backpacker haven. In a city where hectic is the norm, Khao San road takes it to another level at night. You can barely move for street vendors and food stalls and dodgy offers. Forget fake designer goods and bootlegs CDs; you can even buy everything from IDs to Degrees. The only way to enjoy it is to leave your ethics and morals at the entrance, and if that’s not your thing, best avoid. Plenty better things to do in Bangkok.
If you’re a city person, you’ll love Bangkok. It’s the most alive of any place I’ve been. A writhing pulsing city of people and colour and activity.
BKK has decent infrastructure from rail transport to cool buildings, internet, accommodation and malls. 5 star hotels are ridiculously cheap and don’t disappoint in any way. Although why anyone would bother beats me, because there are superb hostels like Lub.d near Siam square for example, which is just 500baht (£10) for a bed in a state of the art dorm.
The airport link into the city is just 15baht and takes you into Phaya Thai in half an hour. The Skytrain runs through the city giving great views of streets and buildings and skylines. Confusingly though, the Skytrain and MRT have different names for the same crossover station e.g. Asoka and Sukhumvit; Siam and Silom. There are also lots of flyovers providing double level road systems in a clever use of space.
Compared to a city like Mumbai or Delhi, Bangkok’s infrastructure is definitely on another level.
Sadly for the transport aspect, it still doesn’t mean much. BKK has a population of somewhere around 10m people and the main links are mostly two lane roads. They have no hope of coping. The traffic during rush hour is mind-boggling. Up there with the worst I’ve seen. It can take hours to get across the city.
The only alternative option is the Motorcycle taxi. But these are frightening as hell to the un-initiated. They drive between car lanes at crazy speeds. Wing mirrors loom way too close for comfort, especially when you're double the size of both rider and bike, and the guy is adjusting for his own knee width and not yours!
As you would expect though, away from the main roads, the backstreets of Bangkok are ramshackle mazes, reflective of life in low income brackets all over Asia. Canals wind through the city, flanked by shanty homes that use the water as a cleaning and dumping ground. You definitely wouldn’t want to fall in if you could help it!
Politically BKK has been a bit volatile ever since Thaksin was deposed for corruption and is still in self-imposed exile. The Thaksin legacy of social development remains strongly recognised however, and many locals still feel that the benefits of his work outweigh his misdemeanours. The reds nevertheless were busy fighting the yellows while I was there. Random bombs and riots across the city had a serious effect on the tourism industry as visitors stayed away out of a combination of fear and the financial limitations of a global recession.
Areas like Nana that used to be jammed full of business and other tourists when I was last there, were relative ghost towns. Middle eastern tourists were propping up the tourism market, with western visitors all dried up except for backpackers who mostly frequent just the Khao San area. You can still get designer T-shirts for 100 baht in places like the Chatuchak weekend market, but not so many fake watches anymore. All round I definitely saw fewer fakes than ten years ago, and it seemed as if the trend had moved on from watches to sunglasses.
Temples remain Gold and Red as ever, richly decorated, with Buddhas of all shapes and sizes; while outside them lies the commerce of food, trinkets, beliefs and scams.
Finally we come to the food. Street food is everywhere in Bangkok and really why would you eat anywhere else. Your choices range from noodles to rice dishes to skewers and sea food. Everything is tasty and spicy. The Thais can really put away chillies so you have to be a bit careful. Like everywhere else in Asia it is common to eat fried food or noodles or soup for breakfast. Personally I did my best but still found it jarring. My system is just not used to lunch at 7am!
On foot, it’s a city that makes it impossible to have a conversation on the street. Lethal pavements with all sorts of obstacles from vendors to trees, holes and crevasses keep you on your toes. Crazy car drivers about to run you over approach from all directions. Construction noise never stops. Massage parlour girls beckon you. Taxi drivers call at you. Food and waste smells assault your nose. Hot humid weather wraps a clammy shroud around you. Water drips on you from plastic awnings, billboards and signs.