There’s something about Bangkok that makes it feel like you’re inhabiting the set of the film Blade Runner. True, it doesn’t rain as much, but there are vast electronic billboards dotted around the city; TV screens on the subway and ATMs blast out endless exhortations to buy the latest fashions; and, almost everywhere you look, there are vast gleaming towers of glass where the wealthy escape the grime at street level.
Life is lived openly on the streets, and you don’t have to go far to find stalls selling food, some of which looks unearthly, and just about every other commodity on the planet. Underneath flyovers carrying enormous numbers of cars, poverty-filled shanties sit on stilts over stagnant, polluted waters. The air quality for Bangkok’s dispossessed must be some of the worst anywhere in the world.
That might make Bangkok sound like somewhere to avoid, it’s not supposed to. It’s a unique and fascinating city, part sci-fi, part reality, and fully mesmeric fun. Bangkok is now the most visited city on the planet, with nearly 30 million visitors in 2015. This is despite catastrophic floods, political unrest, riots and a military coup, followed by yet more political unrest and the imposition of martial law, in the last five years alone.
Bangkok is not short on the sort of dramas that normally send tourists running for alternative destinations. Instead, visitor numbers seem to climb ever higher, fuelled in large part by tourism from other parts of Southeast Asia, and especially China. Spend any time at the Tha Chang river taxi terminal and you’ll witness wave after wave of tour groups sweeping past, which makes getting the taxi boat a real challenge.
In this sprawling, dirty, cultured, exciting and energetic city, it is the very fact of all this life that makes it so alluring. I was delighted to be able to tag on a weekend following a week working in and around the city. My recent visit in 2014 had only whetted my appetite to see and experience more of Bangkok’s crazy charms, and to eat more of its delicious food. Is there anywhere else on earth with such an abundance of street food?
I split my stay between the Phaya Thai and Khaosan areas, but spent most of my time just wandering around. I made the stomach churning trip to Bangkok’s largest wet market, Khlong Toei. This is where a lot of the fresh food served in restaurants, hotels and street stalls originates. It’s an experience not to be missed, although it requires a strong olfactory tolerance and may make you think twice about lunch.
I took a boat across the Chao Phraya River to explore the canals of the western part of Bangkok. I got lucky and had a boat all to myself, with just the captain, his wife and young child for company. We shared no language but had a great time zipping along the canals and visiting a floating food market. It was pretty touristy, but with 30 million visitors each year, what can you expect.
In between times there were temples and restaurants to visit, and the atmosphere of the streets to absorb. Despite the traffic, the air pollution, the heat and humidity, it’s hard not to love Bangkok. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, “when a man is tired of Bangkok, he is tired of life; for there is here all that life can afford”. Although to be honest, Bangkok has a knack of making you tired to the point of exhaustion.