I’ve visited Bangkok a few times over the years, mainly for work but always trying to shoehorn in a day or two of free time to explore this fascinating and ever-changing city. The life and vibrancy of Bangkok’s streets is almost hypnotic. Wherever you go, wherever you look, there is always something happening, always people and food and colour and noise and weirdness (see below).
This time I only had two days, which was always going to be too little. I squeezed in as much as I could in heat of 36ºC, but on my final afternoon I took it easy and set off for a leisurely stroll around where I was staying, close to the Rama VIII Bridge and a short walk to the Khao San area.
Khao San is known as the fleapit backpacker ghetto portrayed in the film, The Beach. It still has elements of that world, but the majority of the area has been ‘gentrified’ and now blends (not always seamlessly) everyday Thai life with some upscale traveller facilities. You can still get drunk and have an ill-advised tattoo on the Khao San Road, but you can also stay in a boutique hotel with a rooftop pool.
Away from the seedy Khao San Road, the back streets and alleyways of this area are full of Thai homes and businesses, but also numerous good restaurants, cafes and bars. It’s easy to see why travellers, whether backpackers or suitcase pullers, flock to the area.
Bangkok’s the most visited city on the planet, but it’s impossible to put your finger on the thing that makes it so attractive to people. The friendliness of its people (and for a big city, people are remarkably friendly), the food, the culture, the history, the life lived large on the streets…all are remarkable, all are reasons to visit and revisit.
Not that anyone should underplay the negatives. Thailand might be the Land of Smiles, but there are plenty of things to make you frown. Air pollution you can cut with a knife (it’s not Beijing, but it’s pretty awful); road traffic that could infuriate the Buddha himself; tuk-tuk drivers who could drive you to kill (a tuk-tuk driver); litter everywhere … not forgetting the fact that the country is run by a military dictatorship.
My first visit was in 1994. At that time I’d been living in a remote part of Nepal for several months, Bangkok almost knocked me off my feet. The variety of food, the noise, the life, the fact that there was 24/7 electricity and water. It was mesmerising. That introduction is probably the reason I have a strong affinity for the city. Despite the negatives, it’s still one of the world’s great cities…