Bangkok is a a place like no other in the world: 14 million people live there. 15 million tourists per year – it’s the #1 most visited city in the world in 2013.
When you descend into this urban overload – your senses light up from just walking down a street. The smells quickly oscillate between near-vomit inducing sewer products to seductive freshly grilled duck to rotting fish-like products back to rich broth that yells “try me.” With those kinds of highs and lows, you understand why people carry around personal sniffers of menthol to restore sanity back in their nasal passages.
You can walk by a Four Seasons – one of the nicest hotels you’ve seen in a while – and the next block – you will run into a small alley with dozens of vendors overflowing into the street, forcing traffic yield to them, selling anything and everything until they pause to serve dinner to family in the same place and may stay open as late as people are buying. Most blocks have these alleys, properly called ‘Soi,’ making the city of Bangkok more like an infinite fractal image then a map. Everything is deliberate and there is organization to a point, but finding an address isn’t a given. You can’t help but notice the power line eyesore –above every street there are hundreds of lines placed ad-hoc – it gives you a tear in your eye for any apartment with a second story window who had the dream of a view, now all they can see are black wires.
The city roads are overpopulated, just like the power lines – from big to small with delivery trucks, the occasional (insane) bicyclist, scooters, cars, buses of a thousand types, pickups with 10 people in the bed, and tuk tuks (tiny taxis for up to 3 people). Being a pedestrian requires suicidal tendencies. We saw an unfortunate accident with an older woman trying to get into a bus but instead got her leg crushed. You wonder how the whole road system even works, but no thanks to the often-ignored traffic lights that give countdown timers on green lights to encourage speeding through. They have a decent metro system, if you live near one of the scarcely-placed stops, but you quickly realize that you’ve probably reached the only city in the world where the cab rides are generally cheaper than the metro if you have 3 or more people – about $4 for a 12km/7mi ride (which would cost $23 in New York)… but don’t bother during rush hour. If people have to walk more than 4 blocks, they will usually hop on the back of a scooter with a driver in an orange vest – these scooter taxis are all over the city and I’ve never seen anything like it before. Maps are deceiving because the center of Bangkok is so big – skyscrapers you’ve never noticed appear when you go to a new neighborhood.
Depending on where you are in the city, you’ll see the occasional or frequent homeless person. There are slums tucked away in many of the Soi (alleyways) that you wouldn’t give a second look because they are so well disguised but might house hundreds of people. People are really nice and friendly – and you don’t often get begged for money or to buy anything. For a huge city, I almost always felt safe, even at night. Most people don’t speak English except yes/no/thank you and some numbers – this includes taxis adding a level of difficulty – but people are impressively good at gestures. The Thai alphabet looks like nothing familiar (ตัวอักษรไทยเป็นเรื่องยาก), so it’s hard to remember a street, but most signs are written in both English and Thai.
The city is chaotic but not as dirty as you’d expect, the litter situation is under control, even though finding a trash can is a challenge, and people are often sweeping their storefront. Just don’t think you can wear sandals, because the streets are not clean, largely thanks to stray cats and dogs, rats,
and the puddles of standing water with colors of the toxic rainbow from antifreeze green to used-cooking-oil brown. You’ll find drainage ditches and canals throughout the city and the Chao Phraya river that splits the city is littered with trash and ferry traffic making it a sight to see. Most boats are traditional thai longboats with an old car engine and a 15 foot propeller welded to the back.
Bangkok is notoriously a hot and humid city, but we are visiting in January, a temperate month. In April, it’s common to see heat indexes of upwards of 42C/107F –many people have an extended holiday over April and now the New Year (Songkran) is a country-wide water fight because of the heat.
Prices are really low, but just like every city, it scales. You can eat a pretty solid meal on street food for 50baht($1.50); groceries are dirt cheap; you can get a red bull for 11baht($0.33), cigarettes are 90baht($2.60), subway tickets cost 40baht($1.30), beer starts around 40baht($1.30), legit massages are 200baht($6)– if you start going to the high end, you can easily run into prices comparable to New York.
…and the food…. perhaps the best food city in the world? how do they do it? You’ll find out in my next post…
It’s quite a place and initial shock if it’s your first time visiting, but you get accustomed surprisingly fast. No wonder it’s the most visited city in the world.