Our PR and Content Manager at The Money Cloud, where you can compare the latest and best rates for sending money overseas, writes about his experiences travelling and working around SE Asia. This week: Bangkok.
When I try to think about the differences between the 3 major South East Asian cities I have spent time in over the past 3 months; Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bangkok, the best description I can come up with is that they are like 3 close-knit but very different brothers.
Let me try to explain myself.
For me, Kuala Lumpur would be the middle child. Not too tricky to get the hang of, friendly, fun, and straightforward; not in a simplistic way, but in a way that helps you understand the many nuances of South East Asian culture.
A city that understands, enjoys and celebrates its place in the world. A city that is truly comfortable in its own skin, with hidden depths (like all middle children there is a lot bubbling under the surface), but solid social skills. Of the three, KL would be the easiest “brother” to befriend.
Singapore, for my money, would be the youngest brother. Inspired by its elder brothers it has learned how to do everything brilliantly, despite not being the most naturally advantaged of the three. It has discipline, grace, charm, and reserves of talent and promise which are being fulfilled in the most inspiring ways. The City state is a little more cautious and self-conscious than its 2 brotherly neighbours, but it can look after itself all the same. It is ambitious and once you get beyond the formal exterior, it can be exceedingly good fun, too.
Which brings us to Bangkok. Bangkok most definitely in my view, has the characteristics of the eldest brother. If Bangkok were a person it would be a wild, carefree long-haired biker with a leather jacket, listening to rock music and rarely at home, but with an unquestioned authority that makes it a leader in its peer group. Nobody tells Bangkok what to do, but nonetheless it rarely skips a beat.
Bangkok: Crazy, Sexy, Cool, Chaotic!
Constantly surprising, chaotic, creative, dismissive, a tad malodorous at times but with the ability to be brilliant, beautiful, deeply loving and utterly inspiring, Bangkok takes some getting used to but should never be shied away from – you don’t want to miss experiencing this city!
I’m sure everyone who has visited SE Asia will have their own opinions on what the region means to them and how they see the different parts of it, but for what it’s worth this is how I tend to think about these three cities, and no more so than when I made the trip from Singapore to Bangkok back in mid-August.
It started almost immediately. We were instructed to sit and wait at the gate, but with only 10 minutes until departure time there was no sign of any staff. It turns out the gate had been changed, but nobody had thought to tell the passengers!
Unthinkable in a city such as Singapore where every aspect of every journey, day or even person is micro-managed to a point, this was the first sign that Thailand obeys its own, quite different, but in many ways equally effective laws.
We all charged to the new gate and amid the confusion caused by two sets of passengers destined for completely different places seemingly queueing for the same plane (perhaps it was making 2 stops?) eventually everything seemed to resolve itself just fine. Welcome to Thailand. Have a nice day.
The first hotel I checked into was a place of wonder – a totally surreal tower block, from the goldfish pond which just happened to be in the middle of the car park, to the fact the keys were left for me in an (open) mailbox in the mail-room, accessed through an interior, wooden revolving door – as you do! But first I had to get there.
First taste of Bangkok – A beloved King, a wire-y issue
During a taxi journey from the Don Mueang airport in the north of the city to the hotel (no taxi drivers seem to have sat nav in Bangkok – they just borrow your phone and ring the hotel for directions) I was reminded of two things I had forgotten from my last trip to Bangkok nearly 7 years previously. Firstly, the Thais display images of the Royal family everywhere – from 70-foot-high billboards adorning the sides of skyscrapers to small roadside shrines constructed with the deepest love by street food vendors on top of their cooking stall paraphernalia, and secondly; that there is electrical wiring everywhere – lots of it!
The King of Thailand, who died last year, ending his reign as the world’s longest serving monarch (replaced by Queen Elizabeth II) is set to be buried imminently, and the entire city is preparing to say a final farewell to its most beloved monarch. The king was worshipped / had a great press in Thailand and handling the accession of his son to the throne will be a complex process.
And the wires? All big cities need electricity, of course they do, but whilst London, New York, Singapore, Mexico City make do with say a maximum of 8 wires carried using pylons 30 odd feet in the air – Bangkok, apparently, needs about 7 times as many.
Everywhere you go there is cat’s cradle of wiring on both sides of the street, a couple of feet above your head. As well as the vast cement rail network of the sky train.
By the time I had arrived at my hotel, checked in, popped out for some dinner, got lost in the vast SkyTrain station that comprised of about 14 different levels, jumped out of my skin at the sight of a rat and a lizard the size of small dogs, I was starting to feel a bit like Han Solo in Star Wars, or Blade Runner. But in a good way.
A not at all unpleasant sensation. When you first arrive, Bangkok can really feel like an exotic adventure.
You’re never alone in Bangkok
The hotel I had found was a vast, 35 storey sky scraper with stunning views of Bangkok. Being right at the top of this labyrinthine complex I concluded I must be pretty isolated, and stepped out onto the balcony in just my boxers.
Seconds later, a face appeared from presumably the balcony next door – its owner must have been taking an incredible risk to lean across at 35 storeys up, but that’s Bangkok. You are never alone, even if you think you might be. In this giant hotel I encountered next to nobody, but could hear constant chatter wherever I went.
Bangkok is a truly awesome city and one of my favourite places anywhere in the world, but getting out and about is never easy, especially during the day. Whenever you leave the air-conditioned outdoors for the dry, humid, muscle-wasting heat or torrential rain of the outside environment, I guarantee you after 5 minutes you will wish you hadn’t!
It is just incredibly energy sapping and a bit of an ordeal. Bangkok is a seriously crowded place, and I am not just talking about the pedestrians, street vendors (who are literally everywhere), odd job people, homeless, officials and tourists, to name just a few of the people you will, literally, bump into.
The traffic is truly appalling! It is a constant hum you can never get away from. Bangkok has a reasonable metro and overground as mentioned above but to get anywhere you are probably best off using a car – which is clearly what everybody thinks! Bangkok’s streets are ruled by the automobile and the scooter or motorbike and this only adds to the strength sapping nature of trying to get anywhere on foot.
How to avoid traffic in Bangkok – go out at night!
Plan your journeys carefully, or save them for the night-time, because boy does Bangkok come alive at night! So much of Bangkok’s nightlife takes place around Sukhumvit road, the long, long road that runs right through the city from North West to South East, although Silom is well worth a visit, with its night markets, and for hippies, or hipsters, there is Banglamphu, up the river.
The roads off of Sukhumvit are known as “Soi’s”, and each one has a different character. The notorious Soi Cowboy, for example, can be a difficult place to visit for travellers culturally with its red-light district vibe, but Soi 11 is full of bars showing sports and serving great food, and then there is the Khao San Road – a little touristy these days but a whole lot of fun – buckets of red bull vodka and a deep fried scorpion anyone?
There are rooftop bars, rooftop pools, rooftop jazz bars, western style night clubs, live music bars, live Muay Thai boxing and just about everything else you can imagine. Restaurants spring up in the middle of construction sites on crowded roads at 4am using plastic tables and chairs and tiny vans stuffed full of food, oil and the ubiquitous cooking paraphernalia; and they serve excellent food, trust me!
If you want to change neighbourhoods, just hop on a scooter taxi – an exhilarating ride that turns a mundane 20-minute walk into a 5 minute, mostly safe joyride!
To those who claim that Bangkok is home to groups of tourists with questionable morals, or that loutish behaviour is tolerated I would counter that although the Thais are an exceptionally tolerant people, they have strong moral standards, and visiting or living in the city, you can feel and appreciate what is appropriate. Most people behave themselves because they love being in Bangkok – those that abuse the city land up in serious trouble.
Even a short stroll is an eye-opener!
Bangkok is a cornucopia of colour, creativity and activity during the day, a stunning neon light show at night, and its home to a wonderful, eccentric people who have an incredible range of skills.
Strolling from the hostel I stayed in during the latter part of my stay to the local coffee shop outside the wonderfully named “FYI Centre” I passed scooter taxi men in full leathers despite the 30 degree plus heat, a family of fishmongers casually gutting fish and chucking the heads in a large plastic ice bucket slowly melting in the blazing sunshine, a group of 20 or so young and old Thai women and men gathering around a 15″ television screen to watch a Muay Thai boxing match, a family lighting 15 stoves at once to get ready for a serious cook-out, wealthy looking bankers buying fish ball kebabs as they wait for the bus, Ferraris parked outside coffee shops, artists, tanners, and the ubiquitous 7-11 stores, with super-enthusiastic staff turning over customers faster than you are ever likely to see at a self-checkout system, and all with that familiar, loveable Thai trill.
Truly Bangkok is one of the most unique experiences you can have on this planet. Completely unforgettable, manic, stifling, intimidating, friendly, laid back, contradictory, and endlessly surprising.
But big brother Bangkok is always watching over you – in a mostly good way.
There is so much more to tell than I have room for here. The parks, the theatres, the best bars, the river, the places to stay and eat. Hopefully I will get around to it soon.
5 Reasons To Relocate to Bangkok – Now!
Laidback, tolerant and open, but at the same time maintaining high standards of behaviour, Bangkok is much, much more than a Westerners playground. The city is an intoxicating blend of culture, creativity and opportunity and perfect for anyone looking for a new challenge, or who wants to make a genuinely exciting career move.
2/ Property / Accommodation
Condos in Bangkok vary from the functional, with one bedroom places in reputable apartment blocks starting at around £125,000, to the outrageously opulent – we are talking tens of millions of dollars in some of Bangkok’s most exclusive newly or still being built residencies. Whatever your budget, although the rules around property ownership are complex and far easier if you are a national, you are bound to find something to your liking in Bangkok.
3. Emerging Technologies
Bangkok is one of Asia’s business hubs and has a thriving corporate culture as well as embracing new technologies. From Bitcoin Meetup groups to fintech incubators and venture capital firms, Bangkok is at the forefront of disruptive technological change and is also within easy reach of Hong Kong, Singapore, The Philippines and Australia, where payments technology, for example, is really beginning to take hold.
Bangkok has everything you would expect from a big modern city in terms of variety of opportunity to live the life you have always dreamt of. From international schools, to cultural endeavours, to Universities, if you are looking to do something you love, you can do it here.
Even if you don’t relocate permanently, you will learn a great deal from a spell in Thailand. It could be the culture shock you have long been looking for, or the climate could reinvigorate you, or you may be simply swept along and ultimately inspired by the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. They say a change is as good as a feast- in Thailand, you can try both!