“There is no medium in Siam; it is either gorgeously gilded palaces and fantastically adorned temples, or filthy looking huts.” – Sir George J. Younghusband, 1888.
Formally known as Siam City and ‘Krung Thep’, meaning City of Angels, Bangkok is today a thriving, vibrant and unique megacity in the heart of South East Asia. It is one of the most visited cities in the world and has been named ‘World’s Best City’ for four consecutive years by Travel + Leisure magazine. Home to around 8 million Thais and expatriates, Sir Younghusband’s observation above perfectly captures the unique essence of the city.
At first sight of Bangkok you are hit with a city of contrasts. On one hand, the Buddhist temples of Wat Phra Kaew, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and Wat Pho draw thousands of visitors every year and perfectly illustrate the importance of Buddhism throughout Thailand. Yet, minutes’ drive away in the heart of the city, rather than the golden tips of Wat Pho you are drawn to the countless scantily clad ‘Ping Pong’ girls lining the back streets, a prominent feature of the Nana and Asok districts of Bangkok.
The Grand Palace, the historic home of the Thai royal family since 1782, sits at the heart of the city on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand, the Palace is a majestic and ornate structure, a fitting home to the majestic and revered Thai monarchy.
However, amidst the grandeur and money within certain circles, it is easy to forget the darker underbelly of the city. Just a few metro stops from the city centre, slums can be seen lining the riverbanks. In total, there are an estimated 5,500 slum communities throughout Thailand, with around 10,000 refugees, many of which deemed illegal due to Thailand not being a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and not recognising refugee’s rights. When living in Bangkok in 2015, I met two Syrian refugee families who had been living for 4 years in a tiny one-room apartment while waiting for resettlement.
Much like the city as a whole, visually it is a wonderful mix of new and old, of glistening glass and brutish concrete. The recently built MahaNakhon tower, the tallest building in Thailand, is an architectural feat by any standards and its glass structure glistens above the Chong Nonsi business district of Bangkok, while the sky bar at the top of the State Building (made famous in The Hangover 2), lights up its golden dome at nightfall.
Weaving around glistening new buildings is the BTS Sky Train, the Bangkok equivalent of the DLR. Lifted above the city streets upon a dark grey concrete track, the BTS gives the city below a brutish and harsh quality that accentuates the multicoloured taxis that drive underneath it.
Within the high-rise buildings in Bangkok, fine Thai dining can be found in abundance, while on every street corner, equally tasty Pad Thai and local dishes can be bought for a fraction of the price. A large meal from a street food vendor can be bought for the Thai Baht equivalent of £1, while beer at happy hour times costs just 50p.
In Bangkok, locals, expatriate businessmen and young western backpackers all make up the unique rhythm of a city. The Chong Nonsi area of Bangkok is filled with the office blocks of hundreds of multinational organisations and is a home from home to expatriates from across the world. Its wide, clean streets are a stark contrast to Khao San Road, a short drive to the north of the city. This street, where Leonardo DiCaprio was seen drinking snake blood in The Beach, has been immortalised as a backpacker hot spot in South East Asia. Barbecued scorpions, snake blood shots and fake IDs can be bought with exceptional ease, while hostels and beer are at their cheapest here. There is also a very good bar off a Khao San side alley that sells the cheapest beer in Bangkok and laughing gas by the balloon…
Amongst other things, Bangkok is an alcohol and sports-lover’s paradise. As mentioned, beer costs less than a McDonalds cheeseburger, and what Bangkok might lack in political stability it makes up for in drinking spots. Cheap sky bars can be accessed by anyone looking for a drink and a view, while countless sports bars line the streets in Bangkok’s central districts. I fondly remember watching the Japan vs South Africa Rugby World Cup game in 2015 in the ‘Clubhouse Sportsbar’, the spiritual home to the South African expat cricket team ‘the Southerners’. Drunk, angry South Africans of course streamed to the exit when the final whistle blew and Japan secured a historic win.
Above all else, it is the local people of Bangkok that contribute so much to making this capital great. A hallmark of Bangkok locals and Thai people in general is the friendliness and warmth shared with anyone that travels to the heat and relative chaos of the largest mainland South East Asian city. Although a cliche of Thai culture, the smiles and openness of everyone from bartenders to taxi drivers, who in broken English can still discuss the English Premier League, are a welcome relief from the inherent chaotic nature of Bangkok. There is nothing better than walking into your regular watering hole to a smiling Sawadee Ka (‘hello’ in Thai [for women]) and collapsing with a pint of Singha beer as the bartender starts up a conversation.
Bangkok represents a brilliant hybrid of all that Asia has to offer. It is certainly a great city; not just a great capital. The places, people, sights and eccentricities that this immense city has to offer make it the chaotic hub of energy that it is today. It is also the birthplace and home of Red Bull. What more could a city possibly offer?
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