It’s hot, crowded and an assault on the senses, but millions of people descend on the capital of Thailand every year to spend some time in this legendary city. But why? What makes Bangkok so appealing that it not only draws newbies, but inspires thousands of others to return year after year? I decided to look at some of its unique qualities through five photos that define the experience for me.
1. Exotic – Bangkok has long occupied a place in the collective Western consciousness as the epitome of the exotic. Even through massive change in Bangkok itself this perception still exists and for the large part it’s true. It’s also traditionally been a gateway to the Orient, one of the best places to start any exploration of Southeast Asia and as such it has attracted it’s fair share of explorers as well as lost souls. From an American point of view Bangkok also seems like a place to so remote and so different that anyone can escape there and be lost in the morass of a new culture. In the 19th century creative types, including many famous authors sought refuge in Bangkok not only as a place to work and explore, but as a place to be inspired. You will see things in Bangkok you have never seen before and will never see again and it is this promise of the new, different but wonderful that draws so many of us there in the first place and is why we keep returning.
2. Food – Thai food is more common around the world than it used to be and I think it’s this brief look into the culinary heart of Thailand that has convinced people of the excellent food offerings in Bangkok. I’m always amazed at the quality of food I get in Bangkok, even from the simplest of vendors. A cheap, $2 meal from a street vendor is almost always better than its restaurant equivalent here in the US. It’s that combination of inexpensive fare with high quality product that makes Bangkok one of the best foodie destinations in the world. One of my favorite snacks in Bangkok is also one of its most simple, fresh pineapple. Vendors throughout the city are constantly slicing through dozens of fresh pineapple on demand and deliver the juicy fruit into a plastic bag for you to carry away. Walking through the city streets, poking at the slices of fresh pineapple with the wooden skewer they gave me is one of my favorite all time memories of the city.
3. Temples, palaces and sights unlike anywhere else – Sure there are temples in other cities and in other countries. But nothing is quite like what you can find in Bangkok. The colors, the smells and even the sheer size of the temples and palaces are stunning and seem to equal the enormity of the city itself. When you first visit be sure to follow the tourist route and visit the main sights: the Grand Palace, Wat Arun and so on. But also do a little homework and visit some of the other areas of town including my favorite the Jim Thompson House. The former abode of a fabric magnate who went missing while hiking in Malaysia fifty years ago, the House is a consolidation of centuries of Thai art, architecture and artifacts. The homes were moved from all around Thailand and placed in the center of Bangkok in what seems like the ideal tropical oasis in a sea of madness. Whatever you choose to see and do though, the ability of the sights in Bangkok to amaze are without equal.
4. Cost – Bangkok and Thailand in general are both fairly inexpensive to visit and you can live well there on a fraction of the cost of Western countries. That’s not to say you can’t also have a great luxury trip to Bangkok; you can and I have. But if you want to spend less than $10 a day on food (and that’s generous) and don’t mind the periodic $5 Thai massage, then Bangkok is for you. That makes the city accessible to people in a way that many other great capitals just aren’t. Most of Europe is increasingly expensive as is the US. Bangkok remains a great place to visit at a great price. When I first visited we did so at a time in our lives when we didn’t have much money. I used frequent flyer miles and hotel points to get us there knowing that during our trip we could have a great adventure without spending a fortune, which is exactly what we did.
5. Loveable Chaos – This is a very corny generalization, but it’s also true. Bangkok lives in a permanent state of self-contradiction and for some reason it just doesn’t work, it defines the city. Bangkok is a large city where you can find just about anything you want and escape in the anonymity of numbers. But it’s also a city where you will find the kindest people and friendships to last a lifetime, if you choose to look. It’s also a complete assault on the senses, mostly in a good way. The shear numbers of people, the smells, the sounds all combine into a rich chorus that at times can be overwhelming but which ultimately make Bangkok what it is. After the initial shock it’s easy to get acclimated to the chaos, but it’s never something you actually get used to. Instead of being a negative though, it is this constant energy that I think draws people back, for a flow that is always changing and never predictable. I’m not sure Bangkok has ever totally made sense to anyone who has visited, and that’s why we love it.