What Living in Bangkok Taught Me

Grand Palace in Bangkok
I’ve been living in Bangkok on and off for two years now. It’s become my base of operations, the place I return to when I am out of money and need to work. I’ve developed a network of friends, business contacts, learned the language, and mastered the city. But now this chapter in my life is over.

I first came here with my friend Scott in 2005. We were on holiday from work, and upon landing in Bangkok, decided the first thing we had to do was figure out how to get out. We hated the city. It was dirty, crowded, polluted, seedy, and boring. We were happy to leave. And when I returned to Thailand in 2006, I spent just 10 hours in the city before leaving for the islands.

But when I decided to learn Thai, I moved to Bangkok since this is the best place to learn the language (Bangkok Thai is proper Thai; learning it in one of the outside provinces would have given me a harsh local accent). I figured I would tough it out for a month and leave. But soon things changed, and I found myself living in the city. Then before I knew it, I had fallen in love. The city has a lot to offer if you know where to look.

Sunset in BangkokAs I leave, I can’t help but think about all the things this city has taught me.

Bangkok taught me that first impressions are almost always wrong. I hated the city when I first came here, yet the longer I stayed, the more the city opened up to me and the more I found it an exciting and riveting place to live. Had I judged it by my first impression of it, I never would have stayed and I never would have enjoyed it.

Bangkok taught me that notions about safety are overrated. In the West, we’re super safety-minded. And if we aren’t, someone will be sure to sue us. But here you see little kids driving motorbikes and people running across busy streets, jumping on and off buses, and walking on sidewalks with gaping holes leading into pipes. Western lawyers would have a field day here. But by living here, I’ve learned that safety, while important, is not as important as having a level head. Few accidents happen because most people are just conscious of their surroundings and use their heads.

So are notions about cleanliness. Last night, I ate Thai food on the street next to a motorcycle stand. The night before I had chicken BBQ made with chicken that clearly had been sitting there for some time (on ice). The woman who cooks my Pad Thai uses her hands to make it. Yet here I sit, still alive. They say a lot of the reason children develop allergies is because we’re so hyper clean that their bodies don’t develop resistance. There’s no talk about peanut allergies and wheat allergies here. Our species lasted thousands of years a bit dirty. Bangkok taught me that a little dirt never really hurt anyone.

Bangkok skylineBangkok taught me that I can be tone deaf yet still learn a tonal language.I love learning languages. I’m also horrible at learning them. It takes me a long time to pick a new one up. I still can’t roll my R’s when I speak Spanish even though I started studying it when I was in high school. Though I don’t believe it, my Thai friends tell me my pronunciation is very good. I’m not fluent, but I can hold a basic conversation with the taxi drivers. If I can get my head around Thai, my upcoming forays into French and German shouldn’t be so difficult.

Most importantly, Bangkok taught me I can make it anywhere. I moved here not knowing anyone or anything. I spent the first few days alone and on my computer. Yet within months I had made friends, gotten a job, found an apartment, and learned the language. I became a resident of Bangkok. I managed to survive and even thrive on my own without any help. Bangkok showed me that I could be self-reliant and independent. Now as I go to Taipei in the same situation, I’m not worried about anything. If I can manage in one city, I can manage in another.

Living overseas has taught me so much—more than can truly be discussed in one blog post. Making it in such a foreign city has helped me get over a lot of my travel fears. I’m glad I made the decision to stay all that time ago. I’m also glad I came back in August for one last stint in the City of Angels. I’m not sad to leave here, though. I’ll be back again.

And now I wonder, after learning so much in Bangkok, what will Taipei teach me?

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  1. Cody

    Awesome post man. Couldn’t agree with you more. When I first arrived in Bangkok I lasted a total of 2 days before I had to get out. It was senses overload the first time. It is a place that grows on you for sure. Now living here I absolutely love it.

    Good luck in Taiwan buddy.

  2. good luck in taipei matt!

    i’ve been toying with the idea of moving abroad for years but never really worked up the nerve to do it. i’m definitely interested in thailand though, and although my first impression was similar to yours, i found that the outskirts weren’t as bad for me. a friend and i spent a month living in a friends apartment in the sri nakarin area (towards the airport, a 45 min cab ride past the closest skytrain stop!) it was a challenge being that far from the central areas (and skytrain!) but at the same time, it gave us a real sense of living in a neighborhood.

    what area did you rent your apartment in in bangkok? what did you do about visas? what language school did you use? i guess i have a lot of questions on the logistics of moving to thailand… maybe i’ll save that for a direct message another time. =)

    but thanks for continuing to share your travels and experiences. can’t wait to hear about taipei!

  3. Have fun in Taipei! If you learn to speak Mandarin, or Taiwanese, they will love you. It may sound difficult but it really isn’t that hard picking up various sayings in Mandarin.

    You may want to check out; Chinesepod.com. It’s a great resource.

  4. Great post! I too, hated Bangkok initially, and never got a chance to give it a second chance (yet). I nicknamed it “the ugly underbelly of Thailand”. Yick. But then again, as you say, first impressions often are not accurate…what a great lesson for traveling – and so much more.

  5. Great post, Matt. It’s always interesting to see what people take away from their experiences. In regards to your last comment, I couldn’t agree more, but in my case it wasn’t just one city that drew me to that realization. Despite the different types of experiences that every traveler and expat goes through, it’s always nice to see a little similarity across the board. We’re glad to have you in Taiwan. This little island becomes your oyster for the next little while!

  6. I lived in Taipei for a brief time as a child. You know what I remember most? The rats, bats, banana spiders, and crazy crowded buses. I remember them fondly though…

    Good luck!

  7. Bangkok kind of sounds like Guatemala City. And what you’ve learned is exactly what I learned when living in Guatemala back in 2005.

    I’ve learned so much after traveling around for the past 4 and a half months. I can’t wait to see what else I learn in the next country… which just so happens to be Thailand. We’ll just miss you. Dang it.

  8. NomadicMatt

    Thanks everyone for the well wishes about Taipei. So far it seems cool but it’s very cold here and I hate the cold. Give me back my sun.

    @mich: you are right

    @malia: yeah, e-mail me!

    @Tina: I do want to learn Chinese! Gonna start after the new year!

    @Route Map: Just pick one! I am always learning languages. Go with french. it sounds cool.

    @Nora: When you go back to Thailand, I will tell you what to do in Bangkok so you love it.

    @Carrie: Glad to be here!

    @Jamie: I’ll let you know if I see any of those.

    @Geno: Thanks papa bear!

    @Tanya: Travel is all about learning. You are very very right.

  9. Totally hear what you’re saying except for the points about safety and kids on motorcycles.

    In Thailand you are almost *twice* as likely to die on the road as you are in the US. (28 deaths per 100,000 peeps every year vs. 15 deaths per 100,000 in USA.)

    Your points about Westerners exaggerating the dangers of life abroad are valid. But road conditions and driver education in many countries leave little to be desired.


  10. Bangkok is a great city. It has its seedy side, but overall it’s a nice place to be. I love the Buddhist Wats of the city. Lots of interesting travelers coming in and out of the city. It’s very affordable so you find people from every walk of life wandering its streets.

    Impressed that you picked up some Thai.

  11. Cuckoo

    You can very well survive in India as well. Yes, in western countries, the people worry too much about cleanliness, hygiene and safety.

  12. Talen

    Best of luck in Taipei .

    It’s always nice to read articles like this because too many people just play it safe and ask what if. You’ll never know what is possible until you try. So many people want to do something in their lives but are afraid to take the first step.

    I think it should be mandatory for everyone in the world to pick up and move to a foreign country at least once in their life.

  13. Mitch

    Great post! I took my first international trip to Bangkok, Thailand, staying in the city for a week. I found myself, just like you, itching to get out into the country or a nice beach to escape the smell and dirtiness. But after a few days, I began to fall in love with the city — taking the BTS everywhere that I could and exploring my surroundings. I can’t wait to go back.

  14. I enjoyed reading your blog on Bangkok , because I too lived and worked there for about 18 months a couple of years ago. You’re right that it takes a bit of time for Bangkok to get under your skin, but once it does, it never goes away. IEven when I had a really bad day there, something always happened to remind me why I was still there: particularly the kindness of strangers.
    And although I was ready to leave when I came back to the UK, I still feel a huge sense of loyalty to Bangkok and can’t wait to visit again.

  15. Great summary of a city that I spent five weeks in waiting a visa for a nearby country. At first I hated it too, especially the pollution, but the city really grew on me – the friendly people at the places you ate at regularly, the amazing temples, the life on the river, the happiness in so many of the people,,… And you are dead right about the health issues – it is no coincidence that westerners now suffer from more allergies than any time in history.

  16. So awesome to hear that Bangkok has really changed someone for the good. It’s my home city and it always brings a smile to me when I hear it’s reached it potential. Awesome!

    Come back soon.

  17. Very true about first impressions.

    I disliked Bangkok when I first arrived there, big time in fact! and thats having been to India before. but the city has grown on me and I feel at home in that there are other lost lonely souls there too.

  18. I smiled as I read this because so many of these lessons hold true here in Chile as well… it’s discovering the wonderful in living outside our comfort zone can be so rewarding! Good luck in your next adventure!

  19. I LOVED this post. It’s exactly what someone who wants to move somewhere different needs to hear. These types of articles are a great inspiration to me. Even though I’m a bit of a scardy-cat when it comes to taking that leap, I know each time I read such a personal, beautiful story like this I’m a little bit closer to that move…

  20. ed

    I lived in Thailand for 2 years working out of Rayong south of BKK made a decision to move back to Australia after getting a job there,
    Lucky for me the company had a large division in Thailand lucky for me a year latter i find my self working in Thailand again this time in BKK.
    Matt Taiwan is a great place try and get over to the east coast very pretty great surf.

    For those of you who have been to large city’s in Asia try the large or even the smaller ones Rajkot 20 million.
    Good luck Matt sure you will have a blast.

  21. Ken

    Hi, I am planing to travel Bangkok in sept this yr, tell me which are the places you stayed and are you in ther still

  22. Bangkok is a place full of hidden gems and you definitely have to explore. I lived there for 7 yrs and our last 2years there we lived in Ari. Ari is a very nice Thai neighborhood not too many farangs there. It was nice to get out of Sukhumvit area for a change.

  23. first world refugee

    Getting out of your homeland and moving on is always a challenge, wherever it may be. So much to learn in this world, adapt to and experience. Just go for it!

    I’ve chosen Argentina. Have fun out there, ciao

  24. Sean

    Hey Matt,

    Thanks so much for your post. It’s really encouraging as I’m moving to Bangkok within the next 4 weeks. Wish you safe travels.


  25. Daniel

    I love Bangkok. Always have from the very first, unlike you Mike, but I can understand this happening to people. This city enthralled me with its energy and right from the get-go. The people are wonderful, and the Food? It’s amazing, the variety, deliciousness and affordability, “Dam Cheap” and the greatest food bargains in the World .. The food on the street? Awesome! All the different noodle and rice stands, Fried Thai Chicken, Green Papaya Salad, BBQ Chicken, all the great Seafood,etc., etc … Thailand and Bangkok can just not be beat. The first time I went to Bangkok in 1996 I stayed in a hotel that backpackers would consider quite expensive ($35 at The Sathorn Villa). It was a brand new, clean high-rise modern hotel. I knew I could have stayed in cheaper places, but I was happy to pay a little extra, dam the great food was so cheap it off-set me paying $35 a night for the hotel, and wen I went down to Phuket, Krabi, and Pi Pi I paid just an average of $12 a night down at the beautiful Southern Thai Beaches. Another splurge that I loved doing was having Afternoon Tea at the Somerset Maughm Room at The Oriental Hotel (The World’s Top # 1 Rated Hotel), as well as going for lunch one day, and cocktails and jazz at a bar inside the hotel one night.
    I can go on and on but I won’t. I love Bangkok and think it to be one of the World’s great cities to travel to, though it’s definitely not for everyone.
    I can go on-and-on but I won,t just to say I Love Bangkok, the people, the food, and the feeling of the city. Basta!
    NY, NY

  26. Craig

    Been living in BKK for 5 years, and as a middle class worker, not a barstool warrior. I love Thailand and could never return to nanny-land.

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