The Saturday City: Bangkok

By Nomadic Matt | Published May 17th, 2008

Bangkok skyline near sunsetChaos. Crowds. Cheap food. Cheap clothes. Wild nightlife. Bangkok, Thailand has it all.

The city that at first repulsed but then enthralled me, Bangkok offers a little bit of everything to everyone. Arriving in Bangkok, people’s immediate reaction is to love it or hate it. Few, if any, have mixed opinions about it. The city is crowded, the pollution is bad, the traffic is endless, and the place seems to operate in a form of controlled chaos. Bangkok is a shock to the senses.

The city was founded after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767. The new king, Taksin, established a capital in an area that was then called Thonburi. When Taksin’s reign ended in 1782, King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke reconstructed the capital on the east bank of the river and gave the city a very long ceremonial name which became shortened to its current official name, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, the City of Angels. Over the centuries, the city has grown into the metropolis it is today.

When I first came to Bangkok, I couldn’t wait to leave. Nothing appealed to me. As a city, there just wasn’t a lot to see. There were a plethora of temples, the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and some malls. But after two days, I was ready to leave and never return. When I did return in 2007, I spent one night in the backpacker area of Khao San Road, and then left for the beaches.

Yet Bangkok does have a lot to offer. I just didn’t know it.

I was looking in all the wrong places. I was looking for the touristy stuff in a city that lacked touristy stuff, and so Bangkok never appealed to me beyond the party scene of Khao San and Patpong. When I decided to learn Thai and settle in Bangkok, it was with a heavy heart. There wasn’t anything to do here. How would I live?!

I quickly found out how wrong I was.

The longer I stayed in Bangkok, the more the city opened up and the more I realized that there was always something to do. Most notably, there’s the social scene. Bangkok has a vibrant nightlife and ex-pat community. For those looking to join the backpacker crowd, there are the bars of Khao San Road. For a different tourist crowd and some racy go-go bars, there’s Patpong, an area where all your dreams (or nightmares) can come true.

Then there is the ex-pat scene. Bangkok has a lot of ex-pats who cut loose every night. The city has a never-ending supply of ex-pat and after-hours bars that are packed no matter what day it is. Many of my friends give new meaning to going to work with hangovers. Cheap Charlie’s, a bar on Soi 11, is filled every day it is open. If it’s Wednesday, you can find all the ex-pat girls at Coyotes enjoying their free margaritas before people move to the trendy Bed Supper Club. This club is one of Bangkok’s “high society” clubs and features a lot of Bangkok’s young, foreign, rich, and beautiful. The club gets extremely packed on the weekend.

Bangkok also offers a lot in the way of culinary delights. The Thais love to eat. Everywhere you go in the City of Angels, there is at least one street cart. There are street carts on little tiny streets where no one would seemingly go. And if you’re hungry at 5 a.m.? There’s someplace around that’s open. In fact, even if you trekked into the jungle, you’d probably find a food vendor waiting there to feed you. They’re prolific…and dish up simply the best food in Thailand. For as little as 50 cents, you’ll find the best pad thai, noodle soup, or curry. You can get little snacks like mango, spring rolls, or – my personal favorite – rodee quai (banana pancakes).

Worried about food preparation cleanliness? Well, the Thais are doing it, the food doesn’t sit around, and there’s no place for vermin to hide – it’s clean, if not cleaner, than eating at a restaurant.

Street food is important in Thai culture. During lunch and dinner time, Thais flood the outdoor street vendors for a quick, cheap, and delicious meal. So sit down on that plastic stool and do as the locals do. You’ll find excellent food at any stall, anywhere in Bangkok.

For those looking for more of an indoor feel, your options are also limitless. There’s Soi Nana for Arabian food, Thong Lo for Japanese, and Khao San for Western, backpacker fare. Head to Mai Kaidee’s near Khao San for excellent vegetarian Thai, Shoshana’s for Israeli, Senor Pico’s downtown for excellent (albeit a bit expensive) Mexican, or Sunrise Tacos for some cheap tacos at 5 a.m. Then there’s also Charley Brown’s, Pomodoro, Tony Roma’s, Witches, and a whole lot more.

Interested in shopping? I can hardly think of a better place to buy! There are hundreds of malls here, and, in Bangkok, a mall is not just a mall. It’s a movie theater, restaurant plaza, bowling alley, bar, and food store. Everything is under one roof. Interested in electronics? There’s Pantip Plaza for cheap goods. There’s also MBK for cheap cellphones, video games, and bootleg DVDs. For upscale shops, there’s Siam Paragon or Emporium. For cheap clothes, head to Pratunam Plaza. There is a mall here for whatever you need.

Then  there are all the little street shops that sell whatever your heart desires and your mouth can haggle for. Downtown turns into a little night market every night as sellers come out offering all sorts of trinkets and souvenirs. On the weekend, there is the immense JJ market that covers a few football fields and lets you buy everything from socks to cellphones at bargain prices.

So, no, Bangkok doesn’t have a lot of touristy sites. It’s crowded. There’s pollution. But there is also so much more. There’s food. There’s excitement. There’s chaos.

Look beyond your first impressions of Bangkok, and you’ll find one of the most exciting and vibrant cities in the world.


Get My Complete Guide for Budget Travelers!

Looking for more in-depth coverage on Bangkok? I used to live in this city and know it like the back of my hand. My detailed guide to enjoying one of the most fun, chaotic, lively, and interesting cities in the world will help you plan the perfect trip. This guide cuts out the fluff and gives you the practical information you need to have the most fun on the least amount of money. You’ll get suggested itineraries, budgets, ways to save money, ideas on what to see and do, off-the-beaten path activities, and authentic, non-touristy restaurants and bars. This guide contains the essentials you need (including maps!).

(Don’t have a Kindle? You can get the PDF here.)

comments 4 Comments

I totally agree. Spend a couple days here and you’re thinking ‘meh’. Spend a week here and it’s love…

I just posted about Bangkok because we are one of the few that just felt mediocre about it. We didn’t love it, we didn’t hate it, and we couldn’t figure out its personality. We were there for 8 days and just didn’t get it. But, I have heard from so many other people that they love it so it might just be our aversion to big cities, in general.

Steven Ponec

Whoa! NIce article Matt!
I’ve been interested in learning more about Thailand, because I keep hearing GREAT things about it from other travelers and bloggers. Thank you for providing that information.
Bookmarking this article :)

2 years ago, i had exactly the same feeling about bangkok, chaos, endless traffic, polluted … and now I’m back in bangkok after 1,5 month living in hanoi with its crazy motorbike n quiet night scene .. bangkok seems like a very civilized city, love it!

Leave a comment