“you’re going to Thailand…in a coup?”
My friends were incredulous. After all news of a coup conjures up images of danger, disorder and degeneration. My friends were not alone in their fears. Tourism arrivals fell 20% in the first week after the Thai coup, some airlines have canceled flights into Bangkok and most tourist spots are way less busy.
The capital itself is operating pretty normally, the army presence is minimal and apart from the curfew (which has now been lifted in some beach side areas) tourists have been largely unaffected. Remember, this is not the first coup, Bangkok has seen. There have been 12 over the last 82 years.
Today I review Bangkok, known by the Thais as Krung Thep (City of Angels) which I visited over the last week. This was my 15th visit to this city.
I don’t think of Bangkok as a pretty place. There are patches of beauty but the city is not overall, a beautiful city. There are four things that detract:
- it is not planned, a fact that hit home to me as I flew into Bangkok this trip I looked at the buildings scattered. There is no order to them. Freeways, roads and trains snake over, under, through and next to traditional houses, ultra modern shopping malls, temples, and vacant lands covered with rubbish.The effect is fascinating, chaotic and engaging but not pretty
- many of the city’s canals are filled with dank water, trash. I would love to see each canal sponsored by tourists who pay for trees, beautification and rubbish removal
- many great riverside cities have promenades on the river banks where people can sit, stroll and run. Bangkok has some spots where you can sit in hotels and restaurants along the river but most of the riverbank is inaccessible and disjointed and you cannot stroll for long
- while there are some parks, I don’t think there are enough green spaces across the city
The Economist in their reports have consistently put Bangkok outside the top 100 cities in the world to live in. In 2012, Andrew Batt, International Group Editor of PropertyGuru, said: “To those living in the Thai capital its lowly ranking may come as somewhat of a surprise, but for those looking from outside it’s clear there are issues that need to be addressed in order for the city to rise in this particular report.”
Bangkok enjoys a relatively moderate crime rate when compared to urban counterparts. It is generally a safe place for conducting business or enjoying tourism. Locals suggested that the coup and curfew has resulted in a fall in crime but I don’t have any evidence for that. Visitors should exercise the same cautions as any other time. Petty crimes such as pickpocketing and bag snatching are the biggest threats. Serious passport and identification forgery is a thriving business, as noted in the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. There are scammers operating in the more tourist areas.
The rates of reported rapes and assaults are much lower than in other countries but the murder rate is surprisingly high, being higher than Australia, NZ and UK cities but on par with some USA cities.
Bangkok since 1785 has operated as the seat of the Royal family, the centre of trade, culture and trade for the Kingdom of Siam and then Thailand. Most tourists head to the Grand Palace, the city’s most famous landmark and a must see. It was used from 1782 to 1932 and will take half a day to tour properly.
As befits such a city, Bangkok has many links to its cultural history. These can be seen in the Bangkok National Museum, the largest museum in Southeast Asia. Take the free tour to understand it properly. For an amazing walk through of Thai history and identity, the interactive Museum of Siam cannot be beaten.
The capital is also home to both traditional and modern art with many galleries and exhibitions. Many tourists rushing to and from the MBK shopping centre, miss the fantastic Bangkok Art & Culture Centre filled with a range of fascinating (and usually free) exhibits and art related shops. A little out of town is MOCA, Museum of Contemporary Art which brings together Thai Buddhist thinking and art.
A cinema visit is always a must for me and in a city where movies cost between $US4 and $US8 its a great way to escape Bangkok heat! I have seen mainstream and art house films from the west and Asia, all in their original language with Thai subtitles. A few minutes before the main movie starts, the whole audience stands up respectfully for the Royal Anthem. It is one of the few times, I see Thais lower their cell phones! A list of Thai movie houses is here.
Karaoke, contemporary and traditional music ensures no one can be bored. I find Timeout Bangkok to be a very useful guide.
Bangkok is Thailand’s Buddhist centre with close to 95 percent of all citizens being Buddhist. There are more than 300 wats (temples) including many of the country’s most famous ones. The sight of monks is very common. Buddhism is the city’s largest religion. Four percent of Bangkok’s population is Muslim with Christians, Hindus, Confucians, and Sikhs accounting for fewer than one percent.
Food is a major part of Bangkok life with food carts, footpath eateries with fold-up tables and chairs, shop-house food places, restaurants and fast food chains everywhere. Your senses will be assaulted with the smell, taste and noise of food being cooked, eaten and enjoyed. I try a bit of everything! My rule is if its busy, then its safe!
Bangkok, for many locals and tourists is one continuous shopping spree with street markets stand alone boutiques, department stores and international chains.
A “feature” of Bangkok has been the sex scene which is either an attraction or a turn off for visitors. While prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand since 1960, it has grown rapidly over that time. Go go bars, escorts, “happy ending” massages cater for men from all over the globe including Thai men. The industry is estimated to be worth $US2.5 billion with 200,000 people working in the trade, mostly women. There has been debate recently about whether the trade empowers or traps those involved.
For a city of ten million, public transport is seriously underdeveloped. There are two elevated train lines, an underground line, several suburban rail lines, a Bus rapid transit line and a rail link to the airport. These are supplemented by buses, motorcycle taxis, taxis and ferries. There is no integrated ticketing system so customers must use a different process for each mode of transport. Info on transport including route planner. At the moment, public transport starts shutting down an hour before the curfew starts.
I do everything I can to avoid the road in Bangkok as the city is choking under the weight of massive traffic jams. The city has seen car growth at a rate faster than public transportation growth caused by a government policy to refund the tax for first-time car buyers and a Thai romance with car ownership. There are five million vehicles in a city which can only cope with under two million cars. Forget push bike riding as a tourist.
The ultimate plan is to have a fourteen line rail system which would allow the city to function brilliantly. I say “bring it on” for until that network is built, the city will struggle with its traffic.
Bangkok is a 24 hour city with a great vibe. Even with a curfew in place, the city maintains its life and vitality. Its a great city to party, participate in a multitude of activities or simply people watch. There are few cities that can match the pace and excitement of this mega city.
Overall I rate Bangkok 70%. Like the Economist (see above), Bangkok falls out of my top 100 cities I have visited sitting at 107th position. Other cities I rate at this score include:
- Antwerpen (Belgium)
- Charlotte, (North Carolina, USA)
- Nashville, (Tennessee, USA)
- Oakland, (California, USA)
Visit for the food, culture and shopping. Observe it is not the most liveable city in the world by a long shot and avoid the roads!