Destination Thailand: First impressions of Bangkok

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ June 27th, 2011. Published in: Travel blog » Thailand.
Bangkok city from a temple HDR

Is Bangkok like another world? My brief stop over gives an alternative perspective (click to enlarge)

First impressions of Bangkok city

Bangkok has had an unwritten history with me. More than 15 years ago I first began reading about this destination X for all travelers and tourists. A hub of culture, shopping, history and everything in between. Bangkok was dubbed the mecca of backpacking and travel.

Pundits escape sharp tongues by labeling it as a place you either love or hate. An easy cop out in my book.

Why choose Bangkok?

The only reason I am in Bangkok is for personal reasons (read my newsletter for more). It’s also a good place to get cheap flights to just about any destination in the world.

Added benefits are that it’s a huge commercial city. In other words I can stock up on a few things. Plus, it’s, allegedly, good for having a wealth of cheap good food.

Those are my main reasons. After that, if time allows, there’s the cultural side to things too.

But first and foremost, I have to get myself sorted out.

Will the urban travel myth that is “Bangkok” live up to what I need?

First things first.

The people of Bangkok

Once out of the train-station the MRT (Bangkok’s light city rail system) is filled with relaxed people. There isn’t much stress here. Thais look like regular business types, mixed with a punkish youth element. Both never far from looking up from their smartphones. There’s about two to three tourists in each carriage. Most are white or Asian. Noted for loose tshirts, shorts, little day packs and a map. Then there’s the business expat type in crisp shirts, and sometimes a suit.

My check-in at a hotel reveals more tourists and backpackers than I have seen in quite a while.

China town in Bangkok at night

China town in Bangkok at night my best experience so far

Youth seems to be the order of the day. Twosomes of girls, looking lost with maps and running late. Couples looking sweaty with guidebooks in hand. And, single guys sitting alone with laptops in every available table.

No conversation is allowed with third parties it would seem.

The only thing more shiny than the tourists clammy skin is the shining smile from the Thai receptionist.

Yes, the Thai people are arguably more friendly here than the international tourists.

My first impression of Bangkok Thai food

Finally some Thai food. Pad Thai, minus any real meat (it was meant to have meat). But, certainly not enough to feed me. Having just come from Penang, I am not impressed with Thai food so far.

I still need to find some cola to remove the layer of grease that’s being left in my mouth. But, 7-11 corner stores are everywhere so this is no issue.

Indeed there’s even Tesco (UK supermarket) corner stores here too. Their saving grace … air conditioning. For my private room has none. It seem’s budget Bangkok accommodation is perhaps not so cheap as people make it out to be.

First impression of Bangkok’s accommodation

Cost vs value for money has me thinking Bangkok is not the budget destination it once was.

Yes, I can get a room for $5, but I may also want to damage the hippy wannabes sprawled around the floors in such establishments. Bongo drums, dreadlocks and shoe-less unwashed attire with more than a hint of patchouli is a prerequisite here. Asides from that, the cheaper accommodation seems far from the MRT which I am using a lot at the moment.

So no, I will be staying far from that tourist “road” for as long as possible I think. Instead my shared bathroom, clean fan only room is perfect for $10.

First impressions of the tourists in Bangkok

Starbucks, burger king and everything in between. White people in suits, smart tourists, and the long-term foreign residents in Bangkok that frequent them all as if it were a brief taste of home. And, still they manage to say they “Eat local”. Yet, back at the guest house it was still all about Thailand …

The American TEFL guy

In the evening it seems beer is the social glue in my hotel. Along, surprisingly, with cigarettes and bragging rights.

I’ve been living in Bangkok for two months,” spouts one guy waiting for a “friend” at the guesthouse. “Gonna get an apartment soon I think.

I wouldn’t mind, but when asked about what he’s gonna do here beyond work. He just said “enjoy himself“. Fair enough. Each to their own.

The Irish heart-breaker

Later that night an Irish guy with plenty of liquid loose tongue seems fit to tell me that he too lives in Bangkok. And, has done so for the past year. Border jumping every month or so for a new visa. Sounds like a lovely way to live in a place I rebuked.

He didn’t get it.

This time though, he’s going home for a while. Why? Well, his true love Thai girl dumped him for a richer English man. Not before he bought her a motorbike though.

Thankfully, he’s learned his lesson. He’s going home to work for a year. Saving up to come back. Why?

Because he’s met another Thai girl! And, this time “she’s different.”

His words not mine.

The Dutch culture girl

Finally having prized myself free of Johnny’s drunken exploits I met Anna from the Netherlands. Anna seemed to know a lot about Bangkok. However, most of it was to do with Buddha, finding her inner-self, love and the freedom of the Thai spirit.

Not quite a hippie. I imagine she’ll transform into one for a few months; before eventually de-fumigating herself and flying home to her day job at the bank.

Roadside cooks in Chinatown Bangkok

Roadside cooks in Chinatown Bangkok

I would dearly like to escape this place, or rather these people! Never, mind, it’s Thailand and there’s an election next week so this may yet happen.

Thankfully, Sue from Hong Kong saw my mild distress at the various tourist lifeforms and suggested dinner in Chinatown!

A walk through Chinatown in Bangkok brings sanity

Chinatown at night. A hissing of sidewalk food being cooked. Heaps of humanity walking up and down humid streets. Cars, tuk tuks, bicycles and all manner of transport are bumper to bumper.

It’s dinner time in Chinatown Bangkok. And, the streets are alive like nowhere else in this giant city.

Passing by an old lady with a serious case of bad mouth, she spits at us. I never felt so welcome.

Sue says something to her in rudimentary Thai. The old lady covers up her basket of purple something, and hisses something back. Sue laughs and we move on.

The food is all served up either steaming or sizzling. Prawns, noodles, and spring rolls. Sue knows Chinatown well and takes no crap from the waiters who rush by frequently. Finally, I too am able to grab at a waiter and shout an order. It’s obeyed, with a kind smile in return. And, I feel a bit better.

Sue’s conversation of the evening was refreshing.

“Bangkok’s changed over the years. It’s best to just do your own thing these days. And then go north or down south. Thailand is still good in these places.”

We walk back along the bustling roads. Dropping into herbal stores selling everything from shark fins to packets of dried “anything” for your aliments.

Peeling back the layers of Bangkok

Bangkok is not representative of all Thailand. And, certainly in my time within the city, it’s easy to see that there are a lot of layers to the capital itself. One could spend years exploring every nook and cranny, sub-culture, moral aspects, tourism, work opportunities and the list goes on.

However, as mentioned at the start. That is not my intention here at the moment. Maybe it never will be. I simply don’t have that initial great feel that tells me I want to spend copious amounts of time in this city at the moment.

First impressions of Bangkok last

My first impressions of Bangkok are not referred to in any guidebook I’ve read.

I’m quite sure there are a lot of different elements people from all walks of life enjoy about Bangkok. However, I cannot be “everyone” and first impressions count in many regards.

Expats, backpackers and all manner in between, sorry, but for first impressions; you really spoil it for me.

On the other hand, how the average Thai person puts up with them I don’t know. But to their credit, they do just this. And, they smile about it.

So, yes, I like the average Thai person it seems.

Maybe that old spitting lady was just telling us something, in her own way.

Coming Soon:

What to see first in Bangkok? A temple, a pickpocket, or a ping pong show? (just kidding about the last one)

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44 Great responses to Destination Thailand: First impressions of Bangkok

  1. Abby says:

    Love the vignettes — don’t get me started on the dating issues brought up in “Irish heart-breaker.” I loved Bangkok. My dad lived there as a young adult, which I thought was SO COOL when I was younger, so it’s always had this air of mystery about it. It still took three trips to Thailand to actually go. And then I loved it!

    • I can very much see Thailand/Bangkok’s appeal to many people. At the moment, it doesn’t do much for me. I did a lot of layer peeling in Malaysia, maybe this is why I’m not so motivated to do the same here. At least, for the moment!

  2. Dave, your impressions remind of my first time in BKK, in 1994, when I found it a bit too much – traffic, smog, red light areas, intense heat, nutty tourists, big city chaos, etc; and when Kao San Road was just a low-key, mellow backpackers street, an oasis where TV-restaurants were the sole nightlife and not the swarming, trendy, pumping tourist town within a city, that KS has become.

    … Still, when I returned (at least 10+ times since, including last year on route overland to China), I grew to love it as an exciting city for some fun, shopping, cheap flights, great food, temples, culture; basically a RnR, on route from Africa or New Zealand, Korea, etc; great for a little bit of everything (except beach views). And often, you barely notice the other foreigners … but they do add color to the mad swirl.

    But I have to concede over the years that I’ve stopped staying in Kao San Rd area (although there’s still great accommodation and meal value there) but still do return for a day-trip of shopping and a beery-lunch over the many memories … of how it was.

    Enjoy the sights – & food … [ Hope you get a resolution in BKK: “letter readers”are aware of the picture ].

    Regards – Michael | the candy trail … a nomad across the planet, since 1988

    • MRP, glad to hear I am not alone in these feelings towards Bangkok. I can certainly see the appeal of Bangkok in many regards. Like I said to Abby, I just think I did a lot of layer peeling in Malaysia, and not ready to do the same in a city that’s already been pealed by many people, in many ways.

      I also know that since I am in this region, I will be visiting Thailand/Bangkok often. And so will be back many times. Thus will be going deeper by virtue of physicality rather than anything else. Not a fan of the food though! More on that soon. Jeez, I won’t be so popular soon ha ha.

      • Yeah, if you’re staying in the region – better to hit the Thai, Laotian, Khmer countryside (I know you’re not a huge beach fan) OR better still – ugly regime aside – go to BURMA, amazing sights.

        About the food – well, Pad Thai is not much beyond Mie Goreng; kind of ordinary. But try Red, Green, Yellow coconut curries or Tom Yum seafood soups, crispy chicken (w/salad) or sate sticks, BQQ pork … ate lot of this yummy Thai grub just last week at friend’s birthday, here in China. Anyway, we all can’t like everything is this world … I loathe Brussel Sprouts, Beetroot & …

        • I was thinking of Burma, but not sure if I really have the temperament for cramped buses and “interesting food substances” at the moment. I’d be happy to be offline, and have a camera in hand. But not in the mood for this type of travel I think. If you hear of any Hilton 5 star packages for $10 a night, do let me know :)

          Biggest problem I have with Thai food, is the soupy thing. Doesn’t do it for me. You can throw you beetroot over to my plate!

          • As luck would have it Dave: I accidently ordered 3 tons of beetroot online when I was drunk (no surprise there); but as a complimentary bonus with this purchase was a Hilton 5 star package (on condition that I ate all 3 tons of beets in one sitting). I know you are up for this mission – so you can have it all. I will send the beets on the back of elephants under armed escort to your address … enjoy your holiday.

            [ But seriously: rest from full-on traveling & cyberspace, if that’s what’s you need … the world can wait. ]

            Regards – Michael

          • A beet party it will be then, pink bikes will be banned. Cheers, I’m currently looking at places to chill for a while!

  3. hayadith says:

    relax..enjoy ur stay in Thailand. Go to Thai beaches, i heard they are amazing :)

  4. Glen Aldridge says:

    Saying Bangkok is representative of all of Thailand is like saying NYC is representative of all the U.S. There are many layers to Bangkok as in any big city. To get a feel for the best of Thailand go to Chiang Mai. Phi Phi Islands, Pattaya, Phuket. You’ll discover just how diverse Thai culture is from the poor to the rich & everything in between. Show them the respect they desrve & you will discover just how wonderful they are to farang. (Caucasians) Of course the big problem is a lot of people only see the seedy side which taints both races.

    • Hi Glen,

      Yes, I agree with you, hence I made sure to mention that Bangkok, is not all of Thailand. No doubt I will be bouncing in and out of Bangkok quite a lot. And, will no doubt venture further into the country at some stage as well. At the moment, it’s just Bangkok, so I’m taking it as I see it.

  5. Leslie says:

    Interesting hearing your perspective on Bangkok. I liked the city, perhaps because I stayed outside of the backpacker ghetto Khao San Road in favor of the more business-oriented city center. The hippie backpackers were way over the top in the Khao San Road area– lots of cheesy people in those horrible fisherman pants, and I even saw a dreadlocked duo walking BAREFOOT down the city street. Why would you EVER do that in a city, anywhere?!

    • I don’t have a pair of these fisherman pants. I may have to get me a pair of those to go with my Chicago Bulls shirt and fanny pack.

    • Me too Leslie, I’m far from Khao San road and the baggy pants people :) I’ve seen a few bare foot designer Hippies too, and a designer tourist monk walking bare foot too. No idea why?! I’ve not seen any monks walking barefoot in downtown Bangkok. I guess some tourists really lose the plot there!

  6. adventure says:

    Again, another article where you trash-talk people you have barely met. What makes you so superior, so different from them? You seem to have a chip on your shoulder about hippies. Have you stopped to consider that your drifting-around-the-world-looking-for-home is a pretty hippie-ish thing to do? Seriously, you seem to have something condescending to say about almost everyone you mention in your articles. Go back and read through them all and see for yourself.

    Traveling the world alone, preventing yourself from entering into meaningful intimacy with other people, trash-talking and gossiping about them on a blog where they do not have an opportunity to speak for themselves, and acting as though you were somehow superior to everyone else impedes your quest. Home cannot be found this way. Home arrives when you open your heart, my friend. Oh wait…does saying that make me a hippie?

    No matter how much you hate it and fight it, you are just a human being like all the rest of us. We’ll be here to welcome you Home when you wake up from your dream of alienation.

    I wish you the very best. Thailand is filled with wonderful people from all over the world. Let them in, stop judging them so harshly, and you may find all the healing you seek. Good luck.

    • Lovely to hear from you again Nico! Similar concerns as before too I see :)

      Who’s trash talking? Remember to read my foot notes on the blog page. Superior to everyone else, is that how you read it? There I was thinking Sue knew Bangkok a lot more than I could, or possibly ever will about Bangkok. Not sure anyone I wrote about above is “impeding” my quest? If anything they spur me on to avoid falling into such traps. Don’t you think?

      Hippies? Real hippies? No, I don’t have much of a problem with them. Designer/backpacking hippies, yes Nico, I don’t like them. And yes, Nico I have no problem to say what I do or do not like. People can think what they like, I only hope my jests, jibes, and sarcasm towards today’s “designer hippies” comes across well. And, with the exception of yourself, it seems that people “get it” ;)

      It’s seems to me Nico that you much prefer reading static travel sites, where there’s a wonderful, happy land, style of writing. And, that’s great for promotional purposes. But, please don’t forget, this is a personal journal. One that scopes many years, over which there will be up’s and down’s. Corners, cliffs and indeed silver lined clouds. Life is not all sunshine and rainbows. I write as I see and experience things, good times and bad. And it’s done from my perspective, with my journey in mind. The really nice thing is, I am not alone in this way of though, as you can see. Enjoy!

  7. Lulu says:

    Hi. As test to candidates of an online job, I was one of the shortlist 10 contractors to submit an article about 3 websites having a theme on photography and the reason I chose them. One of which was yours. Firstly, I like your title. There is a personal nostalgic touch in there. If I did pursue creating a blog about travel a long time ago, we would have the same title. Unfortunately, travelling does not fancy me yet. I want to thank you for including Philippines. I’ve become well-informed from here. I am following your journey.

    By the way, the contract for that job was awarded to me. ^_~

    • Congratulations Lulu, I’m very glad to hear you got the job. And, in some small way we share similar traits. It’s also good to hear that this site helped you to secure that job! Well done!

  8. Jeb says:

    Bright eyed and bushy tailed backpacking sheep ALWAYS ruin it. You are not alone.

    As to your lodgings, i recommend Sukhumvit on Nut. Its a block or two from the On Nut BTS stop. Pretty cheap. Free breakfast, kick ass wifi, away from the center of the city, surrounded by houses. On the way to/from the BTS, you’ll pass night food markets, trinket stalls, and a Tesco, 7-11, Micky-D’s, and KFC. You have the option of fan or ac, also dorm and private. The owner is super nice, and not many know about it, so the residents won’t be as annoying. (No I’m not being sponsored; i really loved the place). My only complaint: LOTS OF STAIRS. Prices are cheaper if reservations are made online. Hostelworld or Hostels will list them.

    Good luck with the other stuff. Read your newsletter. My thoughts are with you. Stay strong.

    • Hi Jeb, glad to hear I am not alone in regards to some of the sheep out there.

      Many thanks for the detailed recommendation too! I really appreciate the detail, you must know Bangkok very well and how to get around with all that landmark type description.

      I’ll know after the weekend how long I will stay in Bangkok, and I’ll certainly check out Sukhumvit on Nut if I stay a bit longer.

      Thanks for the thoughts.

  9. Martin says:

    ha ha. That place sounds like many I have been. There are all sorts of people trying to live the good life in Bangkok. But as you say, the Thais keep smiling at em. You gotta give em that much! Have fun.

  10. Bangkok is a lot like Manila in the Philippines. It is the transportation hub of the country plus the nightlife is fun because it is a big city, but it is not a destination of choice for me for either country. Stay a couple of days and move to somewhere more interesting.

    • Yea, your point about big 24 hour type cities is a good one. I think once you’ve been in some like Manila, repeating the whole process over again doesn’t always appeal. At least that’s how I feel now. Maybe if I go and sit in some small town somewhere for a few months I’d like BK more. Not enjoying Bangkok food though, did you like it?

      • I am not a good person to ask about food. I eat everything and enjoy it. I would be a horrible food travel blogger because every entry would be “Traveling Ted liked it.” There would be no rating system only that I ate it and liked it.

  11. Amy says:

    I love, love, LOVE that first photo!

  12. what amazes me is that people can be in a country, and not BE there.

  13. Nora says:

    My own initial impressions of Bangkok weren’t that great either (as can be evidenced here:

    Granted, I was also suffering from a severe case of culture shock and jetlag at the time of writing that post. I’d like to think that, 3 years later, I could approach Bangkok with a little more perspective. But I personally found other parts of Thailand to be much more rewarding. I hope you do too!

    • Just read your post, and enjoyed as I always do.

      I certainly can appreciate what you went through. I’m halfway through writing about the tourist rip-offs in Bangkok too. Though in the back of my head I’m not sure about publishing it as it might be seen as another “negative” post. But, such is the reality we often experience. Let’s see.

      I’ll know more next week if I will stay longer in Thailand this time around. And, if so I will head out of the big city for a while.

  14. flip says:

    bangkok introduced me to the world of travelling… it was where i first saw people coming from different places all over the world… i remember when i overheard an old couple telling other travellers how they did an overland trip from china to thailand… forgive my ignorance for such things before, but i was totally amazed… i am not as well travelled as you are :-), as you know, how hard it is to travel as a Filipino, and hearing such things in khao san road opened my eyes to the endless possibilities that i could do… hopefully i could also go to the places that you’ve been to, like the overland trip in the middle east and karakoram highway… wishing you safe travels as always…

    • Yes Flip that is a good point you bring up. If Bangkok were one’s first destination either in Asia, or in the world, then one would could easily see it at as hugely amazing place. I can only write on my journal, about my experiences though ;) That said, possibly next week, I’ll be covering this … from a slightly different perspective

  15. Nathan says:

    Hello D, first, I get your email newsletter, so, I hope all goes well.

    My impressions of Bangkok, is that it’s one of the best cities on earth. The food, is *the* best on earth. But, I understand that Thai food is not for everyone!

    I also found that the city is so large, that tourists kind of “blend in” to the city. Staying for a month last year, I found apart from some more touristy locations, and areas such as Sukumvit (I’m not even going to bother spell checking that one!) ..the number of tourists/expats is not plain to see.

    In any case, this is what makes the world go round – what is sooo right for one person is not for another. I will return to Bangkok again and again – having seen more than 30 countries, and perhaps one hundred cities, I still firmly place Bangkok in my top five cities on earth.

    Here’s a Thai tip for you : DO NOT GO TO PATAYA



  16. Jason says:

    Dave, It’s been many years since I last visited, and I may be back again in a few months for an up and comming trip. I supose first impressions always count but I will be interested to get your feel after a little while longer.

    As you pointed out, there are many facets to this city and I’m sure you’ll be able to find some small corner somewhere that will take your fancy. I shudder to think what the Kho San road precinct is actually like today? Then again, it’s good for a laugh….

    • I’m really not bothered with Bangkok. I think that’s how I take it. Yes, lots of layers. But at the moments I think I’ve done a lot of layer peeling, so this is why Bangkok doesn’t appeal so much at the moment. That and the expense here. Or rather value for money. The one thing I will say, is that the Thai people do impress me. They are good with hospitality, and how they put up with some of those Khao San people I don’t know!!

  17. So well written. I love it when people don’t like Thailand. Mainly because I’ve not yet been there and that relieves me of the inevitable envy that comes with someone boasting about a place.

  18. bernie says:

    Hi Dave.. so your now in BKK was wondering if you knew any good cheap places to stay there.. as i will be out there on the 28th july with one of my sons.. dont plan to stay in BKK for long really… want to move around abit! did think of maybe trying to get a cheap flight to the Phils.. liked it over there.. up in Lucap.. like to see more of the country.. but have to see how we get on in Thailand! bernie

    • Hello Bernie,

      For cheap, but clean etc you could try Tavee House, 83 Sri-Ayutthaya Road Soi 14. T: (02) 280 1447, (02) 282 5983.

      For unique, try Suk 11 Hostel 1/33 Sukhumvit 11, Sukhumvit Rd, Bangkok

      For easy to find HI-Sukhumvit, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Sukhumvit Rd, BangKok

      Hope these of are some use to you. I’ve never found a “really” good place in Bangkok. There was one, but it was destroyed in the riots last year. Best to shop around online and read the reviews to see what suits you the best!

      Enjoy your trip!

  19. Katie says:

    Bangkok was an amazing city. If you make it to Thailand, definitely check out Chiang Mai. There are a lot of great activities there involving wildlife such as going into tiger cages and taking elephant rides through the jungle. I highly recommend it!