Same same, but different. It’s Thailish T-shirt philosophy that sums up Bangkok, a city where the tastes of many places are mixed into an often-spicy dish.
Bangkok can overwhelm you, or rather, it will overwhelm you. Let it. Experience it. Wander the city’s small streets, check out the nightlife, shop, meet locals, take a boat, a bus, a tuk tuk, a train. And eat. Eat street meat and eat Michelin-starred cuisine. You’ll never feel more alive than you do lost and engulfed by Bangkok.
What defines Bangkok is the city’s frenetic energy. Here, you get the feeling that anything can happen, and you’re right. Mafia types speeding around in Ferraris, corrupt police and politicians shaking down whoever they can, and knife-wielding ladyboys keep you constantly on your toes. At the same time, the friendliest, most genuine people are always ready with a helping hand or an offer of hospitality. Everyone here keeps a chip on their shoulder. The naive soon turn cynical, or they are chewed up and spit out. But the warmth is still there under it all, and it usually only takes a smile to peel back the hard front that Bangkok people wear.
The city is 12 million people all hustling to get ahead, to push upwards and make a better life for themselves than their parents had, or give more opportunity to their kids than what life handed them. And all of them, from the ultra-rich to the down and out, everyone still finds the time to eat and drink. Fine Bordeaux is paired with imported steaks in world class restaurants. Outside, along the city’s streets, cold beers and bottles of whiskey are poured at low tables in front of steaming soup pots and sizzling woks turning out some of the best food you will ever taste.
You can try to experience Bangkok at your own pace, but the city will have none of that. Being in Thailand’s capital city is to have all your senses under a constant state of siege. The heat and humidity press you down into the pavement until you step inside and air conditioning chills you to the bone. Your nose is assaulted by the alternating smells of putrid canal water and mouth watering grilled meats, then shocked by a tear gas-like cloud spreading out from a hot pan full of chilies.
To be in Bangkok is to be between extremes. Luxury cars crawl between towering skyscrapers and glitzy shopping malls, and modern skytrains ferry the armies of a burgeoning middle class to and from work. Down below, the minimum wage class sits stuck in traffic, sweltering in old buses that spew diesel exhaust. In Bangkok the contrasts sit side by side: the old and new, rich and poor, East and West. To be in the middle of it all is a gut punch of reality. It can be beautiful, ugly, pleasant or uncomfortable, and often all of these at once. More than anything else, it’s exhilarating.
Experiencing Bangkok is like an acid trip; it can be beautiful or frightening, but either way you come out changed on the other side. Bangkok isn’t for everyone, but if you love it the way I do, we’ll probably get along well. When the city has ground you down, when the heat pushes you over the edge, when the smells are just too much to bear, and when you’re overdosing on the sensory overload, that’s when you find out what you’re made of, and whether or not you can handle the crazy adventure that is being here. Bangkok hustles hard, all you can do is try to keep up.