On first impression, driving down the highway into the city from the airport, Bangkok is impressively large and modern. The city rises up like New York, but also sprawls out like Los Angeles, seemingly forever. Bangkok is a port city of more than eight million, with the city proper occupying some 300 square miles along the Chao Phraya River delta. Its metro region now sprawls unevenly into six adjacent provinces, comprising 14 million people – almost a quarter of the country’s population. The city’s economy is strong, as it is a major Southeast Asian banking, business, and health care center.
It’s also one of the top tourist destinations in the world, attracting visitors from around the world to its ubiquitous shopping – with more than a half dozen multistory malls and surface markets like Chatuchak that extend over several city blocks.
There are so many different areas to explore, all buzzing with activity. And of course there is the city’s extensive nightlife; relatively unrestricted and somewhat renowned red-light districts; rich history and beautiful culture. The city is still developing like crazy, with high-rise office and residential towers going up chock-a-block with small, exquisite temples, and ever more in-city malls offering luxury goods, on streets lined with tiny food stalls and vendors providing everything from kitchen hardware to clothes.
And, of course, another draw of Bangkok is the fantastic variety and quality of food; from street food to fine dining this city offers every different type of cuisine at a range of qualities for generally affordable prices. I’m a big fan of street food when it’s done right, and Bangkok has no shortage of it. From sweets like mango with sticky rice, to satay sticks, to classics like Pad Thai, it’s nice to be able eat deliciously and cheaply some days.
It is worth spending a good day or two to visit some of the historic and cultural monuments of the city. Wat Arun, built on the bank of the Chao Praya River, is a beautiful Buddhist temple, with a towering “prang,” or spire, in the center. It’s ornately decorated with shards of colorful porcelain, reminiscent of Gaudi or the Watts Towers, but obviously markedly different architecturally. The stairs that lead up to the top of the spire are some of the steepest stairs I have ever climbed, but the view at the top is worth it.
Across the river, set behind four high walls, The Grand Palace compound is probably Bangkok’s most popular tourist destination. It is one of the most impressive architectural and historical assets of the city. You could spend all day looking around the different temples, pavilions, halls, gardens, etc. The amazing sculptural and mural work surrounding Wat Phra Kaew, or The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is enough to make the trip worthwhile. Regarded as the most sacred temple in Thailand, Wat Phra Kaew houses a cluster of fascinating and elaborately decorated structures, statues, paintings, and corridors. Although we’re always looking to get off the beaten path, sometimes there’s a reason that certain places are highly frequented by tourists.
This fascinating, full-spirited city will continue to thrive economically and socially in the following decades, however, as its population increases, sustainability challenges become more urgent in light of climate change, and its development profile remains stuck in high gear while livability gets squeezed still further, is an open question. Today the city still functions. It’s still an exciting, indeed crazy and mesmerizing place to visit. As a rising megacity on the front lines of coastal change, I hope it begins adapting sooner rather than later.
Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, have been wracked over the past decade with occasional paroxysms of political upheaval. There are strong political divides that have fairly recently cracked open a society which had previously been fairly well-united under the royal family. While still revered, that institution has been weakened in recent years. At the same time, national political consensus has been split by a populist regime that has won several democratic elections but may have ruled corruptly; the prime minister has won the support of the least economically fortunate but has incurred the enmity of the middle and upper classes. There is also a north-south split, nationwide. Recent eruptions of political violence have turned ugly and deadly, with the “yellow shirts” seeking to undemocratically overthrow the prime minister (who is supported by the “red shirts”). It is too soon to tell where this will lead, but it is enormously sad to watch the confusion and violence in such a vital place.