Can I love and hate Bangkok?

Wat Pho, Bangkok
The golden reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

Is it possible to both love and hate somewhere at the same time? Bangkok is one of those places that travellers are either drawn to like moths to flames, or wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. I’m neither, yet I’m both.

Thailand’s capital city needs no introduction, and since there are hundreds of blogs and travel sites out there dedicated to telling you more than you’ll ever need to know about Bangkok (let’s face it, Thailand has been done to death) I’m certainly not going to attempt to do it justice here.

Guarding the temple of the Emerald Buddha, Grand Palace
Guarding the temple of the Emerald Buddha, Grand Palace

Yet I feel compelled to write about why I love returning to a city I dislike, and to be honest, it’s simply because of the luxury-for-less when it comes to hotels. At street level, Bangkok is a seedy sprawling frenzy of people, dirt, and noise, yet towering several stories above, dozens of calm oases await those with a taste for decadence and design. It’s a whole new world, and one I don’t mind staying in when travelling to Southeast Asia.

The famous line of regal buddhas at Wat Pho, Bangkok
The famous line of regal buddhas at Wat Pho, Bangkok

When I first visited Thailand as a young backpacker I was in awe of all the shiny gold statues, the intricate temples and the flashing neon signs that promised a good time if one was courageous enough to venture inside. It was a million miles away from blighty, and was hot and cheap. What more could a girl want? It was fun zooming around in tuk tuks, eyeing up the street food and turning down massages, but now I’ve travelled around a lot of Southeast Asia I can safely say I’ve well and truly ‘grown out of Thailand’. It’s a place for backpackers and first-timers to that part of the world, a step up from Singapore, but a million miles behind it’s neighbours Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia in terms of being a ‘real’ experience. Maybe the ’emerald’ buddha isn’t the only thing that’s jaded around here!

We had to wait ages to photograph the Grand Palace without another tourist ruining the frame!
We had to wait ages to photograph the Grand Palace without another tourist ruining the frame!

Why I hate Bangkok

I’m not as clueless as you think I look

People often assume that being western tourists we’re clueless and can be taken for a ride at every opportunity. With more scams than grains of rice per capita it’s a tiresome business having to constantly keep your wits about you. As a result when someone is being genuine, you’re never quite sure whether or not to believe their helpful directions or advice, despite the fact you’ve been lost for hours and desperately need to find your way back to the hotel.

Feeling dirty

No, not in that sense (!), though there’s of course plenty of it to go around if you’re so inclined. What I’m moaning about now is the state of our feet each time we return from a venture out into the city. Black and stinky doesn’t even begin to describe the state of our lower limbs as we sneak back into our latest posh abode, hoping the pristine lift operator doesn’t look down at our toes. Feet are supposed to be the most offensive part of the body in this neck of the woods so perhaps we’re just keeping up with tradition?

Even monks aren't immune to the dirt that gets everywhere, even your fingernails - on the Chaophraya water taxi
Even monks aren’t immune to the dirt that gets everywhere, even your fingernails – on the Chaophraya water taxi

It’s just mayhem

From shuffling along the overcrowded pavements with someone’s knee half way up your arse, to balancing on swaying trains with a foreign armpit inches from your nose, there’s just no personal space to be had in Bangkok at street level.

Every inch of pedestrian walkway is covered with smoking stalls of deep fried crickets, rows upon rows of fake nike trainers and piles of last week’s fly-covered rubbish. Sometimes it’s safer to take your chances in the road, being sworn at by taxi drivers and dodging the streams of excrement that sometimes escape from the open gutters.

The city never sleeps!
The city never sleeps!

You could take a cab to escape the madness, but despite their prevalence they are incredibly difficult to flag down, and when they do stop you know you’re being ripped off before you even set foot in the bright pink contraption.

Land of too many smiles

Sounds awfully unappreciative, but the widespread, traditionally welcoming and subservient nature of many Thais does actually become a bit stifling after a while. Are they really all genuine with their continual smiling, their falling over backwards to do every little thing for you, and treating you like royalty, even though you’re wearing muddy trainers and stink to high heaven. After a few weeks in Thailand I just want someone to glare at me when I bump into them in a queue, or ignore me when I re-enter the hotel for the 5th time that day. Perhaps it’s because I’m not used to such pleasantries back home, but what is seen by most of the world as one of the most endearing traits of Thai culture in fact makes me weary, and frankly feels just a little bit fake.

Why I love Bangkok

Living the high life

It’s got to be said, coming from the UK, there’s nowhere else on earth that provides such luxurious hotels at such ludicrously cheap prices. We could stay in 5* heaven for a week in Bangkok for the price of one night in London. It’s madness, but it’s great madness. We recently had several days in the city and spent most of the time living half way to the clouds on the club floor, using the pools, admiring the views and eating everything the club lounge could throw at us. We did have a couple of forays into the chaos of the world below to appease our guilt, but each time couldn’t wait to get back to our haven.

Our first love will always be the Banyan Tree Hotel and Spa, the place that gave us a taste for luxurious travel all those years ago, and we’ve never looked back. We love dining on the rooftop, receiving little goodies with our evening turn-down service, and staying in suites that make us feel cared for and important.

Our Club Suite at the Banyan Tree, Bangkok
Our Club Suite at the Banyan Tree, Bangkok

Yet on our latest trip we discovered the Sofitel So Bangkok, which with it’s outlandishly colourful design and the best and most genuine service we’ve ever experienced, I think I can safely say this is our new favourite city hotel.

Most of these waiting vehicles are taxis, on South Sathorn Road, the view from our Sofitel So Bangkok suite
Taxis on South Sathorn Road, the view from our Sofitel So Bangkok suite
An amusing sign inside one of the pink taxis in Bangkok - which rules did we break?
An amusing sign inside one of the pink taxis in Bangkok – which rules did we break?

Airport taxis to trust

Yes really! Usually airports are one of the first places you’d get royally screwed over when it comes to taking a taxi, yet in Bangkok they’ve implimented an excellent and trustworthy taxi rank system where your location, price and taxi number are recorded by an official before you set off. You’re even given a slip of paper with the complaints procedure on, though this is in Thai so in reality could just be their next door neighbours shopping list.

So Bangkok is the one place we don’t feel the need to always pre-book a taxi transfer, and never feel stressed about being ripped off.

And to be honest, that’s it! If it wasn’t for the hotels, I’d not bother with Bangkok.

City sights: the Conversant Traveller Verdict

Grand Palace

Sure it’s impressive, but it’s so sprawling and crowded that I’ve generally had enough by the time I get half way around. The leg police have no consistency when deciding who needs to hire sarongs, and who doesn’t. They also wouldn’t let hubbie wear his own sarong that he’d been carting about the city for that very purpose and insisted he had to wait for the next pair of sweat drenched hire trousers to become available. It’s clearly all about the money. There’s very little shade, virtually no-where to get a cold drink, and frankly in the heat it’s just all a bit too much. Needless to say, I’m not enamoured of the Grand Palace.

I may not like the palace, but the gardeners do a great job!
I may not like the palace, but the gardeners do a great job!

Wat Pho

Trying my luck at Wat Pho
Trying my luck at Wat Pho
One of hundreds of buddhas at Wat Pho, Bangkok
One of hundreds of buddhas at Wat Pho

Despite having seen enough temples to last two lifetimes, I loved Wat Pho! Perhaps because we’d missed it first time round and I’d been waiting in eager anticipation all these years, or maybe it’s just that there’s no getting around the fact that the almightly reclining golden buddha is rather impressive (see main header image above). Oh who am I kidding…it’s really because it wasn’t as crowded as the Grand Palace next door, and as it was smaller I could take the time to enjoy it all rather than getting fed before I’d seen it all.

It also had more shady bits to ward off my irritability in the intense heat. Always a bonus, according to hubbie. Wat Pho is a lot more photogenic than the Grand Palace, probably because you can take a step back from the buildings instead of being forced to crane your neck upwards to see everything in a relatively small space. I duly deposited my 108 coins (purchased for 20 Baht) in the 108 auspicious bronze bowls for good luck, though I still had a handful left when I came to the last bowl so whether it’s going to work for me remains to be seen.

Wat Arun

View from Wat Arun
View from Wat Arun
No this isn't the way to the top of Wat Arun
No this isn’t the way to the top of Wat Arun

Everyone gushes about the temple of dawn, and the amazing view from the top, not to mention the colourful flower patterns worked into each level of the monument.

Ok, the views were pretty good, the steep climb kinda fun (even though you do have to wait your turn to clamber up), and the ceramic floral art indeed worthy of more than a glance. Yet personally I think the best way to see it is from the boat, or other side of the river where you can truly appreciate it’s full form.

Maybe I was just ‘templed out’ by the time we reached here at midday, but honestly, it was disappointing, especially after visiting the likes of Wat Pho just across the water.

Chatuchak Weekend Market

If you’ve never been to a market before, then you’ll probably enjoy the sheer scale and variety of goods on offer here, but if you’re a bit more of a market connoisseur then seriously, give it a miss. It’s truly unremarkable, is full of tat, and there’s no bargaining to be had here whatsoever. You either pay what’s on their ‘sale’ signs or walk away empty-handed. Sure, by western standards it’s still cheap, but that’s not the point.

Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok
Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok

A seriously disappointing market for those of us who have learned to love the art of haggling and know the true value of 7 things that can be crafted from a coconut.

So I’m sure I’ll be back, next time I want a fix of decadent sky living, but if I can help it I won’t be setting foot in the streets again, unless it’s walking from the taxi into the air-conditioned 5* hotel lobby. And I won’t feel guilty, because I’ve earned my right to be lazy, just for once.

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  1. says: Angela

    Try going to Bangkok in late September/early October… much more pleasant! Not nearly as hot and crowds are minimal. You’ll fall in love all over again!

    1. says: Heather Cole

      Might just have to give that a go! We’ve always been during Jan or Feb. I’m willing to give it another chance 🙂

  2. says: Espen egeland

    Everyone has different tastes, experiences and opinions, and this was a good read! Can’t say I agree on much, as I love the hustle and diversity of Bangkok’s street life, but that is cool 🙂