Why You (Probably) Hate Bangkok

Wat Traimit at sunset.

Bangkok is a polarizing city; visitors either love it or hate it. For many, the Thai capital is a necessary evil on the way to  beaches, temples, or hill country treks, and is not a reason to visit Southeast Asia. I didn’t like Bangkok the first time I visited either. Now that I live here, I have grown to love this city.

The reason people don’t like Bangkok is simple: It is an assault on the senses. Yes, that is cliche, but, it is so true. Let’s take a look at the five senses and why Bangkok makes life miserable, especially for new arrivals.

Hearing

Your first day in Bangkok you step from the air-conditioned womb of your hotel disoriented from jet lag and in major need of coffee to find a world of buzzing tuk tuks, coughing buses, screeching brakes, grinding jackhammers, clanging hammers, and vendors calling out in exotic languages. Then, you hear the hum of what sounds like a malfunctioning lawn-mower and turn around just in time to see a motorbike blow by you. Tired of being stuck in traffic, the driver hopped the curb and took off took off down the sidewalk nearly running over you and all the other unsuspecting pedestrians.

The cacophony rattles your brain, raises your blood pressure, and sends stress hormones coursing through your veins. This level of stress can only be replicated by having a conversation about politics with your mother-in-law while suffering from a massive hangover. This is what Bangkok does – it hurts your brain.

motorbikes on sidewalk Bangkok

Let’s just ignore the signs about driving on the sidewalk.

Bangkok traffic

The roar of Bangkok traffic is deafening.

Smell

Walking down a city block exposes the olfactory nerve to every imaginable smell. First, you pass a street market and get introduced to durian, a fruit that smells like rotting flesh. It is so pungent that signs at train stations and airports expressly forbid anyone from bringing it inside. Thai people eat the shit out of it.

The smell of durian is not to be confused with actual stinking flesh, which you experience as you walk a bit further and smell it wafting off the chicken and pig carcasses hanging in the hot sun. And none of that is to be confused with the foul smell of fish, which are not rotting, because they are very fresh. So fresh, in fact, that they are still alive, barely, as they squirm around on metal trays gasping for air.

Bangkok also has wonderful smells – incense wafts from temples, fresh marigolds adorn spirit houses, frying garlic drifts from food stalls, and the scent of grilling meat makes the mouth water. These wonderful smells are welcome relief from the street market miasma, but also a tease, because they are always followed by a whiff of fetid canal or a nose full of diesel fumes from a raggedy bus that seems to be single-handedly melting the polar ice caps.

Pig head in Thai Market

Pig parts + tropical heat = yummy smell

Bangkok wet market

And why am I not a vegetarian?

Bangkok wet market

Nothing like the smell of live squid in the morning.

Taste

You think you know Thai food; you think you can handle spice. Once you start eating authentic Thai food, you quickly realize that you are an amateur.

The first bite of a red hot chili sends your body into shock – sweat pours from your forehead, tears stream down your face, and your mouth combusts like you swallowed napalm. Despite this shock, you have the wherewithal to wave down the waitress and order a beer. A large beer. Yes, it is only 11am, but this is a medicinal beer, prescribed to dilute the spice and alleviate the burn.

The spice is just the start. You realize that you’ve been eating sanitized Thai food your whole life. Instead of Sriracha or soy sauce for condiments, you learn that they use prik nam blah, nothing but pungent fish sauce and the aforementioned lava-hot chili peppers. You discover insect-like desiccated shrimp scattered liberally through your pad thai noodles. Your fish arrives whole, complete with an eye to judge you while you eat it. Then, an ambulatory vendor offers fried crickets, grubs and scorpions. Depending on how much of that beer you’ve consumed, you just might eat some.

Pepper in Market Bangkok

If the food doesn’t make you cry it isn’t authentic.

Khao San Road Scorpion Vendor

I don’t think any tourist has eaten a fried scorpion while sober.

Bangkok fish market

They don’t serve this at Panda Express.

Sight

You take a stroll on the infamous Khao San Road and realize that Alex Garland was right – you are truly in the center of the backpacker universe. Everywhere you look, shirtless western tourists walk around in the hot sun drinking beer while every other person is wearing elephant pants. You see an assortment of absolute crap for sale all along the street, from 7-11 singlets, bracelets that say “eat my pussy,” to fake IDs, and realize it is time for a change of scenery.

You move on to the more upscale neighborhood of Sukhumvit, and notice beautiful women with perfectly coifed hair and expertly applied make-up. Some of these “women” have long shapely legs and nice, round Adam’s apples. You see many cute Thai girls walking arm-in-arm with sweaty, overweight, western men. You see signs for ping-pong shows, and pass sketchy massage parlors where there is a greater chance of getting chlamydia than muscle relief.

No matter where you go in Bangkok, you see a 7-11 on every corner – literally on every corner – and pass so many Starbucks and McDonalds that you might think you were in America. You start to wonder why you traveled halfway around the world just to look at American chain stores, tourists in elephant pants, and hookers with pathetic old men.

Bangkok McDonalds

Somehow the “wai” makes it even creepier.

Man in Underwear Khao San Road

Just another day on Khao San Road.

Topless tourists Bangkok

Classy tourists.

Touch

Through all this, you’ve been too bewildered to notice that your shirt is completely soaked in sweat. The only way to get relief from the cruel heat is to go into a 7-11, all of which are kept at a temperature cold enough to safely store meat. You linger in the 7-11 until it becomes awkward, and then stay a little longer, before moving on to the adjacent 7-11. Suddenly, all those damn 7-11s are looking quite nice.

You decide to get a Thai massage to help alleviate the stress and escape the heat and noise. Your masseuse, a woman who buys her clothes in the children’s department, suddenly weighs as much as a hippo when she stands on your back. She purees your muscles with her feet and transforms to a WWF wrestler as she pulls, twists, and tugs on your limbs, puts a knee in your back, plants a foot in your crotch – not in a good way – and charges you $6 for the torture. You leave in desperate need of a massage.

Bangkok 7-11 dog

Bangkok dogs also seek refuge from the heat in the ubiquitous 7-11s.

Bangkok 7-11

The keen eye will notice a 7-11 across the street from a 7-11 which is next to another 7-11.


If you took the time to read all of that and have been here before, you are nodding in agreement right about now. If you’ve never been here, I can imagine that you are mentally deleting Bangkok off your list. My intention is not to discourage you from visiting, because Bangkok is a great city. Noisy? Yes. Stinky? Oh yeah. Hot? Hot as f$%^. Come to this city armed with the understanding that it won’t be easy, a liberal budget for beer, a sense of adventure and a reserve of patience, and I think you can grow to love it too.

 

Have you been to Bangkok before? What did you think?

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33 Comments on “Why You (Probably) Hate Bangkok

    • We have those huge lizards in our neighborhood too. They are really cool but they cut down on the cat population for better or worse. Thank you Ron.

  1. I can relate with some of the things you mentioned here. When I first moved to Jakarta, the city really was an assault on the senses — although obviously I had no problem with the language. However, having lived in other relatively big cities in Indonesia, I grew accustomed to the smells of carcasses, both on market stalls and on the streets (you don’t want me to get into details on this), and the fish, and the squid. But durian? Ohhh that smells heaven! Have you tried durian served as different desserts? Ice cream, pancake, popsicle, etc? I wonder if you’d change your view on the fruit a little bit. 🙂

    • I need to give durian a try. I need to give a lot more things a try here! I actually liked Green-tea Kit Kat when I tried it, and the fried crickets were surprisingly good. I thought I was getting more used to the smells then I went to the Khlong Toei market last week – the largest market in Bangkok – and wow! I saw and smelled some things that were pretty shocking. As James said in his comments, in the US we are not exposed to the production side of the animals in our food supply.

  2. LOL. I grew up in Bangkok so this city will always have my heart, but you definitely nailed it. When I read your title I was curious and a little irritated, but as I read your post, I found myself laughing out loud. All of it is true. It can definitely be an overwhelming experience for first time visitors and not everyone’s cup of tea. It made me homesick! How I miss the craziness of that city. I really enjoyed reading this.

    • Thank you very much. What was it like growing up here?

      For the time being I can’t see myself living anywhere else. I love this city, buy it wasn’t love at first site.

      Here is a video you might enjoy if you’ve never seen it.

  3. So, how long would you say it took you to acclimate? Since I’m hard of hearing, the noise MIGHT not bother me, but there is nothing wrong with my nose, mmmm, no thanks! Great post. Have you eaten a fried scorpion yet? If so, how many beers were involved?

    • I ate crickets. LOTS of beer was involved. They were surprising good!

      I live in a quiet neighborhood so the day to day noise is not an issue, but when I go downtown it is still overwhelming. I’m getting more used to the heat, but I still sweat a lot. I have gotten better at spicy food but no where near where the Thai people are! I am still shocked at things I see. And I’ll probably never get used to some of the smells. Having said that, I am very comfortable here and often times forget I am living in a foreign country.

  4. Oh I love Bangkok. I’ve traveled to quite a few places and whenever anyone asks me what my favorite place is, the answer is always Bangkok. It might be everything you just said, but the food is amazing and I just love all the markets and everything it has to offer. By the way, great post.

    • The markets and food are so good. I went to the Khlong Toei market a few days ago for the first time. It is the largest market in the city. Have you been there? What a crazy and fascinating place.

      I am glad you love Bangkok too. Did you like it at first to did it take getting used to. Did you grow up in Colombo?

      • I did grow up in Colombo.
        I liked Bangkok from the first time I visited, I felt it’s so lively and of course there is always the food.

      • I like Colombo a lot but I think Bangkok is maybe easier to live in. You can get everything in Bangkok. Food is great. I can never decide if I like Indian/Sri Lankan food or Thai food better.

      • Even thought I like being in SL, I have to agree that Bangkok is way better, has better food, is I believe a little cheaper to live too. As for food, hands down I’ll still say Thai food is better…. but that’s my opinion. I just love the flavors of Thai food and throw is some Thai basil and I’m sold.

  5. Thanks Jeff for the tour of Bangkok. I have not been there, but did enjoy all your pictures and information. I will be happy with your posting of this Bangkok information, since it is not on my bucket list. Your’s is better, and more informative, than any published tour book.

    • Ha, thanks Marilyn. The standard tour book can’t say all the things I just did. Like I say, it is a great city but a challenging one too.

  6. Haha, I just kept nodding and nodding. This is such a great post Jeff! While Bangkok has changed a lot between my two visits in 1991 and 2017 the “assault on my senses” was pretty much the same. The first time though, there was never a reprieve staying at a $2/night, no aircon, flea bag hotel on Khao San Rd. On our most recent trip, it was very nice to be able to “recharge” at a pleasant B&B in a quiet(er) part of the city. Despite the assault, I’d return in a heartbeat!

    • I can’t imagine a $2 bed on Khao San road 26 years ago. I bet that was an adventure! Despite the assault, I can’t imagine living anywhere else right now. (Of course, I live in Alaska part of the year so I get a big break from it.)

    • You have ruined your tastebuds with all those chills! How does the spiciness of the food in Sumatra compare to Thailand?

      • LOL.. You’re right, especially for people from Sumatera like me. Well, for spiciness, it’s more less the same compared to Thailand. But I found the food in my region is hotter since most of the food use chili as part of the ingredients.

  7. Jeff, with such a provocative title, I knew that this was going to be an entertaining post. The way you’ve described it, Bangkok and Jakarta are practically siblings. Just yesterday on my way home from work I counted at least three motorcyclists going against the traffic – as in driving the wrong way down a major avenue! One difference though is that all 130-odd branches of 7-Eleven here in Indonesia closed last year because they couldn’t compete with local convenience store chains. Also, the backpacker area here is much tamer than Khao San Road. I’ve never understood why anyone would walk around shirtless in the middle of a huge city where you’re far more likely to be bathed in diesel fumes rather than the ocean breeze. And you are right about Ronald McDonald – he is creepy on his own, but the wai takes it to a whole new level.

    Growing up in Asia, I sometimes feel that countries like the U.S. and Canada are overly sanitized when it comes to food. Of course practicing good hygiene is important, but the sight of pig offal and chicken carcasses with scrawny feet still attached shouldn’t faze us if we understand that it’s where the meat on our tables comes from. Fish served whole, especially when steamed or grilled, is often tastier and more fun than plain old fillets. If you’re dining out and having garoupa, I recommend going straight for the cheeks behind the eyes – it’s hands down the most tender part!

    • There is a major road about a kilometer from our house. There are u-turns few and far between, so people often ride motorbikes the wrong way down the right lane. It is really insane. People drive on the sidewalks a lot in my area, but downtown it is worse. And yet that is nothing like Vietnam where EVERYBODY drives on the sidewalk.

      We certainly sanitize the meat eating experience in the states. I agree, fish with the skin on is way better. The grilled fish covered in a salty crust here (called blah pow) is my favorite food. I think seeing live chickens at the market in cages right below carcasses is a little hard on me but otherwise I’m okay. When we go to the markets it reminds Kristi why she is a vegetarian!

  8. Great post Jeff…almost made me homesick for Bangkok. A city we really enjoy. We got “stuck” there once waiting for our visas to India. Oh the hardship… foot massages every single day for a few bucks, great food, beautiful temples… we found a fairly quiet neighborhood and enjoyed being in a small 4-5 block radius everyday, where we found our favorite bread shop, soup place, had a little park nearby. We were happy campers.

    The energy of Bangkok is a high and the rapid transit system trains that go across the city are great for getting around! Not to mention if you need any dental work, this is the place to come to for efficient inexpensive treatment ( compared with U.S.)Oh yes, the respite of the 7 elevens with their AC and green kitkats and toblerone!

    All this to say, I really thoroughly enjoyed this revisit to Bangkok, a city I thought I would hate…but did not. We spent way more time there than any of the beaches. Weird, I know.

    Peta

    • I spend most of my time in a relatively quiet neighborhood. We have two 7-11s, a Tesco Lotus Express, a Fresh Mart, a small grocery store, and about 50 places to eat all within a 5 minute walk. I have a massage place that I visit weekly. It is a great place to live! Going downtown is always an adventure. I can’t imagine living anywhere else for the foreseeable future.

      Sorry about those pesky Indian visas.

      JB

  9. I was only in Bangkok for few days but loved every minute. It was my first time in Asia and everything was mesmerizing and fascinating. I loved this post, it made me laugh and wish to visit again very soon😄

  10. Despite the sensory assaults, Bangkok is high on my list to get to soon. I felt exactly this way about Kathmandu, and I ended up completely in love with it, so my guess is I’d embrace Bangkok, too, after the initial shocks to the system.

    • I think Indian cities, Saigon, Hanoi and Yangon are even crazier than Thailand, so there is always a wilder place. I’m headed to Koklata next week so I’ll let you know how it goes there!

  11. Well we happened to meet some great people in Bangkok. Just saying. 🙂
    I think you summed it up perfectly. The smells shall stay with me always but of the cities we stayed in SE Asia Bangkok was my favourite. Although not strictly vegetarian before the trip I became a loyal fan of all vegetables by the end.

    • All the vegetable dishes are so good. I eat som tom almost everyday, and the fresh pineapples in the market are like candy.

      Yes, I heard you met some really great people in Bangkok 🙂

  12. Loved this post, Jeff. Well written, extremely well photographed, and you give insight to a city I’ve never been too fond of 🙂 The one thing that kept us coming back was the food and people, simply incredible. Wish you continued success and look forward to hearing more stories.

  13. Hilarious, Jeff! A bit like India where you need to remember your sense of humour.I somehow have manged to miss Bangkok so far in my travels. A very entertaining read. Found via Caroline Helbig. But do not despair, you haven’t put me off and I will get there one day I’m sure.Louise

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