In the weeks leading up to my departure from Bangkok, I was jubilant. I couldn’t wait to get out of the chaotic, raucous, and humid concrete jungle that is Thailand’s biggest city. I longed for green spaces, blue skies, and a cool breeze.
But in the year since my move, I can’t count the number of times that I’ve wistfully missed living in Bangkok: the crowded sidewalks, steaming food stalls, and flamboyant lights of the crazy city.
Time away has changed my perspective, allowing me room for comparison and to consider the living in Bangkok pros and cons.
POSITIVES of Living in Bangkok
Living in Bangkok Pro: The cost of living in Bangkok is CHEAP
Aside from imported items, Thailand is insanely inexpensive.
For less than $1, you can get a full meal of rice, vegetables, and a protein. You can see a movie for $5. You can buy a lightly used perfect condition iphone for $200. Your modern, tastefully furnished one-bedroom apartment in a great part of the city near all kinds of public transportation and activities is only $500 per month. You can get a phenomenal massage for $10.
the view from my nicely furnished Bangkok 1 bedroom apartment that rents for less than $500 a month
Living in Bangkok Pro: Travel is beyond easy throughout Bangkok and beyond
Bangkok has complicated bus, van, and songthaew (truck) systems, but also a miraculously easy and modern intracity train. The BTS (skytrain) is seriously the gold standard for a city train system. It is the most few clean, efficient, and reliable aspect of Bangkok, and the views are great as well. The metro system is equally awesome, hitting different parts of the city, but underground.
If you’re looking to travel within Thailand (which you should!), it is almost ridiculously easy and inexpensive. Take a night bus from Bangkok and wake up in Phuket or Chiang Mai for $25. Or, be a bit more luxurious, and take a flight for only $50. The night train is another awesome option, with air conditioning and a nice little bed, for only slightly more than the bus.
International travel is just as nice. Suvarnbhumi Airport is connected to city center by the convenient (and inexpensive) Airport Rail Link, making it easy to arrive to your flight on time. From Thailand, you can reach any of the countries in Southeast Asia for under $200 roundtrip, if you keep your eye on prices. AirAsia and Bangkok Airways regularly run deals.
get here, quickly and cheaply
Living in Bangkok Pro: Vegetarians and vegans are super welcome in Bangkok (and Thailand)
Learning the word “jai” will be your best friend as a vegetarian. Awesomely, not many foods include milk or eggs, already easy to be vegan once you get the meat subtracted.
Every food court will have a vegetarian stall or vegetarian options, all you have to do is ask. There are a plethora of vegetarian restaurants as well, especially in the old Bangkok area.
The best time of year for any veg-eating is the Vegetarian Festival (yes, seriously) which takes place throughout Thailand and is signaled by the easily recognizable yellow flags. The whole country gets involved, as almost every Thai goes vegetarian for the week. Even if it looks like meat (which it probably will), if a stall has the yellow flag, you’re safe. It’s an awesome time to try out traditional Thai specialties that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
Bangkok vegan food at Mango restaurant near Khao San
Living in Bangkok Pro: Bangkok is a hub for foreigners
You’ll meet people of every nationality traveling to and living in Bangkok. I’ve never experienced an international scene like it in my life. At my average dinner party, between 10 people there’d be 7 different countries represented. You get to experience other cultures without even traveling there.
Having other expats around means you have sympathetic ears to vent frustrations, share loneliness, and bounce advice off of. There’s always someone who knows someone who has been through a similar situation and knows what to do – or who knows who to go to for help.
There are many expat groups, in addition to the typical Internations and Rotary, including expat women, expat fitness, and expat nutrition, great places to make friends.
Additionally, Bangkok offers very Western conveniences. With more Western mega-malls than imaginable, and more McDonalds and KFCs than sensible, sometimes Bangkok can be almost too comfortable.
a small international dinner party (Israeli, Canadian, American, Chinese, Thai, British, and Swedish friends)
Living in Bangkok Pro: The food in Bangkok is amazing
Thai food is famous worldwide for its spice, flavor, and unique taste. It’s obviously at its best in Thailand. Green curry, som tam (a savory unripe papaya salad), and unnamed vegetarian tofu mixes are my favorite. Half the time, I don’t know what I’m eating, but as long as it’s “jai” – its DELICIOUS.
In addition to the ubiquitous local food, Bangkok has an amazing international food scene. I’ve had the best Indian of my life in Bangkok, and some of the best Arabic and Mexican. There are even a few spot-on branches of Dean & Deluca (best breakfast EVER).
After a while in Bangkok, you’ll find that your conversations are becoming similar to your friends’ (both expat and local) in one way – you talk about food a LOT. What you’re going to eat for lunch, what you had for breakfast, and debating where to find the best massaman curry.
even overly stereotypical Pad Thai is insanely delicious
Living in Bangkok Pro: Bangkok is just plain fun
Whether you’re going to see a movie, a new art installation, checking out the farmer’s market, strolling in the park, or meeting up with your friends at the beer garden, there’s always something going on and everyone can join regardless of their budget. Any time, day or night, you can find something fun and cheap to do.
Some of my favorite nights in Bangkok are the simplest, drinking a Chang or a Sangsom diet coke at a plastic table on the sidewalk, sharing laughs and swapping stories with friends. And a few of my favorite nights were more upscale – having a drink at the Sky Bar followed by a fancy evening dinner at Indus.
easily fun, like watching tourists share a cockroach
NEGATIVES of Living in Bangkok
Living in Bangkok Con: Thai language is overwhelming and difficult
Thai is HARD to learn. There’s a different alphabet, and totally different way of structuring sentences.
Not to mention – tones. One word can mean six different things, depending on the rising, falling, high, low, or peaked tone of voice. Great example? Mai.
mai (falling tone) = to burn, to be on fire
mai (low-tone) = new
mai (rising-tone) = a tree, a plant
mai (high-tone) = isn’t it? (a question particle)
mai (mid-tone) = no, not
I seriously think it is almost impossible. After weeks of class, I could barely introduce myself. But I can count!
Living in Bangkok Con: Prostitution is openly accepted in many circles in Bangkok
You will see young, pretty girls (and boys) hanging limply onto the arms of old, fat, balding, sweaty men. While you can debate the ethics and economics of prostitution all you want, for me it is hard to see. I know a young girl can’t be enjoying that, and I know that she deserves better opportunities. It sickens me to see women so openly devalued and disrespected, treated like play things rather than human beings with feelings.
The unfairness of her situation hits me in the heart every time I see it, and it doesn’t get easier.
It’s not just old, ugly Australians that buy into prostitution – it is an openly accepted aspect of the male expat community in Bangkok. You will likely have acquaintances, coworkers, and even friends who have no qualms about buying a woman for the night or the hour.
Living in Bangkok Con: You’ll never be Thai
A lot of people are okay with this, but some aren’t. It definitely isn’t the easiest culture to integrate into.
While there is a great expat community that will welcome you with open arms, you will never be Thai. You’ll never be fully accepted into Thai culture, and will always be and feel like an outsider looking in. It’s easy to be an expat, but impossible to be Thai.
Living in Bangkok Con: The government can be unstable in Thailand
From protests, to coups, to constantly changing rules, Thailand is a confusing place to live the past few years. While I never felt unsafe, it is disconcerting to know that laws can change overnight and that a military government is in power.
Living in Bangkok Con: Bureaucracy for foreigners is time-consuming in Thailand
If you’re on a tourist visa, your time in Thailand is limited. If you wish to stay, you’ll need to get a proper visa (like education or non-B and a working visa), or pay off a lawyer to help you out.
Regardless, you’ll need to make regular trips to immigration (depending on your visa – 4 times a year or more). Located in a far off neighborhood called Chaeng Wattana, each trip will take you an hour to get there, and likely a whole day waiting in lines and filling out paperwork. It is a repetitive and time consuming process run by pedantic officials.
Living in Bangkok Con: Poverty is everywhere in Bangkok
Destitute children will pull on your hand, limbless beggars will plea for coins, and women holding infants will cry for food. Shoeless kids will beg for help right outside fancy shopping malls, and shantytowns sit right across the canal from luxury high rises. The inequality is inescapable.
People say you will get used to it, and maybe you do get a bit numb after a while, but is that a good thing?
Living in Bangkok Con: Cops are corrupt throughout Thailand
The police are paid pennies, and take every opportunity they get to squeeze more funding out of foreigners, who are seen throughout Thailand as wealthy (regardless of their actual economic status). You’ll be charged with false crimes, made-up allegations, and petty fines, and then given the opportunity to pay on the street to avoid being brought to the police station. Usually, if you haven’t done anything wrong, agreeing to go to the police station will drop the charges right there and nothing further will happen.
If you’re being framed or have actually done something wrong, it might be best to pay. Start the bargaining in the basement with a super lowball offer of 100 baht.
Living in Bangkok Con: Service is just not that good in Bangkok
Restaurant service (and basically any other service other than massage) is below “Western standard”. You’ll need to call your waiter over if you need something (he definitely won’t check on you), and if the food is wrong/bad/cold you’d better just deal with it. Complaints won’t get you anything positive.
When you go out with a group and order food, you’ll get each dish at different times throughout an hour. One reason is because service is generally bad and slow, but also because in Thai culture people share all the dishes on the table, so receiving dishes at different times isn’t problematic. This is quite different than the Western concept of ordering meals, in which everyone orders for themselves – just get used to it because it won’t change.
Living in Bangkok Con: People lie. A lot.
If you ask a Thai for directions, and he doesn’t have the answer, he will point you in a random direction. You will get lost, ask another person who doesn’t know, and he will point you in another direction.
You’ll either end up scratching your head in confusion or pulling out your hair in frustration. Why do these people want to get you lost? They don’t – they just want to save face, so they can’t admit that they don’t know your answer and they actually do really want to help you.
The above is fairly innocent, but darker lies exist. Scamming tourists out of extra money for VIP services is extremely common. Any time you hear VIP or special price, you should run in the opposite direction, or pay for the cheapest option available – as that is what you will be getting regardless.
my new friends, after filming a commercial
Living in Bangkok Pros and Cons: My Conclusion
Bangkok is not a perfect city, by any means, but it is the city of my heart. It’s my favorite city to live in (so far) I’ve realized. And I can’t wait to go back.
Thailand is also my favorite country, and when weighing the pros and cons of living in Bangkok, the positives far outweigh the negatives – for me.
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