BKK. A Portrait.
After a crazy week like this in crypto, I find it therapeutic to step away and pen something more creative. Back to normal programming next week for DeFi enthusiasts.
Until then, happy Vesak day.
BKK. A Portrait.
The scars of the pandemic are visible. Heading into the city from Suvarnabhumi, wave after wave of dilapidated billboards hang overhead. The ruins left by COVID to one of the world’s top tourist destinations.
A single BANGKOKBANK billboard is the last man standing in a tattered graveyard of oversized tombstones, marked by barely legible phone numbers inviting would be tenants.
There are few takers.
Bangkok is one of those “meh from far, but far from meh” cities. At a distance, the skyline does not strike the awe of a New York or Singapore or Shanghai. The glitzy high rises and unrelenting energy pulsing against the nearby straits.
Bangkok is more intimate. The gems are all at the street level. It draws you in. A boutique fashion retailer, a mango sticky rice hawker, a run-down massage parlor, a sheik vegan café with US$8 lattes - one after the other. Like the shy girl from your old high school, nothing is telegraphed. You can’t put your finger on it, but you’re curious to learn more.
A few affluent locals draw comparisons to Istanbul. Another city at a crossroads - in terms of civilization and temporally. Both cities boast a sprinkling of tradition and modernity in lockstep. The gluten-free café seemingly teleported in from Williamsburg alongside a dilapidated repair shop more at home in old-town Chang Mai. The temples in Thailand and the mosques or churches of Istanbul, a reminder of the history anchoring increasingly cosmopolitan, international hubs.
I know its weird, but the first thing which stands out is the city’s wiring. The mass entanglement is hard to appreciate by those who have not visited in person. At points up to a yard thick in diameter, the bundle serves as the capillaries to an equally haphazard city. Mansions, next to warehouses, next to temples, next to high-end shopping malls, the Bangkok municipality usurps even Houston with its impressive disregard for zoning.
The electrical grid has clearly grown with the city. Haphazardly. Every new storefront, or restaurant or condo adds yet another wire. Over time, the compounding spider-web has grown thicker than an oak - binding the city together - linking Bangkok’s affluent center with off-shoots to the more industrial and rural suburbs.
The other unmissable piece of infrastructure is the Skytrain. Half of the new office buildings downtown play host to a competing stable of rooftop bars; each loosing house beats to a flood of well-groomed yuppies and aspiring influencers vying for likes against a pale sunset.
The Skytrain cuts through the city like an abnormally strait river; the main artery giving life to the offshoot tributaries of more quiet neighborhoods seeping out from Sukhumvit. Bangkok’s legendary traffic condenses under this cement river, the steel stones anchored to the river bed, moving at a snails pace as an army of moto-taxis smartly weave through the 6pm traffic.
I have revised my opinion of moto-taxi’s in Bangkok. On my first trip years ago, I arrived on a Friday afternoon hoping to meet friends across town for a birthday celebration. Finding myself stuck in the unmoving riverbed, my friend messaged me to flag down a moto-taxi. I got out of the cab in bumper to bumper traffic and did just that.
I regret it.
In my haste, I flagged down a Thai man with a motorbike. BKK veterans will know the licensed drivers all wear orange vests and navigate the gridlock with a stoic grace. I was ignorant to this crucial fact. My driver had no vest. In fact, he had no shirt at all. After hopping on, I was struck by the scent of stale booze from the morning after at the local dive. The only words he spoke in English were a defiant: “I AM ZE CHAMPION!”.
That he was. After my first taxi driver told me it would take ~1.5 hrs to get across town, the champion got me there sub 10 minutes. I did not get back on a moto-taxi for five years.
I am now wiser and only approach the licensed practitioners in the orange vests. Smartly. Slowly. Methodically cutting through the traffic like a surgeon on shift. “A moped is the key to the city” a friend once remarked in San Francisco. The statement equally applies in BKK; a town of notorious traffic and frustratingly few side walks off the main drag. Moto-taxi is the key to the city.
At street level, a rider is bombarded with an unrelenting array of person-sized billboards. Each showcasing one or two serious looking individuals and slogan’s in Thai print (a majestic, cursive-adjacent language of repetitive squiggles); the oration of which seems to match: higher in pitch, a bit nasally, playful, yet respectful and courteous. Just like the Thai people themselves.
The billboards are somehow familiar. One friendly-looking protagonist in front, but a second face protruding from behind - typically older; a furrowed brow hosting thick, dark eyebrows. I suddenly realize its the classic Disney movie cover layout: protagonist front and center, villain lurking behind.
Unsurprisingly, I learned the billboards promote competing politicians in Bangkok’s upcoming elections. As any resident will admit, Thai politics is every bit as convoluted as the city’s wiring. A consistent interlude of elections, coups, monarchical intervention, billionaire populists, more elections, more coups. Thailand’s wikipedia page conservatively marks 20 coup d'états in the last century, meaning Thailand is arguably overdue.
For all of the drama, or perhaps because of it, the young people seem uninterested. A marked disenchantment with the political process and an aloof acceptance to the improbabilities of change. Let down time and time again by the corrupt looking faces on the posters; indifferent to the political “coloring” (parties in Thailand have different colors). The reds, the yellows, the orange, the green, the light blue, the dark blue… it wouldn’t matter.
A depressing political nihilism seemed to radiate from young people. An understanding that political life in Bangkok is just… the way it is. Far from the activism on display in other countries, the cosmopolitan youths in BKK held an unattached pragmatism. The call to action replaced by a shrug of the shoulders and a dinner reservation.
The disenchantment with political life was strikingly at odds with the other facets of life in Bangkok. In particular, the food scene. The vivacity with which most Bangkokians approach cuisine is anything but disenchanted. Outside of Tokyo and potentially Taipei, Bangkok has a real claim as Asia’s top food destination. Thong Lo may outstrip Tokyo itself in Izakaya storefronts per square foot. The confluence of high-quality international cuisine at an affordable price points complemented by the variety of Thai food itself is difficult to match.
From Michelin star Sra Bua at the Kempinski in Siam to the legendary 50 baht mango sticky rice in Thong Lo, Bangkok is at the frontier of flavor. Almost every dish infiltrated with a chilli padi kicker; both intoxicating and likely followed by an out of place milk order from foreigners. The spice infiltration balanced out by an assortment of sweet glazes - often milk or coconut-based - providing mild relief from the pepper after-burns. The balance just right. The Bangkok food scene is hectic, diverse, and lively; just like the city itself. I would need the pages proper book to do it justice.
The richness of cuisine, the lack of urban planning, and the foreign reputation as a “party hub” egged on by Khao San Road backpackers and Hollywood hits like “the Hangover” stand in stark contrast to day to day life in Bangkok.
In Ho Chi Min City, the dynamism is tangible. The youthful demographics, the unrelenting sea of motorbikes, the direct, commercial rhetoric of the young technical elites draw parallels to China’s rise. There is a potent “it’s our turn” in the air. A permeating hustle as thick as the motor-bike torrent themselves. I won’t miss this wave.
If Vietnam is the hungry adolescent full of unbridled ambition, Thailand is the 33-year-old who has recently met someone with an eye towards settling down. There is still an optimism about the future, but also a mature acceptance. A realization you may not fulfill all of your dreams and… and that… just might be ok.
Perhaps its demographics. Perhaps the quality of life. Perhaps the Buddhist roots or the old beloved king who preached sustainable growth and gratitude. A certain mellowness which presides over the bustle. Not a city past it’s prime, but one with less romanticism and more realism. An appreciation of life as it is beyond the hard charging commercial hubs of New York, Hong Kong, and Jakarta. Instead of a sprint, Bangkok finds itself in a light jog. It pauses. It strolls. It breaths.
Trapped between tradition and modernity; it’s Buddhist heritage and cosmopolitan yuppies; its five star spas and flavorful hawkers, Bangkok still has its best years ahead. But she also has a quiet confidence. A contentment. An awareness of who she is without the desire to change and become something she’s not.
The quiet girl from high school has grown up.