Bangkok: First Impressions, Observations, and Misconceptions

I’ve been in Bangkok for a week and it’s an interesting city. Even though I heavily researched it (including spending time on expat forums and talking to former residents) there were some surprises. Here are some of them.

  • It is shocking to me how quickly I’ve acclimated to the city and the heat after 5 days. Last night I stepped out my apartment building and thought, “Oh, it’s not too bad.” Checked the local temperature and it read 92F. If the sun isn’t directly on me, I don’t really notice, and I’m usually shaded by buildings or clouds.
  • You’ll be walking down the street and suddenly attacked by some stench. Occasionally, I can’t tell if it’s the open air sewer, nearby garbage pile, or street food vendor. I’m don’t eat at those vendors.
  • My brother remarked that it dawned on him why we’ve been avoiding the puddles so adamantly. “Have you noticed it hasn’t rained since we arrived?” Street vendors dump their garbage curbside, including any ice they have, dish water, etc. Because of this, wet areas are very slippery. Also because of this, flip flops were abandoned. If it wasn’t so hot, I’d consider waders.
  • Overall, Bangkok is not a cheap city. Thailand can be cheap, but Bangkok is a major city and the cost of most things are the same as LA. That’s a subject for a whole article, but here are a few surprises:
    • Coffee, my lifeblood, isn’t cheap. A grande iced coffee/Americano (pronounced a-me-ri-caNO) is $3. You might expect that in Starbucks, but even the mom and pop shops charge that.
    • Food in general isn’t cheap. Sit down restaurants, even cheaper ones, will set you back $6-10 per Thai-sized dish.1 I still pay $2.50 for a frozen meal like I do in the US. You can save some money cooking yourself, which I plan to do. Another surprise – white meat is cheaper than dark meat.
    • I can’t find the equivalent of a discount department store like Walmart, Target, Kmart, etc. The ones I’ve seen carry imported western brands at prices higher than in the US. by “higher” I mean the local Tokyu department store (not in the luxury mall) had a 50% off sale and prices were still higher than I’d pay at Macy’s back home.
    • A store called IT Anything2 wanted $100 for an HDMI cable. Luckily I found a much cheaper vendor on another floor selling one for $10.
    • I bought 2 wash and 2 dry tokens from the front desk. These are normal sized washers and dryers, not large capacity, and this cost me >$10. Then I bought the wrong detergent because the package is all in Thai.3 I gave up and went to a laundry, who cleaned and pressed my clothes for the same price of doing it myself. I eventually had a nice person at the supermarket point me to the right stuff, and found the Thai version of Tide, which was a fraction of the price of the English-labeled version next to it. As they say here: same same.
    • Internet is $33/mo. for an 10/.5 (down/up in Mb/s) connection. It’s not bad, although those numbers are only good within Thailand. I was told a 20MB connection would be $150/mo., and you still won’t download from sites outside Thailand any faster. For reference, my connection back home was 30/5 for $65/mo.
    • Haagen Dazs is $10/pint. At the supermarket. Reminds me of stories from 20 years ago that in Europe, you’d pay $3 for 8 oz. of Coke, room temperature without ice. Thankfully they have Coke Zero here and it’s only .50/can at 7-11.
  • On the flip side…
    • I saw The Hobbit in 3D, HFR (high frame rate – 48 FPS), on 4K projector, in an assigned seat, and I paid $8. My only mistake was not going to the luxury mall across the street which had it in IMAX (plus HFR/3D). I don’t think I’ve seen a theater Movies are once again a cheap date.4
    • Street vendors have very cheap items ($3 t-shirts, etc.), but of course haggling is required. Mall food courts are awesome. It wasn’t a big portion, but I recently got roast duck with rice for $2. You do have to make sure you’re in the actual food court and not a cluster of restaurants. You’ll know because food courts don’t take cash, they have a coupon or charge card system. Some are more expensive, but they usually have more/better food. For instance, I got a big plate of sweet chili fried rice with prawns, cashews, and a fried egg with a bottle of soda for $8.
    • While there’s no discount dept. store, there is Chatuchak Market. This is the flea market to end all flea markets. I won’t be going until this weekend, but several people have told me you can spend the entire day there. When I say it’s big, I mean they have maps, and guide books warn you to procure one or risk getting lost (or at least not find what you need). In fact, there’s no way you’re imagining this large enough – it covers 35 acres. Of course, haggling is required.
    • I am apparently an expert negotiator. When getting our limo service from the airport, I was quoted 2200 THB. I said, “Upstairs, they said 1200.” She comes back with 1100 THB. Saying, “That seems expensive” to a vendor will almost always knock the price down, frequently in half. Doesn’t work in retail stores, though.
    • But the best deal in clothing is bespoke. For the price you’d pay for off the rack at a department store, you can get custom made. I’m getting a custom tailored blazer to my exact measurements and specifications, including Super 180 Italian wool, and it’s costing me $333. Not cheap, but a third of what you’d pay for bespoke in Hong Kong or Saville Row(maybe even less). A shirt is about $45, again to my exact measurements and fabric choice. And this is from Rajawongse, the same tailors that have made suits for every US president since Bush, Sr..5
  • Public transportation via Sky Train is great, but as the name implies, it is in the sky. And often there is no escalator (at least not on your side of the street) so you’re climbing 6 flights of stairs to get to the platform. It will be a while before I get used to that.
  • In California, we have one Dunkin Donuts. It took years for DD to return, but  it’s on a Marine Corp base 1.5 hours away from LA.6 In Bangkok there are, I kid you not, at least 4 in a one block radius near the Siam Paragon shopping center. And they have chocolate butternut! Chocolate butternut is the correct donut. Plus a ton of other specialty donuts you won’t see in the states. Still, it competes with roughly a hundred amazing Asian bakery/pastry shops in that same area, so I haven’t been there yet. But I’ll get there eventually.
  • The other surprise? Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf about 50′ away! So an iced dutch mocha and chocolate butternut donut – a combo you can’t easily get outside of NYC – is in my future. Heck, I was at several DD in FL and still couldn’t find a chocolate butternut.
  • As you’ve surmised, there are a TON of western brands here, but none bigger than 7-11. Remember when Starbucks exploded and you’d have locations across the street from each other? That’s how popular 7-11 is here. There’s one a 3 min. walk up the street and another 2 min. down the street, and I have a mini-mart inside by apt. building and a pharmacy across the street. Convenience rules here.
  • Happy hour starts around 9AM and goes to 8PM.
  • Locking eyes with a taxi driver, prostitute, or aggressive vendor, even for a second, will have them hounding you. As you walk the streets, you have to somehow stay aware of your surroundings while not looking anyone in the eye.
  • I thought I’d be studying the language daily, but to be honest, I get by with a few simple phrases (hello, thank you), pointing, and smiling. Even with vendors who don’t speak English, you can communicate by typing prices on a calculator. I have Google Translate and Google Goggles on my phone, but rarely use them as the former can’t translate Thai to English easily7 and the latter gets confused easily.8.
Overall, I’ve found it very easy to adapt to life here and I’m looking forward to exploring more of the city in the weeks ahead.
  1. Don’t expect the portions you get in American Thai restaurants. []
  2. I think this is the Best Buy equivalent []
  3. I later realized from the pictures it was for hand washing. []
  4. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a jacket or hoodie with me. Even though it was >90F outside, the theater was at ~60F. []
  5. It looks like they also made something for Nancy Reagan. []
  6. Furthermore, there are conflicting reports on whether you can get on base to buy there. []
  7. The keyboard doesn’t change automatically and it can’t do speech to text. []
  8. In a recent test it thought Thai characters were Cyrillic. []

3 thoughts on “Bangkok: First Impressions, Observations, and Misconceptions”

  1. Hi Phil:

    Your Mom told me about your ‘blog’ and I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading about your adventures. How exciting it is and how wonderful that you get to experience a foreign country first hand. Keep writing and educating me, don’t drink the water or walk in it, and good luck learning the language!

    Jeannie

  2. Fascinating, both on the big adventure and the trivial details of the trip ! And I enjoy keeping track of your progress outside of FaceBook. Always wondered how products/materials/technology gets priced overseas: it is availability or does someone in the gov’t decide that you shouldn’t have BluRay and then taxes it accordingly? Demand is always high for any product; the only thing that I can think people *don’t* want is the dollar coin.

    Keep Trekkin’ and we’ll keep readin’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>