Bangkok is a city of contrasts and a city of extremes. Some visitors like it, some hate it. None find it boring. This is a city with vitality, energy and constant movement. Fortunes are made here, and lives ruined in equal measure. Amongst all of this people go about their daily lives. For tourists from the developed world this can be an intense experience and one which immediately puts them off.
One of the things which some visitors have difficulties dealing with is the obvious poverty and the exploitation of women, and of children working on building sites. Like all major cities in the world, people come to Bangkok from rural areas and smaller towns in the rest of the country to make a living. In Thailand they tend to come from the poor north east of the country, an area called Issan.
There are several reasons why Issan is poor. A big reason is the climate. It is dry in Issan and unlike other parts of Thailand they can only grow one rice crop a year, and it is difficult to grow cash crops like rubber or palms for oil. Both crops need a lot of water. In Thailand free education finishes at 12. At this age children from poorer backgrounds need to get a job. Going to Bangkok, where there is lots of work, is often the only option for these children. Many will have relatives working there and they will join them. For boys this is predominately working on building sites. For girls this is in the majority of times restaurant or factory work. For a small percentage they will fall into prostitution.
This said, the story isn’t all negative. Many young Thai people make something of themselves in Bangkok through hard work and education which they fund for themselves. As many people whose lives are ruined by the City, a equal number find opportunities to advance their lives in Bangkok that they would not have had in the countryside.
The contrasting fortunes of people coming to the City are matched in equal measure by the contrasting architecture and development. In Silom and Sukhumvit you find very posh restaurants, high class hotels and shining beautifully built skyscrapers. At the other end of the scale there are shanty towns built on the edge of the train tracks and wooden houses built on the edges of the river. Thailand has huge inequalities of wealth, much more marked than in developed countries. This inequality of wealth is matched by inequality in legal rights – same laws, but an inequality in the way they are applied.
What does this mean for the visitor to Bangkok?
On a practical level what it means is that visitors need to do some research before they go. There are lots of great things to do there. The city is beautiful and ugly in equal measure. Don’t let the ugly bits put you off, you will miss out on the beautiful bits.
Bangkok is a very accessible City. There is a good mass transit system: metro, overhead trains (Sky Train) and express river boats. The city is reasonably priced from food to hotels to attractions. Most people are friendly and honest. And crime levels are low here. It is safe to walk the streets at night. In 15 years I have never been attacked or mugged or had my pockets picked. I wouldn’t be able to say the same of London, Paris or New York.
Families can also enjoy Bangkok. They just need to give it a bit more thought and advance planning. There are plenty of activities specifically for children. Bangkok is also a great educational experience. Bangkok is packed full of culture from temples to museums to strange and exotic foods. Thai people love children and will interact with them in a positive way. The trick is not to overburden the children with the overcrowded streets and congested roads, especially in the heat of the midday sun.
Everyone who visits or lives in Bangkok has a love/hate relationship with the City. If you feel at times uncomfortable being there you aren’t alone. But my advice to you is to look beyond the negative, because they are far outweighed by the positives.