Michael and I first lived in Thailand back in 2019, but it was on the fairly remote island of Koh Lanta, and we never made it into Bangkok. Back then, our impression of Thailand was that A) it had great food and lovely people but B) was quite poor and somewhat rough around the edges.
We’re living in Bangkok now, and our impression of the city — and, by extension, the whole country — couldn’t be more different.
Here are the many surprising things we’ve recently discovered:
(1) There are two Bangkoks.
Thailand was one of the first economies in Southeast Asia to Westernize and “modernize.” Political reforms in the 1970s led to economic reforms in the 1980s, and the economy is now a strange hybrid of a vast, crony-filled bureaucratic state and a fairly wild-west form of capitalism.
But the results have been absolutely astounding. Since 1988, poverty in Thailand has absolutely plunged, from 67% in 1986 to just over 6% in 2021. It’s since bumped up a bit, but that’s most likely due to covid.
This prosperity is in stark contrast to Thailand’s communist neighbors, which are still desperately poor.
The center of this crazy economic growth is, of course, Bangkok, which is now a vibrant, modern city filled with dazzling shopping malls and gleaming condos.
But the country’s economic growth has not been uniform. Many of Thailand’s rural areas lag behind Bangkok, often dramatically. And even in Bangkok, there are still areas of deep poverty — sometimes right beside those glittering malls and condos.
(2) Bangkok’s traffic is horrible — but weirdly, better than ever.
Bangkok is a city of almost eleven million people, and it’s long been notorious for its terrible traffic. The congestion is still overwhelming and soul-crushing.
“It’s always like this,” one cabbie told us, utterly discouraged.
But at least now there are many other options than getting around by car. Since the late 1980s, Bangkok has been on a crazy mass transit building spree, throwing up a vast Skytrain system and digging a sprawling subway, which also connects to an ever-expanding system of commuter and passenger rail.
In addition, all this construction includes zillions of pedestrian underpasses and overpasses, which enables people to bypass street-level crosswalks, which can be difficult to cross and are often quite dangerous.
The system is still incomplete, but locals supplement this existing network with buses and, more cleverly, cheap scooter-taxis that can zip around the car congestion, taking you exactly where you need to go.
Is it safe? Absolutely not! During last month’s week-long Songkran festival, 317 people died in 2440 road accidents throughout Thailand — many of them in Bangkok, and almost 90% of these accidents involved scooters.
That said, this hybrid system of mass transit and scooters does get most people where they want to be.
Two weeks ago, Michael and I lamented the terrible Bangkok traffic to a local who has lived in Bangkok since the 1990s, and he said, “Yes, but imagine what it was like without these other options, and without smartphones. You could be stuck in a traffic jam for hours, and you’d have absolutely no idea if it was an accident or just the usual Bangkok mess.”
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