Culture Shock in Bangkok

I sit at the edge of the bed, in tears. My head is pounding with the likes of a migraine that has not left me in two days. My eyes are closed, and I fear to open them for having to deal with my surroundings; I am in a dingy windowless room in Bangkok, walls stained by the greasy hands of hundreds if not thousands of travelers before me. The smell of raw sewage nauseatingly permeates the room from the bathroom shower drain; a hole in the floor. A bare and harsh fluorescent bulb flashes above me, casting a garish and unworldly tinge on the room; I am sure I’ve seen this in a horror movie before.

And this is a vast improvement on the place we stayed in last night.

Welcome to Bangkok.

This post was originally published in 2008. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

For every person who has said they enjoyed Bangkok, I have spoken to another who advises to get out of the city as soon as possible. It seems that you either love it or hate it. I fear I fall into the latter category.

The legendary Khao San road is a mecca for backpacking tourists. Hundreds of guest houses are available for budget-minded travelers, off small alleyways, behind and above restaurants, and occasionally as stand-alone buildings. Accommodation starts at $5/night and increases according to the amenities preferred (or the level of squalor you are willing to endure).

Khao San road itself is a wide pedestrian road about a kilometer long, and an experience for all the senses. Peddlers selling souvenir trinkets, bags, accessories, clothing, and CDs clutter the streets. Restaurants, bars, massage spas, and guesthouses line each side, and street food carts selling everything from corn on the cob to fried bugs spout out smells both delightful and otherwise.

The streets and alleys in the area of Khao San road also feature more of the same, in varying degrees of chaos. Close your eyes and you will hear everything from music being sold at pirated CD stands to wooden musical instruments (also being peddled) to sizzling woks, laughter, bottles clinking, and thousands of people walking, talking, laughing, and crying.

Inhale and you will smell everything from meat frying and sauces bubbling, to exhaust fumes and the feces of the many stray cats and dogs underfoot.

Neon lights, the full spectrum of colours, noises galore, people everywhere, the constant chatter of a native language that sounds like a fax machine to one who doesn’t understand the intonations; an overload for all the senses.

And it is all very much too much for me.

In one day, I was ripped of my so many different people that I lost count. I only thank my lucky stars that the exchange rate between dollars and the Thai baht is so favourable that a single loss rarely exceeds the equivalent of $30. But that is still too much for me to handle.

See also: Classic Travel Scams, and How to Avoid Them

My trust in the human race has been shaken. Sure – as a tourist I am to expect to be overcharged and swindled. But the prevailing theme of how I live my life has always been to trust people. Even with this in mind, I had thought myself to be a fairly savvy and street-smart traveler, but the natives are smarter yet.

I have been taken by tuk-tuk drivers to numerous places I never asked to go to (because there is a commission in it for the driver if I use the service they insist I use, be it a travel agency or tailor), and when I finally arrive at the location I asked to go to in the first place, the price has tripled since the original negotiation. I have been abandoned by other drivers mid-ride and left in places where the price to get out is a premium; been sold bogus electronics that broke before the day was out, and been sold yet other overpriced, over-promised, and substandard items. Mud is on my face, thick and full.

I am truly bothered by the constant overt attempts to swindle travelers. Hearing that the Thai people are renowned for their kindness and generosity, I have over and over again been lured into conversations by friendly smiling faces, only to somehow end up getting sucked into something in a dishonest and underhanded manner. I say “no” about a thousand times a day and still it is not enough.

Do those who have less money than me also have less conscience too? How far are they willing to go to get their hands in my pocket (literally and figuratively)?

I guess I should consider myself lucky not to be in a place where I could easily be killed or maimed for the contents of my wallet; at least here people utilize creative attempts to get my money, and usually I get something in return – whether or not it is useless or less than what was initially promised.

And I guess I should consider myself lucky to have money in the first place, and the ability to travel to these places and expand my horizons.

Bangkok is a huge and expansive city that just never ends. I am a small and insignificant part of it, with no place to fit in or feel at home and let my guard down. And after traveling through it, being lost in it, feeling sick, losing sleep, and losing even more money, I can’t wait to leave.

I don’t plan to come back to Bangkok. I only hope that the rest of Thailand redeems itself for me.

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15 thoughts on “Culture Shock in Bangkok”

  1. Wow! I had a decent time in Bangkok but I can see why many have a hard time and can’t wait to get out.

  2. @Elsha – Interestingly, I have friends in Bangkok right now, who absolutely love the place. I think if you are armed for something less than pleasant, the actual experience can be great!





  4. @Joe – I guess the song “One Night in Bangkok Can Make a Hard Man Crumble” wasn’t too far off the mark! (smiles)
    I hear ya….!

  5. They certainly know a sucker when they see one. haha!
    Bangkok is a little bit like Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea.
    Beautiful country but best to get out of the capital city as soon as possible. In my experience, travel elsewhere in Thailand first and then explore Bangkok later. I think it comes down to pre holiday research. Yes Thai people may be charged half of what your charged for goods and services. If you require transport, know which type is best and what the cost is before hand. Try and find a Thai person to help negotiate deals if necessary.

  6. I have heard these kind of stories over and over, so made me..especially with a child, not very interested in Bangkok. You haven’t even mentioned the sex trade which I find so sad there.

    This winter we had to do a visa run into Thailand and that didn’t help impressions either as it was much nicer in Penang and even on the Malaysia side of the border.

    That said, we did fine in Bangkok and stayed at a decent place for little money near the airport. I wanted to avoid the whole Khao San road backpacking nightmare stuff.

    We were in Bangkok on the way to Bhutan..a country who was very smart after seeing how tourism can destroy places like Thailand and Nepal.

  7. @Dave – I had heard that Bangkok was a capital city to get out of asap before I arrived. I just didn’t really understand what they meant until I got there!
    But like I said in your own post about Bangkok, I’d like to think that a few years (and travel stripes to my credit) later, I could “survive” Bangkok – and maybe even find the brighter side of the place.

    @Jeanne – Hopefully you’ll get a chance to see some other part of Thailand than just Bangkok, because I must say I quite enjoyed the country once I was outside of the big smoke. But I doubt it would ever compare to Bhutan! 🙂

  8. WAKE UP EVERYONE PLEASE!!! Thai people are just after your *MONEY*!!! They are dishonest liars and everything is just fake! When will you guys ever realize this??? Don’t be so naive! Don’t let the friendly, smiling “KAAAA” face blind you, use your common sense. They just see you as their prey and a form of income. Been travelling this country from South to North for 7 weeks, they annoyed the hell out of me, especially the damn Tuk Tuk drivers. Every few meters the next one asking… refused them felt 20-50 times a day. So annoying!!! And their 2 different prices (Local/Tourist) for Entrance fees (Temples, Palast), Cable Car, even a Restaurant etc. with the Thai price HIDDEN (written in Thai language) and only Tourist prices readable to foreigners. So disgusting!! I like people from Cambodia and Laos the best. Their friendliness and kindness is REAL and not fake, they are very honest and nice people.
    But Thailand – Never again !!!!!!!!!!!

  9. @Backpacker – I’m sorry you feel so strongly about Thailand as a whole. I didn’t end up feeling as negatively about the rest of Thailand as I did about Bangkok, although yes – I did see a discrepancy in prices and I did have to watch out for hungry tuk-tuk drivers.

    But that’s just it: they’re hungry. Somehow this helps me justify a discrepancy in prices between locals and tourists; tourists have more money than any local would, and for most of us the asking price is still a pittance in the grander scheme of things.

    Did you not find the same price discrepancies and hunger for your business in Cambodia and Laos?

  10. @Nora: Well, actually you CAN find this in Cambodia & Laos as well in some places, just not to this extend. I never had the feeling it’s just about my money in both countries, whereas in Thailand it was very obvious. I remember having a real bad fight with a taxi driver in Bangkok who overcharged me (asked for more than his meter showed and helt my arm for MINUTES to make me pay). Also I was left behind carrying my 20kg luggage when a Songteo driver refused me because I wanted to pay the same 10 Baht as the locals – he just drove off. Another random Thai waiting on the street tried to lure me into something near a palace (“Palace is closed”), and he literally freaked out when I told him off straight away. So bad… Just a few examples of my journey through Thailand, I certainly could give you more of these.

    But watch out in Vietnam as well, it can be even worse. Especially Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC,Saigon) can be a real dangerous place. Don’t do anything silly there and NEVER EVER follow someone to his house or another place. You might end up losing THOUSANDS of Dollars after you lost a Gambeling session they lured you into (“Oh, you have so nice shoes/earrings/whatever” or “My sister is working as a nurse in a hospital in “). This DID happen to people I knew. Many stories I heard and my own experiences… I was just lucky and was very alert all the time. Don’t trust anyone in Saigon, especially overfriendly English speaking locals or Philipinos. Just my advice for Vietnam.

  11. @Backpacker – Interesting about Vietnam. I could be there in September, so thanks for the head’s up. I think a certain dose of “street sense” is always required, but yes, when culture/language/lifestyle is so different, it requires additional vigilance.

  12. Bangkok is a humongous stain of filth. It’s at least 100 times uglier than LA. Actually, it’s like a Mad Max LA. LA after doom. Unsightly urban landscape. Millions and millions of desperate people driving desperately all over the place. Appalling pollution. Predominant smell: stale, rotting water. Avoid it at all costs.

    • Hi Bangyuck,
      On many fronts, I can’t disagree with you. My first trip to Bangkok (written about here) was also coloured with a good dose of culture shock, as my first time backpacking in Asia and my first port of call. Although cities in general don’t do much for me, I’m curious to go back to see how I feel about it a second time….but only for a day or two before I go to a much more beautiful part of Thailand (of which there are many)….


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