I recently spent about a week in Bangkok with Oh.
It was a lot of fun. We had an amazing time!
Oh and I ate our way across the city and saw a good chunk of central Bangkok.
Although Oh was excited about the malls and legendary shopping that Bangkok offers, I actually wanted to explore the city from a different perspective.
Specifically, I wanted to see if I could one day see myself moving there to live. Maybe I’m weird, but I never visit places with a tourist mindset. I always go with a livability mindset. I walk around and judge things as a prospective resident. My brain works in a very analytical and contemplative way, so I can’t help it.
There was a simple question I wanted to answer while we were there.
Could I live in Bangkok?
To answer that question, I’m first going to share what I loved about the city.
And then I’m going to talk about what I didn’t love in Part 2.
This conversation will be occurring within the backdrop of my experience of living in Chiang Mai, Thailand for the past 1.5 years. So it’s a quasi-comparison here between Bangkok and Chiang Mai for livability from my perspective as an early retiree looking to maximize quality of life while simultaneously minimizing cost of living.
First, let’s get into what’s great about Bangkok…
Chiang Mai lacks good public transit.
There’s a newer bus system that offers limited service. Otherwise, the car-sharing service Grab works just fine. Songthaews work well in a pinch. Plus, I walk almost everywhere.
So it’s not a big deal, especially considering how compact Chiang Mai is.
However, Bangkok is spread out. Big time.
Fortunately, the city offers pretty solid public transportation. We mostly used the BTS this trip, which is Bangkok’s elevated Skytrain system. But Bangkok also has the MRT, which is their underground subway system.
The BTS tickets are cheap and easy to access. Our trips averaged 40 baht each (per person), or about $1.25.
The trains are clean, modern, and offer cold A/C. And they come frequently. I don’t think we ever waited more than a few minutes for a train, even late at night. The efficiency is impressive.
Plus, the platforms are very nice. Many have a barrier in place. And you have arrows that are designed to show where people will come out, as well as where you should stand (on the side) to enter the train.
This gives you an opportunity to ready your stance.
There’s also a system of buses that are reliable and cheap. We took one bus that was only seven baht per person!
Big-City Amenities And Vibrancy
What really separates Bangkok from Chiang Mai, in my opinion, is the fact that Bangkok has the vibrancy and energy that one would expect from a city of 8 million+ people.
This is apparent as soon as you enter the city.
There’s a skyline that has a significant height, depth, and breadth. You’re aware that you’re in an important capital city right away. It seems to stretch on for many miles, and it looks different depending on where you’re standing and looking.
The view from our hotel pool was particularly stunning.
Because the pool deck area was so big, you could capture the Bangkok skyline from numerous angles.
There’s a sense of magnificence, importance, and glitz that isn’t at all present in Chiang Mai. You get that “center of the universe” feeling that’s only available in a few cities around the world.
Adding to that is the flow of traffic – speaking in terms of both people and cars. The cars are somewhat easy to avoid because of the aforementioned public transportation. Avoiding vehicular traffic should be a goal because it’s terrible. But the people are everywhere. Human traffic is unavoidable.
That flow and energy is probably most pronounced around the Siam area, which is considered the “heart” of Bangkok. It contains and straddles some of Bangkok’s best shopping, restaurants, and entertainment.
I’ve heard of the Siam area being referred to as a “miniature Shibuya”. There are plenty of people moving to and for during the day.
But I’d argue it really comes alive at night.
Bangkok is, of course, known for its malls.
I’m generally as interested in shopping as I am in punching myself in the face, so the malls don’t do a lot for me.
However, they do offer a most welcome respite from the heat. Chiang Mai is a very warm place. But Bangkok is next-level hot. It’s been crowned as the hottest city in the world for a reason.
Because of this, the malls aren’t just malls. Not in Bangkok.
They’re cities with roofs. Enclosed cities. That’s the best way I can describe it.
Walking through Siam Paragon made me feel like I was walking through a mid-sized US city’s downtown. And a very, very luxurious downtown at that.
Restaurants, bowling, movies, shopping. Canals. Car dealerships. An art gallery. Opera theater. Throw in an aquarium while you’re at it. Siam Paragon was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
These malls aren’t like what you’ll typically see in the US.
Yet Iconsiam was probably the nicest – and most intense – mall of them all.
There were more than 100 dining options in this place!
Unfortunately, it was so packed with people that we couldn’t eat at any of them. There were hour-long waits at every eatery we went to. And the food area at the bottom was a circus. That’s vibrancy for you.
To get a feel for what I’m talking about, check out the crowd at the new Iconsiam Apple Store – the first official Apple store in Thailand.
As noted earlier, I was more interested in exploring some of Bankgok’s neighborhoods and off-the-beaten-path areas. I didn’t want to see tourist spots.
Fortunately, we had some opportunities to see some of the neighborhoods that tourists don’t typically go to.
One outer neighborhood was On Nut. Yes, On Nut is actually a neighborhood in Bangkok. I’m not making that up.
If I were to ever move to and live in Bangkok, On Nut would probably be my neighborhood of choice. The prices for rentals aren’t that far off from here in central Chiang Mai – although we are comparing a central area to a non-central area.
Regardless, its prime location on the Sukhumvit BTS line (in/around Sukhumvit 77) would make it easy to access everything Bangkok has to offer, without paying high/tourist prices.
One neat area of On Nut was the Habito development. It’s a neighborhood lifestyle mall that sits as the crown jewel and central node of a planned community called “T77”.
There were multiple unique, independent eateries here.
There were two – score! – 24-hour coffee shops.
And there was also a large coworking space called HUBBA-TO. I’ve heard of this place being hyped up by some digital nomads. Like most everything related to digital nomads, though, it’s more hype than reality.
It was a very nice space, but almost 300 baht (for a day pass) just to sit at a table and have the privilege to buy coffee is bonkers. I pay 1/4 of that for a delicious coffee at my favorite shop in Chiang Mai. And CAMP (a beautiful 24-hour coworking space) here in Chiang Mai is free to use. You just have to buy something (which is cheap) in order to access the Wi-Fi. Maybe that’s why HUBBA-TO was empty when I was there.
My favorite neighborhood, though, is definitely Thonglor.
It stretches up and down Sukhumvit 55, off the Thonglo BTS stop. Numerous sois branch off of 55, creating a fairly three-dimensional neighborhood.
Thonglor is simultaneously quirky and serious, laid-back and upscale, frenetic and quiet. I didn’t see anything else quite like it in all of Bangkok. It reminded me just a little bit of the Nimman area of Chiang Mai.
There’s a lot of money in Thonglor, however, which would make it cost prohibitive to live here. The value would suffer because you’re competing against people willing to pay a premium for everything. Seeing Lamborghinis and Aston Martins just chillin’ next to each other is not a scene you see in most places of Bangkok – or anywhere in Chiang Mai.
My favorite place in the whole neighborhood – at least during my limited time exploring the area – was The Commons.
This was a stunning indoor/outdoor food hall that featured phenomenal food and live music in beautiful surroundings. I mean that both in the sense of the architecture and the people. Literally, I felt like I was surrounded by models. Oh recognized a few Thai celebrities here.
I don’t know what this place would be comparable to. Maybe Chelsea Market in NYC. Or maybe the Time Out Markets that are spreading from Lisbon.
Anyway, it was great.
One other area of urban vibrancy that Bangkok kills Chiang Mai in is urban parks.
While Chiang Mai is clearly superior in terms of overall nature, I actually prefer urban parks more. It’s like comparing Central Park to Yosemite. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they are very different.
We visited Lumphini Park around dusk during our first night in the city. It’s a 142-acre urban park that was really stunning and dynamic.
What was particularly shocking to me was seeing the number of people exercising in the park. I’ve been to some large urban parks in the US, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Thousands of people jogging, stretching, doing yoga, and even engaging in group aerobics.
I wasn’t able to get a good picture of the scene because it was getting dark. And there were frankly way too many people exercising to give you a fair idea of the scale. But this video does a decent job of showing a very small fraction of what I’m talking about.
I badly wanted to visit Benjasiri Park, but we couldn’t make it. I was able to catch sunset in Lumphini, though.
Another area where I think Bangkok definitely beats Chiang Mai is in overall culture and things to do.
There were museums, art exhibitions, concert halls, and live music venues all over.
Chiang Mai has plenty of culture. It’s extremely dynamic for a city of its size. Punches way above its weight across the board. But Bangkok simply operates on a scale that’s leagues beyond that of Chiang Mai, as one would expect.
Both cities obviously have the local Thai culture in spades. That includes temples galore.
But I experience culture through the eyes of a Western expat.
Chiang Mai’s culture, in my experience, is centered more around independent coffee shops, veganism, backpackers, digital nomads, entrepreneurship, and nature. It operates like a very large town.
Bangkok, from what I can see, is really the total opposite of that. It’s a massive, world-class city. There’s the aforementioned entertainment/culture options, but I think the city primarily hinges around three facets: dining, shopping, and nightlife. The nightlife in particular is world-famous (or infamous), although it’s not really my thing.
Bangkok has amazing international food options. Much greater both in quantity and quality than what we have in Chiang Mai. This would be expected. It’s one of my favorite things about the city.
The food at The Commons, for instance, was delicious. I had – I’m not lying here – the best chicken sandwich of my life at one of the food vendors. They call themselves Fowlmouth. I thought that was such a catchy name for a chicken joint.
I also had the misfortune of trying to eat food at Iconsiam, as noted earlier. The place was insanely busy, so that was out.
We instead had pastries for (late) brunch at one of the outdoor terraces. The view was beautiful, especially with Oh there. And the pastries from Paul, a French bakery, were the best I’ve ever had. Bar none. The almond croissant is something dreams are made of.
There are numerous Western chains and options available in Bangkok that don’t even exist in Chiang Mai. The list stretches way beyond what I could get into here.
So if one prefers more international options, Bangkok crushes Chiang Mai. They’re in different universes.
That all said, I actually think the Thai food is better in Chiang Mai. It’s cheaper, more accessible, and more (in my opinion) delicious. I hate to generalize about this. I’ve eaten so much more food in Chiang Mai than Bangkok. But I’m just comparing the two based on my experience thus far.
I found the same dishes to be 10% to 30% more money in Bangkok.
The Thai food in Bangkok is also saltier, while I taste a more subtle sweetness to the food from the north. It’s a personal preference, but I simply enjoy the dishes in Chiang Mai more.
Plus, street food and small, open-air markets are all over in Chiang Mai. Not so in Bangkok after the ever-changing “ban” on street food. I don’t know the current status of that whole situation, but I can say that we found it difficult to find concentrated street food areas and hole-in-the-wall markets in Bangkok. We ate almost solely at restaurants and food courts. Oh lived in Bangkok for 10 years, and I know the city decently well, so it’s not like we were flying blind.
So there’s a lot to like about Bangkok.
But there are also a few things that I didn’t care for…
Stay tuned. I’m going to release the second part of this short series on Thursday, which will go over some drawbacks to living in Bangkok. I’ll also conclude things with my final thoughts on living my FIRE lifestyle in the City of Angels.
What do you think? Ever been to Bangkok? What did you think? Been to Chiang Mai? Have you had an opportunity to compare these cities? Which city seems preferable to you?
Thanks for reading.
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