How to Make Sense of the Intense, Timeless, Thoroughly Modern Beauty of Bangkok

The Thai capital is sprawling and sometimes frustrating, but always exhilarating. Here are the best ways to dive in.

How to Make Sense of the Intense, Timeless, Thoroughly Modern Beauty of Bangkok

Photograph by Adam Birkan

I’m in Bangkok’s Chinatown, nearing the end of a long morning run through the city, when I see a stream of people heading down a lane. I follow them. The lane is so narrow that I have to slow to a walk. I snake past stores purveying all manner of burnable offerings for the adjacent temple (fake money in both dollars and baht; New Balance branded sneakers made of cardboard), then spy two folding tables and eight plastic stools wedged against a wall, most of them occupied by ladies who breakfast. There’s something about the intensity with which these women slurp their noodles that makes me slow down further. As soon as she catches me staring, the short-haired cashier leaps up from her perch next to the cauldron and insists I sit down. The cook glances up at me as she preps my bowl, first ladling in soup and noodles, then an array of beef and pork parts. Al dente rice-flour pasta, called kway chap, combines ultracrisp char shiu pork and a spectacularly flavorful, long-cooked broth to produce one of the best noodle dishes I’ve ever eaten.

The pleasure I take in this breakfast isn’t only about the food. Even though I’m in a city I know well, having visited many times, I’ve found myself somewhere new. I’m nestled in the heart of a dense, bustling market where shoppers eye slabs of pork and vats of pickled greens, chat with vendors, bow toward the temple, and live the vibrant life of this inner city. For me it’s a revelatory experience of enormous, immersive pleasure.

How did I arrive at this moment of bliss? I certainly didn’t read about this meal on some website’s list of the Top 10 Noodle Stalls in Bangkok. (If I had, I doubt I’d be the only non-Thai person in the market.) I am, instead, savoring the deep enjoyment that comes from finding something extraordinary all by myself, and by accident. It’s the kind of pleasure sought by the amateur urbanist known as the flâneur.


Chinese Fan Dancing practice at Lumphini Park.

Photo by Adam Birkan

As conceptualized in the 19th-century European metropolis, a flâneur is a person who approaches a city by wandering randomly yet observantly, discovering as he or she walks. The flâneur’s pleasure is different from the gratification that comes from being led by expert opinions to the best a city has to offer. It means stumbling upon great places and appreciating the spontaneous process that revealed them.

The flâneur’s traditional approach still works in locales such as Paris or London, which were practically purpose-built for a pedestrian’s pleasure. But last year, for the first time since such things have been recorded, the most visited urban area in the world was nothing like⎯and nowhere near⎯those old-fashioned, European-style cities. It was Bangkok, the sprawling, crowded, ever-expanding capital of Thailand, which welcomed more than 21 million visitors.

How does a 21st-century traveler find spontaneous pleasure in a place like this?

Try to be an old-school flâneur in today’s Bangkok and you will likely end up dehydrated and heat sick, desperately trying to cross a six-lane road to nowhere. Bangkok, like so many other big cities that have grown up in the modern world (São Paulo, Tokyo, Lagos, Jakarta, to name a few) is a rapidly changing megalopolis where many of the old rules about how to know a city simply don’t apply. So how does a 21st-century traveler find spontaneous pleasure in a place like this?

1. Find new ways to wander

Bangkok is a puzzle just to get around. The small, manageable blocks of the city’s old town along the Chao Phraya River give way to huge avenues as you get farther away from the river. The reach of subways and trains is limited, and traffic is so insane that sometimes taxi drivers will simply refuse to take you to your destination at any price. But cracking a city’s navigational code can be one of the most fun and interesting undertakings for a traveler.

Bangkok’s best-known form of public transport is the boat service that plies the Chao Phraya, the largest and most important waterway in the region, dropping people off at all the usual tourist haunts: the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the Flower Market, Wat Pho. But better for revealing my kind of Bangkok are two boat lines less used by tourists.


Pratunam water taxi dock.

Photo by Adam Birkan

One putters along the Krung Kasem canal, which curves along the eastern edge of Old Bangkok, showing you the city the way it used to be, with shaded wooden walkways that abut the narrow canal and small ironwork pedestrian bridges that arc over it at steep angles. The other boat line connects the historic city center with the far reaches of eastern Bangkok via the Saen Saep canal. On the Saen Saep, commuters and students shuffle onto benches in long, low-slung green boats topped with blue-and-white plastic tarps for shade. The people nearest the sides clutch ropes to raise plastic shields when a wave of murky water is about to strike. Glimpsed from the canal, crowded tourist stops such as the home of Jim Thompson (a famous American silk trader who disappeared in 1967) appear tranquil. As the boat travels east and reaches the Pratunam area, it fills with shoppers carrying electronics from Pantip Plaza or designer bargains from the Platinum Fashion Mall. The gleaming towers of modern Bangkok—mirrored office buildings, high-rise condominiums, malls with jumbo video screens—loom over the few old wooden houses that remain on the waterside. The small piers where the boat stops are often positioned below bridges that shelter not only passengers but also papaya salad carts, coffee and tea vendors, and, invariably, a mutt or two sleeping in the shade. Compared to a canalside scene in, say, Paris, Bangkok offers an overwhelming density of life.

People have been navigating Bangkok’s canals by boat for centuries, so it’s a fitting way to get a feel for the city. But for a uniquely modern take, do your wandering by motorcycle taxi. Offering 360-degree views as they bob and weave past the city’s enormous yet nearly silent traffic jams (Thais are loath to honk their horns for anything that doesn’t involve impending death), motos are intensely pleasurable—if perilous.

One day I caught a moto in the northern part of Chinatown and headed south, watching the riverfront area transform. We started the ride amid ancient Chinese warehouses that used to store goods that arrived by boat. We saw throngs of people crossing the street to shop at a mile-long fabric market. We turned onto Yaowarat Road, where street-food vendors staked out their territory, and the bright lights of tall, rectangular neon signs with vertical strips of Chinese characters were just starting to flicker on. As we neared my destination, we veered onto a strip of scrapyards with towering stacks of rusting, ancient mechanical parts and man-size motors, looking like an Ai Weiwei installation. The panoramic view offered by the moto showed me how the city’s streets flowed together in a way I’d never have seen from a car window, stuck in traffic.


Grand Palace

Photo by Adam Birkan

2. Focus

My early morning runs, motorcycle taxi rides, and canal boat cruises are gratifying in themselves, but they also serve as reconnaissance for places I want to return to. This kind of exploration is essential in a place like Bangkok, where you need to accept that you will never be able to see everything. When I find a restaurant or a street I love, I go back and back again even if I’m only in the city for a short time. Great places, like the noodle stall I found, don’t exist in a vacuum. If there’s a discerning clientele to support one excellent place, that probably signals a neighborhood worth returning to. And so, a few mornings after my noodle breakfast, I found myself in the same Chinatown alleyway at a different food stall, sampling a batch of delicious, silver-dollar-size pumpkin-custard-filled pancakes.

I started to haunt that neighborhood and found that by the afternoon, the alleyway was scorching hot and painfully packed with tour groups on their way to the adjacent temple. By evening it was completely shuttered. But that nighttime return trip led me to scour the area and find, some blocks away on a small street called Soi Nana, at the southern edge of Chinatown, a bar that had just opened. Marked by a red neon sign with Chinese characters, the bar was called Ba Hao.


Chinatown alley.

Photo by Adam Birkan

Ba Hao offered the chance to put into practice another strategy for getting to know a modern city: Pick a spot and become a regular. Places that have been open for years have patrons who have been coming for years. New places have only new customers. Thus brand-new places offer a special opportunity to become a regular in just a few visits.

Most of the other spots in the neighborhood were either old-school Chinese or new-school hipster. There were dozens of shark fin soup joints, tons of streetside sautéed noodles on offer, and even a gin specialty bar and a craft beer bar right down the street. But Ba Hao served stuff I didn’t see anywhere else: duck wontons with chili sesame oil; a Negroni-like cocktail made not with gin but with a Chinese medicinal liqueur containing ginseng and herbs. I struck up a conversation with one of the owners behind the bar. His name was Phoom, and he invited me to come back the next day to see the neighborhood with him.

“I grew up 250 meters from here,” he told me when we met up again. “The streets here all have their specialties. My block sold baby ducks and chickens, as well as wooden coffins.” We walked toward his home street as he told me more about his history. “My family speaks Thai, of course, but also Teochew, our language from China. Growing up in Thailand, even here in Chinatown, there’s this idea that everybody should just be Thai and forget about where their grandparents might have come from. But I wanted to open this bar to make people see that Thai-Chinese culture can be cool.” Phoom shared his slice of the city with me. After all, I was a regular.

Photo by Adam Birkan

3. Seek out what’s endangered

There are competing visions of this city, and one of those visions sees a place like Singapore as the ultimate goal of urban planning. In this vision, street activity moves inside, where it will be cleaner, cooler, and, in my opinion, profoundly boring. While I was in Bangkok, reports surfaced that the municipal authorities were planning to eliminate street-food vendors from many of the city’s most popular precincts. They cited concerns about pedestrian congestion, hygiene, traffic, and other issues that are, of course, important. Those negative aspects of street food are easier to see and to lobby against than the more abstract ways in which street life is the essence of the city. In modern, fast-growing cities such as Bangkok, debates like these constantly reshape the urban landscape. For me, that means that when I visit, I seek out the things that might not be there when I come back.

Just across the bridge from Rattanakosin Island—arrayed around a large temple notable for the Giant Swing religious monument out front—is an old neighborhood that has become a battleground in the debate over the city’s future. At least one community has recently been pushed out to make room for a park. The neighborhood is distinguished by its many small restaurants, which spill out onto the street from low-rise shophouses and cater to City Hall workers on their lunch break, and by its alleyways, filled with vendors who make goods for the monks from the surrounding temples. As I wandered, I saw something new: a flashy three-story hostel called Once Again Hostel, complete with a La Marzocco espresso machine and dozens of smiling, young European clients. Uh-oh, I thought. I’m too late. The area’s transformation into a tourist ghetto has already begun.

I was in for a surprise. I met Sanon and Mic, the young Thai owners of the hostel, who, it turned out, were on a mission to try to preserve the fast-disappearing people and places around them. Mic, an architect, explained that the steel decorations that covered one of the lobby’s walls were locally manufactured metal lids that monks used to cover their alms bowls. Mic had grown up in this building, above his family’s business, a printing company that had relocated to a suburb. Sanon, who had started off as an industrial engineer, was knowledgeable and passionate about the old communities that surrounded the place. He was devoted to using the hostel to help protect them. He showed me a prototype of a bright orange bag he was creating with one of these communities, an enclave where the traditional occupation has been to sew monks’ robes.


Photo by Adam Birkan

I walked with Sanon down a tiny alleyway near the hostel, where we were greeted by a chorus of hammers on metal. Everyone on this street is involved in the eight phases of the ancient craft of metal monk-bowl making: One person frames the bowls, another welds them, a third hammers them into shape. Though there are now mass-manufactured bowls that are lower in price (and of dubious quality), this alley still makes bowls that require five different families of artisans to collaborate. We chatted with Ari, 46, a fourth-generation bowl maker. “Before, every single house in this area was making monks’ bowls,” he said. “Everyone lived out in the street, worked out in the street. Now you don’t hear the same sounds. Things are changing here.”

Who knows if the bowl makers, the monk robe manufacturers, and the other artisans who make this neighborhood so appealing will still be around the next time I return to Bangkok? When you look around the city and see the way swanky new shopping malls and high-rise hotels now dominate the landscape, it’s easy to despair. But people like Sanon and Mic, opening a hostel with the motto “Where your stays better the city,” and Phoom and his partners, who decided to celebrate their Thai-Chinese culture at Ba Hao, indicate that, below a facade of relentless modernization and globalization, there’s a powerful current of Thai pride, heritage, and cultural adaptation. It’s a side of the city that will reveal itself, if you know where and how to look.

I write about the worlds of Brooklyn firemen, Yemeni jihadis, Chinese internet vigilantes, Malagasy river guides, and Barcelona private eyes—anyone whose story moves me. A year before 9/11, I began producing a television documentary and reporting a book about a group of elite rescue firemen in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse, published by Henry Holt, follows ten years in the life of their company, from the high of knocking down a wall of flames to the low of losing a brother.
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