When it comes to getting a taste of Asian realities in their rawest flavours, Bangkok is the ultimate smorgasbord with its sights, sounds and unbridled excesses. Scenes of the city devoid of visitors were as surreal as Rome without pilgrims and the moment all travellers restrictions were lifted from 1 July 2022, the floodgate was lifted and the deluge expectedly returned. Many would find the city quite unchanged from before - the traffic is still a horrendous impasse over rush hours to say the least, but there is also a palpable newness that is both physical and lyrical. From the ground up there are stunning additions to the cityscape, the most obvious being the storied Mahanakhon building that is currently the country's tallest building. The building was actually declared open in 2016, but dramatic turn of events saw it changing hands in 2018, leading to major overhauls and redevelopments under its current form as King Power Mahanakohn. Other blocs of development also rose up all around the city, with the downtown Sindhorn enclave and various riverside parcels adding to Bangkok's new visage. On the streets one can still read the age-old resilience and fortitude on the faces of the city's inhabitants, with a soupçon of relieve perhaps, as normalcy finally returns.
Thai tourism is back in business and the world is rushing in for its beguiling smiles and familiar comforts. After a leave of absence that had stretched for two years, Bangkok is once again brimming with travellers ready to soak up its capital attractions.
Amazingly, the impetus for advancement is evident upon landing - what was usually a sea of mess at Bangkok's notorious immigration lines is finally orderly and expeditious. To be sure, full recovery might still be a distance off as the casualties of the pandemic are wide and varied - blocks of traditional businesses are still closed while existing and new enterprises are still trying to find their footing in the new dawn, but the gusto of recovery is surely felt. Almost every hotel we checked into were running full or close to full capacity with rack rates that jumped like pouncing spiders over an astonishingly short time. But despite appearances, is everything finally back to normal in the Thai capital?
A balanced view on the matter would lead one to address the 'new normal' within the frameworks of current realities. Yes, it is business as usual in Bangkok but the fundamentals have also shifted. While the city is far from sterile, efforts to sanitise it have largely taken effects within the downtown stretches. While famed quarters like Silom and Yao Warat has retained some of its flavours, they are also way less gritty than before. For better or worse modernity has caught up with this historic city and skyscrapers now dominate its terra, and old forms no longer hold sway as they once did.
While in the past the amalgamation of stark contrasts in the city is part of the city's charms, today we are seeing clearer demarcations, with the old and new, the rich and poor, and the real and contrived. As such one would head down to Rattanakosin to soak up the old, visit Siam Icon to experience the rich, and peruse Chinatown and a mall food court to decipher which is real and which is contrived. From an enigmatic pot of melded scenes Bangkok is rapidly evolving to become the city of opposites.
Having visited the city for close to 2 decades, there is a surge of bittersweet nostalgia when one conjures up scenes of the past now lost to development. Most lamentable are the loss of food streets like Sukhumvit Soi 38 and the hilarity of in-your-face campy antics one was vigorously treated to at Patpong. But there are also cheers with developments, like the luxury, comfort and efficiencies that one can now enjoy jetting into the city, and how 'Bangkok Tummy' is largely a condition of the past.
At the end of the day, change is the only constancy in life, for mortals and the cities they build. Yes, there will still be a long queue to brave to enter the Grand Palace. Yes you can probably still savour a great Tom Yum Kung at your culinary address of choice. Yes Bangkok is still Bangkok but there is really no way to make it stand still for anyone. For better or for worse it will continue to evolve, as will we, choices, expectations and all.
Text and visuals by CT