Text Ilona Marx Photos Jonas Becker Illustration Roman Klonek
My goodness, isn't she young! That's a comment that for once isn't aimed at one of the go-go girls in the red light district but at its hometown, Bangkok. The metropolis with a population of 7.5 million is a mere 225 years old. No wonder that the city has had to deal with problems similar to that of a pubescent teenager: with rapid growth for example, causing an enormous building boom in the 80s and 90s of the last century. But financial problems, due to ineptitude and overconfidence, have also played a role, causing a short-term economic crisis in 1997.
In the meantime, they've learned by their mistakes. The new Metro and over ground Skytrains have alleviated the traffic congestion, a side effect of the growth spurt. And in the face of the towering, skeletal unfinished skyscrapers, pointing skyward like memorials to the economic crash, speculation and risk-taking has gone down too. The fact is Bangkok has grown up. This is partly thanks to the influence of a large number of academics who've returned home full of enthusiasm and rich in cosmopolitan experiences after studying on foreign soil. The image of an untidy third-world city is something Bangkok has left long behind. Multinational corporations have declared the market stable and are investing more and more in the local economy. All of this means that the burgeoning metropolis is now in the same category as Hong Kong and Singapore.
For those who arrive here for the first time, the city appears to be endless. There are multiple centres and the distances are quite substantial. The best orientation is the Chao Phraya River that flows once entirely through the city, and constitutes a valuable traffic artery, because it is airy and uncongested. Travelling by water taxi you can see popular tourist attractions like the Grand Palace and several magnificent temples like the Wat Mahathat or the Wat Arun, and the tourist district Banglamphu to which the legendary backpacker neighbourhood Khao San Road belongs, is also within easy access from the river. Not far away from there is Chinatown and the lively Indian quarter, one of those neighbourhoods where business and chaos aren't irreconcilable, but on the contrary, seem almost to necessitate one another.
The new Bangkok, in contrast, can be discovered best by Skytrain. Starting at the Saphan Taxin Pier where the water taxis moor, the airconditioned and highly efficient train leads into the centre of the skyscrapers. At Siam Square a universe of enormous shopping centres unfolds, competing for the title of biggest and best. The World Trade Center, Gaysorn Plaza and Siam Paragon are among the top three, but even these, no doubt, will soon be challenged by newer marvels. A similar competitive spirit resides in the Silom Road, the diplomatic quarter where a lot of Farangs – the name for 'long noses' in Thai slang – live. But here it's the luxury hotels that are vying for custom. Because of the high competition the prices are relatively humane. 130 sqm of penthouse suite costs a 'mere' 800 US dollars a night.
But a retreat into this kind of luxury haven isn't the only option if you want to escape the hubbub of the streets for a while. Countless spas and massage salons offer peace and quiet and relaxation for just a few Baht for the city dweller stressed by air pollution and the tropical climate.
But apart from the comforts that will sweeten your stay here in such a service-orientated city, the friendliness of the city dwellers, their culture, their cuisine, are more than enough reason to fall in love on the spot with this young, aspiring city. That's certainly what happened to Ilona Marx, on her tour of discovery through the 'tiger city' with Jonas Becker, photographer and resident of Bangkok. For J’N‘C she went in search of the prettiest markets, the best food stalls and the hottest newcomers on the fashion scene.