I've been thinking about the five different neighborhoods I have lived in during my twenty-odd years in Bangkok. Which ones did I enjoy? Were there any neighborhoods that I particularly hated? What were the advantages and disadvantages of each community that I spent time in? Perhaps it would be interesting to draw some comparisons.
I arrived in Bangkok in the early 90's and spent the first couple of years flitting from apartment to apartment and guest house to cheap hotel in the lower Sukhumwit area - between soi 4 and soi 22. Don't forget that these were the days well before the sky-train and underground systems made life so much easier for us all - so getting around required either walking or haggling for non-metered taxis.
In my opinion, this area - at least at first glance - has changed very little over the last two decades. OK, there's a much larger choice of decent restaurants, coffee shops and fast food outlets, but it's still two sides of busy main ride dominated by footpath vendors and slow-moving tourists. It can be an infuriating part of Bangkok to negotiate at the best of times.
I think like many new arrivals, I decided to settle in the lower Sukhumwit area because I was looking to ease myself gently into Bangkok life and still wanted to be in touching distance of restaurants with familiar names and be able to deal with Thais who had a better grasp of English.
For most of this period, I lived in an apartment on Soi 22. It was an interesting soi in those days - a combination of new apartment buildings, mom and pop grocery stores and the main entertainment / bar area centered around Washington Square. Even back then it was an area heaving with farang English teachers taking advantage of apartment rentals in the 4,000 baht a month price range. Every day you would see the same old faces going to work in typical teacher attire, returning home to their ‘shoebox studios' late in the evening and then hitting the bars.
I don't look back on my time spent living in that neighborhood with any great fondness. I quickly became jaded with walking up and down the busy Soi 22 to get to the Sukhumwit Road bus stops. I grew to despise the temptation of the Washington Square bars because I had far too much free time. And the devil definitely makes work for idle hands to do. I got sick of being constantly stared at every time I went in and out of my apartment building by those whose life revolved around sitting on a bench by the entrance and gossiping with their little gathering of work-shy groupies.
Personally, choosing to live in a ‘foreigner ghetto' is not something I would do again. Be it sitting and chatting on the concrete steps of your apartment or perched on a bar-stool, listening to all those hard-luck stories can wear you down. I also think that much of that farang negativity can rub off on the local Thais. And as time progresses you can see the attitudes of the local shopkeepers and the motorcycle taxi drivers begin to worsen as they encounter one irate foreigner too many.
In a fit of nostalgia, I took a walk down Sukhumwit 22 several months ago. The whole street looked shabby and unloved and by Christ, how many massage shops do you need on one, single soi? Apart from the odd bar toughing it out, Washington Square has all but disappeared and even Soi 22's ‘jewel in the crown' - The Imperial Queen's Park Hotel - seemed to stand forlorn. There was of course the usual gaggle of taxi driver touts wondering where their next well-heeled punter was going to come from.
In the grips of the current recession, the businesses here looked to be suffering more than most. Surprising really, for a soi that's located in the shadow of two terrific shopping malls - Terminal 21 and The Emporium. And within touching distance of the BTS and MRT transportation systems.
I genuinely hoped that it would be another twenty years before I ventured down there again.
I don't know for the life of me what I was thinking at the time, but having had enough of living in a neighborhood with a large expat community, I decided to move to an even bigger one. I packed all my belongings into a couple of battered suitcases and moved the few miles to the notorious backpacker ghetto of Soi Ngam Duphli, off Rama 4 Road. Talk about jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. I ended up living there for three years and I think it's fair to say I hated almost every minute of it.
Looking back, I was probably intent on making my monthly teaching salary stretch a little further. There were also plenty of cheap restaurants in the area serving Thai and foreign food and Lumpini Park - one of Bangkok's few green spaces - was just a 20-minute walk away.
The Soi Ngam Duphli / Soi Sri Bamphaen neighborhood was a place for lost souls. Perhaps I was one of them myself but I steered away from hitting any of the numerous local drinking dives and nursing a bottle of cheap Thai whisky until chucking out time - as most of the foreigners in that area seemed to do.
I thought I had seen and heard it all mixing with the down-on-their-luck foreigners in Soi 22 but the farangs in Ngam Duphli were in a different league. You could get a room at the Boston Inn for 50 baht a night provided you were willing to lug buckets of water from a nearby standpipe in order to take a shower. I'll let you draw your own conclusions as to the type of resident who stayed there.
I had started teaching full-time and was holding down a respectable job. I seemed to be the only foreigner who walked around in a shirt and tie. It didn't give me the idea I was better than anyone else but it certainly singled me out as being ‘different'. Apart from the weekly session in the brilliant Wong's Bar - where I did happen to make some good friends - I generally kept myself to myself.
Again, purely for old time's sake, I took a wander down Soi Ngam Duphli several months ago. A lot of the bars and restaurants have been given a face-lift and it even has a nice, shiny seven-eleven convenience store, but you can't polish a turd. I shook my head and wondered what I ever saw in the place.
After five years of living among the foreigners and with a bit more money around me, I scoured the Bangkok Post classifieds and made a bold move to an apartment building in the Petchburi Road / Klongtan Intersection area, near Ramkhamhaeng Road, where I ended up living for another three years. The main reason I moved here though was because I had secured a teaching job at a private school nearby.
Although I was now splashing out 7,000 baht a month on rent for a one-bedroom apartment (more than double what I had ever spent on rent in the past) I soon found out that I had moved to one of the most congested areas of the city.
No matter what time of day or night. The moment you stepped out of the apartment building, you would be instantly confronted with four lanes of traffic, all waiting impatiently for the traffic lights at the top of Soi Ekkami to change. Getting anywhere was a nightmare! I think it's fair to say that I loved the apartment I lived in - but hated the neighborhood. Apart from a nearby branch of Foodland supermarket, it had absolutely nothing going for it. I lived for the weekends when my girlfriend (now my wife) would pick me up in her car and I could escape the concrete and steel greyness of that particular section of Petchburi Road.
Ramkhamhaeng Road, which was just around the corner as the crow flies, was far more attractive. It had a couple of decent shopping malls and a good vibe, largely due to the student population from the nearby ABAC and Ramkhamhaeng universities. However, getting there required walking to the main Petchburi Road, crossing the footbridge and then waiting for a bus at a crowded bus-stop. Eventually the bus would arrive and you would crawl at a snail's pace up Ramkhamhaeng. Most of the time, I never felt it was worth the effort. I did an awful lot of ‘staying at home' during those three years.
With the apartment building going rapidly downhill thanks to a change of management and my desire to start teaching private students at home, I decided to look for a house to rent and also upgrade my living conditions. I found a beautiful home on the Seri Housing Estate, just off Rama 9 Road. I lived there for five years and while the neighborhood had its downsides, it was easily the nicest area of Bangkok that I had the pleasure to live in.
I fell in love with the neighborhood the moment I clapped eyes on it. It was like living in the countryside. I was on a quiet soi flanked by plenty of trees and surrounded by neighbors who took great pride in their properties. When I opened my front gate, I looked on to nothing but empty fields. OK, I was isolated. To get to the ‘civilisation' of Ramkhamhaeng Road required a brisk 5-minute walk and then a 10-minute journey by local songthaew, but it was a small price to pay for my own little slice of paradise.
Because I was virtually the only foreigner living in the vicinity, I started to make friends with my Thai neighbors. The lovely middle-aged couple who ran the corner shop took me under their wing as did the husband and wife a few doors down, both teachers at the nearby university. Then there was the charming woman and daughter who ran the local laundry shop and made sure my shirts were always clean and well-pressed. They were never nosey or intrusive but they were people I could always turn to if I needed help. Standing outside my front gate with a mug of steaming hot coffee and just shooting the breeze with my Thai neighbors are memories I will always cherish.
If it comes down to the choice of living in a Thai or a farang community, I know which one I prefer. And your Thai language skills will improve no end!
This is not to say that everything was peaches ‘n' cream living on a Thai housing estate or ‘moobarn' as they are known. One of the biggest problems - and farangs have mentioned this aspect of moobarn living on many a discussion forum - are those damn stray dogs or ‘street-dogs'.
Thankfully, I never had a street-dog chase me down the soi and sink its teeth into my arse, but it wasn't for want of trying. I quickly got to learn where the ‘trouble-spots' were or where the packs of stray dogs would gather. And sometimes that meant taking a considerable detour to the laundry shop when I realized I had no clean shirts for work on Monday. Take it from me, those four-legged fuckers can make your life hell on earth.
Even though I have been gone from this neighborhood for eight years now, I rarely make the trip back. Many of the pet dogs I fussed over and the people I befriended have either died or moved away. I want to remember things just as they were - nigh on perfection.
And now I'm living in my fifth, and probably final, Bangkok neighborhood. Well, Samut Prakarn, on the outskirts of the city if we're being geographically accurate about things. Moving here was something of a ‘trade-off' because my girlfriend and I got married, we got given some land - and we built a house on it.
The area around the Theparak Intersection is very much a working-class Thai neighborhood, with lots of cheap apartment buildings providing housing for thousands of engineers and staff working on the local industrial estates. I've swapped the fresh air of Rama 9 for something far more congested and polluted, but as I said - it's been a trade-off. When you go out shopping, you're paying Thai prices.
There's a good selection of street-food but a lack of quality restaurants and coffee shops. There are some good shopping malls and supermarkets but all require a 10-minute taxi ride. It's an area where farangs are still quite a novelty so you do get stared at and you do get the odd Thai hoodlum shouting something funny at you just to impress his mates. I guess I've learned to just roll with the punches - and such incidents no longer irritate me.
So back to the original question - "what should he look out for when deciding on the best Bangkok neighborhood to live in?" The answer is "the one that suits you best" Some of us like to live near work. Some of us want to be touching distance to a McDonalds. Some of us like to live among our own kind. Some like to immerse themselves in a Thai community. It's all about whatever floats your boat