Why do Singaporeans like Bangkok so much?

The Thai capital's legendary Khao San Road is a tourist magnet. -- PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
The Thai capital's legendary Khao San Road is a tourist magnet. -- PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

AN UNPRECEDENTED siege and subsequent shutdown of the international airport by anti-government protesters in 2008, causing hordes of travellers to be stranded.

Rallies by anti-government protesters in the heart of the shopping district in 2010, where a part of the city’s glitziest mall was razed, prompting an army crackdown where more than 90 people died.

Devastating floods in 2011 causing an estimated 1.3 trillion baht (S$54 billion) in damage.

All these calamities, plus still-ongoing rumbles of discontent between rival political factions of a divided populace, would be enough to sound the death knell for any city’s tourism prospects.

But not Bangkok.

The Thai capital, conversely, seems to go from strength to strength, as visitors just can’t get enough of the city. In May, Bangkok topped the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index, a study of 132 cities conducted annually.

Singapore is the biggest contributor to the city’s success, being its top source of visitors, as has been the case for the past three years.

About 1.11 million people are expected to make the flight from Singapore to Bangkok, and stay for at least one night, this year. The Thai Tourism Ministry said the city’s international airport welcomed 551,425 Singaporeans last year – a 52.5 per cent jump from 2010.

What makes Bangkok so attractive, to Singaporeans in particular? And what makes them go back to Bangkok, again and again?

In terms of proximity, fellow big cities Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta are nearer. Hong Kong is a cosmopolitan dream just slightly farther away. And resort destinations like Bintan and Bali boast the laid-back vibes and sandy beaches that Bangkok can’t have.

Yet, for many Singaporeans, they cannot hold a candle to Bangkok.

 I must confess I cannot see what the fuss is all about. My first and only sojourn in Bangkok in 2007, a short four-day getaway, left me not unimpressed, but not wildly enamoured of it either.

Indeed, the shopping was great, and the food choices on display at the massive food courts and extensive array of restaurants in any one of its behemoth malls were mouth-watering.

And I must confess I did enjoy the lower prices, which prompted me to overshoot my budget just a bit too much; the friendly and easy-going people, who, on the surface at least, were poles apart from perpetually stressed-out and uptight Singaporeans; the labyrinthine night markets where you never know what trinket or hidden gem you might find around the next corner; and the, well, “exotic” nightlife that to a safe and boring Singaporean like me was an eye-opener as it was nothing that I had seen before, and would probably never see, in Singapore.

I must clarify that I did not partake of the delights of the latter, but merely caught a glimpse as my friend and I were walking through the Patpong night market.

But I left the city with the inkling that I could possibly find all of the above in many other Asian metropolises - Kuala Lumpur or Manila, for instance - including the favourable exchange rates, cheap street food and equally humongous shopping malls.

Thai food doesn’t particularly excite my tastebuds either, as I much prefer the local food and Peranakan cuisine right at my doorstep in Singapore.

For Singaporeans who are used to the sanitised, well-maintained streets of Singapore with no evidence of hardship in sight, Bangkok is also a world apart. My heart ached every time I came across a physically impaired soul or destitute woman clutching a skinny, wailing infant on the streets, hoping for some charity. The gritty sidewalks, even those in the glitzy shopping district, seemed to be filled with the less fortunate.

For those with a liking for seedier pursuits, these can be found in many cities in the region too, though their nightlife may be tamer than that of Bangkok’s.

However, leaving out X-rated endeavours, I was stumped to come up with a reason Singaporeans keep going back to Bangkok.

“It isn’t the same,” said a 36-year-old who works in the media industry who identified himself as Mr Ryan Lee, when I mentioned that KL was also cheap and nearby.

“KL is not cheap. The burgeoning number of luxury properties all over the city, which have found ready buyers in the rich Arabs, has been pushing overall prices up in KL.

“Bangkok has been a late player to all this.”

He added: “I also like spicy Thai food very much.”

Perhaps the cheap Thai food, something that the capital of Thailand would presumably corner the market in, is a significant lure?

When asked whether the political instability and floods in recent years would dampen his desire to visit the city, Mr Lee said: “No. These are temporary, not endemic.”

Other Singaporeans have also repeatedly cited the lower prices and tasty food, as well as the friendly people, as the reasons for their repeated visits.

Some even shop minimally in Singapore to save money for their Bangkok trip, where splurging on clothes, spa treatments and massages is undeniably less taxing on the wallet.

 My impression is that, generally, Singaporeans do like value for money and a good deal, and, for many, the attraction of getting more for less is enough to offset the cost and trouble of booking and paying for plane ticket and hotel room.

Singaporeans, who know a bargain when they see it, along with other budget travellers around the world, just want to have a good time somewhere familiar where the living is cheap and good. Gritty streets, political instability and natural disasters, who cares.

Perhaps the Singapore Tourism Board, on top of touting man-made tourist attractions like the Integrated Resorts and the Singapore Flyer, should find a way to promote the more organically generated, cheaper aspects of life in Singapore – hawker food, the sights and sounds of Geylang, forest treks – which are becoming increasingly difficult to find.

jerlee@sph.com.sg