December 2020 was supposed to mark a turning point in our lives: a symbolic step forward toward recovery. Instead, 2021 in Bangkok was more emotionally, politically, and physically trying than the year that preceded it. With businesses shuttered, pollution and inequality on the rise, and democracy crumbling, we spoke to experts and everymen alike to find out if the future still looks rosy for our favorite city. 

The Issues

First, the bad stuff—and let’s start with the big issue that underpins them all: eroding democracy.
Image courtesy of Kan Sangtong, a former Ajarn who now captures the frontline of the protest. 
Last year, US-based democracy advocacy group Freedom House downgraded Thailand to “not free,” which followed the Future Forward Party being disbanded, state forces cracking down on pro-democracy protests, and activists being threatened with criminal penalties, and often jailed, for speaking out for political or monarchy reform. More recently, Thailand was flagged by the Early Warning Project—a campaign operated by the US Holocaust Museum—for being at high risk of mass killings. 
Then there are infrastructural issues. According to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), Bangkok has about seven square meters of green space per person, less than the World Health Organization-recommended minimum of nine square meters. That obviously takes a toll on physical and mental health. It also contributes to other deleterious things. For instance, the urban heat island effect, which is when roads, buildings, and other concrete structures absorb solar radiation during the day and release it slowly at night, causing tem- peratures to rise.
Our smog could be getting worse, too. Seasonal air pollution has ramped up in the past seven years, with no meaningful government response to safeguard public health. Instead, leadership has turned to water-spraying drones and other media-moment gimmicks to battle the intensifying smog, which might be accelerating as our late-pandemic lives return to normal.
Image courtesy of Harshil Shah on Coconuts Bangkok. 
What else? How about gentrification? It seems as though every year brings new and often unwanted changes to the city’s skyline. In September, we wrote about the razing of Klongsan Plaza in Thonburi, and we covered the changes to Samyan, Khaosan, and Nana in recent years, too. Now, the impending demise of Hua Lamphong and Chinatown has captured headlines. 
Earlier this year, Bloomberg’s Randy Thanthong-Knight and Anuchit Nguyen highlighted changes occurring to one of Bangkok’s oldest districts: “On Chinatown’s main drag, a historic community of shophouses is being turned into a mixed-use development with hotels, residences, a pagoda adorned with Buddhist artifacts, and a five-and-a-half-floor underground shop- ping mall. Thailand’s richest man, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, controls the company behind the project... at 17 billion baht—it is the biggest ever investment in the neighborhood.”
Image courtesy of foto momo, showing the demoliton of Bangkok's beloved theater Scala. 
The city’s facade is changing in other, less obvious ways, too. A year of lockdown restrictions left the food and drinks scene battered. At press time, nightlife businesses were still not allowed to operate (only those registered with restaurant licenses could serve alcohol). The disruption to normal business has caused dozens of independent venues to close, while wealthy groups have capitalized on the down market to take over vacated property. The balance of power continues to shift, the cost of living is increasing, and it all threatens creativity and invention.
That speaks to yet another burning issue Bangkok faces: inequality. It’s hard to overlook the income and rights gaps when the pandemic has laid them so bare. According to Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report, in 2018 the richest one percent in Thailand controlled almost 67 percent of the country’s wealth (gotta love oligarchies). Earlier this year, the Constitutional Court ruled that only marriage between a man and woman is legally protected—a decisive setback for the equal rights movement.
With these issues gaining greater potency, we asked city residents for their thoughts on life in Bangkok, as well as what can be done to save the city before irrevocable changes take root.

Is it really that bad? 

WATTANAPUME “BEST” LAISUWANCHAI Film director, most recently the documentary School Town King (2020)


What are the biggest issues Bangkok is facing now?
It’s how many people are falling off the radar. If you take a close look at the movie industry in Thailand, many films emphasize only what appeals to people residing in Bangkok. They only revolve around the life of the upper-middle class, and we need to ask ourselves why they never expand their scope beyond that. Most people in Bangkok have to leave their families and hometown behind so that they can access its privileges. When I made the documentary about the Klong Toey community [School Town King], I didn’t have any financial support until the film was about to be released because they [potential sponsors] deemed my work to be either too niche or not profitable.
What can be done to make Bangkok a better place?
The first step is to start recognizing people around you, and I believe that films can be necessary tools to achieve that. I’ve made many documentaries in the past, most of which revolve around people you may see every day but never notice. I interviewed sex workers, homeless people, and security guards in my previous film Dreamscape and tried to make their voices heard. I know that on a larger scale, like in policy-making, we may not be able to do much. But by acknowledging the underrepresented, recognizing their voices and concerns, and cherishing their narratives, we could remind people of the problems that need to be addressed and not lose sight of the people who are suffering from them.


WEERAPON “BEER” SINGNOI Content creator, founder of Foto_momo, a page archiving Bangkok’s modernist architecture

What are the biggest issues Bangkok is facing now?
It isn’t just about the loss of classic architecture. It’s about how the city is growing so rapidly and, most of the time, without any clear direction. Skyscrapers and condominiums keep popping up without concern for aesthetics or urban planning. For example, one condominium [on the river] ended up obscuring the view of Wat Phra Kaew. Not to mention the leaked plans showing what the city government would do to Hua Lamphong.

What should be done to make Bangkok a better place to live?
I don’t think people have issues against modernity. But if you really want to preserve heritage buildings, we need better urban planning and more proper zoning.

Why people are leaving Bangkok?


KAN 27, a game designer-developer in Tokyo

What was it like to move away from Bangkok?
I think it expanded my opportunities. I graduated from university with a degree in linguistics, but I soon realized that I was more keen on gaming and development. Changing my career path would be difficult in Bangkok, but in Japan there’s a programmer school that accepts people from all backgrounds. It wasn’t easy. I had to compete with other people who studied computer science, but I got in. Game designers in Japan can earn more money than they can in Bangkok, too, even for entry-level positions.
Would you consider moving back to Bangkok? 
I discussed this with my friends who work in the game industry here, and most of them told me I shouldn’t. I don’t think I could survive a day in Bangkok if I came back from Tokyo now. For starters, I don’t have to be on alert all the time when I go out on the streets, everything is largely on schedule, and the weather is better here. Back in Bangkok, I had to be aware of my surroundings all the time: Would someone tear my bag with a knife and steal something from me without my knowing it? Right now, after working here for three years, I’ve begun to forget my natural “Thai” instincts that would protect me if I went back there.

What should be done to make Bangkok a better place to live?
Better and more reliable transportation would be a start.

Ooy, 25 an aupair in California

What do you like or dislike about Bangkok?
After graduating, I worked as a content writer in the city and found that my lifestyle didn’t match my expectations. All the expenses and lack of security—I even got robbed one time when I was on the bus. One other thing I don’t like about Bangkok is how everything is always rushed.
What was it like to move away from Bangkok?
It was hard when I moved to California to work as an au pair—more like culture shock—but the family that took me in is quite progressive and open-minded, which has made this a rewarding experience overall. The job isn’t that well-compensated, though. The average rate for a nanny is around US$10/hour (about B300), but my agency only gave me about US$4-5/hour (about B120-150), which is much lower than working as a waitress at some fast food restaurants. Still, I’m still able to earn more money here. My wages are higher than the salaries fresh graduates in Thailand usually get. The host family provides tuition fees for my school as well.
Any regrets?
My grandfather died while I was here. According to the contract I signed, I couldn’t go back until it was complete. I talked with my family about it, and we all agreed that I should stay in California. It was sad that I couldn’t be with him when he passed away.

Would you consider going back to Bangkok?
If there’s a chance that I don’t have to go back to Bangkok, I will definitely take it. I don’t really know what I would do if I went back. My hometown [Pathum Thani] doesn’t have many job opportunities for me, and I really love this version of myself in the US. The air quality is also better, and the people seem to be less judgmental: no one really cares if I wear a swimsuit, for example.

What do you think could make Bangkok a better place?
I know that the problems with the high living costs may be difficult to fix, but what I’d love to see is better and more inclusive public transportation—something that we barely have in Bangkok. People like me who don’t drive rely on it. True, bus fares are cheap, but the bus is far from convenient.