Finding your time in Bangkok a little on the pricey side? We’ve all been there… This is a city that definitely can get a little out of hand if you let it. So you might wonder, why is Bangkok so expensive?
The fact is that Bangkok is not an expensive place on the whole, but it has its shops, bars, restaurant and malls that are just as expensive as anywhere on the planet. This is partly due to an emerging wealthier middle class and also due to the influx of tourism and the money it brings.
Stick with me and I’ll share a little more on the interesting dynamic of Bangkok, where it is poor, where it is rich, and I’ll even throw in some of my best tips on avoiding those costly areas.
Why Is Bangkok So Expensive?
I could walk out of my apartment right now find somewhere to spend crazy amounts of my paycheck on food, alcohol, clothes… pretty much anything you can think of. This city has enough avenues for you to fritter your money away if you so wish. Particularly when you live central, as I do.
So what is making Bangkok so expensive, particularly given its position in the relatively poor country of Thailand?
The first point to make is that Bangkok is a prominent example of a primate city, which is where the population of the country is centred. You can think of London as being similar, a high population centre where much of the jobs, wealth and people are located. This creates a dynamic where prices, particularly of property, get inflated above the average.
The next reason is that Thailand has had a booming few decades. The many years of 6%+ growth has shifted the country away from its previous developing country status.
When you think of South East Asia it’s easy to picture an impoverished, almost backwards, region filled with unstable political regimes and widespread poverty. While that isn’t totally incorrect, Thailand in many ways is the “rich man” of the area and sees itself as a few rungs above places like Myanmar or Laos. This is evident in the number of people from the surrounding countries who come to Thailand to work, particularly in factories, construction or fishing.
So the general idea is that there is a lot of wealth in Bangkok. And when people have money, they like to spend it. While tastes in Thailand are slightly different than what I am used to coming from the UK, they still revolve around the same few things. Food, alcohol, cars and houses can all accommodate those with swankier tastes here.
Is Bangkok Actually Expensive?
In a city as big as Bangkok with its many millions of inhabitants, the fact is that there are a large range of prices for anything. At the top end, you can live as luxuriously as you can in London, New York or any of the fanciest cities of the world. At the bottom end however is where we see Bangkok is quite different.
Thailand is a developing economy which is not on par with Western countries. Particularly, people do not earn that much money here on average. The minimum wage is 300 baht (£8/$10) per day which many people do live on in Bangkok. So it’s difficult to say that Bangkok is an expensive place to live when so many people are surviving on what would be a lower-than-poverty income in my home country (the UK).
In any case, here are a few staples and what you might typically expect to pay somewhere central.
Can of coke –> 14฿
600ml bottle of beer –> 65฿
20 pack of cigarettes –> 150฿
Meal for 2 (Thai restaurant) –> 300฿
Meal for 2 (Western restaurant) –> 1000฿
Rent for small 1 bedroom apartment –> 20,000฿ per month
Do these prices strike you as expensive? I would assume not, which tells you that Bangkok isn’t always such an expensive place.
(Those prices were plucked from my memory and might be a bit off. For more information on current prices in Bangkok, I recommend checking out Numbeo.)
It’s true that Bangkok is far more expensive than the rest of Thailand. For example, paying rent of 4000฿ per month will get you a small “room” with no kitchen some distance from a convenient BTS or MRT stop. That same amount in a small town in Isaan would be enough for a well-furnished two-storey house. On the other hand, I doubt you could find anywhere to live on that amount in Europe.
I find Bangkok to be as cheap or as expensive as I want it to be. I can spend a week gorging on Thai food and Thai beer while avoiding the high-end malls and I’ll thank my lucky stars that I live in such an affordable city.
The next week my meals might be pizza and craft beer while I spend a little too much time at Terminal 21, then I’ll worry my spending is getting out of control. So if you want it to be cheap, it can be. And that’s where I’m going with the next section.
How To Spend Less In Bangkok
I’ve lived in Bangkok for a good few years now on 80-100k baht as a teacher of mathematics at a couple of international schools here. This is a very high wage for a standard Thai person and a decent if not impressive wage for a typical expat here.
I’m also a big saver and like to cut costs wherever possible, so I know plenty of tips to slash your spending in this city. This advice mostly boils down to doing what Thai people do and avoiding imported stuff.
Alcohol / bars. Thailand is a great place to party without spending much. There are loads of bars, restaurants and night markets where you can get drunk on a dime. The key is to drink the Thai stuff. I’m partial to Leo beer myself and perhaps a bottle of Blend whiskey here or there. These places are typically outside and not so easy to find as they don’t really advertise on English language websites as much. Try Talad Rot Fai (Night Train Market) for an idea of what I’m getting at.
Food. Thai food, either in restaurants or street food, is extraordinarily cheap. As low as a dollar a meal in many cases. Bangkok has a cornucopia of delicious foods with old aunties who have plied their trade for decades making the same dish. You can get great food, sample local cuisine, save money and probably also lose a bit of weight, too.
Housing. This one’s tough as there are no shortcuts or hacks you can use to get a great deal on the housing market. Just look around a lot and be prepared to cut out a few luxuries to spend less. It’s worth knowing that the price of any rental property can be negotiated and often the listed price can be brought down by 2-4000฿ per month. Bangkok is insanely dense so housing costs can be surprisingly expensive, particularly in the centre. My advice? Learn to live in a smaller space.
Public transport. The cheapest way to get around Bangkok is to get intimate with the vast array of public transport options. Even though taxis are cheap here, they still add up. For longer distances, the two subway lines (MRT and BTS) are fast and inexpensive. If you really want to save money however, then look into the buses and boats. A bus ride costs 9-15 baht – it depends on the type of bus you are on, air-conditioned or not, etc – and the boats that go up and down Saen Saep and the Chao Phraya are similarly priced. Here’s a couple of websites to get you started on the routes, if nothing else, it’s a fun way to see the city! (These days I actually find Google Maps has all the bus and boat routes with the stops on too so I just use that.
What Things Are More Expensive In Bangkok?
Bangkok is cheap. Bangkok is expensive. I hear both sides of the argument all the time. It really depends what your point of comparison is… The rest of Thailand? Inner Mongolia? San Francisco? Either way, here are a few things that I believe most would agree are expensive in the capital of Thailand.
Housing. Bangkok is a dense city so space is at a premium. This means house and rent prices are high compared to the rest of Thailand and comparable with other countries of a much higher cost of living. You might expect to pay 35,000฿ (£800 / $1000) per month for a modern 2-bed apartment somewhere central with good access to public transport. Not ridiculous for a major capital city, but it’s more than the average pay in Bangkok which is roughly 25,000฿ a month. Bangkokians often live in small “rooms” which don’t have a kitchen or much else and can be lived in for as little as 2-3000฿ per month.
Electronics. A trip to Asia is considered by some to be an opportunity to pick up bargain-basement deals on computers, tvs and iphones. The truth is that for Bangkok at least, electronic stuff is more expensive than you might find in Western countries due to import tariffs. Expect to pay in the region of 10-20% extra.
Alcohol. Fly over to neighbouring Cambodia and you’ll be served a glass of ice-cold beer in a restaurant for $0.25. It’s a similar story in Laos and Vietnam, but even the cheapest stuff over here can’t compete with these places. Alcohol is heavily taxed in Thailand and imported alcohol is very heavily taxed. You can see this clearly at any craft beer place you wish to patronise in Bangkok, an average pint of craft ale will see you forking over 400฿ which is around £9 / $11!
Beef. Pork, chicken and seafood are the main sources of protein in the Thai diet. Beef is rare, owing to the Buddhist and Hindu influences on Thai culture that come from India where cows are sacred. The beef you do see is largely in the Muslim-dominated southern regions. As a result, you’ll be out of pocket whether picking up a couple of steaks from the supermarket or satiating your hungover self with a greasy double cheeseburger.