Which to visit: Bangkok or Mexico City? It was one of those random conversations that you have on a 5 hour bus ride (I was with my mother going from Mexico City to San Miguel de Allende). I know it’s a stretch as far as conversations go but it really got me thinking – which of the 2 cities would I choose as a visitor? There’s no easy answer.
Note: My mom lived in Thailand for almost 10 years before deciding to make Mexico her new home. I’ve been to both countries so many times I’ve lost count. We know the capital cities of both countries pretty well.
So…Bangkok or Mexico City? Which should you visit?
The reason for comparing the two is that – in my mind at least – there are quite a lot of similarities.
Both are huge, sprawling cities with populations around the 10 million mark. Each is the capital city and economic hub of their respective country. Both cities have world-class historical sights, famous cuisines (would you rather eat Mexican or Thai?), both have very distinct cultures, both have friendly people (or do they really?), each can be travelled economically.
Both cities are also very polluted, can be incredibly frustrating to get around in, and both are ugly and depressing once you leave the center. Both have high levels of poverty as well as huge amounts of wealth.
But despite the similarities comparing the two cities is like comparing apples and oranges.
Bangkok or Mexico City: the sights
Let’s compare the sights in each city.
Bangkok has The Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun. Those 3 sites (all within a very short distance of each other) are the must-see sites in Bangkok. What else to do? Take the ferry down the river, visit the Jim Thompson House, visit the Golden Mount (Wat Saket), go to a bar with views on the city/river. See my post on the Hypothetically Perfect Day in Bangkok.
Mexico City has the Metropolitan Cathedral (the largest Cathedral in the Americas), the incredible Museum of Anthropology, Chapultepec Castle, an interesting old town (with lots of sites, from the National Palace to Templo Mayor to Palacio to Bellas Artes to the Latinoamericana tower), an impressive Paseo de la Reforma (the grand boulevard cutting through Mexico City’s business center), to museums dedicated to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. If you like museums and arts Mexico City is a great place.
There’s no simple answer. If you’ve never been to Thailand you’ll be overwhelmed by the beauty of Bangkok’s temples. But I just think Mexico City has more to see.
I have chose Mexico City for the sights. The best of Bangkok can be seen in 2 days but you can spend a week in Mexico City and not get bored.
1-0 Mexico City
Bangkok or Mexico City: as a tourist
Thailand has been known as “The Land of Smiles” for a long time. Too long. When I travelled in Thailand over 20 years ago it was indeed the land of smiles but that has been washed away by years of over-tourism and everything that come with it. The last few times I’ve been in Thailand, particularly Bangkok, it’s been the “Land of the Hustle”. There are scam artists everywhere and as a foreigner you’re seen as an ATM. Try finding a taxi driver who wants to put on his meter (which they are legally required to do) or a tuk-tuk driver who doesn’t try to take you to a tailor shop or to buy gems.
Back in 2015 we stayed 3 weeks in Bangkok. See our post: Bangkok: Me luv you not so long time
Mexicans on the other hand are hospitable, warm and friendly. If you need help with anything you’ll get it in Mexico, including in a huge place like Mexico City.
This one is easy. Mexico City.
2-0 Mexico City
Bangkok or Mexico City: cuisine
Mexican food is good and I always enjoy my trips to Mexico. But after maybe a week I tire of it.
I’ve always said that Thai is my favorite cuisine. If there’s one cuisine I could eat for the rest of my life it would be Thai. And Bangkok is a foodie heaven (the best place to eat on earth?), whether you go top end restaurant or to a stall on a street corner.
2-1 Mexico City
Bangkok or Mexico City: culture
You just can’t compare the culture in Thailand to that in Mexico. Again, it’s apples and oranges.
The draw to Bangkok for a lot of travellers of the exoticism of Buddhism. For North American and European travellers it’s just not something we know much about (unlike Catholicism) so it’s definitely something that draws visitors. Visiting your first Buddhist temple or seeing the ceremonies before a Muay Thai match or seeing festivities where locals are dressed in traditional costumes…it’s all so foreign and exotic and has to be seen and experienced once in your life.
I have to chose Bangkok just because it is so different from what most people are familiar with. Travelling to Thailand is just a whole different world.
Bangkok or Mexico City: other factors
Around Bangkok and Mexico City. Mexico City has more in the vicinity. Leave Mexico City and within an hour you can find yourself in a pretty town surrounded by green valleys and mountains (Tepoztlan for example). There’s tons to explore nearby including beautiful Puebla, stunning Taxco, and pretty Valle de Bravo. Bangkok has Ayutthaya which makes for a good day trip (great history and impressive temples – but otherwise not an attractive place) or Pattaya (Pattaya is Thailand’s sin city – a fun place but objectively pretty disgusting in every way imaginable). There’s not much in the way of natural environment around Bangkok.
Nightlife. Few places are as exciting as Bangkok and you can have a lot of fun here, especially as a single guy.
Safety: I’d say that Bangkok is not as safe as its reputation just as Mexico City isn’t as dangerous as everyone makes it out to be. Still Bangkok is a safer place.
Weather and environment. Bangkok is hot, humid and dirty. After a day of sightseeing you’ll get back to your room sweaty and feeling like you’ve got a film of dirt covering every part of your body. Sightseeing is exhausting in Bangkok.
Mexico City is famous for its pollution but you often won’t feel it. The temperatures are much cooler (I visited Mexico City a few times in the summer back when I lived in Montreal and the cooler air was actually a relief compared to Montreal’s summer humidity). Because of its altitude (which means cooler, drier weather), the weather in Mexico City is actually pretty much ideal.
Getting around: Despite the size of Mexico city you can get around. The city has large motorways radiating around the city and they somehow connect everything (I would never drive in Mexico City though). Mexico City has tons of taxis and they’re inexpensive (they work by meter and don’t try to screw you over) and the easiest way to get around. Some Mexico City tips
Bangkok on the other hand is just impossible unless your origin and destination are along the Skytrain line. Otherwise Bangkok is just gridlock and getting anywhere can be the most infuriating thing. Plus you’ve always got a taxi driver trying to screw you over (use Grab, they bought over Uber in Thailand).
The above just about even out. So I’ve still got a 2-2 tie on my unofficial scorecard.
So which to visit between Mexico City and Bangkok?
Well, my mom and I couldn’t come to a clear answer. We both agreed that Bangkok is more exciting and exotic. It has to be experienced more than seen. I don’t get as excited about Mexico City. BUT on the other hand…I’ve been to Bangkok so many times now that the exoticism of the city has worn off on me. I don’t find pleasure in visiting Bangkok anymore. Mexico City on the other hand is friendlier, has more to see, and is just generally easier to visit as a traveller.
Which would you rather visit?
Related: On travel to Mexico – and why I’m sick of the Ignorance
Related: Guide to the Best of Thailand (for adults)
Related: A roadtrip through Mexico’s most beautiful towns and cities
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well i would choose mexico city ONLY because i havent been there and I’ve been to Bangkok at least three or four times !
Hey Frank, this is a fun megacity vs. megacity comparison. To be honest i hate all big cities now and try to minimize my time in them…. they’re all snakepits as Theroux says. Probably has to do with me turning into an ol’bugger! Anyways, during the ’80s (in my 20s, those crazy backpacking days), i visited both cities a few times. I think i stayed in Mexico city (Zona Rosa) for about 4-5 days each time, checking the sites in and around the city. I really enjoyed it all, especially the Aztec ruins. I think i was using the Let’s Go guidebook.
But being in Bangkok when you’re 25….. well that was just mind blowing! I was backpacking with a buddy and it was almost nonstop party, hanging out on Ngamdupli and Khaosan roads, racing through the streets in tuk tuks at 4am, surviving on delicious street food for 20 baht ($1), dancing all night at the Ambassador, then to the infamous Grace for drinks and back to the Ambassador, meeting all these strange locals and farangs…… it all seemed quite heady and exotic in those days. Mexico City just didn’t have that vibe…. or maybe i didn’t find it!?!
No, you’re right Don, Mexico City never had that Bangkok vibe. I don’t think any place did. I remember in my mid-30’s, newly divorced, getting so drunk in Bangkok. Went to a strip club and had lots of lap dances from large breasted Thai girls (which should have set off alarm bells). Only realized a few hours later that I was at a Ladyboy club. Some crazy times. If you’re a single person there’s probably no place as exciting to be as Bangkok but at this stage in my life just no interest in all that stuff…
In Barcelona right now and I have to agree about big cities.
Thanks for the stories, brings back memories 🙂
Ah yeah…..those ladyboys! You gotta watch out for them! I met a few both in Thailand and the Philippines and they can be a wickedly funny bunch. “Sarce” was not only a fabulous cook at our GH, but he/she also did a great job cutting my hair somewhere on Luzon in ’89!
Hey I’m curious Frank….. you know Mexico quite well and your mom has been retired there (San Miguel de Allende?) for many years. What are your thoughts on certain places in Mexico as a retirement base? I know it’s a big topic and it certainly is a top destination for yanks/canuck retirees. But could see yourself living in a small place there like your mom? Many years ago i thought Thailand would suit my needs, but after further on-site evaluation and giving it deeper thought, i realized that it wasn’t for me….. the only exception would be spending 3-4 winter months in a place like PKK…..which i thought was an amazing find!
Hi Don! I really enjoy Mexico: the food, people, the very pretty towns. My issue living there is that: 1) it is so homogenous, 2) it is so far away from anything “different”. SMA is 5 hours from Mexico City. And where to go from there?
What I love about Europe is how different it all is within a relatively small geographic region. Never get bored in Europe.
As a retiree would I rather live in Mexico or Thailand? If I was single it would be Thailand. As a couple Mexico. I think Mexico generally more developed and more easily adaptable to Western culture. I could never learn Thai and would always feel like an outsider.
Interesting take on the two cities! I’ve never been to Mexico City but was in Bangkok in 2013 and loved it. I suspect that I’d prefer Mexico City 9 years later just because it sounds easier to visit without being exhausted all the time. It’s partly due to getting older :))
My guess is the differences stem mostly from the colonization of Mexico – both the good and the bad. Would love an update of this article once you make it to the Indian cities 🙂 The hustle is worse, especially towards foreigners, and so is the exhaustion from pollution and heat (dry or humid) and difficulty moving around. You wouldn’t be able to eat just anywhere either 🙂