I’ve been to Bangkok twice on this trip. The first visit was an off kilter race through the city shrouded in the haze of jet lag. The second, slower-paced visit, lasted about five days. I spent the first half of that time in bed, Sonya did the same with the latter half. Between the jet lag and our collective infirmities, there was a single day of clarity in Bangkok. A day when we got out, saw the sights, ate the food, and managed to remember what we were doing.
Seeing the city that way seemed almost appropriate — maybe even metaphorical. Bangkok is a place blanketed in haze, darkened by the shadows of tall buildings, and obscured by the blue smoke of the motorized masses. The maze of roads, alleys, and canals is disorienting. Here, getting lost in the crowd isn’t an existential worry but a very practical one. When the moments of clarity do arrive, it’s like wiping away a fine layer of soot from a wall, what’s buried beneath seems all the brighter.
When I try to wipe the soot from my own memories, they come back in short vignettes. Grey buildings pass by train windows. Tuk-tuk drivers shout over the roar of busy streets. Gleaming temples reach to the sky while piles of flood debris are strewn around their white walls. Pop music thumps from smokey bars where tourists gather to look at other tourists. Everything moves fast, everything is loud, everything is intoxicating.
I remember riding on the skytrain, looking out the windows while grasping yellow handrails. Below me a war raged on the streets. Taxis, buses, motorbikes, pedestrians, and bicycles scrambled forward, jostling for every inch of pavement and sidewalk.
I remember stepping out of the skytrain into oppressive heat. I remember the smell of food, smoke, and still water rising from the streets. It’s daytime and the sun scorches the pavement in front of me. I wait for someone, anyone to cross the road, thinking it suicide to go alone. A monk in saffron robes steps into the street, I follow him. I reach the other side alive.
It’s nighttime and I’m surrounded by people wearing designer clothes. I’m riding a huge escalator inside of a massive mall. Each level is a different city. Now I’m in London, now I’m in San Francisco, now I’m in Hollywood.
We’re moving quickly through Bangkok. A taxi is taking us to Khao San Road. Not where we wanted to go but close enough. The meter’s red display ticks slowly upward. Someone is pushing a flyer into my hand, someone is offering me a ride. I shake my head. We walk to a guesthouse. Our bedroom walls are pink.
One day, maybe two days, later I manage to get out of bed. We walk back to Khao San and look for food. The restaurant to the right is blasting Nickelback, we don’t eat there. We walk into a restaurant further down the road. We order noodles and shakes. The waiter sings along with Bruno Mars.
I’m standing on a dock on the bank of a wide and muddy river. Two tugboats chug slowly northward pulling four impossibly large barges. The barges rise and fall in the river. The dock lurches as the waves pass under it. I’m on a boat heading south. A woman rattles a long metal tube. I hand her some coins, she gives me a ticket.
We walk though a market, the smell of dried fish is overwhelming. It’s not a new smell but I haven’t gotten used to it. We stand in a line, buy a ticket, and walk inside a place. The buildings are tall, some of them are golden, some are covered in glistening ceramic. We take off our shoes and walk inside a temple. The Emerald Buddha looks down on us. The Emerald Buddha is made of jade.
We walk to another temple. “Sorry it’s closed for a Buddhist holiday,” says a tuk-tuk driver. He’s lying. I know it. He opens a map and goes down it asking if we want to go to any of the other “open” sights. I tell him we’ve been to them all. I’m lying. He knows it. “The temple’s over there, it’s open.” He points down the road.
We are inside a museum. “You can touch everything,” says the attendant. I like this place. We watch a movie in a cool and dark theater. I man a cannon to stop invading armies. We play drums and put on rice paddy hats.
It’s getting dark and we are back on Khao San Road. It’s not that we like the place, in fact, it’s just the opposite. Going to Khao San is like rubbernecking at a traffic accident. Here one car is western tourist, the other is Thai culture. They are both in flames. The area around Khao San Road is too crowded, too sleazy, too expensive, too fake.
It reminds me how the world is, sometimes at an alarming speed, developing a single culture fueled by instant communication. It’s not westernization, it’s globalization. Everyone wears the same clothes, eats the same food, drives the same cars, listens to the same music. We stop in an Indian food place that overlooks a walking street. We recognize everything on the menu. The food is wonderful.
I’m out by myself. Sonya came down with a stomach bug. We blame overpriced pad thai. No wife, no camera. I grab a bottle of orange juice from a woman standing behind a cart. It’s very good. I walk to a busy street corner and order two sausages from a mobile grill. They are spicy and sweet. I think the meat is pork. It’s cut with rice. I decide this was the best thing I’ve ever eaten from a cart.
Our bags are packed. I flag down a taxi and tell the driver I want to go to the train station. “200 baht,” he says. I tell him I want the meter. He laughs. When we get to the station the meter reads 75, the driver says 100. We settle on 80.
We eat lunch on the second floor of the train station. I have shrimp balls in plum sauce, Sonya asks me not to breathe too close to her. We watch Thais and tourists roam the station floor.
We are on a train to Chiang Mai. Bangkok doesn’t seem to end. Two hours into the trip, the city is unbroken. The steward comes and makes up our beds. I lie down and watch lights streak by my window. I fall asleep.